Portland’s Streetcar services cancelled due to heat damage of the cables.
On Monday, the Board of Auckland Transport (AT) approved the Auckland Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP), a $37 billion ten-year plan of transport investment for the city.
Councillors had reluctantly endorsed the plan last Thursday, on the understanding that Council and AT would together develop a Transport Emissions Reductions Plan that heads the city in a new direction.
Councillors from all parts of Auckland put a lot of collaborative work into the plan, regardless of what they particularly wanted, or their political leanings. I acknowledge and thank them for this.
However, AT’s Board and Council both know the plan fails to achieve the objectives set.
I believe endorsing and approving the plan was not the best way forward.
Here’s why, and what I think needs to happen now.
A temporary plan
When Councillors endorsed the plan at the Planning Committee meeting, there was an acceptance that the plan was temporary, a placeholder for something better. For $37 billion, Councillors reasonably expected an equitable and climate-ready plan, which decreases transport emissions at least in line with Te Tāruke-a-Tāwhiri, i.e. 64% by 2030.
The RLTP only decreases emissions by 1% by 2030. (Note: this includes the government’s new EV feebate scheme and recent changes to the NZ Upgrade Project.)
As Wayne Donnelly, the deputy chair of the AT Board, said:
We are caught [in] a little bit of an odd timing with this RLTP in a way… We will be meeting about this time next year I think, and there will be a number of things that we’ll be taking into account in terms of looking at this particular RLTP… There is a lot in play over the next 6 – 12 months in which we can sort of assess again this RLTP.
The “lot in play” includes the government’s response to the Climate Commission advice, the select committee work on the congestion question, the Auckland Light Rail process, and all the public transport improvements that might be on offer in the 2022 Government Budget.
On top of this is the Transport Emissions Reductions Plan Councillors have requested be prepared to resolve the problems thrown up by the inadequacy of the RLTP. This is the chance to use every lever available, including urban growth management, road space reallocation and behaviour change.
But did approving the plan simply prevent the enormous revolution that could have brought about the paradigm shifts required at both Council and AT?
We saw in Scott’s post on Tuesday, for example, that Council planning officers are nudging urban growth management considerations in the wrong direction. And then there’s AT, and their misunderstanding of cumulative emissions:
Apparently AT has recently reshuffled the reporting lines for the sustainability approach, which might make a big difference. But will it be anything like enough, in time?
Skewing the Conversation
The Councillors needed better transport advice, to avoid fretting about “balancing” the “competing” concerns of transport poverty, freight needs, safety, value-for-money and climate change.
A transformational, sustainable plan could resolve all these challenges simultaneously.
Councillor Angela Dalton illustrated the problem in a NZ Herald article yesterday. She is an excellent advocate on equity and transport poverty:
Transport disadvantage most commonly refers to those with limited availability of transport and those unable to access available modes of transport. Locational disadvantage is the difficulty in accessing a range of facilities and resources because of your geography.
Both seem to disproportionately affect communities on the periphery of our city, those often already disadvantaged, where it is common to experience social exclusion, lower health standards, less transport safety, and higher unemployment.
AT should be addressing these problems sustainably. And they could have explained to her that more road capacity will make these problems worse. That the predicted traffic for Mill Rd is unlikely to eventuate unless the project is built. And that the challenge is to decrease the volume of traffic, not “accommodate” (and thereby induce) it. Cr Dalton said:
The South of Auckland desperately needs a transport corridor that allows for a truck lane, bus lane, car lane, cycle lane – they nearly got one after more than 13 years of it being at various stages in the pipeline, only to have it whipped out of their grasp by the Government’s decision earlier this month to axe Mill Rd.
The problem isn’t the lack of a new corridor. South Auckland has a railway line, Great South Road and SH1. The problem is too much traffic, and the way the space has been allocated.
Last year, I discussed with AT the emissions modelling they undertook to prepare the RLTP. These misguided beliefs are examples of what’s getting in the way of Auckland Transport modifying their own programmes to reduce emissions (without waiting for assistance in the form of new government policy):
“Sprawl roads don’t induce trips.”
“AT often allows for capacity reductions – as long as it’s not on the arterials.”
“AT believes a larger emissions reduction from public transport improvements than what the model showed is not pragmatically possible.”
Exhibit A: The Eastern Busway
On the very day they were voting to endorse the RTLP, Councillors learned that this project would be delayed for financial reasons. Understandably disappointed, Howick’s councillors Paul Young and Sharon Stewart voted against the RLTP because of this last-minute change.
The Eastern Busway is set to deliver major public transport and cycling improvements that are way overdue. But in a more sustainable paradigm, these improvements would have been provided – relatively cheaply – some years ago.
Ti Rakau Drive is already wide, with broad lanes and multiple turning lanes at intersections. There’s plenty of space for bus lanes and protected bike lanes, while keeping one general traffic lane in each direction. Buses may need to share with traffic for short stretches to begin with, but incremental improvements over time would resolve these pinch points.
From a resource, network, access, economic, and climate perspective, this is a superior solution.
Instead, the project uses extensive hard engineering to keep existing driving capacity, and even adds more!
Here’s just one of many intersections along the project, by way of example:
The Eastern Busway will widen Ti Rakau Drive substantially, giving it more traffic lanes as well as adding cycling and bus lanes. Mattson Rd will be diverted through existing houses, to the left, widening it by one lane on the approach. And William Roberts Rd will be pushed through commercial properties from its current dead end to join the intersection.
So although the project is supposed to be about public transport, it’s been approached in a way that involves immense road building and property purchase, to keep people driving.
There’s no wonder our road maintenance costs are spiralling out of control – more lanes mean more tarmac to take care of, for years to come.
Altogether, although it improves traffic choice (and is better than motorway widening and extension projects), the project as designed should really be classified as a “Strategic Road” project, not a Public Transport one. The high cost is all about not changing people’s driving habits, except perhaps to make them easier. (Note that Waka Kotahi is likewise a master at using PT funds to build roads for driving, with State Highway 20B being a perfect example.)
In a climate crisis, this is exactly the sort of project that needs reevaluation, with high-quality, evidence-based communications to help explain why. Leadership.
The RLTP allocations
Almost everything in AT’s programme can be critiqued in the same way. There are alternative solutions to all the road-building projects, of course, but it’s more than just that.
This is how AT break down the $37 billion spend over ten years:
The pie-chart hides the business-as-usual paradigm from view – and prevented Councillors having an informed discussion.
Much of the investments that’s coded as:
- public transport
- walking and cycling
could have been delivered via road reallocation, much more cheaply, with bigger emissions reductions, and lowering congestion throughout the network – e.g. the Eastern Busway.
And the investments that are counted as:
- Optimisation and Technology
- Strategic and Local Roads
- Spatial Priorities
often cost too much for what they deliver and/or fail to deliver the emissions reductions they could – e.g. the “like for like” renewals programme.
Misunderstandings, or misinformation?
In Thursday’s meeting, Councillor Coom asked AT’s presenting team:
On the public feedback – good to see you recognise it supports choice, active modes, climate action… That’s not where you were in the first summary of feedback. Can you confirm this is an all-of-AT acknowledgement of the direction you’re now on?
And she tweeted:
Also to note we got AT to shift on how the public feedback was reported
The public feedback on the draft RLTP was firmly in favour of sustainably addressing climate change. Nine of the public’s ten top priority focus areas were sustainable modes:
Yet despite this crystal-clear direction from submitters, it seems AT staff had told Councillors the opposite was true: that feedback showed public support for addressing climate change was low. WHY??
They’d also presented the same misinformation in other settings, outside the Council umbrella organisations, where people may not have spotted the discrepancy and pushed back.
This is outrageous, of course. And it follows a worrying pattern of misrepresenting public sentiment.
For example, earlier this year, a myth was circulating amongst AT staff that there is low public support for cycling investment. I tracked the source of that misinformation to an “interesting” interpretation of the results from a survey undertaken in December last year. Unsurprisingly, the results actually showed strong support for cycling. Yet the myth persisted and will have affected meetings and decisions, for the worse.
So, should the RLTP have been endorsed and approved?
I believe rejecting the RLTP would’ve required Auckland Transport to properly confront the mindset and cultural barriers in the organisation that are hindering a successful response to climate change. The Auckland Climate Plan’s modeshare and vkt reduction targets needed to be met, not ignored, and those who don’t understand this need help with the paradigm shift, or moving on.
The AT Board and Councillors are clearly trying to create a successful process in good faith, and the Transport Emissions Reductions Plan is an attempt to develop emissions planning that’s fit for purpose. But all that approving the RLTP has done is allow business-as-usual to continue, making the paradigm shift harder to achieve. If any tool available to insist on bigger change was not used, the public has been let down.
The AT Board needs to re-evaluate their heavy reliance on this document. The AT Board Chair, Adrienne Young Cooper said:
In reaching our decision we did draw confidence from the assessment of how the RLTP meets the requirements of s14 of the LTMA – and that is the provisions that set out what the RLTP must actually contain. We are therefore satisfied that the RLTP we have recommended to you for endorsement complies with the legal requirements. Whilst we have made our decision to recommend the RLTP to you, we are acutely aware of the challenges that climate change poses for Auckland and the planet as a whole…
To me, the technical aspects of this assessment don’t pass a sniff test:
The Land Transport Management Act says that the plan must contribute to wellbeing and be in the public interest.
The Council has already laid out what they believe is in the public interest. To keep within our Paris commitments we must: decrease transport emissions by 64% from 2016 levels by 2030.
The RLTP doesn’t achieve this. Indeed how could anyone possibly think it is “in the public’s interest” for the city to be an ongoing contributor to climate crisis events like we’ve seen over the last week? Especially as the science shows that our emissions budget is nearly gone – we need to make the emissions cuts immediately.
The Government Policy Statement says:
A plan that reduces emissions by only 1% in this critical decade cannot be construed as a plan that supports a rapid transition to a low carbon transport system.
In the assessment, AT frontfoots this criticism, blithely stating that:
30. Forecast emissions reductions are consistent with:
- supporting a rapid transition to a low carbon transport system
Is it the word “supporting” that they think lets them off? Are they saying that the official, $37 billion plan for transport investment in Aotearoa’s biggest city is just in a “supporting role”?
Actually, this RLTP is the main player.
Fundamentally, investment in infrastructure or services only has a very minor impact on total emissions, whether positive or negative. Even the biggest projects may only account for changes in the order of one percent of total.
This statement is nonsense. Our high emissions are the result of the poor investment in infrastructure and services that we’ve seen, and they can absolutely be reduced with the right investment in infrastructure and services.
The assessment expresses AT’s passive attitude to climate planning, in which they deny the emissions benefits possible from hands-on improvements to safety, systems change and road reallocation. Active management is required, and within their mandate to deliver.
The assessment then attempts to discredit the value of road space reallocation, which is in fact Auckland’s best chance for a fast and affordable approach to climate investment. Says AT:
General road space reallocation towards cycling and other sustainable modes has also been proposed by submitters as a way of addressing climate issues. This is already occurring as part of the wider cycling programme and projects such as Connected Communities that will provide for bus lanes, bus priority and cycling and safety improvements. As noted, there is no available funding for further reallocation. In practice, it is also likely that gains from deterring car travel through lane reallocation alone would be largely offset by the increase in emissions associated with increased congestion and diversion amongst the remaining traffic. Reallocation of general traffic lanes without additional effective alternatives (which cannot be funded) would also materially reduce the RLTP’s contribution to LTMA objectives around effectiveness and economic, social and cultural public interests.
Moreover, Auckland Council specifically instructed Auckland Transport to be “courageous” and reallocate road space at least as long ago as 2017. Here’s an excerpt from the Letter of Expectation 2017:
Other cities are vigorously using road reallocation in their decarbonisation plans, because it’s the best value for money, and it delivers results, fast.
As the assessment seems to hinge on the same technical misconceptions plaguing the RLTP itself, where does that leave the AT Board’s reliance on it for their governance?
So where to from here?
Setting up a better-informed team to create a Transport Emissions Reduction Plan was a good move on the part of Auckland Council. To prevent it labouring under the same misconceptions as the RLTP, clear direction should be given immediately. The Board and Councillors must shield the team from pressure to make conventional, non-transformation decisions. Here are some suggestions on just some transport aspects (land use is a whole ‘nother topic):
- Treat road safety as a key decarbonisation tool. Despite talking a big talk a few years ago, AT is yet to manifest a comprehensive Vision Zero system. Safety affects all programmes: the freight strategy, operations centre, road renewals, bus contracts, etc. Assume that everything can be overhauled in order to assist modeshift – and decrease emissions – by making it safer to walk, cycle, scoot and roll.
- Plan to achieve major vehicle travel reductions via levers within AT and Council’s control (park and ride programme, LTN’s, road reallocation, land use changes, customer service, road optimisation, etc). No need to wait for pricing schemes.
- Treat road reallocation as a way to save money, not as an additional cost.
- Question “commitments” – take another look at all possible pathways. Programmes can be revamped. Government can no longer justify expanding highways. Contracts can be renegotiated. Defy unreasonable Waka Kotahi rules that impede climate action.
- Be an exemplary C40 city. The C40 network is designed for cities to take climate action because governments are too slow to act. Auckland’s C40 membership is a privilege; follow their advice. The Transport Emission Reductions Plan should include pathways that don’t rely on central government policy changes.
The public are expecting you to lead, not follow.
Finally, some more climate news in the last week, to remind us why this is urgent:
A thread explaining the problems presented by high humid heatwaves, which have become a problem much sooner than predicted, and which ends with:
So please, help your city prepare for the refugees. Depose the NIMBYs in your city government. Defeat the car-stans who deny that all of this is happening.
Because the heat is coming. It's already here.
— (((Matthew Lewis))) has some Shoup for you (@mateosfo) June 29, 2021
— ECCC Weather British Columbia (@ECCCWeatherBC) June 29, 2021
In Ukraine, temperatures soar. Credit: TUMI, via Twitter:
State Route 544 milepost 7 near Everson, Wa is currently closed. The asphalt roadway is buckling and unsafe for travel. WSDOT is advised and detours are currently being set up.
— Trooper Rocky Oliphant (@wspd7pio) June 28, 2021