Today, Auckland Council’s Environment and Climate Change Committee is meeting.
One item on the agenda is titled the Regional Streets for People Programme. This low-budget Councillor-initiated programme deserves scrutiny because it offers opportunities for jump-starting climate action AND it reveals systemic barriers to progress.
The programme aims to encourage low-cost climate action projects in a wider area of Auckland, and the list of potential projects is good:
Small pilot projects like these make a big difference locally, and also lead the way to better practices in larger programmes. But limiting the budget and having to choose between them in the midst of a climate emergency while roading projects like motorway widening, Penlink and Matakana Link Rd are still progressing at full tilt seems, well, dysfunctional.
And a closer look at the memo reveals some problems – which can be solved. The programme risks being:
- Stifled by Auckland Transport, to retain car priority,
- Compromised due to misconceptions about managing public sentiment,
- Wasted, in terms of being able to inform wider transport planning,
- Funded only by taking budget from an existing emissions reductions project with a long term commitment.
Problem 1 – Attempts to retain car priority
These proposals aim to achieve benefits like improved safety, reduced speeds in busy centres, better space for walking and biking, reduced rat-running, lower emissions. AT evidently wants them to achieve all this while retaining the classic requirement for keeping driving amenity good, too. From the table of criteria:
Proposals will need to demonstrate that they will achieve modeshift to active modes without a significant increase in distance travelled or congestion by general traffic, that will result in a net increase in network emissions.
The criterion subscribes to the myth that local congestion, or an inconvenience to a driver, will result in an increase in network emissions. Council will need to work with AT on the wording of the criterion to ensure it reflects up-to-date technical understanding, but the wider problem remains: Our transport agency should be leading on this, using evidence, not circulating misinformation.
Local, temporary congestion acts as a mechanism for reducing traffic and creating modeshift. Unless AT step up to understand this, an opportunity will be lost; that of the Regional Streets for People Programme expanding to support area-based approaches. The evidence from many cities (eg Utrecht, Amsterdam, Ghent, Barcelona) and of course Rachel Aldred’s work in the United Kingdom, has established that changing traffic circulation patterns gets people out of cars and lowers pollution and emissions. This is because there are twin effects from changing the traffic circulation:
- It should make local streets more pleasant, so it is easier for more people to walk or cycle.
- It may also makes some car journeys a little longer.
When both aspects apply, the effects compound beneficially, meaning you might as well walk or cycle for short trips, because it’s more convenient than getting in the car. Creating healthy streets by limiting rat-running and putting traffic back on the main roads where it belongs is more important than avoiding local congestion at all costs.
The message to people concerned about congestion needs to be:
“Hang on in there: the longer term effect of these changes is a reduction in congestion levels throughout the network.”
It also helps those who absolutely need to drive.
None of this is news to Auckland Transport, and they shouldn’t have added the requirement to the criterion.
This climate action delay is perhaps Auckland’s biggest stumbling block to a safe low-carbon transport system. I pity the Auckland Transport staff facing local board or public meetings, attempting to explain to concerned residents how modeshift works, knowing that the organisation does not, ultimately, support them.
Problem 2 – Managing public expectations
The criteria table also shows that projects must have strong local board support.
A year ago, I might have agreed, but we’ve learnt a lot in that time. Loud complaints can happen anywhere, even where local boards are supportive, and resolving the problems requires Council and AT holding firm on longer-term important goals.
I’ll use the UK’s Gear Change, One Year On review as an example. Rather than relying on the local authorities to champion the schemes, the Department for Transport requires them to:
We will reduce funding to councils which do not take active travel seriously, particularly in urban areas. This includes councils which remove schemes prematurely or without proper evidence, and councils which never installed them in the first place. As Gear Change said, an authority’s performance on active travel will help determine the wider funding allocations it receives, not just on active travel.
This stronger stance has come about because advocates have taken legal action when authorities had removed progressive interventions in the streets…
… despite officer advice, the equalities impact assessment, and public opinion all favouring the filter remaining in place.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson explains, in his foreword to the Gear Change review:
I know many people think that cycling and walking schemes simply increase car traffic on other roads. But there is now increasing evidence that they do not… If you make it easier and safer to walk and cycle, more people choose to walk and cycle instead of driving, and the traffic falls overall… as the benefits of schemes increase over time, what opposition there is falls further. That is why schemes must be in place long enough for their benefits and disbenefits to be properly evidenced… There was intense controversy… now… opposition to the LTN has evaporated, and so has some of the traffic.
The paradigm shift we need in Auckland is: when you require Councillors and local boards to stay the course, there’s no need for advocates to take legal cases.
This takes leadership. And we are running out of time.
Problem 3 – The opportunity for improving wider programmes could be lost
Proposals will also be judged on the:
Extent to which proposal identifies a route to delivery of permanent solution, the importance of the associated permanent project in the current AT, AC or CCO, local board work programme/strategy and ownership within the relevant organisation of learnings to take forward.
The “path to permanence” concept needs clarifying, as misunderstandings are a major stumbling block. This Regional Streets for People Programme will trial ideas to see if they create modeshift, improve safety and reduce emissions. If they are successful, they deserve an upgrade through the routine renewals and maintenance programmes.
If, to be approved, each project has to demonstrate that it fits within the status quo programmes – which have delivered the high emissions system we are trying to change – how can it inform or indeed transform those programmes? These projects will only achieve modeshift because they require a paradigm shift in thinking and approach.
Perhaps the proposals should be required to show they can highlight potentially climate damaging practices within conventional programmes or strategies. And maybe they should demonstrate how they could save money for AT, AC or local boards through good alignment with the Investment Hierarchy:
Problem 4 – The Budget was taken from an existing emissions-reduction project
The size of the programme’s budget – $3m – is small. This amount is less than the cost of a single business case for many larger programmes (orders of magnitude less, in many cases).
So it is awkward that the programme swipes its budget from another low-budget emissions reductions project:
I understand how this arose. There’s been general discontent about two things:
- The lack of progress on delivering a better transport system in general, leading to competition between Councillors and local board areas for funding.
- Mismanagement by both Council and AT of the Queen Street Valley work.
But shifting budget from one needed programme to another is generally a way to waste time and resources on planning. Conversely, given the state of the climate emergency, trimming $3m from any of the projects that increase road capacity would have been a win-win.
And creating a Low Emissions Area in the Queen St Valley is something Auckland committed to four years ago, as part of our C40 membership. It is a part of the City Centre Masterplan. It featured at the very top of the C40 Network’s Fossil Fuel Free Streets Declaration:
The QSV Low Emissions Area is an important programme, because it has a natural advantage when it comes to easy wins in decarbonisation. City centres, by virtue of being places where people gather, are effective public showcases for benefits of change, thus building confidence for change elsewhere in the city. Can it be sped up?
And how much would it cost to implement all the proposals in the Regional Streets for People list?
How to resolve this?
The Mayor needs to address each one of the above problems.
For this programme, some closer consideration of the objectives is needed. Here are my recommendations (bold font indicates my additions. I’ve also rearranged them into public-facing and internal objectives, instead of primary and secondary.)
- The programme objectives relating to benefits most visible to the public are:
- Reduce transport emissions and improve air quality co-benefits by encouraging mode shift to walking and cycling through the creation of more people-friendly streets
- Ensure a broad regional spread of projects outside of the city centre
- Support Māori outcomes, for example by encouraging active Māori participation, and improving low carbon access to marae, kura, kohanga, papakāinga, employment and services.
- The programme objectives relating to benefits for internal processes and systems are:
- encourage the use of trials and tactical urbanism techniques that can be rolled out rapidly, repeatedly, and at relatively low cost.
- learn how to respond to local enthusiasm for people-friendly streets and to thwart vocal minority opposition to progress – that can arise anywhere – through demonstrating local and international success to communities, by undertaking interventions in areas where there is strong local board support and community support, and where there is not.
- explore innovative practices and whether they can reduce transport emissions, contrasting them with existing practices.
- explore innovative practices and whether they align well with the investment hierarchy, contrasting them with existing practices.
- use the findings from this exploration to highlight current programmes and strategies that need review due to their inclusion of practices that fail to reduce emissions, or are unnecessarily costly.
There’s a related item on today’s agenda: the approach and governance structure for the Transport Emissions Reduction Plan. This plan (TERP) is the critical piece of work needed to “repair” the Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP 2021) which – because it failed to meet the emissions objectives set – is being taken to judicial review.
The TERP governance paper presents an obvious tension between the proactive and heel-dragging partners which parallels the tension in the new programme I’ve discussed above. Examples of problems are:
- the equity implications of change are treated with kid gloves, with far less caution given to the equity implications of not changing,
- there is an effective blueprint for analysis paralysis – in both business case and consultation overkill
- there are the usual claims of limited funding, despite decarbonisation being a way to save money, and
- stakeholders’ importance is overblown, whereas the words children, youth and rangatahi are all missing.
In particular, paragraphs 5, 33, 34, 39, 50, 55, 70. Today, I think Councillors should push back on some of these paragraphs.
I also think it would be great if they could scale up the Regional Streets for People Programme. This is one way to harness tactical and immediate action in a wide swath of the city, to demonstrate transport transformation and inform the TERP work. This is needed to mitigate the minimum 15 month delay due to the RLTP failure, which could be the difference between:
- Auckland leading and inspiring the world on how to turn car dependent sprawl around, potentially contributing significantly to global efforts to limit warming, and
- Auckland failing, with inadequate emissions reductions, mounting carbon credit costs, and lost trading partners due to inaction.
The risks of inaction on transport this year are far higher than the risks of ploughing ahead with change. No one wants to leave an increasingly dangerous, expensive and barren world.
Won’t somebody please think of the children?