This is a guest post by Hamish Mackie.
We need to do things differently in the transport system. The strategic ambition for road safety, mode shift, and climate change are all clear in documents like Road to Zero, Keeping Cities Moving, and the Emissions Reduction Plan consultation document. But the pace of change in these areas has been inadequate to date, and progress is not matching the strategic needs that have been laid out. We need a pretty rapid turnaround in how we plan, invest, and deliver transport. Some trends are heading in the wrong direction – such as the number of school students walking and biking to school, or the nature of vehicles we import.
Many Greater Auckland readers have first-hand experience in some kind of street or road safety project intended to try something that isn’t business as usual. There’s an increasing number of people motivated, one way or another, by the notion that our transport system could be safer, more user-friendly, less carbon producing, fairer, and less expensive.
In recent months many Innovating Streets projects were completed. Really successful ones included Emily Place, Māngere West/East, and Thames. The logic is sound – faster and cheaper roll out of street changes that make walking and cycling safer and easier; ideally, also reflecting local identity and desires.
But there were also, as expected, a string of casualties. Working on these projects can seem like walking through thick mud with someone beating you with a stick at the same time! People will be nursing battle scars, experiences of failure, immense frustration that the ‘system’ doesn’t seem capable of responding to the now well set out transport needs of our planet and country.
Importantly, whether the project itself was completed or not, all have contributed to the programme. Both successes and challenges have been recorded and there has been significant learning. This will allow changes to how things are done, so the next round of investment, whatever that looks like, will be more effective. It’s one of the few nationwide innovation delivery programmes. Change in the transport system needs it, and we need other programmes like it.
It’s interesting speaking more deeply with folk who have been involved with innovative, ‘niche’, or demonstration projects in an attempt to design and test something better. They can all point to parts of the ‘system’ that have stopped projects in their tracks. Commonly cited barriers include:
“we have no leadership”
“the community isn’t ready”
“engagement wasn’t right”
“there’s no funding for this”
“the regulations won’t let us”, or
“we are just not very good at this yet”
In most cases the conversation stops there – a sense of resignation – “perhaps it’s time for that trans-America bike ride”. But there is a choice beyond needing extra doses of optimism bias or resignation that things will just take time.
We can systematically and robustly identify the parts of the ‘system’ that are failing us, daylight them, and then ruthlessly address these things until they are delivering what is needed.
To this end, our research team has been working through the ‘why’ of success or failure as part of our MBIE funded research Healthy Mobility Solutions. First, we established a framework to help identify barriers and enablers, using our own experience from earlier innovative street projects and projects such as the Model Communities and Urban Cycleway Programmes. Then, using these frameworks we reviewed project documents, evaluations, and interviewed key people, and were able to pinpoint some successful and unsuccessful aspects of project or programme planning, design and delivery.
As always in research, there is some theory that underpins all this (see Geels 2012) and here is a basic summary: Change in the transport system can be facilitated by ‘niche’ innovations, which are small demonstrations of how things can be done differently. These niche innovations can originate in the transport sector or from members of the community; either way they start with someone’s articulation of the need for change or an innovative idea for improving a situation. If there are sufficient numbers of these demonstrations of new ideas, they start to influence two things:
- the wider system (or regime) so that day to day transport planning and delivery is fundamentally altered, and
- the everyday experience of people in the community.
This can create a positive feedback loop that influences progress, in which improved “transport norms” lead to more positive every-day experiences for people, and a higher expectation in the community that the sector will respond to their needs and suggestions for innovation.
A current problem we face in New Zealand is that the transport sector is struggling to make progress under the weight of an inefficient and expensive business case process. Our urgent need to find an alternative approach means programmes that test innovative ideas and implementation using sound theory and evidence should be a priority. In areas that are as yet unproven, it’s sensible to put a toe in the water, evaluate success, and if outcomes are favourable, make the necessary tweaks, and invest further at a greater scale.
Through our research we’ve found that there are six key areas in the ‘Socio-technical system’ that need a health-check in most projects or programmes:
- Leadership – across the system from central and local government to delivery
- Funding – allocated in the RLTP and also made available for the project
- Policies and procedures – the rules and regulations that a project must align with
- Organisational norms – the ways of working by people and groups in delivery organisations
- Community and delivery tensions – how project teams engage with communities and their respective priorities
- Social environment – the wider societal and media landscape that supports or challenges projects
And if we summarise how the transport planning and delivery system has performed over the past decade or so in delivering on progressive road safety and walking and cycling policies, the following diagram summarises the key areas of the planning and delivery system:
With a focus on road safety and led by Adrian Field from Dovetail, we gathered lessons about innovation in transport systems from various projects: Behind the Wheel, Te Ara Mua – Future Streets, Visiting drivers, Eastern Bay of Plenty rural road safety). We identified key elements of successful innovation within “human capital”: collaborative partnerships, people-centric approaches, communities of practice, and building innovation capacity.
However, the biggest single finding from our research over the years is that:
Innovation doesn’t have a home in New Zealand’s transport planning system.
We’ve been stuck in a cycle of delivering business as usual programmes and projects because that’s what we know how to deliver.
This is why programmes like Innovating Streets are so important. There needs to be a place in the system where innovation can happen, and can chip away at the ‘baked in’ way of doing things. A great example of ‘working on the system’ was from Auckland’s recent innovating streets programme where special effort was made by AT to rapidly address various regulatory and approval processes given the timeframes of the projects.
But this is not only about tactical street changes. Innovation initiatives in transport need to reach equitable bike access, road safety, use of road space generally, more efficient freight, public transport, and decarbonisation.
If successful, we can then scale the promising things up. In a recent webinar hosted by Waka Kotahi, Dan Hill – Director Strategic Design at Sweden’s Innovation Design Agency, Vinnova – elegantly compared this process with a snowball: Prototypes, Prototypes in multiple places, and then Prototypes across the country with convincing evidence.
The best example of this ‘snowballing’ that I know of in New Zealand is the development, prototyping, robust evaluation, and then nationwide roll-out of the rural Intersection Speed Zones (below). These lower the speed limit when the potential for an intersection collision exists. Strong leadership, a commitment to evidence and evaluation, and procedures for developing capability across New Zealand were key elements. Where Intersection Speed Zones have been installed they have led to a 69% reduction in fatal and serious injury crashes and a 28% reduction in total crashes since installation at the original sites years ago.
But innovative projects don’t always survive the experimental stage. In these instances, the projects are still “successful” because they enable us to learn about specific areas of the transport planning and delivery system. Projects can reveal how processes, rules, funding mechanisms, and even people in the system are enabling or preventing important niche projects or programmes from happening.
And we do need to aim for projects that build stronger communities, and lead to a greater general understanding of the case for change. Ideally, people with the most need for improved safety and public spaces will feel empowered, not burnt by unfriendly community discussions or by local disgruntlement that project management and delivery are still adjusting to the new approach. And for community members with an anti-social response to the suggestion of change, a successful project could be seen as one with opportunities to realise their opinions are not commonly held or at least to observe more respectful community discussion in action.
Below is a diagram we’ve created to illustrate our findings about the “conceptual” difficulties for delivering a pocket park on a main street.
This approach can cause a bit of defensiveness by those who ‘own’ aspects of the system. Yet it will be for everyone’s benefit if there is more objective, open, and transparent analysis of the parts of the transport planning and delivery system which is letting us down – or alternatively, making things happen. More often than not, we find that individuals in the transport planning and delivery system (mostly) want the progressive strategies to be realised, and some staff put themselves at risk in pushing the boundaries. But if the focus is more on the system mechanics and how it operates and there is work to fix the broken parts in a systematic way, then there will be a much greater chance of transport goals being achieved.
The context of COVID-19 has added a further angle to all of this. More than ever, there is a need for safe places to exercise, travel, and maintain physical and mental wellbeing in our communities and on our streets. Overseas, some countries have been very proactive in carving off street space for physically distanced walking and cycling and they’ve found the recipe for making it happen. Here in New Zealand our less successful response has been well documented in a recent evaluation.
We’ve also learned that disruptions such as COVID-19 rarely lead to lasting system change unless there are prior plans to springboard from, and very conscious efforts to learn and lever the disruption. Without this focus, things return to ‘normal’ or go backwards. There can also be a ‘goldilocks’ period following disruptions where immediate risks have waned, but the memory of how things might be different are still present. For now the government’s COVID-19 focus is likely to remain on infection control, vaccination, and keeping hospitals from being over-run. But soon there will be a time when it makes sense to more boldly use some of the transport lessons from COVID-19 from overseas and New Zealand, particularly as the measures are an excellent pathway to establish a more low carbon system.
The size of the climate change, road safety, and other transport challenges, requires an appropriately sized innovation programme. We don’t have all the answers. Indeed it’s arrogant to think we do when the transport sector is frequently missing goals and deadlines. Only by being bold, testing promising ideas, robustly learning, and scaling up in a considered way, will we really make progress. But there needs to be a place, structure, and serious funding for this to happen.
Waka Kotahi now has a multimodal innovation team and there are a range of initiatives aimed at modifying how the transport planning and delivery system works, how transport is funded, the levers that will accelerate local investment, and how rules and regulations can support better outcomes. These initiatives will need to be innovative and lever a scale of transformation if they are to be successful agents of change.
The tactical nature of Innovating Streets offers the opportunity to ‘learn by doing’ – and with a strong national ‘why’ story and competent delivery, the techniques and approaches that show promise will help accelerate change. But how many other innovation programmes are needed, in what areas, and at what scale to put Aotearoa on a path towards actually achieving our transport goals?
The key references that support this blog can be found here:
Geels, F. W. (2012) ‘A socio-technical analysis of low-carbon transitions: Introducing the multi-level perspective into transport studies’, Journal of Transport Geography. Elsevier, 24, pp. 471–482. doi: 10.1016/j.jtrangeo.2012.01.021
Mackie, H., Hirsch, L., Thorne, R., Witten, K., & Field, A. (2021). Creating the Circuit Breakers: An Examination of the Sociotechnical System Factors Which Impede and Enable the Delivery of Safe and Healthy Neighbourhood Street Design in Aotearoa New Zealand. In S. Coxon, R. Napper (Eds.), Advancing a Design Approach to Enriching Public Mobility (1st ed., pp. 249-274). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
Field A, Garden E, Davies N, King J, McKegg K, Mackie H. 2019. Innovating Road Safety: lessons for transport systems. Auckland: Dovetail and Kinnect Group.
Thorne, R. & Mackie, H. (2020). Intersection Speed Zones: Long-term operational and safety performance. Prepared by Mackie Research for Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, Auckland, New Zealand.
Wild, K., Hawley, G., Woodward, A., Thorne, R., Mackie H. (2020). Street space reallocation to fight COVID-19: Opportunities and challenges for New Zealand. A report prepared for Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency by Mackie Research and the University of Auckland.
Hawley, G., Hirsch, L., & Mackie, H. (2020). Leveraging transport disruption to influence change (Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency research report 672).
Acknowledgements to MBIE and Waka Kotahi who have funded this work.