There was some big news last week with Auckland Transport announcing that CEO Shane Ellison has resigned.
Auckland Transport’s Board has accepted the resignation of Chief Executive Shane Ellison.
Mr Ellison, who joined AT in December 2017, will step down on 24 June 2022.
“It is the right time for the board to consider new leadership for a new phase at AT,” says Mr Ellison.
“The organisation has many opportunities and challenges ahead as it continues to improve road safety, support mode shift, and responds to the climate crisis.
“The past four years have been very rewarding, with significant changes and many challenges, and I look forward to what is next for AT.”
AT Board Chair Adrienne Young-Cooper says Mr Ellison’s leadership has brought significant cultural change within the organisation that will continue to be felt long after June 2022. This has led to significant improvements in AT’s performance.
“Shane’s work to change our focus from moving vehicles to moving people and freight will have lasting impacts both within AT and across the region,” says Mrs Young-Cooper.
“I thank Shane, on behalf of our board, for his service to Tāmaki Makaurau and wish him the very best.”
Recruitment processes for a new chief executive are underway, and the AT Board anticipates it will make an appointment ahead of Mr Ellison’s departure in June 2022.
Shane’s time at Auckland Transport started hopefully, with it seeming like we were headed in a new direction, as reported by Bike Auckland:
And the new CEO was a good champion, both for active modes:
Aucklanders have told us they want more high-quality cycling and walking infrastructure. It is a key priority in our Regional Land Transport Plan, supported by 18,000 people. It’s also a very important part of addressing Auckland’s road safety crisis. Aucklanders have told us they want a transport network free from harm and delivering dedicated and protected walking and cycling facilities improves road safety for everyone – not just the people who choose to ride bikes.
and for Healthy Streets:
the number of secondary school aged children that were killed or seriously injured on our roads in 2014 was around 56. In 2017 that number had grown to over a hundred. So, if they’re not feeling safe on our streets, how are they going to be active?
I think for me the most notable change under Shane’s watch has been the increased focus on road safety. Indeed, Shane started his term as CEO when the reasons for Auckland’s road safety crisis were being studied by an independent expert, and the 2018 Road Safety Business Improvement Review was published within a few months of his starting. Last year, a follow-up study of the organisation’s response to that 2018 review showed:
The road safety situation at AT is very different to the pre-2018 circumstances. A road safety focus has been established with clear organisational commitment from the Board and CE level, a new Directorate for Safety at ELT level has been established and staffed, and many tasks previously not receiving attention but central to improving road safety performance are now being carried out. These are substantial achievements for the Auckland Community.
That work in particular has also helped to highlight that AT has some really wonderful and talented employees – but equally that there is a strong layer of clay inside the organisation preventing change. The safety improvements have not been anywhere near enough; some responses seemed more performative than substantial.
There are several reasons for that, and one of the sad ones is that Shane and AT are often unsupported by the mayor and/or council. A well-known example of that was with St Heliers where AT proposed changes to Tamaki Drive to make it safer at the expense of some carparks. Shane correctly pulled staff from attending a public meeting so staff didn’t have to endure a mob that had been whipped into a frenzy by the Herald and who even verbally abused children for wanting to support change. Mayor Phil Goff’s response was to shamefully throw him under the bus for protecting his staff, seemingly more worried about regressive Herald opinion pieces or future electoral results than staff or public safety.
This lack of mayoral support happened again just recently during discussion about AT’s updated Parking Strategy, where the mayor expressed his personal bias about parking. The mayor elevated his assumed understanding of the “rights” of drivers to store their private equipment in the public realm over the rights of the population to a functioning and safe transport system. Just at a time when AT were trying to move parking strategy forward, this public criticism of AT for trying to do the job the council have tasked them with was very unhelpful. It must be incredibly demoralising for AT staff when this kind of thing happens.
But the problem with these examples has been AT’s response. Instead of using AT’s independence and role as “technical experts” to push through with evidence-based approaches, and to treat every point of contact with the Councillors as an opportunity to educate, AT typically goes away to “review” things. This simply emboldens the agents of clay inside the organisation to come back with compromised designs and approaches. This has had a cumulative effect, affecting how staff approach their tasks. It’s not uncommon for staff to simply state they cannot follow best practice because “drivers wouldn’t like the change” or “we don’t have political support for that” or to come out with something that so clearly is misaligned with Vision Zero that it seems impossible that AT staff have used the words.
It now feels that AT are so scared of change that it has resulted poor designs, seemingly endless rounds consultation resulting in consultation fatigue, not to mention making projects much more expensive with slow delivery, if projects get delivered at all. We’ve ended up in a situation where AT are an organisation that want to be loved but that in trying to appease everyone, they end up making no one happy.
We’ve heard that Shane was chosen because he didn’t have an ego and could work with people. He does have an approachable and quiet, pleasant manner. These are qualities that could have been put to better use, had he not stepped into an organisation that was in many ways dysfunctional, and if the mayor had understood the need to be an agent of change himself, to respond to the current challenges of our world.
In addition to the difficulties of dealing with Council, Shane also had to cope with the disarray at NZTA. This impacted on Auckland Transport’s operations significantly, delaying both business cases and funding requests.
A change at Auckland Transport that will mark Shane’s term was unfortunately when AT disbanded its walking and cycling team.
The lobby group Bike Auckland has called on Auckland Transport to “explain how disestablishing its walking and cycling team will enhance its focus on walking and cycling and help remedy historic underinvestment in these modes”.
Ellison told the Herald that active transport had become a priority for the whole organisation and a steering group, led by a member of the executive, would help ensure it stayed that way. But this would not be the only responsibility of that executive.
Bike Auckland pointed to the need for leadership and asked, “Who will continue to champion active transport within the organisation?”
Rather than disband the team, cycling needed a seat at the top table.
Bike Auckland’s fears were realised; history shows that almost immediately after this happened, progress on cycling projects ground to a halt. This has taken an immense toll on a city that was ripe for change.
Shane seems to have a genuine concern for improving the city, with a real focus on children. Paul Winton of the 1Point5 project, scored Shane much higher on his understanding of the need to decarbonise transport, and what is involved, than many of the other sector decision-makers.
With six months to run, Shane has an enormous opportunity to make good use of all the institutional knowledge he’s built up over the last few years, and could go out “with a bang” – leaving an organisation that’s ready for change. From our perspective, we believe this would involve consciously clearing out the clay and pushing through some hard but controversial decisions.
This would help boost the morale of staff held back from progressive work for so long, spread hope throughout the organisation, and help give his replacement a running start. It would be a belated, but very powerful, legacy to leave.