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:

Eden Williams of Generation Zero (with Leroy Beckett, L) hands over the petition to Shane Ellison, CEO of AT. Image credit: 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.

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39 comments

  1. Maybe they need the opposite, a real scrapper, someone that will force the council to choose between climate and safety or the status quo (as Goff always like to think he can have it both ways which is not possible).
    When Shane joined it seemed like AT were the backwards organisation not wanting to deliver modern projects, now it feels like they have got through that and the council are being the handbrake.

    1. A scrapper perhaps, or at least someone with enormous resilience. The Board of AT got exactly what they wanted with Ellison. They wanted someone without an ego, or at least that is what was reported.
      What they need now is someone who believes that reducing emissions and congestion, and improving safety is his “raison d’etre.” That he/she will go out and cajole, influence, negotiate and question as to why those objectives should not be at the front/heart of every transport decision.

  2. This is such a big job, and it’s getting bigger every day. Over the last few years especially, not just here but all round the world, the role of urban transport chief has expanded from quietly managing delivery towards really high-profile change leadership in a growing climate emergency.

    Of course, Councils and Mayors still lead the public conversation (or should do). But with the transport system such a huge carbon emitter, all eyes are naturally on the “transport czar” too. And they now have two jobs: 1) effectively shaping and enabling their whole organisation to do the needful, and 2) clearly communicating how, why, and how fast that’s happening.

    A really powerful next six months would lift AT up and set the scene for whomever takes over mid-2022. At that point the national Emissions Reduction Plan will be in place and those two parts of the role will be even more essential. Best wishes to Shane with this critical transition phase.

  3. I never did, but I would have been quite comfortable to go into AT to have a one on one discussion with Shane Ellison. I would never have felt comfortable doing the same with his predecessor. If that’s true for a hardened nut like me, it’ll be true of many people. Being approachable is important.

    I wish him well.

    1. Hi predecessor was a piece of work. I listened to him at an IPENZ meeting and when one guy asked him a question he tore a strip off him in front of us. The dude was either a consultant or employee of AT.

      1. I should have added that when an engineer I know who isn’t a staff member criticised AT at a hearing he had him called in and dressed down for expressing an independent opinion. Apparently consultants who work for AT were not supposed to do that. Remember that when AT consultants are giving advice.

        1. Holy crap, that is exactly what people giving expert evidence are supposed to do – give an independent opinion. That’s terrible form by the CEO prior to Shane.

  4. It will be interestingly to see what the new job description looks like,I’m imagining “strong transport focus and other such drivel. What is required is a “change manager”,an understanding of things “transport” would in my mind,be more of a hinderance than an asset.
    I guess 4 years is a reasonable ” crack” at things,but there are interesting times ahead,with LR,northwestern PT,Harbour crossing,either you totally commit to stuff like that,or bail out beforehand .

  5. You’ve got six months Mr Ellison to do what you haven’t done since you started work back in 2017: clean house and eliminate the ongoing toxic culture of bullying and blinkering thinking, particularly in regard to PT CX. The clock is ticking. Will you step up and do the mahi?

    1. Lame duck CEOs are ignored even more than normal CEOs. Don’t hold out any hope for any significant change for the next 12 months (6 months of lame duck and – at least – 6mo for the new guy/gal to get settled in). Until then, everyone who wants BAU can simply say “well, we are just proceeding as directed before / we are just waiting for direction from the new CEO”…

      Change in management is always bad for progress in the short term.

  6. The disband of cycling team is a big mistake.

    My feeling is before he comes, there is a sense of progress and hope.

    During his terms despite what he says, what actually happens is things move backwards.

    The rail is very dysfunctional, many projects like LRT simply hit a brick wall.

    My point is he says nice things, but act otherwise.

    1. LRT was actually an example of AT working extremely well. A thought out long-term plan that was then torpedoed by central govt

      1. My only complaint is that they should have started building the Dominion Road segment before even mentioning the Airport. All easy in hindsight of course.

        1. “My only complaint is that they should have started building the Dominion Road segment before even mentioning the Airport. All easy in hindsight of course.”

          Jacinda used the LRT project as an election bribe. Her announcement of “light rail to the airport” came as a surprise to Council and AT. NZ First them allowed the entire business case project to proceed at great cost, then refused to support the project at the last minute. We can blame NZ First for the delays.

    1. JSK had the backing of the mayor. Would she have it here, or would Phil just have it two ways with instructing her to act and then calling her out for any attempt to do so too?

      1. Sadiq Khan didn’t need the backing of the Mayor because he is the Mayor, he has the backing of the public.

        Not to be confused with Janette Sadik-Khan

        1. I was referring to JSK, as per my response. I don’t know how good the current London mayor is on transport, but either of the two could probably do better.

  7. This all sounds far too kind…

    Everything you need to know about Ellison’s tenure can be summarised by the decision to disband the walking and cycling team. If he had something better in mind, it needed to be clear and implemented prior to the disbanding of the initial team. We now know there wasn’t. He said he listened to Aucklanders, which is probably true, and then he ignored them.

    And as for some badge of honour for road safety? Where is it? All talk.

    I feel his tenure was just a total waste of time and sent us backwards a decade. I honestly feel there was more momentum prior to him arriving. We have stagnated which means, in essence, we have gone backwards.

    I have nothing but utter disdain for these do-nothing CEOs. They waste everyone’s time.

    1. Meh. David Warburton (previous CEO) went golfing with the boss of the Marina association, and then handed down the instruction that the Beaumont Street bikeway can’t touch any of the car parking and thus doomed it to a shoddy shared path. Even in the only part of town (Wynyard Quarter) which at the time had District-Plan mandated rules that private cars should be de-prioritised. Don’t romanticise the past. That particular past was a lot worse than you may remember.

      1. I was hardly romanticising the past, I know it was a very low bar.

        Good points on Warburton, but at least he managed a round of golf. It sounds like more than Ellison ever did. The guy was so utterly weak and his one decisive move was to depower the mode he told us was so important and what Auckland wanted.

        A waste of space.

    2. Now is an opportunity to restructure AT from top to bottom. Road Safety needs to be the realm of NZTA, parking enforcement, strategy and planning, need to go to Auckland Council. HR, Payroll, Procurement and IT can be merged with the same teams at Council. The team that “engages” with local boards and councillors could then be disbanded as the strategy should be coming from Council, who will communicate the decisions directly to the local boards. There will be no need for a separate “Customer Experience” unit at AT, as this should be part of BAU. The AT Parking buildings would be sold for mixed use developments. This leaves AT to concentrate on managing buses, trains and ferries, and on building new PT infrastructure projects. Roading projects would revert to NZTA. With the removal of several departments with AT an entire slice of middle managers and departmental GMs would no longer be required.

      1. Wow, that is the worst idea I have heard in a whole. For so many reasons that it would be a total waste of time to bother going into.

        NZTA is more against safety than AT and you want to move safety to NZTA? NZTA can’t even build motorways and you want road maintenance to go to them?

        As dysfunctional as AT is, NZTA is far worse.

        1. Road Safety is one of the five key initiatives that are outlined in the NZTA Annual Report 2020 ( Pages 16 & 17 ), in response to the Govts priority to create “a safer transport network free of death and injury” as part of the Govts Road to Zero project ( Page 21, 24 & 28, 29 )

        2. That doesn’t mean they do it well. Although they could. They just need some absolutely core principles hammered home, some clearing out of their own clay. To do safety well, the entire thrust of the organisation would need to change, but that change is needed anyway and lots of staff are already on board trying to achieve it.

          But even if they started doing safety well, road safety needs to be central to every organisation involved in transport. It shouldn’t be a programme of its own but a mindset that drives every programme.

  8. You wonder with this role,the right person could team up with Michael Wood and effectively cut the AC ,out of the equation,giving that the funding for the game changing stuff, comes from central govt. Mayor (Goff),would quickly understand his position as a wall flower.

  9. How do we vote for the next leader for transport in Auckland.
    I’d vote for a Copenhagen advocate for Auckland
    We seem to keep getting Los Angeles candidates.

    I hope that its someone who thinks active transport lane on the bridge “is practical” in their opinion. (yes NZTA owns Aucklands bridge – that needs fixing too)

    1. ‘How do we vote for the next leader for transport in Auckland’

      Are you referring to Minister of Transport? If so, vote for the party that offers the best solutions, at the next elections

      or
      Are you referring to voting for the new CEO of Auckland Transport?
      If so, this appointment will be made behind closed doors by the Board of Auckland Transport

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