Streets so safe that getting around by bike is easy, children are independent, and our elderly can move around town without feeling stressed. Public transport so attractive that no one ever feels forced to drive. A transport system that becomes gradually less expensive to operate, and more environmentally sustainable, as it is improved over time.
These are all reasonable asks, and Auckland’s new Transport Emissions Reductions Pathway (TERP) lays out how to deliver them.
Yet, many people in the sector are resisting the change because they think it’s going to be expensive. They couldn’t be further from the truth.
The old mindset – that reducing transport emissions would happen sometime in the future, best achieved through electrification of the fleet – was an insufficient climate response. The approach left us with far too many unresolved problems: safety, accessibility, noise, physical inactivity and health, ecological impacts, value-for-money, land use, and efficient freight movements. The costs of programmes to attempt to improve those problems needed to be added to the costs of electrification. All up, this was the most slow, difficult and expensive way forward.
The beauty of the TERP is that it solves multiple challenges at once, in the most cost-effective way. It involves electrification, and every other lever too.
To move forward on the issue of how to fund transport transformation, many in the sector need to rethink their interpretation of a rather dry subject: activity classes.
What are activity classes?
The Government Policy Statement on Transport (GPS) is released every three years. In that document, the “national land transport fund” is divided into activity classes, or “buckets of funding”. Each activity class is associated with a different part of the system:
But it’s important to note what activity classes are not. They are not the government’s direction itself. This was a shift that was explained clearly, in the GPS 2018:
GPS 2018 links results to objectives rather than activity classes. This provides greater flexibility to consider projects that may require investment across activity classes, provided the activities involved fall within the associated activity class definitions. This supports a more mode neutral approach as it enables GPS investments to be funded from more than one activity class to provide the best transport solution.
The Ministry has continued to be clear about where the direction is given. The current GPS says:
Investment will be guided by four strategic priorities
Each strategic priority will guide investment to meet outcomes identified in the Transport Outcomes Framework:
This shouldn’t be difficult to understand. Whereas previously, activity classes may have been a way the Government indicated strategic direction, now they are simply an administrative tool. The activity class definitions are broad, allowing each activity class plenty of scope for the agency to follow the Government’s actual direction – which is given by the strategic priorities and the transport outcomes framework.
Importantly, decisions must be mode-neutral:
The problem – at the project level
Our local roads could be so much more than they are. They could be lovely places, attractive for walking, biking, skateboarding, wheelchairs and mobility scooters, bus journeys, socialising, recreation, as well as hosting trees and rain gardens for environmental health.
But on the local road network in Auckland, projects continue to be rolled out that don’t even create a safe system for all users, let alone create the attractive streets we’re wanting. Auckland Transport has been quite literally prioritising traffic flow over safety, as these statements from recent AT projects illustrate. None of the projects are aligned with Vision Zero; none take the full opportunity to deliver a sustainable system that is safe for everyone.
What has gone wrong? The Government have provided funding in the Local Roads activity classes to help achieve the Transport Outcomes, but Auckland Transport is using it to improve traffic flow.
A similar consideration of the State Highway activity classes shows that to achieve the Transport Outcomes, we would harness the funding to make walking and cycling safer along or across the state highway corridors, and to increase the ease of using public transport. In Auckland, for example, this means the State Highways activity classes could be being used to build new over-bridges and underpasses, to redesign on ramps and off ramps to keep people safe who walk or bike across or near them, to reallocate traffic lanes to busways, build stations for them, and so on.
Yet Waka Kotahi’s approach to their projects has been largely focused on using the State Highways activity classes to improve traffic flow, too. Worse, they have funded projects involving costly highway widening from public transport activity classes. Examples include the Northern Busway extension and SH20B widening. This matters because:
- we could be enjoying other bus or train improvements elsewhere, if the Public Transport activity class funds hadn’t been used for the motorway widening.
- traffic-inducing highway widening projects went ahead only because money was freed up for them in the State Highways Improvements activity class.
A Good Local Road Programme
Auckland Transport has now committed to implementing the TERP, and there are plenty of staff willing and able to put together a comprehensive and transformative programme of projects for our local roads. Let’s consider what would be involved in seeking funding for this.
To be transformational, as per the direction in the GPS (and the TERP), every single project would be designed to create safe and healthy streets for people on foot and bike, and some would create quality public transport facilities too. Traffic and parking lane reallocation would be required, but this isn’t particularly expensive – unless moving kerbs, drains, traffic lights or street lights is required, or if depaving for raingardens or trees is needed.
To apply for funding, Auckland Transport would first need to decide which particular work category they should apply to. Each category has rules about what it can fund – set by Waka Kotahi for making administration easier. Notably, the rules are not part of the GPS, and don’t necessarily represent the Government’s direction.
- Trickier, more expensive projects would need to be funded from the work categories that allow for larger project amounts (that are currently funding the business-as-usual traffic-inducing projects).
- Smaller, easier projects should be funded from the work categories with smaller project limits. If the limits mean there’s insufficient funding to provide the full suite of safety measures permanently in a particular project, AT could reallocate road space in a tactical fashion with the money available. Then, the next time the road is renewed, the maintenance funding could be used to make the changes permanent.
Why hasn’t such a programme already happened?
There is one area where Waka Kotahi’s interpretation of the GPS seems clearly dubious: the agency has difficulty agreeing to fund road reallocation from the maintenance activity classes. Even improvements that bring the road up to meet modern day standards seem to create an obstacle. This doesn’t bode well. It is a poor approach to the maintenance of any asset.
We’re spending a lot of money on maintenance. Due to our car dependent transport system, we just have too much road to maintain, and too many vehicles driving on it. Waka Kotahi should be asking some really fundamental questions about how to reduce this maintenance burden. The answer lies in updating our roads – reducing both the lane km per capita, and making changes that encourage people to shift to the transport modes which impose the least wear and tear on the road surface. That is, by reallocating space to walking and biking.
Limiting maintenance budgets to projects that replace “like with like” doesn’t do this. It is an approach that is inherently incompatible with the GPS, which is calling for a transformation of the transport system. Transformation requires making sure things are built back better when renewed. There will always be lots of projects vying for money. A core job for Waka Kotahi is to ensure no money is being wasted on anything that doesn’t contribute to the goals – and that includes road renewals that continue to lock in a dangerous environment.
Beyond this topic, it’s not been 100% clear to me whether:
- Auckland Transport are proposing projects that are lacking in vision,
- Auckland Transport are trying to keep doing big road expansion projects, which means that staff working on smaller projects have to apply from work categories that are always a bit underpowered for what’s required, or
- Waka Kotahi’s rules really are not conducive to achieving transformation.
This looks like a Waka Kotahi problem
Even if it’s just AT having its wires crossed, Waka Kotahi should be helping them to get this right. The GPS says:
The Minister expects Waka Kotahi will… support the sector to put forward the best transport solutions and ensure a fit for purpose investment process. This means Waka Kotahi will continue to support funding across activity classes, and enable approved organisations to not choose or define projects based on the activity class structure.
Waka Kotahi and Auckland Transport staff have workshops together to ensure everyone understand how the funding application process works. At these workshops, Waka Kotahi should be reiterating that the GPS says every activity class is expected to be used to fund sustainable projects:
as the outcomes are interrelated, each strategic priority will deliver co-benefits across the Transport Outcomes Framework. For example, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will be achieved through action across all priorities, programmes and activity classes.
Basically, there are no activity classes called:
- Unsafe Transport
- High Emissions Transport
- Improving Everything Except Cycling, or
- State Highways Go Brrrmmm
The GPS describes what the activity classes can be used for; there’s plenty of scope to ensure the funding in any and all of these activity classes can be applied towards sustainable transport projects – to whatever degree is required to meet the Transport Outcomes, guided by the Strategic Priorities.
What changes are needed?
First, staff might continue to look to the activity classes for direction, so the Minister should probably adjust the amounts of money in each activity class until he is confident that even if they are used as a blunt tool, the safety and climate aspirations of New Zealanders will be fulfilled.
Secondly, the Minister needs to write to the CEO of Waka Kotahi, to reiterate that
- the State Highway and Local Road activity classes should be applied to deliver walking, cycling and public transport improvements,
- updates to the networks are expected when being maintained or renewed (ie using the Maintenance activity classes), and that
- any work category rules preventing these instructions need to be overhauled.
Thirdly, changes to the activity class descriptions in the GPS would also help. Although the words “level of service” and “capacity” can be useful when modes are clearly specified, in the context of the mode-neutral activity classes, they are counterproductive, and don’t guide investment evaluation decisions well. The descriptions should also acknowledge that designing streets to be attractive public spaces is fulfilling a transport function, as it encourages people to live more locally, travelling less altogether.
If the Government would clarify these points swiftly, progressive staff in the sector will be empowered to make faster progress towards creating the Government’s goals of a safe, healthy, accessible, low carbon and efficient transport system.