Last week, Auckland’s new Mayor, Wayne Brown, started a new trend by publishing a letter a day on various priorities of his, with mobile phone blackspots on Sunday, Three Waters on Monday and the Port on Tuesday.
On Wednesday his focus turned to Auckland Transport, from whom he demanded a “complete change in approach“:
“You appear to have been focussed on changing how Aucklanders live, using transport policy and services as a tool,” he wrote.
“Instead, AT must seek to deeply understand how Aucklanders actually live now, how they want to live in the future, and deliver transport services that support those aspirations. Aucklanders do not always have the choice of using an e-bike, a bus or even a train but rely on the roading and carparking networks to make their life functional.”
Mr Brown said AT needs to exercise better judgement and listen to and follow the wishes of all Aucklanders and local communities “not just those who participate in formal consultation processes”.
“AT must understand the families who are struggling to move around the region: pick-up their children, do the groceries, get home safely after-dark, and juggle other commitments. You must understand the local businesses who rely on transport connections and their needs now and in the future. And you must recognise that the transport network materially impacts Aucklanders’ safety – especially at night, for women, for young people, the elderly and for shift workers.”
He said Local Boards must be far more closely involved in decisions about the design and delivery of smaller-scale capital projects in their area and the provision of on-street and off-street parking. Unless there were overwhelming reasons otherwise, AT should reflect the priorities of local communities in its approach to such projects and decisions.
As we wrote in our open letter to the Mayor after his election win, we do think something is fundamentally broken with how this important organisation works and that it needs to change.
However, the suggestion that Auckland Transport have been focussed on “changing how Aucklanders live” is not borne out by the facts – if anything, we’re as locked into our cars as we ever were.
Take cycleway projects, which are widely supported by Aucklanders, with weighted surveys repeatedly telling us that two thirds of Aucklanders support cycling in their community.
Despite what you might conclude from some of the media attention, Auckland Transport actually only delivers very few cycling projects – and very slowly. Their 2021/22 Annual Report shows that they delivered just “5.8kms of minor cycleways and 8.1kms of new cycleway connections” in one financial year. The cycleway network currently sits at around 348km. That’s a tiny fraction of the 8,000 km of roads in our city. Most of it is scattered and consists of paint on the road, which we know is not safe for people of all ages and abilities to use, and we see the awful results.
At AT’s current rate of delivery, it will take something like 160 years to complete a basic cycling network – one that Aucklanders can use to, for example, to “pick up their children, do the groceries, get home safely after dark, and juggle other commitments.” That’s no use “for women, for young people, the elderly and for shift workers” who want the option of cycling. And it’s no use for “local businesses who rely on transport connections” and who are increasingly looking towards cargo bikes as the last-mile solution for urban deliveries.
If there’s one thing everyone agrees on, it’s that traffic sucks, and getting stuck in traffic is stressful, life-limiting, and unproductive. And there’s one surefire way to make sure congestion keeps growing and the time that people have to spend stuck in cars keeps getting longer: by continuing with the same approach used for the last seven decades.
This is why rapidly giving people real choices about the alternatives is so important. It’s the only way to improve the experience for everyone, including those who need to drive.
Having these choices becomes even more critical when we look to Auckland’s future. Within the next decade Auckland’s population is expected to reach 2 million and it could reach 2.5 million before 2050. If those new Aucklanders travel in the same ways existing Aucklanders do, the challenger of getting around Auckland will only get harder.
Options for increasing road capacity to cope with that growth – widening roads and buying houses – are more expensive, more disruptive and will be far more divisive than smartly and efficiently investing in bikes, buses and trains now.
Those alternative modes also have the benefit of providing choice for the “existing and future Aucklanders” the Mayor draws attention to. And what better way to serve future Aucklanders and build a legacy than by intervening to speed up delivery of the more sustainable options that give everyone a chance to decarbonise our transport system.
There are a few other aspects from this letter to highlight:
c) Ensure local boards are far more closely involved in decisions about the design and delivery of smaller-scale capital projects in their area and the provision of on-street and off-street parking. Unless there are overwhelming reasons otherwise, you should reflect the priorities of local communities in your approach to such projects and decisions.
Does improving safety count as an overwhelming reason? Because we can think of a few places where those overwhelming reasons are more important than a local board’s objections.
d) Focus first on getting better performance out of the existing transport network, before committing to major new infrastructure projects, through:
- Much greater use of IT to improve traffic flows.
- Fixing problematic segments of a road, before looking to construct entire new roads. Mill Road is an example of where this approach should be deployed, in collaboration with Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency.
- Prioritising road safety investment where it will deliver the greatest reduction in deaths and serious injury. Only road safety projects with a high Benefit Cost Ratio should proceed.
Most of this has been the focus for many years from successive councils and governments – and this is now the strategy for Mill Rd.
Let’s be clear: the Benefit Cost Ratio aren’t always the best indicator for whether a project should proceed, and should mainly be used to compare options within a project. However, road safety projects typically have some of the best BCRs out there.
For example, the safer speeds programme has probably had some the most negative media coverage – and yet it has a BCR of 12, i.e. for every dollar invested we get an economic benefit of $12 in return.
And the programme of cycleways that AT has been so slow to deliver has a BCR of 6.8, which is very high according to Waka Kotahi’s investment framework. By comparison, programmes like new road-building in greenfield areas scrape in with BCRs of just over 1.
f) Greater certainty and control around the cycling programme:
- As a pre-condition for ongoing cycle lane investment, work with Council, Waka Kotahi and all Aucklanders to clarify and communicate the rules governing the use of footpaths, cycle lanes, bus lanes and roads by pedestrians, cyclists, e-scooters, skateboards etc. For safety reasons, this initiative should begin, if possible, prior to Christmas, the summer holidays and the start of the new school year.
- Invest in cycle lanes only where the per-kilometre construction cost is on par with costs in other jurisdictions, nationally and internationally.
- Once again, understand and address the social and economic disruption of road reorganisation, including the cost of eliminating of kerbside town centre parking and vehicle pickup /delivery points.
The first point is waiting on the government’s decision around the Accessible Streets consultation from 2020.
We agree cycleways need to be delivered cheaper (and faster), and there are well-demonstrated ways to do this, from both overseas and here.
The reason “cycleways” cost more than the bare minimum – especially in Auckland – is because they are often scoped to include improvements to footpaths, lighting, planting, road safety, bus lanes and shelters, as well as rebuilding of underground infrastructure and road resurfacing, while also retaining on-street parking.
Many of these aspects are either needed or in response to demands from local communities. In other words, it’s not the cycleways that are expensive. And when a full carriageway rebuild is required anyway, to address failing infrastructure – as on Franklin Road, the Mayor’s beloved Karangahape Road, and upcoming Meola Road – then it’s a no-brainer to include quality cycleways in that process.
“Dig once” is the watchword for fiscal prudence.
One notable omission in Brown’s letter was anything about fixing the dire state of the public transport network. He also didn’t say anything about reducing emissions in our transport system – however, that was mentioned in a summary of his discussion with the Prime Minister the following day
The Mayor raised five immediate priorities with the Prime Minister:
- Transport Alignment: Ensuring that council and government transport policy is designed to make it easier to move around the city and that future plans are aligned, including taking into account the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with transport.
It seems the letter-writing approach is catching on. Returning Waitemata Councillor Mike Lee has already tried to use the Mayor’s letter to push for Auckland Transport to attempt to cancel some critical multi-modal projects that are just about to get under way, and that are good examples of how AT can progress its approach and do a better job for all Aucklanders:
This brought an immediate response from Waitematā ward councillor Mike Lee, who wrote to Brown requesting he instruct AT to put a hold on the programme of three cycling projects in Grey Lynn, Westmere and Pt Chevalier.
Last night, an AT spokesman said the leadership team and board have heard the call from the mayor to review its approach. They added it’s important to work closely and constructively with the mayor, councillors, Local Boards, and communities “on projects like these and we look forward to discussing them over the coming weeks”.
“We are committed to giving Aucklanders genuine choices about how they travel across our city, while ensuring our projects deliver value and avoid unnecessary costs and disruption to Aucklanders,” the spokesman said.
Lee told the Weekend Herald that “AT’s plans are horrendously expensive and causing a lot of angst and harm to local businesses, residents and even some cyclists”.
“The whole project is flawed and needs to be put on hold,” he said.
The projects include the much needed improvements to Great North Rd to improve safety and provide smoother runs for both motorists and bus passengers, and Meola Rd, which requires rebuilding as it’s constantly developing potholes from subsidence into former landfill and clogs with traffic and parking to the point that it becomes a one-way system at peak times.
These projects have already been through extensive community consultation, collaboration and design processes, repeatedly, with improvements and mitigations added at each point – including a “dig once” coup of bringing in Vector undergrounding the overhead wiring on Meola Road.
Like Karangahape Rd, Tamaki Drive and many other recent projects, these are better described as “streetscape improvements”, as they are designed to improve safety for everyone, including drivers and pedestrians (including thousands of school children along the routes), to improve public transport, to improve deliveries for local businesses with more and larger loading zones, and to add trees.
Lee’s opposition to the projects is simply not in sync with the public, who have shown clear support. And it’s easy to see why – everyone benefits.
AT is just about to start early works on these projects, and in the case of Meola Road, 34 mature trees have already been cut down in advance of the project. Do we really want to waste more time, money and community support on a redesign and even more consultation – or worse, stopping these projects all together?
Lee’s call to pause the projects has no happy ending. It would either:
- waste more time, money and community goodwill on a redesign, with yet more consultation – the antithesis of Mayor Brown’s wish for leaner and more effective transport planning. or
- stop the projects all together. Not only does this leave local communities with shoddy streets, it risks losing national funding from Auckland altogether.
Lee also clearly has no idea how much money is being milked from the cycling budget to pay for the rebuilding of the road base, upgrade basic infrastructure and to cover the project costs like TTM which will be required whenever these basic upgrade tasks are undertaken. We imagine that Brown won’t have a bar of shooting Auckland Council’s budget in the foot like this.
Where the Mayor could help is by encouraging the speediest possible delivery, reducing any “angst and harm” for everyone involved. The Mayor probably has some ideas about cutting delivery costs without having to send the projects back to redesign – we certainly do.
You also have to ask, what does Lee see as the alternative – to leave these streets as they are? Going by his own words, it seems unlikely the Mayor will be happy to lock Aucklanders into more of this:
Of course, the council has yet to convene as a whole, and letters from individual councillors are just early shots across the bow of a new Mayor who’s getting his feet under the desk and setting priorities.
Fortunately, the Mayor has a ton of resources at his disposal that will let him dig beyond headline-grabs to confirm what Aucklanders want now and in the future and give AT the courage to get on and deliver it smartly.
Huh, I wonder what the key priorities were that Aucklanders identified in consultation on the 2021 regional land transport plan.
I think AT does deeply understand how Aucklanders want to live, actually. pic.twitter.com/StwMzxgR0T
— Pàra (@cogtwitoergosum) October 19, 2022