Once upon a time, our city dared to dream – and dared us all to dream, with the encouragement and examples of other cities just like ours – of what Auckland could be. If we slipped free of old shackles and bad habits. If we were creative, adaptive, and a little bit courageous.
Cast your minds back to 2014 – in retrospect, a halcyon time, full of optimism and ambition.
With another Mayor Brown at the helm, and an Urban Design Office at its heart, Auckland Council was inviting inspirational guests from around the world to share experiences of their cities, under the banner “Auckland Conversations”. It was also an invitation to the public, to help shape the vision of what this city could be.
One especially riveting guest was Janette Sadik-Khan (aka JSK), the then-Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation (aka NYC-DOT). You can read more about this era in her book, Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution.
In May 2014, she gave an electrifying presentation at the Aotea Centre on New York’s audacious and high-profile transformations of public space.
It was an exciting evening. From the floor, the queen of bike advocacy Barb Cuthbert got the ball rolling, challenging everyone to crack on with what would become Lightpath/ Te Ara i Whiti.
And from the stage, the then-chair of Auckland Transport, Dr Lester Levy, seized on the good vibes of the occasion to announce that what AT needed alongside its annual Statement of Intent (SOI) was a “Statement of Imagination”.
(SOIs are issued annually, with a three-year horizon. The SOIs covering the years 2011 – 2025 are all here.)
<>Lightpath was soon delivered, in less than a year from go to whoah, winning international attention (and prizes) and kicking off a burst of tangible progress that made Auckland the envy of other cities. What about those Statements of Imagination?
2014-2017: A call for courage
The first Statement of Imagination painted a picture of how Auckland might look in years to come. It’s pretty detailed; a shorter version of this vision made it into the 2015 Annual Report under the headline The Travel Experience in 2040.
Imagine that you are heading to your destination in Auckland for work, study, business or play and you can simply turn up at a train station, bus shelter or ferry terminal and go.
Imagine that your train station, bus shelter or ferry terminal has interesting and helpful options and utilities.
Imagine that your HOP card (actually loaded onto your smart phone) facilitates entry to a park and ride with expanded services and options or your bicycle parking shelter.
Imagine that your public transport travel time can be spent at work or leisure through HOP facilitated Wi-Fi internet connection.
Imagine that your train is modern, spacious, air conditioned and electric, reliable and punctual and in the event that there is unanticipated network problem that there are immediate, regular and helpful information updates, supplemented by alternative services where necessary.
Imagine that your bus is comfortable, clean, air conditioned, reliable and punctual and that a resilient real time system keeps you advised of any alterations due to unexpected traffic incidents or breakdowns.
Imagine that if you are not close to the rapid transit and frequent networks that there are regular and reliable local connector and feeder bus systems and other opportunities for the first and final leg of your journey.
Imagine that active transport (cycling and walking) have a wide and connected network of opportunity for you to choose this mode which is good for your personal health as well as the health of the network.
Imagine an integrated, rapid and frequent transport network system that allows people to flow freely across the Auckland region to stimulate economic productivity.
Imagine a growing regional economy supported by an integrated network of priority freight routes enabling goods and services to flow freely across Auckland and connect with its regional neighbours.
Imagine a public transport network where there are many more places in Auckland that you can choose to rely less on cars.
Imagine a traffic signal system in the Auckland region with the sensitivity and specificity to keep traffic flowing at all travel times.
Imagine a public transport system so effective that public transport trips into the city centre during peak times increases from 47% to 70%.
Imagine that the number of people living within walking distance of frequent public transport stops increases from 14% to 32%.
Imagine a greatly enhanced network of frequent unobstructed public transport options.
Imagine there are more shared spaces in the city and metropolitan centres which are safe and vibrant, attract visitors, stimulate increased retail sales and attract investment.
Imagine a time where it is no longer 20 trips being car or freight for every 1 public transport trip – a time when that ratio of 20:1 becomes 15:1 (or less) enabling fares to cover a higher proportion of costs, requiring less tax and ratepayer funding to support public transport.
Imagine international and domestic visitors being able to get to the city centre from Auckland airport on a fast, direct and frequent rapid transit service unobstructed by traffic congestion.
Imagine smart digital technology facilitating access to real time information as well as providing the platform for payment for a range of transport services.
Note the turn of phrase that follows this vision, because you’ll hear it again:
Is it possible in Auckland to translate this imagination to reality – yes it is. But, this will not happen if Auckland Transport keeps doing what has been done in the past and slavishly adheres to legacy thinking, decisions and projects.
And, achieving the vision requires more than just ditching old habits – we’re going to need new ones, plus courage.
The new paradigm needs to be primed with a sense of urgency, creative thinking and adaptive capacity. Courage to make decisions and pilot innovative ideas and technology that are necessary for progress but not necessarily supported by all segments of the population will be necessary.
2015-2018: All about alignment
A year later, the “imagine if” is all about alignment, setting the stage for ATAP, the Auckland Transport Alignment Project. We’re told it’s time for Auckland Council and Government to agree on a long term (30-year) plan and “a sense of priorities for transport in Auckland”.
The Statement of Imagination sets out two divergent possible futures:
Imagine if we do get alignment:
- We will not simply have a bigger Auckland, we will have a better Auckland
- Auckland will be seen as a globally attractive city to visit, invest in and live
- All of New Zealand will benefit as the Statistics New Zealand forecast reveals that in 30 years almost two-thirds of New Zealand’s total population growth will have occurred in Auckland
- Future growth will primarily be focussed in areas with spare network capacity and existing transport connections
- Major transport schemes will unlock growth and development potential
- Existing network extensions will connect to areas with major development potential
- Change and innovation in transport will be shaped by an interdependent set of social, economic, technological, cultural and environmental factors
- Advanced technology including but not limited to electric vehicles, highly responsive traffic signal and traffic management systems and parking sensor technology will become widespread
- Fully autonomous vehicles will become legalised and ubiquitous with a significant stream of benefits including diminished car ownership, reduced congestion, improved road productivity and transit safety
- Positive outcomes for the economy, safety, congestion, productivity, place-making, environmental and personal health and overall quality of life
- Sustainable and realistic funding giving certainty and leading to timely implementation.
Imagine if we do not get alignment:
- The value of the benefits of the investments already made to make Auckland a better place will be undermined
- Rapidly rising congestion will threaten Auckland’s economic productivity and competitiveness
- Reduced accessibility will make Auckland a relatively unattractive place to live in.
Once again, the vision is followed by a reality check: Can it be done? Yes, but only if…
It is possible for transport solutions in Auckland to keep pace with the significant forecasted population growth, but this will not happen if we collectively keep doing what has been done in the past. Alignment between Auckland Council and Government has the very real potential of uncoupling transport in Auckland from legacy thinking and decisions (including especially those decisions to take no action).
Once again, we’re told that it will require courage, and that the board and management will do their utmost to achieve it.
Fundamentally, the speed at which imagination unfolds into reality is dependent on realistic funding of both operational and capital requirements as well as strategic and implementation capacity. An alignment around transport in Auckland can create a new paradigm primed with a sense of urgency, creative thinking and adaptive capacity along with the courage to make decisions and pilot innovative ideas and technology that are necessary for progress but not necessarily supported by all segments of the population. Decisions will need to be consistently made that are in the best interests of the region – if we do not do this we will not be able to develop a transport network where access, frequency and reliability create truly meaningful freedom of choice.
The Auckland Transport Board and Management will do everything in its power to assist this critical process of alignment.
2016-2019: Imagine urgency, within budget
The clock ticks, the calendar flips. We’re another year closer to that initial 2040 horizon of imagination, and there’s been progress towards ATAP.
Now the Statement of Imagination adds two larger aims: “a sense of greater urgency” and “an enhanced emphasis on value-for-money decision-making“. Keep your eye on that second ball: a calculator has entered the imaginarium.
The two potential future paths are reiterated, but the vision is becoming overgrown by a thicket of jargon. It’s more of a challenge to visualise what this looks and feels like to the average person.
Imagine if we do get alignment, create a sense of urgency and engage in value-for-money decision making:
- We will not simply have a bigger Auckland, we will have a much better Auckland – and more quickly
- Auckland will be a globally attractive city to visit, invest and live in with positive outcomes for the economy, safety, place-making, the environment, personal health and overall quality of life
- Transport solutions will be context based, multi-modal and integrated with major transport schemes addressing congestion whilst simultaneously unlocking growth and development potential
- The implementation and uptake of emerging transport technologies and demand management will restrain the need for infrastructure
- All of New Zealand will benefit
Imagine if we are unable to reach alignment, create a sense of urgency and engage in value-for-money decision making:
- The value of the benefits of the investments already made or underway to make Auckland a better place will be undermined
- Already disquieting levels of congestion will worsen threatening Auckland’s liveability, economic productivity and competitiveness
- Reduced accessibility will make Auckland a less attractive place to live in
- All of New Zealand will be adversely impacted
Imagination seems to be bumping up against limits, and struggling to imagine how to move beyond them. We still need a “paradigm shift”, but now it’s “from thinking about modal solutions to solutions that provide the best value for money.”
Gone are phrases like “creative thinking and adaptive capacity”. Gone is the JSK spark that helped manifest Lightpath. Also missing from this statement of adjusted imagination: the ringing assertion that anything is possible as long as AT does things truly differently.
Still, while the task will be difficult, we’re told the top brass is up to the challenge:
Difficult decisions will need to be made based on value for money and being in the best interests of the region’s integrated transport system. The Auckland Transport Board and Management will do everything in its power to assist this critical process of alignment, urgency and value-for-money decision making.
2017-2020: Well, it was nice while it lasted
Alas, the Age of Imagination is over. The 2017 Statement of Intent no longer contains a Statement of Imagination, and nor do the two subsequent SOIs with introductions by Dr Levy.
A search for the word “imagination” tells us it’s “not found”. The word “climate” is also nowhere to be seen; a distant iceberg floating towards policies and plans. But the drumbeat of urgency is louder than ever.
There’s frustration at the “implausibly slow pace at which decisions on truly transformational change are made”. We’re told “not enough is being done fast enough”, that “decisions need to be made more quickly”.
The good news is AT is “ready to do much more, much more quickly”, indeed, within “3, 6 and 9 years, rather than the 10, 20, 30 outlined in the ATAP” – which will “create a runway for projects to commence as soon as possible.”
There’s a tone of urgent determination, as if saying things louder can make them happen sooner:
“Auckland Transport will be more aggressive than it has been previously in introducing many more bus lanes and giving a higher priority to cycling, walking and service vehicles.”
The introduction wraps with an assurance that Auckland is “on the cusp of transformational change”. (Were we?)
Perhaps the most poignant remnant of “imagination” in that 2017-2020 SOI is the mention of children as the reason to keep moving with urgency and commitment.
Projects such as mass transit to the airport, AMETI, Mill Road, and the North-Western Busway cannot wait until children currently at primary school have graduated university before they are delivered.
This was, after all, the period in which – thanks to unprecedented government support via the Urban Cycleway Fund – AT was set to complete its first neighbourhood cycleways. The plan was to expand the existing network while also laying a pathway for more connections in more areas, through the 2020s and beyond.
As well as playing their part to bust congestion, these street makeovers would also enable everyday trips to school, shops, parks, playgrounds. Child-friendly infrastructure, in other words – usable from day one.
In 2016, significant #Auckland inner western cycling improvements were funded through the Urban Cycleways Fund, with completion due by the end of 2018. It's now 2023 and some of these projects, such as Meola Road, have yet to get into construction. pic.twitter.com/4hFp3VhuiF
— Darren Davis (@DarrenDavis10) January 7, 2023
And yet, as we know, as of 2023 most of those projects are still being held on the launchpad.
The years in between have been full of public engagement, co-design with local communities and stakeholders to broaden the benefits. Growing interest in the fresh air modes, growing options (who imagined adults on scooters?) and growing calls to just get on with it.
Children who were still in primary school when the routes were first announced will finish high school this year. They may yet finish university before the projects are complete.
Of all the outcomes Auckland might have dreamed of, in that era of Imagination heralded by a fleet of tiny superheroes on a bright pink bike path – could any of us have pictured nearly a decade of delay and disappointment on this simple front?
Could there be a happier ending to this story? There could, and not just because a lower bar is easier to make the first hop over.
Many of the seeds planted in that era of imagination are now bearing fruit. Our city already looks different – and small transformations are coming to streets beyond the high-profile downtown ones that grab the headlines.
Pukekohe parklet… working well. pic.twitter.com/FefH6OyVe7
— Emily Reeves (@emilyrooves) December 29, 2022
Recall, too, that AT’s board and executive, under the guidance of Dr Levy, initiated the citywide safer speeds programme, which has begun to make a difference on the ground. In the coming months, many more 30km/h zones will roll out in neighbourhoods, and around many schools.
This is tangible progress. Infrastructure must surely follow.
— Werner Pretorius (@wernerp88) January 14, 2023
You could also make the case that over the years, those earnest annual Statements of Imagination have evolved and diversified into many more accessible and attractive forms – including visual explainers, like these recent examples:
Good storytelling like this is essential. It helps support and develop the public’s understanding of, and appetite for, action. At the same time, it does put the spotlight back onto AT’s “one job” – which is to tangibly transform our streets to deliver the healthier outcomes it tells us are possible.
So the challenge remains: how to shorten the lag between visionary words (or pictures) and action? How to restore courage and urgency to decisions and delivery?
As Rebecca Solnit wrote in The Guardian last week, we’re going to need better stories to tackle climate change. Stories that help change “how we think about pretty much everything: wealth, power, joy, time, space, nature, value, what constitutes a good life, what matters, how change itself happens.”
The current language of imagination from the city’s leaders is meteorological: a “storm” is coming, we face fiscal “head winds”, and so on. These metaphors couldn’t be better designed to evoke feelings of helplessness – but they also provoke an obvious response: how can we help? And what if the most powerful solutions are the ones we’ve been sitting on all this time?
We’re running out of time for talkfests. But we could revive our “Auckland conversations”. If not in auditoriums, at least with each other. In our neighbourhoods, workplaces, schools, local groups, online and in person, in letters to the paper, at public meetings, every chance we get.
And we can demand that today’s “statements of imagination” from leadership – in whatever form, whether letters or forewords or videos or memes, whether positive or negative – come bundled with steps for inspiration – real-world examples of what can be done, what is being done, right here, right now.
Because action leads to hope, rather than the other way around.
Nearly a decade ago, we were told that it was time to be creative and courageous. That we should act fast, and always take a multi-modal approach to bring best bang for buck.
That we coudn’t afford to double down on status quo thinking. That we had to start now, be nimble, and keep going in the direction of healthier streets that make room for all the ways we want to travel.
How about now: is now good?
I mean – what have we got to lose?
PS If you’re looking for inspiration for local conversations, here’s a fresh toolkit for discussions about street change, created by The Workshop. It chimes really well with what we know from decades of advocacy work, community organising, and storytelling on the ground.