Last week I had the chance to sit down with Auckland Transport’s new CEO, Dean Kimpton, and ask him some questions and I think there’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic for the future.
It was only Dean’s sixth day in the role so understandably he’s not going to be over all the details yet, but his understanding of the role – and many of the issues faced by both the organisation and the city – is invariably helped by his previous tenure as Auckland Council’s Chief Operating Officer, and more recently as the Chair of the Eastern Busway Alliance.
The impression I got from him that a large part of his focus will be on improving how AT serves the community and improving the experience people have in using the network. We’ll obviously have to wait to see just how that will actually manifest but it’s a good intention. As Todd Niall at Stuff reported last week, Dean uses the bus himself so hopefully that helps in his understanding.
We started our conversation talking about how AT (and council) often has very good strategies and plans but struggles when it comes to delivery. Delivery is of course always the hardest part, and Dean talked about how AT need to get better at it, especially when it comes to plans like the council’s Transport Emissions Reductions Pathway (TERP). I took it as a good sign that he raised the need for AT to deliver the TERP before I had got around to asking about it.
He also agreed with my assessment that AT’s current approach to the TERP is what I would describe as “Business As Uusual-plus”, and that it needs to change. By BAU-plus, I mean AT seems to hope to keep doing everything they’re doing now and only deliver the actions of the TERP as an optional add-on on if the council gives them more money for it. However, while some actions may require new sources of funding, a lot of progress towards the outcomes required by the TERP can be achieved by changing BAU – either changing processes to get better climate outcomes, or not doing some things on current plans.
An area AT needs to improve on, which I highlighted a few times throughout our conversation and with which Dean agreed, relates to strategic communication and tying that back to project delivery. We, as a society, have had many discussions and consultations over the years about various strategies like TERP. Consistently, most people support the idea of changes to our transport system with a greater focus on public transport and active modes – but then there’s very limited reference to that consensus when it comes to AT talking about individual projects.
As such, projects can often feel as if they were plucked out of thin air, leading to opposition or even the relitigating of the overarching strategic objectives. AT needs to be much better at explaining how individual projects work towards achieving the outcomes that Aucklanders have agreed are important.
As I highlighted in last week’s post, in the same Todd Niall piece mentioned earlier, Dean has said he wants ridership back to pre-Covid levels by the end of the year:
“The first step for us over the balance of this calendar year is to get from the 80 million to over 100 million trips, to get that, we’ve got to get drivers, we’ve got to get them trained, get the services back on and get it funded,” he said.
Getting back to 100 million trips by the end of 2023 whilst still dealing with the bus driver and ferry crew shortage – as well as the rail shutdowns – is clearly going to be a big challenge. However, to my mind it’s good to have a clear target, even if it’s one that may not be achieved.
As I said to Dean, I think far too often AT (and other public sector orgs) hide behind weak targets, or don’t share them at all. One example: AT has often set PT targets so low that they’re achieved within the first couple of months of a financial year. Another is Kiwirail’s network rebuild programme, where they regularly talk about how the work will make trains faster and more reliable but refuse to put any numbers behind just what that means – just how much faster and how much more reliable will the network be? – which makes it difficult to hold them accountable.
With the various challenges mentioned above, the makeup of how our PT network will almost certainly look different to what it did before Covid. I pointed out how we need to get more efficient use out of our bus fleet. For example, Vancouver’s bus fleet is only 20% larger than ours (1,627 buses vs 1,360 in Auckland) and yet they achieve nearly four times the ridership with it.
I’m sure there are a heap of ideas from people throughout the organisation for low cost improvements to routes (e.g. fixing the Outer Link) and for delivering bus priority to improve speeds and efficiency. I challenged Dean to get AT to dig these ideas up, put them together in a programme, and break through the layers of clay inside the organisation to help rapidly achieve that 100 million target.
I also pointed out the disconnect between how AT manages pricing for parking and public transport. For PT, the focus is revenue-based so even though ridership is down, fares have had to go up to cover that. Yet for parking, pricing is based on occupancy, and AT only puts up prices if demand is high. This has resulted in a perverse situation of parking prices being left unchanged while PT fares increase – thus working against AT’s goals to encourage more people using PT.
One early challenge Dean will have is managing the organisation through disruption. The day before he started in the job, the organisation announced a restructure which is all about trying to save money as a result of the council’s proposed budget cuts. At this stage, it’s not known who or how many people will be impacted (staff find out this week), and after that restructure is completed then potentially Dean’s own structural changes will take place. This period of uncertainty will undoubtedly have an impact on morale and delivery.
Finally, one thing that’s been obvious for many years is there’s a huge disconnect between how the media portray/public perceive AT and its work, and what AT actually does. Some in the media seem to suggest that all AT ever does is build cycleways to steal space from drivers. Yet AT has barely built any cycleways in the past few years. I did suggest that perhaps AT should just lean in to the perception and start just building them everywhere.
It is only early days, of course, but new leadership brings a glimmer of optimism that AT can grow into the organisation that we (as a city) need it to be.