This is a guest post by Heidi O’Callahan
Settle in for a long read. This post-and-a-half is too important to cut short.
The political will is consistent and clear: Auckland Council (“AC” or “Council”) has directed AT to implement the TERP.
The TERP follows the evidence, it is achievable, it will make our lives better.
And it starts with strong oversight, to release AT staff from “entrenched ways of working” and “organisational conservatism”.
Targets and Timeframes, Aspirations and Achievability
Unfortunately, at last month’s meeting, the directors used words so ambiguous that they have unwittingly withdrawn their commitment to the TERP.
Acting Board Chair Wayne Donnelly said, describing the TERP targets for 2030:
I acknowledge the discomfort with the Climate Plan and the TERP because the targets are clearly not going to be achievable in the timeframes that are talked about in those documents…
this resolution does talk about continuing to support TERP as a comprehensive pathway to the ambition of the Climate Plan. It doesn’t say we’re somehow blindly wedded to TERP […] timeframes
Acting Deputy Board Chair Mark Darrow talked of “adding some emphasis” to the resolutions, with a suggestion to change “AT continues to support the TERP” to
AT continues to support the aspiration of the TERP
He also brought up a data point about recent E-vehicle imports – implying this may mitigate the relaxing of timeframes for the TERP. (This was odd, given the TERP assumes very high E-vehicle uptake, and is clear that raising it any higher is impractical, placing too high an economic burden on households, and too high a demand on the electricity infrastructure).
But don’t panic, yet – the situation is still retrievable.
Here’s the thing. The targets and timeframes for climate action are set by science. They’re integral to the TERP, and non-negotiable.
Unless the Board commits AT to the targets and the timeframes, words like “endorsement” and “support” for the TERP are just greenwash.
This pivotal moment of organisational change is no time for faltering reluctance to follow the Council’s clear evidence-based direction. If the Board is not confident, due diligence could include commissioning a review by an international expert in decarbonisation. But the Board didn’t even question AT’s Head of Transport Sustainability, nor the Council Lead Transport Advisor, who were both present.
Why does this wording matter?
“Ambiguous direction” has often been AT staff’s excuse for failing to deliver on strategies that shift the status quo, followed by excuses like “emerging financial implications” and “competing objectives”, until finally the strategy is diluted, ignored or killed. The result: far too many Lost Opportunities for change.
This is not a theoretical debate. Lives are lost, time is lost, reputation and public trust are lost, and we fall further behind right when we could be leading the way.
Rueful, doubtful, unevidenced language like that used by Donnelly and Darrow is exactly how targets and timeframes become unachievable.
Where do these progress-scuttling myths come from?
The broad context at play is that Auckland Transport must transition from a failed planning paradigm to one that rises to our existential challenge.
This is good news: the new paradigm will produce a safe, affordable, low-carbon transport system that allows everyone to get around easily and in healthy ways. The old paradigm is what got us here and created the problems we are all keen to leave behind (congestion, low accessibility, air pollution, daily road trauma, widespread physical inactivity, poor public health, crippling transport costs… and looming over all of us, climate change).
Transitions are tricky, even when they’re so obviously necessary. And some staff find it hard to accept that skills, habits of thought and tools they have relied on for so long need to be put down, and new ones picked up, to accomplish what needs to be done.
For example, key staff at AT have resisted modernising their planning approach, because they genuinely believed that large-scale, short-term reductions in emissions could only be achieved by using road pricing so aggressive it would reduce well-being and equity — in other words, that cleaning our act up would somehow be bad for Auckland and Aucklanders.
Never mind that there is an international world of evidence showing otherwise. AT staff claimed they knew this, because they’d “modelled it” — using a model whose known limitations make it inappropriate to the task.
Fortunately, this ill-conceived argument against change didn’t survive the Council’s deep dive into the evidence. The TERP clarifies that the opposite is true:
Ultimately, the transition to a low-emissions and climate-resilient transport future is a pathway towards wellbeing for all Aucklanders. The actions presented in this document would mean more affordable transport choices; noticeably safer streets that promote independent travel for all ages and abilities; increased levels of healthy physical activity; improved air quality and reduced noise pollution; reduced congestion; and more effective use of limited public funds and road space leading to economic and social benefits.
Indeed, the TERP knocks down many of AT’s planning misapprehensions, and calls on AT to learn to do things differently, fast.
Yet, the AT staff in question still occupy the same positions, retain the same beliefs, and continue to spread the same myths to resist the same changes. And because these changes haven’t been made, the misinformation about “targets” and “timeframes” being “aspirational” and “unachievable” continues to spread.
Closer scrutiny by Board members – the wise minds tasked with exercising governance wisdom – is needed to support the TERP’s direction to “Supercharge Walking and Cycling”, in particular.
AT’s systemic aversion to investment in active modes is well-known. It’s not just seen in the frequent “restructuring” of the teams trying to make our streets better for walking and cycling. It’s starkly visible in the figures. AT consistently applies for much less walking and cycling funding, per capita, than the national average. And it delivers less walking and cycling infrastructure per capita as well.
This feeds a vicious cycle: because people are denied the opportunity to see that improvements can be delivered, a culture of “can’t do” develops. Because it’s so painful to try to get results but fail, repeatedly, champions inside and outside the organisation lose hope, and stop trying. The public and politicians lose confidence in AT, and (incorrectly) assume that systems change is inherently slow.
Why do people in positions of leadership revert to expressing doubts about TERP’s targets and timeframes? Is it because they prefer the apparent safety of incremental (but ineffective) change? Are they scared of stepping up to the challenge of transformative action, even if it will deliver a truly safe present and future?
December 2021: Council instructs AT to get on with early climate actions
Eight months before the TERP was formally adopted, Council gave AT the order to get on with some early delivery actions. This was a full 18 months ago.
Item iii, asking AT to fold walking and cycling improvements into all renewals and improvements happening on the strategic network, certainly didn’t happen. If it had, Auckland Transport’s approach would have changed immediately, enabling the delivery of healthier streets across the city.
Instead, AT defied the direction, and selectively paused key projects in this category — precisely because they involved safe cycling and micro-mobility infrastructure!
Item iv, ensuring a pipeline of shovel-ready walking and cycling projects ready to go as funding appeared, didn’t happen either. Case in point: what happened when funding became freed up from the cancelled walking and cycling harbour bridge?
The Minister of Transport expressly directed that some of the funding from the Northern Pathway should be diverted to advance Auckland Cycling Network projects.
Council’s “early delivery” instruction in late 2021 was perfect timing for reminding AT to pounce on this Northern Pathway funding to advance cycling projects. After all, a cross-agency group was being formed at the same time to prioritise projects for receiving this diverted funding.
And yet, a year later, while other projects that fulfilled the Minister’s requests had gained funding, none of them were “additional strategic priority investments in the Auckland cycle network”.
In other words, Cabinet directed that some of the half-billion dollars should go towards cycling in Auckland; Council directed AT to run towards any money that was going [for sustainable projects]; and AT failed to secure it. Did they even try? Or is it that the quality of their bid was not up to scratch?
Even after this, AT still didn’t ready itself to capitalise on other “funding injections”. For example, when the CERF fund opened, AT secured much less money per capita than other places, on average.
On the one hand, AT staff were claiming that Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri: Auckland’s Climate Plan:
does not demonstrate if or how the change in mode share can be achieved
And at the same time, they were sitting on their hands while targeted funding rained from the sky.
This is really bad for Auckland.
We are deprived of the improvements we have a right to expect – for what?
We are fearful, daily, for the lives of our family members – for whom?
August 2022: Council instructs AT to implement the TERP
The TERP was approved ten months ago, in August 2022, and directs AT to “allocate existing funding more effectively”. That means AT should stop doing things that are no longer in line with the strategic direction, and thus make financial room to start doing the new things that are.
So did they reallocate project funding accordingly? It appears not. AT’s finances would be far rosier today if they had, because many projects that are clearly misaligned with the TERP — e.g. those that require road widening — are typically expensive by nature. Just to give one example, hundreds of millions of dollars could have been released by pausing the Eastern Busway for a rethink and a redesign. This is an order of magnitude bigger than the cut to capital costs that AT has had to stomach with the Mayor’s budget.
Such decisions were possible immediately, as the TERP gave plenty of detail about the principles that should be followed:
With these principles in mind, a high-level assessment of how future decision making aligns with the TERP is possible, even before the creation of a more detailed Methodology
The following guidance certainly allowed AT to make some immediate decisions about accelerating or pausing projects:
[C]onsider the required relative change in trips for each mode as another indicator of where effort should be focussed.
What about the budget for planning itself? The TERP required the immediate development of a “prioritisation methodology”. This was a top priority because it was needed to inform all the upcoming planning processes:
[The TERP] provides direction that Auckland Council and Auckland Transport must incorporate into future Auckland Transport Alignment Project, Regional Land Transport Plan [RLTP] and Long-term Plan processes.
Instead, planning resource was directed towards a review of “the processes for and approach to development of” the RLTP. A review of this kind would only be worthwhile after planning for the TERP has been completed, and if its author does not hold the following beliefs:
investment in public transport and active modes… will simply not be attractive enough for most trips, in the Auckland context, to achieve the scale of change needed to reach the net zero target by 2050…. [and] once a dispersed city form is in place, the impact of infrastructure in shifting transport behaviour is limited
So, no, the planning budget was not redirected to the TERP. As a result, AT will now struggle to develop an RLTP 2024 that can deliver the needed level of emissions reduction. Who will take responsibility for this?
October 2022: AT announces a “change in direction”
After the local election, AT’s interim CEO Mark Lambert abandoned official direction and suddenly announced a “change in direction” which further delayed delivery of the TERP actions. While he may have imagined this is what the Mayor was asking AT to do in an initial letter (which was not official direction in any case), it was certainly not what the letter actually said.
A LGOIMA response hints at the extraordinary amount of time subsequently wasted on actively delaying TERP-aligned projects:
[C]orrespondence regarding the inner west street improvement projects between AT and AT board members, or among AT board members, in the period from 19 October 2022 to 28 February 2023 inclusive… Our search resulted in approximately 10,000 emails… There may or not be other correspondence which occurred via the private email address of board members, to which AT does not have access
2023: What AT told the Board about delivering the TERP
Bringing us back to this year: the Board’s recent discussion and decisions about AT’s progress delivering the TERP were centred on two papers by AT’s General Manager of Planning & Investment, Jenny Chetwynd.
The first of these was called Auckland Transport’s Response to the Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway, and was discussed in the closed session of the March AT Board meeting. In short, this paper:
- Presented a change in “operating context” as hindering the delivery of the TERP, thus asking the Board to “seek clarification from AC as to its expectations”.
- In reality, the changes mentioned are financial challenges, political expectations, and weather events. These are all excellent reasons to accelerate the delivery of the TERP. Are staff asking the Board to seek a chink in Council’s armour?
- Advocates for a pivot towards “recovery” of the current transport system.
- In reality, “recovery” preserves the system’s outsized contribution to Auckland’s emissions, whereas the TERP’s well-evidenced work presents a balanced pathway of transformation, involving both adaptation and emissions reduction.
- Sought “closer alignment of central and local government emissions targets”.
- In reality, the Council’s TERP targets are aligned with the science, and should set the pace and scale of change – whereas, the government’s ERP targets are based on advice that the High Court has acknowledged does not put “New Zealand on track to reduce domestic net emissions by 2030 as per the IPCC global pathways.”
- Stated that AT has not completed the TERP’s “prioritisation methodology” work and claims doing so is “not currently feasible”.
- In reality, having a methodology to assess and prioritise workstreams and deliverables is fundamental to the competent management of any organisation. This work should have been done soon after Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri: Auckland’s Climate Plan was passed in 2019. The TERP said it was needed “immediately”.
- Revealed that AT is waiting to see if its application to Waka Kotahi for $1.8m is successful before commencing work on developing a Vehicle km Travelled (VKT) reduction programme.
- In reality, this work should have started in 2014 when the Low Carbon Strategic Action Plan required AT to reduce VKT.
- Described AT’s initial approach to VKT reduction “through the levers available to AT”.
- In reality, it was curious that the critical levers AT has been resisting for years were not mentioned (examples in the bullet points below). Perhaps they are mentioned in the appendices — which were not provided with the Board papers — but an intention to adopt any one of these practices at scale would be significant, and likely to have been included in the summary paper:
- Widespread tactical road reallocation to cycle lanes,
- Shifting to “vision-led” planning instead of being tied to what the traffic model says, and
- Delivering a city-wide mosaic of low traffic neighbourhoods.
These papers confused the Board, and derailed productive discussion.
The paradigm shift we need still isn’t happening
At the May meeting, the CEO of Waka Kotahi (WK), Nicole Rosie (who sits on the AT Board) noted the implementation plan would not bear fruit any time soon:
What do we get for the first piece of that plan in terms of an emission reduction? I don’t think we really get anything. We get some plans, and get some information. So I think we just need to be really honest with Aucklanders about that. Because, the idea that we’re somehow achieving a reduction in emissions by doing a plan, is not true.
Rosie is right, and AT has left it too late to treat emissions reduction planning as a desk exercise.
Luckily, nimble sustainable planning allows for plans to be improved as they’re being developed. Experiments, practical trials, monitoring, data analysis, public demonstration and engagement can all be designed to inform the implementation plan, on the fly.
Within just a few months, a learn-as-you-go planning approach, which turns every assumption on its head, and is led as boldly as the crisis demands, can:
- Improve streetscapes, encouraging mode shift, and reducing VKT and emissions.
- Inform programmes about the timing and scale of change possible
- Inspire the public
Can AT produce a VKT Reduction Plan that doesn’t involve years of paperwork before delivering a single project? What can be done immediately to foster, elevate and seek out the skills needed to deliver at the pace required? Can the AT staff now skilled in innovation — via the Streets for People programme — be helping to guide this?
Those are the kinds of questions the Board should be asking.
Where to now?
AT has been dropping the ball on TERP again and again. This was never so clear as it was at last month’s Board meeting.
Who will catch it, and run?!
The AT Board should take a no-nonsense approach in its oversight of this all-encompassing change. There’s no call for accepting excuses or giving up 7 years in advance of the first major milestone.
CEO Dean Kimpton’s key task now is to assemble a leadership team with the competence, capability and experience to deliver a full transformation of our transport system. We have no more time or space for any nay-sayers and can’t-doers.
AT needs all the visionary, “yes-and” people it can find, and a Board ready to clear their path of any remaining barriers to swift success.