Update: The AT Board approved this project! See nice write-up here by Simon Wilson. Onwards!
Tuesday 27 June is Groundhog Day for the Auckland Transport Board, which finds itself at a self-imposed crossroads on Great North Rd.
The Board can finally green-light the design it first approved for construction back in October 2021, after what has been an extraordinary process of delay.
Or, they can pull a last-minute switcheroo. Due entirely to the extraordinary delay, the Board is being asked to consider an unconsulted and watered-down design that sacrifices safety and trees to squeeze the budget and has come as a shock to the community.
Will AT snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and shortchange Aucklanders (and our children’s futures) yet again, by opting for the pennywise and pound-foolish path? Or will the Board choose wisely?
Wisdom is what Boards are for; directors are tasked with being “courageous, committed, and resilient” to create a “strong, fair and sustainable future.” Readers may recall the saga of the Pohutukawa 6, eight years ago, which was resolved at the last moment by the AT Board choosing to take the high road.
I’m hopeful that on Tuesday the Board will see sense amid discussion of dollars and cents. Here’s why.
In the case of Great North Rd, AT’s directors will be sailing into unsafe waters if they opt for the cheaper last-minute scheme. It doesn’t align with strategy, nor has it passed public consultation. And it will compound the unhappiness already caused by the delay, because it introduces new risks:
- The reduction in safety measures may not lead to the expected increase in volume of users because it won’t feel as safe.
- Requires a budget to be assigned for the entire monitoring period to allow for rapid remedial changes should safety be compromised.
- Communication of the project needs to clearly explain why we adopted this approach and not the full Vision Zero option.
- The interim design will not fully enable the uptake of users from the interested but concerned class (60% of people are in this category). Will cater primarily for the strong & fearless and enthused & confident classes (10-15% of population).
- May particularly impact uptake of school age children walking/cycling due to perception of reduced safety.
By contrast, the original full scheme passes all the tests of strategy and public consultation with flying colours – making it the careful, sagacious and conservative option.
Spoiler alert: Groundhog Day finishes with the gaining of wisdom, and putting things to rights.
How did we get here?
Great North Rd has been “coming soon” for almost a decade. Watching AT roll out local bike networks in the 21st Century has been like watching paint dry… in the tin, with the lid open and the brush stuck fast, as the temperature rises and hope evaporates.
It’s been dispiriting to witness this continued failure to launch while my children grew from primary schoolers into school-leavers. That’s a whole cohort of kids that could have safely biked to school – and could now safely bike to study and work – if only the infrastructure existed.
The only tiny glimmer of a silver lining is that while delivery has sputtered, other important things have firmed up. Like design standards for cycling infrastructure, and policy mandates and popular support for climate action and safer streets.
We now understand that “paint is not protection” for people on bikes, and that a car-only culture is fast driving us to an early grave. We now know that people will use alternatives as soon as they have them, and that change is not only possible, but necessary and increasingly welcome.
But these are just words on a page until there’s tangible, visible, usable proof that AT means what it says, about mode-shift, and Vision Zero, and “safe and easy journeys” for all. Making that a reality rests in the hands of AT’s leaders and delivery partners: the Board, the CEO, Council and Waka Kotahi.
Great North Road’s long road to this decision point
As covered here previously, the three Inner West projects, of which Great North Rd is one, were essentially shovel-ready last October when they were singled out for political reasons to be shunted back around various checkpoints.
This pause, and the bizarre process that followed, unleashed a flood of concern and support, including from all seven schools along the routes, and dozens of community groups, business associations and residents’ associations. It’s as close to unanimous as you’ll ever see for a transport project in a city. AT has kept a list.
December passed without a decision, and after the wettest and most disastrous summer in memory, the Board got back to business in February. Point Chevalier to Westmere project got the green light, with flood damage to repair Meola Road glaringly obvious. The Waitemata Safe Routes, a red light: AT hadn’t lined up funding for this critical central section, even with cash up for grabs from the cancelled Northern Pathway.
For Great North Road, the Board saw… orange, choosing to bounce it back to Council for one last definitely totally final sniff test. This was not without debate: one Council representative on the Board expressed concern about process, and other members saw red flags in keeping the community waiting.
Councillors were then invited on a site visit (some cycled the route), setting another precedent for AT projects. The Mayor biked along the footpath to test the idea, and was photographed where not long afterwards a bus shelter and tree were destroyed when a driver ran off the road.
Councillors sent in their feedback (initially anonymised by AT, re-released with names after objections). The majority of respondents supported the full scheme, noting the efficiencies of the project and seeing no reason for delay, while a couple asked if it could be done more cheaply.
Meanwhile, community groups and school parents presented to the Board and to Council’s Transport and Infrastructure committee, repeating the ongoing risks to children and people cycling, spelling out benefits of the project, and calling for speedier delivery of the promised work.
Now, after eight months of going round in circles, the Board is back exactly where it started: with a consulted scheme that’s ready to go and strongly supported. Such a waste of everyone’s time and effort. And all this time, AT has been working through its budgets to figure out what it could afford to build in the next year or so. (Cue ominous music…)
This should be a no-brainer
Great North Road is a good project. It makes a major corridor more efficient and safer for a growing number of residents and for everyone walking, biking, and catching the bus. It hits the marks for climate action, and takes an efficient “dig once” approach to install a swathe of welcome improvements.
Continuous bus lanes and new bus shelters. Protected bike lanes, with bypasses at key bus stops to reduce risk. Side-street crossings for pedestrian safety. More trees, street furniture, and lighting upgrades. Loading zone solutions to the longtime dangers of the “car truck party”.
The timing is impeccable: the bus and bike lanes will smoothly connect with the central city network, linking to Karangahape Road just in time to reap the benefits of the CRL opening. This is high-profile bang for buck: a major route high along the ridge, pouring travellers from the west into the city centre – so everyone will be able to see what a great job AT’s doing at hauling Auckland’s streets into the 21st century. And just in the nick of time, with climate change making itself felt.
And it cannot be repeated often enough that the consulted plan has drawn consensus from all quarters, including the Community-Led Vision group who’ve spent years evolving a shared vision for a greener, safer street, and pushing AT to think about place as well as access.
The project has become so multimodal over the years that it was folded into AT’s ambitious but discontinued Connected Communities programme, of which it is the only shovel-ready survivor. (This alone should be reason enough to deliver it; wouldn’t it be great to have one big win from the immense investment in that workstream?)
Amazingly, this is still all being 51% co-funded by Waka Kotahi… from the cycling budget. In other words, AT has lovingly loaded up a smallish funding plate with a whole panoply of goodies from the street design smorgasbord, going back for more, to create a dinner that feeds everyone. An amazing feat!
All that remains is for AT to carry this toweringly nutritious plate to the table without tripping over.
Cue circus music…
As one unhappy community member put it, after long years of careful planning, AT is suddenly suggesting “a cup of tea and some tim-tams now, the rest to be delivered 5 years later, if at all.”
The AT Board papers that went online last Wednesday contained a bombshell: a “staged” scheme, described as preferable to a “do-nothing option”, with “Stage 1” to be installed for a “three-year trial period”.
Is it better than nothing? Here’s what it involves:
- Reducing the number of safe side street crossings, from all locations, to the riskiest 9
- Downgrading the bike lane protection to “rubber separators”
- Replacing bus stop bypasses with “bus boarders” (aka biking on the footpath)
- Delaying upgrades to lighting and road surfaces (5 years away)
- Minimum number of trees for resource consent, no extra planting
AT staff have clearly signalled the risks of this diluted scheme:
Above all, this “cheaper” design is less safe for kids walking to school, people getting on and off buses, and people riding bikes – the very people it’s been designed to protect. Of the 23 locations along the way where turning traffic intersects with human beings, only 9 would be upgraded; the rest would remain dangerous for the foreseeable.
Also worrying: the suggestion of using cheap low-protection rubber/plastic separators, while noting this won’t deliver the full climate benefits originally advertised, because it won’t be as appealing. Given safe bike lanes are the basis for the funding, this is an incomprehensible switch.
While cheap tactical elements can be useful as temporary elements for trialling a new route or a layout, that moment has long passed on Great North Rd. The evamples below were installed in 2019 to protect trees from double-decker buses. They don’t look great. They also wouldn’t protect (for example) school children walking to the library from the kind of crash that crushed the bus stop in that photo of the Mayor.
Reading the papers closely, the price of this “affordable” option becomes even clearer. The cheaper scheme will need continuous monitoring (to see if crashes arise), plus budget for installing remedial fixes as and when they do (less “dig once”, more traffic cones and traffic management). A figure of $10m is mentioned, which might or might not materialise from the safety budget.
And there’s no guarantee the rest of the plan would ever appear: “a later Stage 2 may be implemented, subject to available funding, to complete the full scheme” – but with no confirmed timing or budget, this is wishful thinking.
Why is this cheap alternative even being considered?
Because AT’s budget review, undertaken while the Board was meandering through its uniquely circuitous process, has concluded that AT wouldn’t be able to cover its share of the cost of Great North Road. In other words, with one thumb on the pause button, and assuring the community that all is in hand, AT has patted its pockets and come up short.
How short? Around $6m, going by this document… (but note the last line on the final slide mentions a tantalising 30%+ savings on all options if parts are delivered via the maintenance contract).
It’s interesting, what and who becomes “unaffordable” when it comes to the crunch, especially with weather events putting pressure on the budget.
Looking at the other papers the Board will be discussing on Tuesday, you can see that the budget cuts are deepest, both percentage-wise, and numbers-wise, for Cycling and Corridor Improvements: practical mode-shift projects like Great North Rd that reduce emissions by making it easier to bike or bus.
It’s telling that, in a climate emergency, “committed” and “critical path” projects remain committed and critical, while the organisation suddenly becomes noncommittal about long-planned projects that give people alternatives to driving. These cuts start to look like self-harm, except they harm all of us.
What will happen on Tuesday, and will this whole palaver have been worth it?
The board has a lot on its plate on Tuesday, with just 20 minutes allocated for this decision.
One way perhaps to focus the discussion – leaving aside the pointless delays, the community pleas for the full scheme, the painful irony of climate-forward projects being watered down by climate events, and a dig-once project being painfully rescoped as a dig-many-times-and-cross-fingers-nobody-gets-hurt project…
… is to just look at the numbers, knowing all that’s been invested in this project so far, staff time, design work, community hours by the hundreds to reach a point of consensus and delivery. And ask, is it worth it to blow that all up for a cheaper scheme that will please nobody?
Where is the wisdom in saving $6m in upfront costs while extrapolating projected remedial costs of almost twice that… without delivering the safety and mode shift the whole thing was set up to provide, let alone the green and lovely streetscape that got the community in behind this project.
By the way, $6m is less than half the statistical value of one human life in Aotearoa.
A small sum, a huge gamble. Time for a wise call.