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The Trouble with Auckland Transport

Why is there such a gulf between Auckland Transport’s talk and its action?

The Trouble with Auckland Transport

Apr 29, 2022 Transport

Applause rippled around the room as Auckland’s councillors passed their climate change plan, Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri, in July 2020. It was meant to be the moment everything changed. “We’re going to have to reshape how we do our business here at Auckland Council,” said North Shore councillor Chris Darby. “We can’t do it like the City Rail Link, which took 94 years. This is out of the blocks and at it right now. Today.”

Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri commits every council department to significant climate action, but the most extensive changes are meant to come in transport, which accounts for 43.6% of the city’s emissions. It demands a 64% drop in vehicle emissions by 2030, achieved through huge increases in trips taken by bikes and public transport. Before the vote, Waitākere councillor Shane Henderson was clear he saw those changes as existentially critical: “Heading off the apocalypse,” he said, “is no small feat.”

A few months later, transport advocate Matt Lowrie was one of a group of people invited to a meeting at Auckland Transport (AT), the council-controlled organisation responsible for delivering that transport transformation. It wanted their input on how it was carrying out its business cases for cycling projects. Lowrie asked how any changes would fit with Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri’s targets. The AT staffer he was dealing with looked at him quizzically. “Oh, what plan’s that?” the staffer said.

The exchange reinforced suspicions transport advocates have long harboured about AT’s approach to its own plans. Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri is one of a litany of progressive strategies touted by the organisation. The City Centre Masterplan and Access for Everyone convey the vision of an accessible downtown, where pedestrians and cyclists come first, and the Wai Horotiu Queen St valley is transformed into a zero-carbon area. Vision Zero targets a 60% reduction in road deaths by 2027. Future Connect and Connected Communities prescribe a city linked by dedicated public transit lanes and cycleways along arterial roads. If implemented, these plans would transform Auckland into something more like the multi-modal cities of Europe and Asia.

But those strategies don’t always appear to have much bearing on AT’s actions, and the gulf between what it says and does is often cavernous. Auckland’s emissions rose 2.5% between 2016 and 2018, and council staff say that trend is continuing. Over summer, passengers watched forlornly from crowded stops as over-full buses trundled past. Despite its talk about creating a transit-oriented city, AT had opted to operate reduced services for all of January. While bus customers lament irregular and expensive services, cyclists complain about the city’s stubbornly non-existent safe cycling network. Their appeals to the goals of Vision Zero and Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri have regularly fallen on deaf ears. In just the past 18 months, AT has proposed or approved safety upgrades to the Royal Oak roundabout, Ash and Rata Sts, Swanson Rd, and St Heliers village with no provision for protected bike paths. In Mt Albert, it’s gone one step further and actually put forward the option of dismantling existing protected bike lanes through the town centre, as part of consultation on its Connected Communities plan.

This half-hearted approach to safety hasn’t aided the organisation’s progress on Vision Zero. Auckland road deaths rose 121% in the year to September 2021, with 62 people killed, compared to 28 in the same period in 2020. Cyclist Warrick Jones, 50, was among the dead, mowed down by a truck on the corner of Lake Rd and Montgomery Ave in Belmont — a black spot identified as a top priority for new cycle facilities under Future Connect.

These complaints are linked by a common thread: AT’s reluctance to take road space away from cars and use it for dedicated cycling and public transport lanes. Shane Henderson sees AT’s reticence to do that work as part of a pattern of organisational paralysis. “Auckland Transport is basically big boast, small roast,” he says. “They’re good at press releases and strategies and action plans. But actually, on the ground, so many things don’t happen. We’re fiddling while Rome burns.”

 

In an effort to understand AT’s apparent ambivalence, or even obliviousness, toward its own strategies, Metro has interviewed 10 of its current and former staff, as well as politicians and advocates who work closely with the organisation. Most sources asked to remain anonymous out of fear for their career prospects in Aotearoa’s small transport industry, but together they paint a picture of an organisation plagued by moribund leadership, a male-dominated, sometimes toxic culture, and a perverse incentive system that rewards inactivity and punishes ambition. In their eyes, car-centrism and conservatism are ingrained at AT, both in its personnel and the systems that govern its actions.

AT disputes that assessment. Its chief executive since 2017, Shane Ellison, says the organisation is turning around decades of underinvestment in cycling and public transport and is often hampered in its task by budget shortages and political criticism. Rather than pointing to internal issues, he says AT is more often slowed by a sometimes “torturous” funding system which sees staff spending large amounts of time and resource wrangling with Waka Kotahi. “I know there are those that say there’s a nice sweet spot where we can achieve safety outcomes, climate change outcomes, and more; where you can, ideally, put together a transport system that meets all those objectives,” he says. “But that’s not always possible, particularly when you’re also in a budget-constrained environment where you’ve got to deliver value for money. There are times when you can, I don’t dispute that, but there are times when we have to make trade-offs.”

AT staff and contractors contacted by Metro say those trade-offs are made too easily and regularly. According to them, the problems at AT start just below the top of its 1800-strong workforce, with a layer of executives — tier-two and tier-three managers in business speak — who are ignoring, and in some cases undermining, its stated agenda. “If an admiral has a new strategy but the captains of the fleet prefer the previous one and just command their vessels as they always have, does that admiral have a strategy at all?” says one transport planner. “Your mid-tier, level three and four, drive the culture of your organisation, and if they are still basically just enacting the previous strategy, your strategic documents will remain pretty words on a page.”

These managers are often described as a “layer of clay” obstructing progress. Sources inside AT say junior employees regularly put forward ambitious plans that meet strategic goals, only to see them suffer a “death by a thousand cuts” as they filter through the strata of management. “You’re working with middle managers, line managers, and executives. At each stage, the strategy gets watered down,” says an AT contractor. Barbara Cuthbert, who served as chair of Bike Auckland for 10 years, says she’s seen a succession of talented staff arrive at AT, only to get demoralised and leave after battling its obstructive processes. “There’s good people there but the systems are never there to support them,” she says. “The systems are there to create burnout.”

AT has been accused of cultivating that organisational inertia. A transport planner says it has a “perverse incentive structure” where ambitious employees are sidelined or dismissed and those who don’t upset the status quo are rewarded with lengthy and well-paid tenure. One staffing move comes in for particular criticism: a 2018 restructure which disbanded AT’s dedicated cycling team, then led by the respected urban mobility manager Kathryn King. The restructure was billed as ‘Project Enable’ but was quickly branded ‘Project Disable’ in parts of the organisation. Progress on cycling has slowed considerably in its wake. AT went from a target of 16 km of new cycleways in 2016–17 to just 4 km in 2020–21.

In 2018, Ellison said the restructure was aimed at embedding cycling across the organisation. He still defends it, arguing Covid-induced funding shortfalls are really responsible for cycling’s regression. But a council planner says getting rid of cycling ‘champions’ has been disastrous. “It’s half the reason for the mess that’s been the last five years,” he says. “It’s always difficult to do anything and so therefore you need passionate, dedicated teams to smash their way through overly difficult processes. And when you get rid of that team, that just makes it almost insurmountable to do the right thing.”

In the absence of those champions, AT sources say, conservatism reigns, especially in upper management. Some blame that on a mix of self-preservation and inexperience. Only four of AT’s 10-strong executive have transport qualifications, with several posts filled by communications staff or public service veterans. “[Transport’s] not rocket science,” says one former AT contractor. “Just make sure you provide staff with the right vision and priorities. None of them do that because nobody’s done any transport. They’re career bureaucrats making sure they have good pay and a good position.”

They’re also predominantly Pākehā, male and, according to public salary data, rich. Figures released under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act show that as of July 2021, 66% of top executives, 73% of senior managers and 67% of mid-level managers in AT’s technical transport and planning divisions were men. Though 19% of those staff declined to declare an ethnicity, 38% of senior managers and 24% of mid-level managers identified as New Zealand European. No senior managers in those divisions identified as Māori or Pasifika. “The culture is male dominated,” says an AT contractor. “Many women I work next to feel quite invisible, like they don’t matter.”

Several staff say that lack of diversity means most managers are dislocated from how less-privileged Aucklanders experience the city’s transport system. Research carried out by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency shows women drive less than men on average. They are also more prone to travelling crosstown and making multiple stops when they take public transport. Most managers don’t understand the resulting needs, and several have spent their whole careers in organisations devoted to building motorways, one former staff member says. “Car brain dominates in that part of the organisation. Largely the leadership team at AT looks at the world through the windscreen of a car, with the perception of a car driver.”

Sir Bob Harvey says when he was chair of Waterfront Auckland between 2010 and 2016, he purposely left AT out of discussions about redeveloping Wynyard Quarter. He felt he was “banging his head against bloody brick walls” during two years of negotiations to get a bus service linking Wynyard with the rest of Auckland. AT “have taken old ideas and made them worse”, he says. “They are a total homage to the God of cars. They sacrifice us on the altar of cars.”

Apologies to Richard Scarry

Ellison rejects the idea AT isn’t diverse enough and doesn’t understand everyday Aucklanders. He points out that representation has improved during his tenure, with women now making up 32% of the organisation’s senior leadership team. “There’s a lot of ideology out there, but there are big shifts going on.” He bristles at the suggestion women should already make up 50% of senior management. “The only way you get to 50% is, ‘We’re just going to sack a whole lot of people and replace them with women.’ Well, that’s completely irresponsible.”

Most AT sources attribute what they see as management’s passivity to apathy or incompetence rather than malice. But Hamish Bunn, a group manager in the planning team, was repeatedly described as an impediment to efforts to meaningfully expand pedestrian and safe cycling infrastructure. One AT contractor recounts Bunn’s sceptical response to the idea that AT desperately needs to invest more in safe walking facilities on equity grounds. “His response was like, ‘Who walks anyway? Who uses walking as a transport mode?’,” the contractor recalls. “Questions like that really make me like, ‘Oh my God, how foolish can you be to not know people have to walk to their bus?’ Walking is a legitimate mode that’s often the only mode people can afford.” The contractor says they also heard Bunn telling a team member to sprinkle a presentation to the AT board with words like sustainability and climate change, as that’s what the board members would like to hear. One senior transport planner, a woman, says Bunn told her not to speak during a virtual meeting with Waka Kotahi officials by going behind the screen and motioning for her to stop talking. “I am a senior professional with international experience and I led the work. So that was very poor authoritative behaviour,” she says. “He was the only person who spoke even though he didn’t do any of the work.”

Metro emailed these allegations to Bunn, who referred them to AT’s media team. In an emailed statement on March 7, Ellison said it’s inappropriate for him to comment on “piecemeal, unsubstantiated, unattributed and out-of-context allegations against any of our staff”.

Bunn is one of the principal architects of the Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP), the most important strategy document in AT’s arsenal and one that stands in stark contrast to the others. The plan, which sets out AT’s transport investment programme for the next decade, prescribes a 1% reduction in transport emissions and a 22% increase in the city’s vehicle kilometres travelled between 2016 and 2031 — figures transport advocates and several councillors argue are incompatible with Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri’s commitment to a 64% reduction in emissions and 12% reduction in vehicle kilometres travelled by 2030. The gap between the RLTP and Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri is so great, it has inspired the transport coalition All Aboard Aotearoa to sue AT and the council for allegedly breaching their own climate commitments. The group’s statement of claim to the High Court highlights a series of what it calls “demonstrably wrong” statements from Bunn, including the assertion that highway projects such as the Mill Rd highway and Penlink will actually help curb climate change by easing congestion, and that reallocating road space to cycling and other sustainable transport on its own won’t be effective because any climate benefits would be offset by the emissions from extra congestion.

All Aboard Aotearoa says those statements and several others conflict with mountains of international evidence and amount to incorrect advice. It has sought expert testimony from Todd Litman, a co-founder of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Canada, whose affidavit to the court says Bunn’s claims about road space reallocation are inaccurate. Litman cites studies from the European Commission and others that show reallocating road space to bikes and public transport leads not only to better safety and climate-change outcomes, but also to lower congestion through a process known as ‘traffic evaporation’. He is equally unimpressed with the idea new motorways can lower emissions, arguing any benefits are eroded in the longer term as the new infrastructure encourages more people to drive and embeds driving as a preferred transport mode. This extensively studied phenomenon is known as ‘induced demand’.

Bunn has given an affidavit denying his advice was incorrect, and AT’s board and its planning chief Jenny Chetwynd are backing him in court. But some of his points seem to fit uncomfortably even with statements from other parts of AT. Ellison himself acknowledges large-scale road reallocation has to take place if the organisation is going to meet its climate goals, and says a new RLTP may be necessary within the next three years. Even if it doesn’t reflect AT’s long-term position, Bunn’s advice is still useful as an illustration of how seemingly objective systems can skew the organisation’s decisions in favour of the status quo. He cites traffic modelling data to justify his claim that the Mill Rd and Penlink highway projects will help address climate change. One AT employee says these sorts of head-scratching conclusions are at the heart of many regressive decisions and are mainly caused by models’ inability to properly account for potential behaviour change. He points to modelling done on the impact of devoting a lane on the Auckland Harbour Bridge to cyclists and pedestrians, which bizarrely projects the move will increase carbon emissions because, it assumes, many current commuters will use the harbour crossing on State Highway 18 at Hobsonville instead. “The model projects the past into the future,” the staffer says. “It assumes everyone who used to travel in a car will continue to do so. Actually, you need to build for the city you want. More motorways mean more car dependency.”

Green MP Julie Anne Genter, associate transport minister in the 2017–20 government, says these seemingly mundane traffic assessments, carried out in interminable business-case processes, are where much of the damage is done to strategies like Vision Zero and Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri. “There are models that are often black box and are used to identify the highest-priority projects and they consistently prioritise level of service for car drivers,” she says. “These strategies die in spreadsheets.”

They also die at Tuesday-night town hall meetings, where angry ratepayers berate transport officials. Without in-house champions resolutely committed to defending its strategies, AT has developed a habit of caving in on ambitious projects at the first sign of community opposition. In St Heliers, it scaled back a safety upgrade after an uprising over the loss of 40 car parks. Despite a unanimous 2018 council resolution to pedestrianise Queen St, it has capitulated repeatedly to business owners calling for the retention of car space and on-street parking. Over three years, it’s got as far as dotting the northern third of the street with pot plants. A plan for safe cycling through Grey Lynn has spent four years in a maze of business cases and redesigns following local activist Lisa Prager’s sledgehammer attack on a cycleway. The project is undergoing one last consultation and construction is scheduled to start mid-year.

At a recent AT board meeting, the organisation’s communications director, Wally Thomas, gave a clue as to why these compromises are made, telling board member Kylie Clegg — in response to a question about the Royal Oak roundabout safety upgrade — that feedback from groups such as Bike Auckland is often weighted lower than feedback from the local community. Ellison says AT needs a community mandate for its work, and he’s mindful of the pressure to win that support. “We do get significant criticism from the council for not taking Aucklanders on the journey. Publicly criticised,” he says. It’s true AT hasn’t always been supported by politicians. Mayor Phil Goff in particular has been an unreliable ally. He recently scolded AT staff over a proposal to remove car parks on arterial roads, telling them they’d be seen as “bloody arrogant”.

But transport advocates say capitulating to community feedback has ironically resulted in designs which don’t serve the community, and in some cases put it at risk. In early March, a cyclist was killed by a van in Royal Oak on the approach to the roundabout where AT disregarded Bike Auckland’s pleas for safe cycling facilities in an effort to prioritise community feedback.

Those community members with time to submit on council projects are generally older, whiter and more conservative than the general population. The University of Auckland’s Inclusive Streetscapes team interviewed 62 disabled or bodily-diverse people in a 2020 study and found their needs are routinely ignored by local authorities. People with young families or heavy work commitments are unlikely to have time to engage with AT. And when councils commission polling, it generally shows strong support for cycling and pedestrian investment. “The fear of the backlash is not evidence-based,” a former AT staffer says. “It’s based on people listening to a small number of really noisy individuals. But rather than doubling down on how we do better, they put a total pause on work and that means the staff lose confidence and the public loses confidence.”

A transport planner says AT is occupying the worst of both worlds — asserting its independence from progressive council plans on the one hand and caving to regressive feedback on the other. He wants it to focus on following evidence rather than trying to divine community will from small consultations. “I just want them to be good bureaucrats,” the planner says. “I don’t want them to have to be edgelords of the energy transition. Or stormtroopers of the new world. They just need to be good, solid technocrats.”

In the eyes of AT’s critics, all these issues stem from failures of leadership. Paul Winton, a PhD in engineering and founder of the climate-change-focused 1Point5 Project, has presented to AT’s board, calling on it to explicitly embed Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri’s targets in its statement of intent outlining what AT is obliged to deliver to the council. It has so far rejected the plea. “The fish rots from the head and the head of these organisations is the board,” he says. “They should have made these climate targets very clear to the chief executive. But he was presumably not given that explicit message, and therefore has allowed the continuity of a management team that simply doesn’t know what it’s doing in terms of transforming to this new transport future.”

In fact, instead of acting decisively to meet the council’s climate goals, AT is trying to water them down. High-level employees at both council and AT say AT is calling on councillors to reduce its obligations under Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri, including its call for 24.5% of trips to be by public transport by 2030. A source says board chair Adrienne Young-Cooper is arguing some of the plan’s targets are unworkable. “The mindset is to find reasons why they can’t do things, not to find ways they can,” the source says.

Winton and others say that lack of accountability plagues AT at all levels; there are no consequences for not meeting the targets in strategies on time, or punishments for not achieving enough. Says a senior AT employee: “If I was to do one thing, it would be to give the tier-two and tier-three managers clear incentives for making change”, but currently “they won’t get more money if they meet targets. They won’t get rewarded. In fact, it will make their lives harder. So why do it?”

Others are more harsh: they think Ellison should fire people. “It seems he couldn’t do the one thing that a CEO must do, which is execute,” says a transport executive. “He could never execute anyone. No one fired, no one gone.” Lowrie echoes the same point: “I would get rid of a lot of people. There needs to be some change in positions and some of that will be in senior leadership.”

Ellison resists these calls, saying they’re “nonsense” and come from people who don’t understand AT’s executive. It’s the only point in the interview where he seems agitated. “How many of these people work in the executive? They don’t know how the executive operates,” he says. Ellison insists his senior leadership team are judged on what they’re doing to address climate change, safety and Vision Zero. He’s adamant they’re passionate about change, and that he doesn’t need to issue ultimatums to boost that passion. “One of the criticisms about the culture when I took it over the organisation was that it was too hierarchical and people couldn’t think for themselves. Can you imagine what happens if I just start issuing directives? It just drives us back to that situation where people don’t think for themselves.”

At the moment, AT is certainly thinking for itself. One former AT employee describes being laughed at inside the organisation for trying to take on feedback from local boards. Even Shane Henderson and fellow city councillor Richard Hills say they often feel as though they have little influence on the ‘council-controlled’ organisation. “You feel powerless, even as a ward councillor,” says Henderson. “And when I was on the [Henderson-Massey] Local Board, I felt extremely powerless. I think that residents think, justifiably, that we have more influence than we do, when we don’t have as much as we should do.”

A meaningful chance at change is coming. Ellison is stepping down in June. At the moment, some are whispering that he’ll likely be replaced by Tommy Parker, an AT board member and project director on Auckland Light Rail who once opened a new motorway with the line, “You can’t beat the smell of fresh tarmac, can you?” Parker’s seen as the continuity candidate — a safe pair of hands. But the next chief executive will take over what Ellison calls a “city in transition”. They’ll find an organisation in transition as well, behind on just about all its major targets and facing increasing pressure to reorient Auckland’s entire transport away from roads and cars in response to the threat of climate change. They’ll have to deal with staff many believe are hostile or ambivalent to that transformation, and a city divided on whether it’s even necessary. It’s hard to know who’s equipped to deal with those myriad challenges. But those who work closely with AT are united on one thing: the last thing the organisation needs is more of the same.

This column was published in Metro 434.
Available here in print and pdf.

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