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AucklandDecember 3, 2017

The extraordinary incompetence of Auckland Transport

lg and pb garnet

Auckland Transport is busily wrecking the suburbs of the city’s inner west. Simon Wilson takes a good hard look at the plans – and at the protests about those plans.

Just look at what Auckland Transport has done to the West Lynn shops.

  • A new bus stop sits right in front of a pedestrian crossing, so that drivers of cars going past a stationary bus can’t see the whole crossing and pedestrians wanting to cross can’t see if any cars are coming. And if any cars do come, they will have crossed the centre line to get past the bus.
  • A new asphalt slope outside one group of shops causes those shops to flood each time it rains.
  • Drains on the other side of the road don’t work well enough.
  • A cycleway runs down outside a line of parallel-parked cars, so the cyclists have to run a gauntlet of opening car doors – and in a shopping village car doors get opened all the time.
  • A cycleway on the other side of the road weaves in front of and at a lower level than rows of angle-parked cars.

All this has been done in the name of 1) improving safety, 2) creating good cycleways, 3) giving more atmosphere and life to the shopping village.

The new West Lynn bus stop with pedestrian crossing just beyond. With a bus at the stop, drivers attempting to pass cannot see the whole crossing and people at the crossing cannot see if a car is coming. (All photos Simon Wilson)

It’s tempting to think the urban designers and roading engineers and construction workers at AT simply do not know how to do their jobs. I’ve said as much myself. But is it credible? Does AT really not know how to channel ordinary flows of rainwater? Not appreciate what it’s like to ride a bicycle? Not grasp the basics of making a safe pedestrian crossing?

Yes, AT has been incompetent in West Lynn, but the problem, surely, is not at the construction level. Builders make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. Not just builders, but designers, engineers, supervisors on the job and managers back in the office. Communications staff who are supposed to be aware of the optics and good at keeping everybody talking.

But the problem here is not, fundamentally, to do with any of them. The measure of an organisation is how it manages its mistakes. How well it identifies them, fixes them, learns from them and improves the organisation by putting the lessons to good use. And the responsibility for all that goes to the top.

On the evidence of West Lynn, Auckland Transport is blighted by systemic incompetence.

If your organisation has declared it will prioritise safety, how is it possible that you then build a dangerous pedestrian crossing? How, during the processes of design, consultation, approvals and construction, does no one say, we can’t do this? Or, more likely, how is it that when people did say we can’t do this, they were not listened to?

Thank god they’re not flying planes.

The new slope in West Lynn that floods the shops.

West Lynn suggests Auckland Transport is systemically incompetent. That doesn’t mean everything it does is wrong: patently, it knows how to design and build all sorts of transport infrastructure. Some of it, including some of the cycling work, is very good. Being systemically incompetent means that when mistakes happen, the organisation cannot recognise those mistakes while they are being made or, when it does recognise them, it does not fix them and does not know how to.

It means that once the organisation gets itself on a track to calamity it cannot get itself off.

The proposition is this: Auckland Transport does not support, expect, demand, that its staff gets things right. It’s not just that it has some incompetent people. It’s that the culture of the organisation, from the top down, supports incompetence.

So, is that true?

Westmere and Grey Lynn protesters Lisa Prager (left ) and Penny Bright.

The absurdly unfortunate problems in West Lynn

The complaints about West Lynn are wider than those outlined above. They also include:

  • Excessive disruption to trading during the construction period.
  • Eight carparks lost, including the angle parking outside the anchor shop, Harvest by Huckleberry.
  • Bus stops installed in front of a dairy and a liquor store, both convenience stores that say their customers need casual parking right outside.
  • No planting to help beautify the village.
  • No other design features to help beautify the village and make it more pedestrian friendly.
  • Footpaths laid with ugly asphalt instead of the more aesthetically pleasing concrete.
  • In the entire process, grossly inadequate consultation.

I’ve written in detail about these proposals and what might be done about them here and here.

Meanwhile, Auckland Transport is also rolling out a whole lot more “traffic calming” measures, along with new cycleways, on main roads in the rest of Grey Lynn and in Westmere, Western Springs and Pt Chevalier.

The affected streets used to be tram routes. Surrey Crescent, Old Mill Road, Garnet Road, Great North Road and Pt Chevalier Road are so wide, you might think it would be almost impossible not to accommodate the desires of car drivers, buses and their passengers, cyclists, pedestrians, residents, shopkeepers, tree lovers and everyone else.

You might think, in fact, that those streets provide the perfect canvas on which AT can demonstrate the appeal of its strategic plans for the suburbs. Which is, or should be, multifaceted. To create a pleasant, inviting and safe environment for people wanting to shop, hang out in cafes and enjoy the public spaces. A green environment through which the traffic moves smoothly. A place where people are rewardingly engaged with the council and its agencies, value the consultation and are proud of what they made together.

Instead, in that wider suburban area, AT has done this:

  • Laid asphalt cycleways through the berms, because the roadway itself is “not wide enough”.
  • Dug up trees on the berms to make way for the cycleway: 18 trees have gone so far, many of them reasonably mature.
  • Done almost nothing to beautify the streets or enhance the shopping or make better public spaces.
  • Removed carparks for residents and retail.
The new cycleway on Old Mill Road has been put along the middle of the berm. Two cars in this photo are parked over the cycleway.

The routing of the new cycleways through the berms is especially egregious. The streets have lost grass and trees to asphalt while the wide carriageway remains underused. Residents park their cars on the driveways across the berm, blocking the route. Anyone riding faster than a slow crawl risks being hit by a car coming out of a property and hitting them. With the growing popularity of e-bikes, which go faster than many people expect, that problem is exacerbated.

And the result, for children and less-confident cyclists, will be that they either struggle with the problems of the berm route or not ride at all. Confident cyclists will keep using the main carriageway – only now they’ll be contending with drivers who think they should get the hell off the road and onto the cycleway where they belong.

And among residents, retailers, cyclists and others the anger is mounting. People shout at each other and there have been acts of vandalism.

If you lived or worked there, you’d be spluttering with fury. I know I would. AT is trashing good suburbs and doing it in the name of positive social values – safety, better cycling, better village communities. They’re trashing the values along with the suburbs.

And now there is a protest occupation. Why would anyone be surprised? How else will the local communities get anyone to listen?

Lisa Prager at the Garnet Road island occupation.

The thing about Lisa Prager

The protest is led by veteran activist Lisa Prager, who is never seen without a cowboy hat. The “Garnet Rd Traffic Island Occupation” is opposed to the removal of trees, the routing of the cycleways, the realignment of the roadway and the reduction in the number of carparks outside shops. Prager’s personal interest is twofold: she lives in the area and her partner Verity George runs Garnet Station, a cafe on Garnet Road.

Curiously, Prager’s focus seems to have shifted in recent days. It started with carparking outside shops, then moved to the trees, and now kerb realignment has become the hot topic.

AT is realigning the roadway at some intersections in order to slow traffic, eliminate the temptation for drivers to just “nip round the corner” and make intersections safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Complainants correctly identify that drivers will have to slow down and take more care, and they think that’s wrong.

Prager appeared on TVNZ’s Seven Sharp last week, where Mike Hosking told her that for the first time in his life he had to agree with her. She was very pleased, but why was that? For Hosking, the car is king. Prager denies the same is true for her. Vehemently. “You wait and see what will happen if you say I think that,” she told me last time we talked.

But when she talks about all this AT activity, she almost always starts by saying she is not anti-bike and then, usually within 30 seconds, she’s talking about how this or that proposal is stupid because it’s going to make things harder for the cars.

The Garnet Rd traffic island itself is a good case in point. On the corner of Garnet Rd and Old Mill Rd, it’s destined by AT to become part of a larger “plaza”. Cars heading west will no longer be able to drive straight past along Old Mill Rd, but will have to slow, then turn left back into Old Mill Rd. That plan originally required the removal of a pohutukawa tree, although it now seems the tree may stay.

Bright and Prager with fellow protesters at Garnet Road.

Prager criticised the plan to me by saying cars would no longer be able to stream through the intersection. When I said that was the whole idea, and asked did she object to the needs of kids on bikes being met, she said, “How can children ride bikes in a modern city?”

Her argument is that the public transport system will have to be much better, and publicly owned, before that can happen.

But in the suburbs, especially where the roads are wide, there is no reason at all why cycle routes cannot be established right now that are safe enough for children to ride. Those wide roads all run past schools: fixing this is the key to getting kids back on bikes.

New kerb realignment on Surrey Cres at the top of Richmond Road has also attracted Prager’s outrage. She complained to me that they had made a “pinch point” by narrowing the road. But why is that a bad thing? It will slow the traffic at a very side intersection used by school children.

She also said she wasn’t an engineer and didn’t know if AT’s plan was unsafe, but that hasn’t stopped her protest there.

Bright and Prager (both at right of photo) setting up the protest at the corner of Surrey Cres and Richmond Rd. “Remove this unsafe island” says one placard, although Prager said she didn’t know if it is unsafe.

Sadly, the AT solution for that intersection isn’t great. They’re doing a bit, but they need to do a lot more if they want to make it safe for kids to ride bikes or walk through. But AT seems to lack the courage for that.

Meanwhile, Prager’s protest, whatever her motives, is impeding AT’s attempts to shift our priorities away from cars and make the suburban streets safer for everyone.

It was a hot and steamy night…

The ventilation fans were roaring in the hot cramped upstairs meeting of the Grey Lynn RSA last Tuesday night, until they turned them off so people could hear each other speak. The room got even hotter, and more cramped: there were 40 people and they kept coming, 50, more than 60 in the end. Mostly residents, a lot of business owners, half a dozen people from Auckland Transport, a couple of politicians. Almost everyone was angry, but not only with AT. Some of them were angry with each other.

Prior to the meeting there’d been quite a bit of negotiation, involving AT, the business association and the Waitemata Local Board too. Out of that process, the business association had drawn a list of 36 items for discussion, many of them practical solutions to various problems which AT had already indicated it would accept. Carparking, drainage, the bus stop and pedestrian crossing, outdoor seating and other beautification were all covered.

The list was presented as the agenda for the meeting. Its tone was positive, its message was: we’re  constructively engaged in fixing this. AT, clearly, was showing willing: they wanted to fix this. The tone was so positive, the last few items included a planned celebration of the project’s completion in March/April next year. But the meeting didn’t go like that at all.

Irene King (standing) of the Grey Lynn Business Association with Kathryn King and Dave Nelson (dark shirt) of Auckland Transport.

Irene King, the friendly and outgoing owner of the Floral Studio on Surrey Crescent, is the newly elected co-chair of the Grey Lynn Business Association. She got the meeting going by reading out the rules – politeness please, all speakers to be given a fair hearing, questioners to get the right to a follow-up question – and then the mayhem began.

Kathryn King (no relation to Irene) is AT’s manager of walking, cycling and, with a recent promotion, road safety: she sat there looking terrified. Her colleague Dave Nelson, AT’s major projects manager, was so nervous his words got stuck in the back of his throat and he just couldn’t speak loudly enough. That problem did not afflict Lisa Prager, who lectured and shouted at the officials whenever she felt like it. Which was often.

Jacob Faull, the other co-chair of the Grey Lynn Business Association, also spoke. He said “we’re not against cycling”, and outlined three key demands:

  • An immediate restoration of angle parking outside Harvest Wholefoods.
  • The immediate halt to all other cycle lane and related work in the whole city until the West Lynn problems are satisfactorily resolved.
  • A start on compensation talks for the affected businesses.
Jacob Faull of the Grey Lynn Business Association addresses the meeting. Lisa Prager in hat sits at the side.

This was a bit of a swing away from the agenda his own organisation had worked up. Faull’s a gentle soul, with hair flowing to his shoulders and a soft voice, who rides a bike to work. He runs Nature Baby, an organic baby clothes shop. Faull, like Irene King before him, expressed his admiration for Lisa Prager. He said he’d “always been a fan”, ever since he was 19 and she used to mix him cocktails in a bar.

Dave Nelson responded. He’s got a big grin on his face most of the time, along with a heavily trimmed grey-blond Zapata moustache. While Kathryn King is in charge of developing proposals, he’s the delivery guy: he’s in charge of the work.

Nelson told the meeting he had taken the chief construction officer round the works the other day, and he had then gone and got the rest of the AT executive team to come and look. He promised AT was now working closely with the business community. He said, “AT is committed to getting this right.”

Kathryn King spoke next and said: “AT wants for you all to be proud of the outcome.” The drainage problems would be fixed. There were some cleaning issues and they would be dealt with “straight away”. As for the parking, she said Pippa Coom, chair of the Waitemata Local Board, has come up with some “clever suggestions”.

In fact, King, Coom and others, have identified a number of ways in which the carparking problems can be resolved: parking time restrictions, using the side streets better, using some currently underused off-street parking and restoring some of the angle parks. But none of that got presented to the meeting.

Instead, the locals did a lot of shouting and lecturing. The man who owns the liquor store was furious: there’s a bus stop outside his shop now and it’s clear that if he could rip it out with his bare hands he would.

The West Lynn liquor store really doesn’t want that bus stop.

The battle for West Lynn (cont)

Peter Mayo, 30 years a local, got up from his spot at the back of the room. He had a different point of view. “I find it interesting that private businesses are making demands on the public space,” he said, angrily. Harvest, for example, is supposed to provide 12 off-street parks for its customers – but where are they? “How many other businesses are supposed to provide parking and don’t?” As for Harvest, he said, it is not a small business as everyone was saying (which is true, it’s part of the Huckleberry chain).

Jacob Faull asked the meeting how many people wanted all the carparks restored. Most hands went up. “You’ve never run a business!” someone shouted at Mayo.

Irene King asked the meeting if they wanted to make parking the top priority. There was a big cheer. Someone said, “Why don’t you just put it all back how it was?” and that got a big cheer too.

Margaret Slater, also 30 years a local, asked the AT people if they had considered just putting up a sign at each end of the shops that said 40km/h watch for cyclists. She didn’t get an answer to that.

Kathryn King said they had considered all the options and there was clear feedback from the community favouring a cycleway.

There were people in the meeting from Pt Chevalier and Northcote who wanted to complain about their suburbs, which prompted some of the Grey Lynners to agree their cause was a city-wide cause but made others angry their meeting was being hijacked.

Lisa Prager said it was all just “one disaster to the next”. Can you be quiet? shouted someone. “I am quiet,” shouted Lisa, “but I’m telling you …” and off she went. Everyone who wasn’t with her was “all namby-pamby with Auckland Transport”.

Lisa Prager at the West Lynn meeting.

She said AT should stop talking about fixing the drains because it was almost summer and it won’t rain much. “The critical factor is to put back the parks!” she declared.

“Why do we have to keep listening to this person!” protested another person.

But despite the disagreements the general feeling was plain. Most people in that room cared about one thing: the loss of angle parking outside the shops. Nobody mentioned the dangerous pedestrian crossing or any of the other safety issues. Only a few wanted to talk about the cycle lanes and they tended to be the people from other suburbs.

Soala Wilson, who owns a shop on Surrey Crescent, said she used to be so jealous of West Lynn. Not anymore. “Why did you decimate such an amazing village?” she asked, so angry she roamed up and down the side of the room while she spoke. “We’re not anti-cycling. This isn’t about that. We’re all pro-cyclists. But Auckland Transport have been absolute bullies. You’re ruining people’s businesses,” she said, pointing and glaring at Kathryn King and Dave Nelson. “The way you’re going, Auckland will be broke.”

She said: “We will fight you on Surrey Cres.”

Chuck Joseph, 37 years a Westmere local, got up and said a cycle lanes was being built on the berm outside his business, 1.5 metres from his front door. He was referring to the Garnet Rd/Old Mill Rd intersection. Supposedly for safety reasons, he said, they were routing bikes away from it. Joseph had done an Official Information Act request to find out more and and they sent him 2100 pages. He discovered they had not done a safety audit. He discovered there had been 14 minor accidents recorded since 1991, which he suspected made it a safe intersection.

“So my question is this,” he said. “Why are you putting the cycles lanes on the berm?”

Answer! Answer! chanted the meeting. Kathryn King said they had considered two design options and chosen the better one.

Chuck Joseph got back to his feet. He said the OIA documents made it clear most people didn’t want either option.

Irene King and Kathryn King.

The good thing to come out of the meeting was that AT has agreed to establish two “reference groups” to look at the two main cycle routes currently being put through the areas. Those groups would include retailers, residents, cyclists and others.

Kathryn King and Dave Nelson both said AT was committed to working with the groups to get acceptable outcomes. But then Nelson said that in West Lynn they wanted to finish the sections of work they had started, and do the remedial work required for drainage, and put a hold on everything else until there was general agreement on what to do.

“No!” shouted Lisa Prager. “That’s exactly wrong!” She wanted a complete moratorium on all work or, even better, complete restitution to how things were.

Sometimes, the meeting did find things to laugh about.

It’s the council, stupid

Despite the shouting and the confusion, some things are clear.

  • Auckland Transport is profoundly out of its depth.

Auckland Transport is driven by a mantra: keep the traffic moving. That’s its primary marker of success.

Good example: the intersection of Richmond Rd and Surrey Cres/Old Mill Rd: AT has put in a new lane system. The cars continue to move freely. But it is no safer than it ever was for a child to cross the road.

It does not know how to create a great retail village environment – a place that will be easy to pop into and also enjoyable to go to, for shopping, eating and drinking, socialising and relaxing. It does not even know that is what it is supposed to do.

It does not know how to combine the various transport requirements of traffic calming, public transport, convenient parking and safe cycling. Astonishingly, it cannot even be relied on to build a footpath that won’t flood the nearby shops.

Compounding all those problems, it does not understand community engagement.  It does not know how to seek community input, pick up good community ideas or deal with community concerns. Kathryn King talked several times about the consultation they had done, but clearly they’ve asked the wrong questions in the wrong way, at the wrong time, and have not been listening to the answers.

There are people working for AT who do understand at least some of these things. I know because I have met some of them. King herself is one of them. But the culture of the organisation prevails. It’s like there’s monster, blind and confused, blundering around in our suburbs.

The elected officials are ineffectual.

Where’s the Waitematā Local Board in all this? Where’s the local ward councillor, Mike Lee? Where’s the mayor? And where – given the dysfunction at AT – is the central council?

Pippa Coom from the WLB and Mike Lee were both at the New Lynn meeting, and both have taken an active interest. But neither has been able to stop the monster from blundering on.

Local boards are structured into semi-irrelevance on things like this: they can advise AT what they think but AT doesn’t have to listen.

But they can’t hide behind that. We expect, rightly, that our elected politicians will have the skills to call officials to account. We need our local boards and ward councillors to be good at the politics of it all: to know who to talk to, who to lean on, what to say, when to rouse up a public campaign and how to do it. How to get things done.

Auckland Transport is a law unto itself? It’s the politicians we have to hold to account for that.

Compounding this problem, AT did the consultation on West Lynn during the last council election period, which meant, Coom told me, that local board members weren’t able to engage actively with the process.

What preposterous nonsense is that? They could have made it an election issue and campaigned on it!

In defence of Auckland Transport

They mean well. It’s true. Auckland Transport is committed to safety strategies, more and better cycling experiences, more and better public transport, good community engagement: transport planning that makes a better city for us all.

The fact they’re often not good at these things doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. And it is hard going. Opposition to traffic-related urban planning is fierce, widespread and very often boils down to the same thing: the belief that cars should rule the roads.

A lot of people believe the way we as Aucklanders used to use our cars 20, 30, 50 years ago should be preserved. It’s the best way to commute and the best way to nip to the shops. Drivers have right of way unless they are explicitly told (by stop signs, pedestrian crossings and traffic lights) that they don’t. Bike lanes are fine as long as they don’t impede the cars. We’re good drivers.

None of these things is true. For reasons of safety, our health and the health of the planet, we already know they can’t last. But we persist. Auckland Transport wants us to rethink that.

AT wants to give cyclists a better deal, although making them ride along a line of parked cars in a shopping village hardly does that.

In the US and much of Europe, car drivers know they share the roads on an equal basis with other users. It’s possible to ride a bike on the streets of Paris because politeness prevails. We won’t have that in a hurry here, but we could over time, and if we do want it, regulatory and planning agencies will have to take the lead.

As for the idea that a functional shopping village is defined by the ability of drivers to park their cars right outside the shop they want to visit, that’s nonsense. It undermines the quality of the shopping and community experience for everyone. Yes, we need carparks. But no, we should not plan our suburbs around them.

The deep problem with Auckland Transport being systemically incompetent is that progress on all these things is undermined. AT might want to do the right thing, and might even have the right words to say about what it’s doing. But it is driving us backwards.

So now what?

The day after that hot and shouty West Lynn meeting last week, Prager wrote to “the CEO of Auckland Transport”, copied to the mayor, all the councillors, the AT board chair and many others. In the letter she represents Occupy Garnet Road, although she uses the phrase “we the Community” and implies her letter represents the demands of the Grey Lynn meeting. That’s not the case. Prager called on AT to commit to:

  • An immediate grant of $20,000 to every West Lynn business, to compensate for lost income.
  • Extra payments to those “still experiencing a significant drop in turnover after a six month period”.
  • Making public all “remedial plans” and gaining approval from all affected parties.
  • Stopping all work on the new cycle paths and returning all unfinished sites to their previous state, including ripping up the new asphalt and replacing the berms.
  • Replacing all trees cut down on Old Mill Road with natives, chosen by the locals, that are at least 10 years old.
  • Freezing all further expenditure on cycle lanes and starting no new work until “genuine community consultation at the broadest level is held”.

Meanwhile, Irene King and Jacob Faull are proceeding with actual negotiations with Auckland Transport, while Pippa Coom and the Waitemata Local Board are doing what they can to help. Those two reference groups will be set up. The long list of bullet points is back on the table and there’s talk of an independent planner being consulted. That might help.

But more is required.

  • Auckland Transport should not have responsibility for “place making”.

Technically, this project is not a village makeover: it’s a traffic calming exercise with added cycleways. But that’s absurd: in the process they’ve wrecked a village. And their cycleways on the berms are wrecking the suburbs all around. Council agencies like Panuku Development and the council’s own Design Office are better equipped to lead this kind of work.

  • The local boards need to be empowered.

That a CCO can just ignore a local board is not acceptable.

  • The council needs to step in.

What’s at stake here is immense: the future of the city’s cycle network; the future of AT’s safety-focused strategies; the functionality of council and its bureaucracies; the credibility of council itself.

If the approach taken in West Lynn and the surrounding suburbs takes hold, the council risks a citywide rejection of its strategies for building a better city. That would be a disaster.

Lisa Prager and her crew are right about the berms and AT’s vandalism in cutting down tress on the berms. But they are not right that the city’s entire programme of traffic calming, cycleway development and community enhancements should be stopped.

It’s time for the council CEO, Stephen Town, to take an interest. It’s time for the councillors and the mayor to do so too.

  • A new boss at AT!

The CEO of Auckland Transport, the man in charge of all this, is David Warburton. With an annual salary of over $700,000 he is the council’s highest-paid official. But Warburton is about to retire. The new CEO, who joins AT on December 11 for a changeover period and will be fully in charge from early next year, is Shane Ellison.

Ellison is an expat who’s worked mainly in public transport, for the giant French company Transdev (formerly Veolia), in Australia. He’ll be earning $575,000, less than Warburton but surely still quite enough for us to expect he will sort this shit out.

Kia ora Shane. Welcome to the best dysfunctional city in the world.  @simonbwilson

Keep going!