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Auckland Transport CEO Dean Kimpton (Photo: Supplied)
Auckland Transport CEO Dean Kimpton (Photo: Supplied)

PoliticsApril 27, 2023

Meet Dean Kimpton, the man with the most impossible job in Auckland

Auckland Transport CEO Dean Kimpton (Photo: Supplied)
Auckland Transport CEO Dean Kimpton (Photo: Supplied)

As the new CEO of Auckland Transport, it’s up to Dean Kimpton to rehabilitate the reputation of one of the city’s most reviled organisations. To do so, he must somehow appease two groups of critics with wildly different perspectives.

On Google Maps, Auckland Transport is rated 1.5 stars. Its 320 reviews are a smorgasbord of insults and recriminations. “If I had to use three words to describe Auckland Transport, they would be ‘unreliable, unreasonable, and irresponsible’,” says one critic. “Trash service!! Trash company!! Zero morals!!,” says another. Some are even more succinct. “Garbage entity,” one says. “If I could give it zero stars, I would.”

This public feedback aligns with the tenor of the organisation’s own surveys, which show customer satisfaction at record lows. It jibes with its media coverage. Every word in this sentence links to a story criticising AT, including these ones from me. Recently, RNZ ran a nine-part series mostly devoted to why the organisation is so bad at running bus services.

A few months ago, Dean Kimpton was one of the dissatisfied masses. “I was frustrated,” he says. “I felt like AT had let itself down.” Now he’s the person tasked with fixing things. A construction engineer and former chief operating officer at Auckland Council, Kimpton was appointed as AT’s chief executive on an 18-month fixed term contract in February, following an almost year-long search which featured one overseas candidate turning down the job at the last minute. He’s Plan B. But despite his unhappiness with the agency, he wasn’t tempted to reject its offer. “That’s not enough to put me off. When I was asked, ‘was I interested?’, my immediate answer was, ‘yeah, of course I am’,” he says. “There’s hope and opportunity here. If I didn’t believe that we could make a difference, then I wouldn’t have come. But I believe that we can.”

Auckland Transport CEO Dean Kimpton (Photo: Supplied)

Rehabilitating AT’s reputation is a formidable task, mainly because everyone’s angry at the agency for radically different reasons. Kimpton’s first job is to appease the people who appointed him: Auckland mayor Wayne Brown, who repeatedly called for AT’s entire board to resign during his campaign, along with the city’s conservative-leaning councillors and their bitumen-loving constituents who spent the last term hallucinating cycleways across the city. 

So far, so bad. AT recently rolled back parts of its parking strategy, which affirmed its ability to repurpose Auckland’s limited road space for more efficient transport modes like buses and bicycles without consultation. It also scrapped a plan to charge for parking at park and rides, though it still wants people who use the facilities without catching public transit to pay up.

Kimpton says many communities think AT doesn’t understand them or their needs, and he wants it to listen more. He’d be easy to write off as a car-centric, status quo candidate – a product of the last local election’s conservative backlash – if he didn’t say so many things diametrically opposed to that assessment. In fact, his views seem to align more closely with a different set of AT’s critics: those who say it’s failing to live up to its own climate strategies.

Back in 2020, before the idea of him becoming AT’s chief executive crossed anyone’s mind, Kimpton was involved with developing the Amaia apartments in Takapuna. In a Metro advertorial, he touted their “easy access to the city, through cycleways [and] public transport”. In his interview with The Spinoff, he readily commits to radical action to transform Auckland’s transport system. Almost unprompted, he says he supports the Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway, or TERP, which calls for a 50% reduction in vehicle kilometres travelled, or car and truck use, by 2030, along with massive increases in cycling, walking and public transport. In the short term, he’s targeting a return to pre-Covid public transport numbers by the year’s end.

Targets from the TERP (Image: Supplied)

It begs the question: how is he going to achieve all that while placating the hordes of ageing punishers who interact most regularly and passionately with local government? “I don’t want to sugarcoat it,” he says. “You’ve defined the challenge. That is a challenge we need to look at.”

Kimpton believes he can win over the naysayers with a better sales pitch and more up-front communication. He thinks a lot of the anger that gets directed at AT comes because it’s failed to properly articulate the reasoning behind its progressive strategies. It’s been guilty of taking a disciplinarian, “we know best” attitude when doing things like reallocating car lanes, and that’s caused resentment, he says.

“I think this issue around capacity in the roads, and congestion, and cars, has been pretty clumsily communicated,” Kimpton says. “People were not communicating the ‘why’ in the middle. We’ve got to take our communities with us. So to me, that’s a really important missing link, and Auckland Transport’s guilty of it. council’s guilty of it, pretty much every agency in the country is guilty of not holding the ‘why’ in front of their communities.”

That “why” is simple: it’s just not possible to accommodate Auckland’s growth with car infrastructure alone. Doing so would cause congestion, kill some people and isolate others, raise carbon emissions hugely and pollute our air. But besides that, there’s not enough room. Transport planners want to build bus and bike lanes not because they’re lycra-clad zealots, but because doing anything else is to wage a futile war on geometry. Cities don’t work when you have to lug two tonnes of steel to get from A to B. When everybody drives, nobody moves.

A vision of Auckland’s future if it provides for future growth with car lanes alone (Photo: Personal archive of Hayden Donnell)

Kimpton wants to make that case persistently and persuasively, until hopefully even the most ardent sceptics understand why Auckland needs to make rapid changes to reduce congestion and achieve its climate goals. “If we’re going to achieve our emissions reduction targets, we have to do pop-up [bus] lanes, we have to think about how we give bus priority, and transponder preference through the network. We have to do T3 lanes. All of those things have to happen,” he says. 

He has experience delivering these unwelcome messages to tough crowds. Back when he was council chief operating officer, he fronted the media on a wildly expensive IT transformation project. He also suspended Lime’s scooter licence after it played fast and loose with safety.

But acting as the frontman for AT is a challenge of greater magnitude, and he’s not the first person to begin with the best of intentions. His predecessor Shane Ellison had a similar message when he started out. “Unless a sizeable percentage of those historically dependent upon cars switch (and we make it cost-effective and easy for them to do so) to ferries, buses, trains, bikes or walking, congestion will continue to massively impact economic growth, jobs, housing, and our quality of life,” he wrote in a Herald article marking his one-year anniversary in the job. Ellison’s tenure was marred by near-paralysis on cycling, and ended in a brewing bus crisis.

Kimpton has ideas on how to avoid the same fate. He’s in the early stages of looking at AT’s management structure, which is studded with top executives that transport advocates have labelled a “layer of clay” obstructing progress. He wants theright people in the right places”. “And I haven’t made any of those calls yet,” he says. “But I’m starting 10 to 15 years out. What do I need? How do we need to organise? Have we got the right people in the right seats?”

Kimpton is also keen on changing how AT consults, so it doesn’t just hear from the same mostly older Pākehā cohort that dominates the feedback on many council plans. Ensuring he’s hearing a broader set of community voices might be the best move he can make to realise the hope and opportunity he sees in AT. Because the truth is, the organisation has been listening. It’s just been hearing the same voices over and over. Most of its projects over the last six years have been subject to endless business cases and consultations. If they’re not aborted, its dedicated correspondents usually say AT didn’t listen. What they really mean is they didn’t get their way.

When Kimpton is asked what a good transport system would look like to him, he points to a street near his house: Onewa Rd. At the moment, its footpath – a supposed shared path – is littered with T3 camera poles and assorted street furniture. “In a functional transport system I’ve got a choice about how I move around Auckland. I can ride, walk or take mass transit,” he says. “I can now move safely down Onewa Road, past all that street signage on a mobility scooter.”

But Onewa Rd, with its four wide car lanes and hostility to pedestrians, is a product of AT’s old consultation system. Kimpton probably won’t achieve the change he wants by talking to the same people the organisation has always talked to. No matter how persuasively he puts the case for progress, some of them will want to keep Auckland frozen in a 1970s time prison. Not every Wayne Brown voter is going to have a road to Damascus moment on the vital necessity of the TERP. Wanting to listen is a noble goal, but nothing beats doing. To eschew the mistakes of the past and make the progress Ellison once promised, Kimpton might have to risk a few more bad reviews on Google Maps, or even from Wayne Brown.

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