Auckland Transport's Shane Ellison reflects on his first year in the job — 'like drinking out of a fire hydrant'.

It is almost a year to the day since I walked through the doors of Auckland Transport and into my new role as Chief Executive.

And I am not too proud to admit that the first few months, in particular, were as daunting as they were challenging.

First off, I had to very quickly come to grips with numerous multimillion-dollar projects that were at various critical stages — from being consulted on publicity, to seeking funding approval, to letting construction contracts that required my signature.


I also had to get to know AT's people, its systems and processes, and get a sense of the culture.

In addition, there were a plethora of key stakeholders who I had to, at the very least, meet and greet initially.

I've often described those first few months as "drinking out of a fire hydrant"; there was a flood of information pouring through my inbox and in-tray every day and all of it seemed to require urgent attention.

But as daunting and time-consuming as that was, I also arrived at an incredibly exciting time for Auckland, and indeed New Zealand. Within those first few months Auckland Council and the new Labour-led Government had agreed on a transformational plan for Auckland known as ATAP (Auckland Transport Alignment Project).

ATAP sets the priorities for the next 30 years, but unlike in the past, this was not yet another plan or strategy that would gather dust while Auckland outgrew itself at unprecedented levels.

For the first time the plan was funded — to the tune of $28 billion.

That is a huge amount of investment and a joined-up commitment, which will truly transform the way Auckland looks and feels for business, residents, and visitors alike.

Included in the package are massive capital projects such as the City Rail Link and light rail, as well as the Eastern Busway, the upgrade of Lincoln Roadd in West Auckland, and the long-awaited revamp of Karangahape Road.

Another important piece of the jigsaw that has fallen into place is the Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP). This was widely consulted on and received more than 18,000 submissions, with the public overwhelmingly agreeing that the priorities need to be around increasing public transport mode share, reducing the tragic death and serious injury statistics on the region's roads, and increasing the numbers of people walking and cycling.

The RLTP is effectively our contract with ratepayers and taxpayers to contribute to developing an economically, socially, culturally, and environmentally successful Auckland.

Increased investment in these three key areas is not always popular with those who either choose or have no choice but to use private vehicles — but the logic is compelling.

The additional 145km of a modern rapid transit (public transport) network along with safe walking and cycling will move exponentially more people per hour, better allocating that valuable commodity called road space.

Importantly, it will also extend transport choices into low-income suburbs, and supports the massive growth in new housing on the peripheries of the region.

In the time I've been with AT, I've been surprised at some of the media commentary and public venom around cycling. Again, a focus on cycling is not driven out of any sort of "mad, green agenda" as I've heard it described.

It really is just common sense.

In October, the digital cycle counter on Quay Street ticked over 300,000 trips in the calendar year. Across the region, similar counters are showing cycle movements increasing by 17 per cent over 2017 numbers.

Bearing in mind that there are not cycle counters on every stretch of path or roadway, the 3.5 million trips recorded are probably much lower than is actually the case.

So in effect, that represents at least 3.5 million fewer cars on our congested roads.

Why wouldn't we want to increase that number?

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.

However, going forward not everything will be solved by more trains or buses, or by building shiny new infrastructure.

Auckland Transport also has an obligation to carefully manage existing assets that account for around 50 per cent of our overall budget. In simple terms, the potholes in footpaths are just as important as the new cycleway or bus station.

Today, Auckland is unrecognisable from the one I left 15 years ago.

It is something of a New Zealand mindset to focus on the negative. But most of the challenges Auckland faces — in transport and housing for example — are in fact because it is such a successful and attractive region. Just look at the skyline.

There is an old adage that a city's success (or otherwise) can be measured by the number of cranes working.

And at the moment, with 90, Auckland has more cranes working than any city in the United States; the only North American city with more is Toronto, at 97.

So we can all have a real sense of confidence that, no pun intended, Auckland is turning a corner.

With the Government's largest-ever investment in Auckland's transport system, and revenue from the Regional Fuel Tax, we must seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to enable all of us to move around our region more easily than before and contribute to creating a unique, globally competitive city.

Shane Ellison is chief executive Auckland Transport.