Everyone complains about Auckland Transport. Why is that? I went to see Shane Ellison, the AT chief executive. I wanted to ask him the questions everyone keeps asking. I want to work out what AT's doing wrong, and what it's doing right, too.
Ellison's been in the job 18 months now. An expat home from Australia, he was a big-grinning enthusiast when he started. These days, the grin is a bit stuck. Less enthusiasm, more apprehension.
The megaship AT he joined was an engineer-driven roads machine, soaked in 20th-century thinking. He's been told to make it a people-oriented, multi-modal, safety-focused vehicle fit to face the challenges of the 21st century. Nobody would say he has yet succeeded.
1. Why is congestion getting worse?
"Congestion isn't getting worse," he said, and he had graphs to show it. Typical (median) travel speeds in the morning and evening peaks haven't changed in the past two years. On arterial routes and motorways, it's about 40km/h. Reliability – the difference between the typical time a journey takes and what you might experience – has improved a little.
The number of cars on the roads is "perfectly stable", he said, despite the population growing by 116,915 since 2015, which is more than the size of Napier and Nelson combined.
How come? Because AT has focused on making public transport better: more frequent, more reliable, better-quality buses and trains.
The strategy is working. PT patronage is now at 100 million trips a year, for the first time since 1951. It's a similar story in cycling, which increased by 8.9 per cent last year.
2. But we're still stuck in traffic. Why aren't they building more roads?
True, averages can be misleading. Lots of people still get stuck in traffic. But Ellison said it's not true they're not building roads. With the Government, they've allocated $3.8 billion to new (non-motorway) roads in the current 10-year period (2018- 2028).
They include Penlink, which will link the Whangaparaoa Peninsula to the Northern Motorway; a scaled-back version of the East-West Link from Penrose through Onehunga; Mill Rd in the south; and the Matakana Link Rd.
Most of them, though, are in the second part of the 10-year plan. The big transport bucks right now are being spent on the City Rail Link and ongoing motorway expansion to the north, west and south.
"You should also remember," said Ellison, "that we're not going to build our way out of congestion." The more roads you build, the more you encourage people to take the car. It's a recipe for making congestion worse.
3. So how do you explain the Waterview tunnel?
It's true, traffic flows are good at the Waterview interchange and have improved on nearby arterials like Great North Rd. But the tunnel and interchange have pushed congestion along to other parts of the network.
The truism in motorway construction is that each new section creates demand for the next. Motorway builders don't finish a job: they keep themselves in business. It's not like a railway, where you have to build the whole route in one go and then it's done.
"Providing choice is what we're trying to do," said Ellison. "If you're stuck in traffic and you don't need to be there, we want you to have an alternative you're happy to use."
4. How's progress on sealing the gravel roads?
I asked councillor Greg Sayers, of the largely rural Rodney ward, about this. He said, "Auckland Transport's sealing programme for unsealed roads is not keeping up with Auckland's growth. The regional budget was quadrupled to $12.1 million a year. However, Auckland Transport is only delivering $4.7 million a year because Auckland Council throttled back this budget, prioritising other projects."
He's right. Auckland has nearly 850km of unsealed roads and about 75 per cent of them are in Rodney. AT's programme of work tapered off late last year and Ellison confirmed they will miss their targets.
That's a broken commitment on the roads of rural Auckland at a time when those same roads have been identified as high safety risks.
5. Those T2 and T3 lanes are a waste of space, aren't they?
"You might be surprised how efficient the T lanes are," said Ellison.
On Northcote's Onewa Rd during the two-hour morning peak, the T3 lane carries an average 4400 people riding in 423 cars and 119 buses. The general traffic lane carries 3100 people riding in 2700 vehicles. The T3 lane carries 62 per cent of the people but only 17 per cent of the vehicles.
Would turning T3 into T2 make it even more efficient? Strangely, no. Ellison said it would add an average 29 minutes to the journey time for all travellers on the road.
6. Yeah, but the bus lanes are empty.
No they're not. On Symonds St during the morning peak there are 1419 general vehicles and 228 buses. The bus lanes carry 81 per cent of the people on that road.
7. Why all the focus on the city centre?
Maybe it just feels like it is. But AT's largest spending project right now – $100 million – is the Eastern Busway, which will connect Botany with Panmure and the railway.
Another $50 million is being spent on the Puhinui interchange, west of Manukau. This is a commuter service but it will also have an airport shuttle function: years ahead of light rail, it will soon be easy to jump on a bus at the airport and transfer to a southern or eastern line train at Puhinui.
But Ellison said they are also very busy in the city. "We can't ignore 2021," he said. "The central city has to be ready to cope with the America's Cup and Apec."
In fact, they're not doing much at all before 2021. The big pedestrian plaza at the western end of Quay St will likely not be finished – which begs the question of whether it will even be started.
The new Access for Everyone programme (A4E) will trial a plaza in lower Queen St. But there's no commitment yet to reduce the number of cars in the central city by 2021. And no plan to separate bikes and scooters from pedestrians.
A4E isn't even an AT programme. The Auckland Design Office (ADO), a branch of the council administration, is running it, and moving very slowly.
Why isn't AT doing it? "We don't get possessive," said Ellison, his grin very fixed. "We're supportive."
Really? The America's Cup is a brilliant excuse to transform the inner city streets and someone needs to put a bomb under everyone responsible for not doing it. Including Auckland Transport.
8. What's happening with light rail?
Who would know? Light rail isn't AT either. It's a Government programme under the wing of the NZ Transport Agency, and the whole proposal has gone alarmingly quiet.
9. But the CRL is all about downtown.
The City Rail Link is another non-AT project: the CRL company is a joint venture between council and the Government. And no, it's not all about downtown.
The key impact will be to bring suburbs closer to the centre. Henderson, for example, will be as close to town in travel time as Mt Albert is now. At Henderson, in fact, they'll be building another platform to cope with demand.
10. Why doesn't AT help retailers affected by construction?
Ellison said there's a "Development Response Package" which has been used downtown and in Karangahape Rd. It's funded by AT but the work is done by the ADO. And there's no commitment to financial compensation. Would it be a slippery slope, or is it just bad faith by AT (and CRL) not to compensate business jeopardised by their work?
11. Why are e-scooters so dangerous?
The regulations governing scooter use are not AT's responsibility, either. It might be illegal but it's blindingly obvious, surely, that scooters should use bike lanes where possible. And that the central city now needs many more such lanes.
Still, while we wait for the Ministry of Transport, where's AT's pro-active planning? Where are the temporary solutions? Where is the sense AT cares about making the e-scooter experience safer for all, fun and worthwhile?
Ellison said Lime, Wave and Flamingo are all operating here on trial. "We need to see out the rest of the trial before we jump to any conclusions."
12. AT wants to reduce many streets to 30km/h. Won't that be too slow?
They received 11,700 pieces of feedback for their Speed Management Plan and are analysing them now. Ellison agreed some of the new limits "will take some adjustment", but said many will make very little difference to the speeds most people travel on congested inner-city roads now.
Just a guess, but that analysis might not appear before the council election in October.
13. Why reduce the speed limit on Nelson St and Hobson St? They're motorway ramps.
Actually, they're top of the list for slowing down. Ellison: "Nelson and Hobson are now two of the most densely populated streets in the country. And they're high crash-risk zones."
14. Okay, so why has nothing been done to make them safer for pedestrians?
Ellison didn't have an answer to that. Parents walking their children from town to Freemans Bay School might expect rather more. So might the people who walk in the Nelson St cycleway, not to mention the cyclists who have to pick them out, with no good streetlights, in the evening dark.
Much the same could be said about the lack of separated cycle lanes on Tamaki Drive.
AT talks a good game about the fast-changing city, but it struggles to keep up with those changes.
15. Why all the new speed bumps and raised-table pedestrian crossings?
Milford resident Susan Mair complained at a public meeting last week about a speed bump on East Coast Rd. "My BMW struggles to go over it and Tony's [her husband] Maserati almost would not go over it," she said, according to the Rangitoto Observer.
Want to guess the percentage of road deaths and serious injuries that occur on pedestrian crossings? It's 20 per cent.
"That why we're using raised tables," said Ellison. "We really do want drivers to slow down."
16. Why doesn't the bus come down my street any longer?
AT has introduced a new "rapid and frequent" bus service. Gone are many of the old services that wound their way through the suburbs. The new routes stick to larger roads, with buses at least every 10 or 15 minutes, 7am to 7pm, seven days a week. These services all have a two-number code.
Ellison said half a million Aucklanders now live within 500m of a rapid and frequent bus service. Because of this, bus patronage took off in the middle of last year, jumping 8.5 per cent year on year to March 2019.
The new approach clearly works, but some people have missed out. Ellison said they're monitoring it. Get onto your local board if you think they've got it wrong in your suburb.
17. Why is the bus network worse in poorer parts of town?
Ellison said 15-20 per cent of bus services were provided to meet a social need. "We don't expect them to be in high use, but they're a lifeline for the people who do use them."
I asked Manurewa councillor Daniel Newman about this. He used the example of Karaka Lakes, a suburb in a poor area deep in the south of the city. It was built six years ago and still doesn't have a bus service.
How could a suburb be developed without public transport? Ellison said it's "a really, really good question because it's about land use". He meant perhaps we shouldn't be letting people build suburbs so far out of town.
He also said they'll put a bus service into Karaka Lakes soon. "But it'll cost $750,000 a year."
In Devonport they've been trialling a ride-share mini-van to connect locals to the ferry. It's been "hugely successful" and the cost to AT is only a 10th of a full-size bus. So that's going to be rolled out in other parts of town. You wouldn't have thought that was rocket science.
18. Buses and trains are free to big rugby games. Why don't they do that for concerts?
"We'd like to." But the rugby union pays for those tickets and Ellison said AT has not been able to persuade concert promoters to do the same.
19. Why keep building cycle lanes? No one uses them.
Simply not true. More people rode bikes in Auckland last winter than in summer just a few years ago. The growth is steep and this winter there's been almost no seasonal drop-off at all.
20. Okay, so why aren't there more cycleways?
Despite what some people think, AT's target is tiny: only 10km of new cycleways a year. This year, they aren't even going to hit that.
There's slow progress on the Glen Innes pathway; no visible progress at all in Grey Lynn, Westmere and Pt Chevalier, and an oddly disjointed semi-network out west.
"We haven't delivered the cycling infrastructure we said we would," said Ellison. He promised more: New Lynn to Avondale is high on the list.
21. Why doesn't AT ever listen to anyone?
Maungakiekie-Tamaki councillor Josephine Bartley told me that in Point England, a low-income suburb, AT botched its consultation with the community badly.
The result: when they planted trees in the road, to create chicanes to slow the traffic, locals decided the trees made the roads dangerous and dug them up. That left holes in the ground which kids played in, which made the roads even more dangerous.
Bartley isn't saying the chicanes were wrong, but that the communication process failed. It's a good illustration of how hard that process can be.
AT does talk to people. Ellison said they consult on 350-450 projects a year, although most of the time they're not required to by law. He thought about 35 per cent are changed as a result.
"Do we listen? I think we do. There's a difference between not listening and not agreeing, and sometimes you have to back yourself."
In Whangaparaoa, he said, they wanted to introduce "dynamic lanes", where you change the status of lanes depending on traffic demand. "The community was dead opposed. But we started a trial 18 months ago and now they say they wouldn't live without it."
22. Yes, but does the consultation process need attention?
Quite often, they go round and round trying to make everyone happy and end up with a compromise that pleases no one. The grand folly of West Lynn's village makeover with bike lanes is the best example of that.
It's "a timely question", said Ellison. "Consultation has its purpose but also its limits. It relies on self selection, which doesn't always tell you what the whole community feels."
He said of all the consultations they do, "maybe three of four are noisy", but the rest you never hear about.
"But we are talking about it. How to improve the process."
23. Why is AT so shy of public meetings?
They declined an invitation to attend a public meeting in St Heliers this year and turned up to one in Pt Chevalier only to reveal they had almost nothing to say. But Ellison said they're not shy of public meetings: they've attended 89 in the last six months.
24. Does AT need a better communications strategy?
Who could deny it? Marketing is critical to AT's success. Getting us to love the buses, to understand why all the disruptive roadworks, to be more generous and careful of our fellow citizens on the road. Getting us to appreciate how and why the city is changing and the role of transport in that process.
If you were going to try to fix Auckland Transport, wouldn't you start with its communications?
25. Is AT out of control and anti-car?
"Auckland Transport is neither out of control nor anti-car," said Ellison. "We're about creating choices, because that's the way to ease congestion. And we're about safety. In urban areas, everyone's at risk. In rural areas, it's especially about the safety of people in cars. Why would any of that be anti-car?"
The 3 core concepts of transport planning in Auckland
• 1. The best way to manage congestion is to make leaving the car at home more attractive. Give people realistic choices.
• 2. The best way to increase road safety is to recognise that all drivers make mistakes. So the job is to minimise the harm caused by those mistakes: safer roads, safer cars, more enforcement, slower speeds and better driver education. It's called Vision Zero.
• 3. Roads are public spaces with competing demands on their use. The way those demands are balanced reflects our changing needs over time. Cars don't automatically get right of way.