COMMENT:

In the 18 years since the start of the century, according to Auckland Transport data, the number of peak-time commuters using a private motor vehicle to enter Auckland's central city has declined by 456. That's right.

Meanwhile, the number of people entering the same area at the same time on some form of public transport has almost doubled. There are now slightly more commuters using public transport to get into town than there are people driving in.

In 2016, that transport number was 31 per cent bus, 11 rail and 5 per cent ferries. But get this. By 2046, AT expects the proportion of commuters arriving in the central city by car to have fallen by half, to just 23 per cent. Rail passengers will account for another 23 per cent, buses just 15 per cent and light rail 18 per cent.

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That's the dual impact of the City Rail Link (CRL) and the proposed light rail network for you. Fewer cars, fewer buses. The trains will be 9 carriages long. Each light rail unit, or tram, will have the capacity to replace 10 buses.

And, while we're at it, active transport, which is walking, cycling, scootering and whatever else has been invented by then, will grow from 7 per cent to 18 per cent.

The data was presented to the council's City Centre Advisory Board this week, as part of a report on the future of Wellesley St. After the AT people left, representatives of City Rail Link Ltd got up to make their report.

They're building the future and they seemed quite excited as they presented a video to show how Albert St will look when they've restored it. But the board wasn't excited. They were, in the words of chairperson Viv Beck, "frankly, deeply disappointed".

That's what you say when you have to be polite in a public meeting and what you really want to do is scream and throw things.

Why so upset? Because the board gave CRLL $20 million of business ratepayers' money to fix Albert St. Because the CRLL plan showed it looking worse than it used to be, with no trees in the top half, lots of roadway for buses and cars, and lots of bays for buses to park in.

This, in a city expecting – remember those numbers? – fewer people will arrive by bus. Even allowing for population growth, the numbers are expected to drop in real terms over the next 30 years.

Albert St's new footpaths will be wider, but despite that it's a bleak, featureless landscape. Right by the Wellesley St and Victoria St entrances to the CRL's new Aotea Station, where tens of thousands of people will walk to and fro each day.

The street was almost destroyed by the CRL build. But the thing is, with most of the traffic gone, new possibilities now beckon. We've discovered the city functions just fine without Albert St being an ugly dead zone, so why turn it back into one?

The strategy for making good in the inner city in the wake of CRL construction (and light rail too) should be: use the disruption to establish new and better functions and features. Less transit route and more pedestrian-focused, more shopper focused. Better streets to be in.

We hoped for more, said Beck and many of her board colleagues. The CRLL people mumbled about being required to restore it to what it was, which simply isn't true. The board gave them that $20 million to ensure it wouldn't be true.

Then the CRLL people blamed Auckland Transport. AT drew up the plans, not CRLL. It was their fault.

Viv Beck repeated the bit about being deeply disappointed. She still wanted to scream and throw things.

So where is AT? someone asked. But they'd already left the building.

And it was surprising even to hear that AT might be at fault. In their own report earlier in the meeting they presented visuals for Wellesley St, directly around the corner from Albert St. It's to be reconfigured as the city centre's only cross-town busway.

They were great: lots of buses but also lots of greenery and no cars. This was a really serious attempt to create an inviting place for people catching buses to walk through and wait in.

It's true, though, CRLL is responsible for the railway and AT is in charge of the street. So why so are two AT designs, for streets that actually intersect, so different? My guess: Albert St was visualised by traffic engineers who don't listen to a word urban planners say; but Wellesley St is merely a concept right now, so it was visualised by designers who have not yet been crushed underfoot by engineers.

This has got to stop. But who is going to stop it? The Auckland Design Office (ADO), headed up by the city's "design champion", Ludo Campbell-Reid?

Markings spray-painted on Albert St before it was dug up for the City Rail Link. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Markings spray-painted on Albert St before it was dug up for the City Rail Link. Photo / Dean Purcell.

Possibly not. The deeply disappointing Albert St design, according to an AT spokesperson, was "developed in collaboration with ADO". At press time, no word on this from ADO itself.

It's not that creatively talented people don't exist inside transport officialdom. Or the rest of council, for that matter. They do; I've met many of them. But they're not empowered, not often enough.

Adding to that problem, far too many decisions are made in silos. ADO does this and AT does that. Designers do this and then engineers go away and do that. And nobody coordinates a good outcome that meets the needs of everyone.

It's not meant to be like this. We turned Auckland into a supercity so it wouldn't be. Coordinated, integrated and vision-led planning.

This is not about teething problems: it's now eight years since amalgamation. It's about culture.

That's the responsibility of the council's chief executive, Stephen Town, who has recently had his contract renewed. In AT, it's the job of CEO Shane Ellison, who has been in his job for almost a year.

Ellison announced a shakeup of his executive some months ago but what did that achieve? Anything more than shifting the deckchairs around?

We deserve better and this is getting urgent. Next week councillors will "workshop" a new version of the City Centre and Waterfront Masterplan. The last one was good, but its proposals have drifted and the spirit that motivated it can be hard to find – and not just in Albert St.

So will the new plan be better? Will it galvanise the constituent parts of council? And will it provide a conduit for people outside the council to get their good, stimulating ideas listened to? Because, as the response to last week's proposal for a new waterfront stadium shows, that simply doesn't happen, and it must.

We need inspiration and collaboration to drive the big plan, and councillors with the wit to make that happen. And a better plan for Albert St too, please. Viv Beck and her board have asked for it and AT needs to deliver.