Trying to get my head around whether 2011 was a good year or not such a good year for advocates of a more balanced transport system like myself, is a bit of a challenge. There were a number of good things which happened, but at the same time there were also a number of steps backward. Here’s my brief summary of the year.
The early months of 2011 were a time when Auckland Council and Auckland Transport were still very much “settling in”. We saw some really interesting first glimpses of what the council’s vision for Auckland’s city centre was in January, we found out that Len Brown’s goal for public transport patronage was 150 million trips a year by 2021 (and we wondered how that would be achieved). We also saw construction of the now open Wynyard Quarter tram loop. Submissions on preferred options for the Puhoi-Warkworth section of the holiday highway were written.
The February 22 earthquake in Christchurch obviously stands out as the whole country’s biggest event of the year, but seemed to have a remarkably little impact on the transport discussion here in Auckland. The government passed over a golden opportunity to back down over Puhoi-Wellsford (or at least downgrade it to something more sensible at a time when the whole country would have understood such a move), while Auckland Council sensibly pointed out that it would be many more years before serious money for the City Rail Link project was required. Behind the scenes, it was becoming fairly clear that officials reviewing the business case for the CRL were unlikely to come to agreement on the project’s merits.
In March the Auckland Unleashed discussion document was released, outlining the Council’s vision – at a broad-bush level – for Auckland over the next 30 years. We saw a great video of Len Brown’s rail vision for Auckland, but once again this positivity was tempered by the government’s feedback on the document (weirdly released before the discussion document) that pushed for more sprawl and more roads. Following hot on the heels of all that spatial plan discussion, we finally saw some progress on the implementation of a smartcard ticketing system in Auckland, with the launch of HOP. Unfortunately the complexity of the deal done between Auckland Transport, Thales, Snapper, NZ Bus, NZTA and so forth meant that the launch was generally met more by confusion than celebration.
From the optimism of those early months (earthquakes aside), the middle months of the year were a little more depressing – although the superb patronage stats throughout the year tempered this disappointment. The 2012 Government Policy Statement for Land Transport Funding turned out to be even stupider and more roads-obsessed than its 2009 predecessor, proposing additional RoNS that were so crazy they didn’t even end up being adopted into National’s election transport policy. But perhaps the biggest disappointment of those middle months was the review of the City Rail Link project, with the narrow-minded thinking of Ministry of Transport officials ignoring matters as fundamental as the bus and car capacity of the CBD when assessing the merits of the project. It was not a great year for the MoT, who also managed to forget to record the spending of around $180 million.
On a brighter note, the actual implementation of the HOP card went smoother than most (including myself) had expected. Bus loading times declined dramatically thanks to the speed of tagging on (although I still get annoyed at the cash-paying idiots who block the whole entranceway – any chance of some signage NZ Bus?) On a personal note, June was a pretty epic month with baby Adele arriving five weeks earlier than anticipated, leading to a couple of weeks of very regular travel to the hospital.
August saw the introduction of the Outer Link bus, as well as significance reconfiguration of all Western Bays services. Although further tweaks have been necessary (and probably will continue to be necessary in the future), overall the changes were very positive and have led to an increase in patronage exceeding what was forecast. After that, all eyes turned to the Rugby World Cup, which began on that fateful day of September 9th.
The transport chaos of RWC opening night was very unfortunate, but told us some very insightful things. As suspected, the CCO model of delivering many of council’s services through separate agencies did mean that they became siloed and didn’t talk to each other over matters as simple as the number of people expected to attend opening night. The highly fractured structure of running public transport in Auckland meant that everyone could point the finger at everyone else, whilst avoiding responsibility for that happened. But more positively, we also saw (and hopefully didn’t put off forever) an unprecedented willingness of Aucklanders to use public transport. There were over 140,000 rail trips around Auckland on September 9th, there probably could have been over 200,000 if we had the system to cope with them. I don’t think we’ve seen too much long-term damage from that evening, but perhaps we might see some long-term benefit with the realisation that it very much is Auckland’s public transport system that lets us down in our quest to become a truly world-class city.
During, and just after, the RWC, we saw draft versions of a number of really important documents that will help guide Auckland’s future. These included, the Draft Auckland Plan, the City Centre Master Plan, the Waterfront Plan and an Economic Development Strategy. I put together a fairly detailed submission on the Auckland Plan, and overall many thousands of submissions were received by the Council. Final decisions on these plans will be made in the first few months of next year.
In September we also found out one of the best pieces of transport news for the year – that we would get 57 electric trains rather than the originally proposed 35. The excellent work by Auckland Transport to secure this deal probably hasn’t been given the praise it deserves, especially as many tens of millions of dollars were squeezed out of the government as their contribution to the additional trains. It was also very welcome to learn that the trains are going to look damn nice too.
After the RWC was finished, the election rolled around pretty quickly. While the overall result wasn’t particularly positive, as it seems we will see more of the same from central government, there were some interesting outcomes. We will have our first transport planner MP, in the Greens’ Julie-Anne Genter, Labour’s new leader David Shearer has been a long-time supporter of public transport in Auckland, while Phil Twyford becoming labour’s transport spokerperson should also lead to a greater focus on Auckland transport issues. In the interests of fairness, we should give new transport minister Gerry Brownlee a chance before passing final judgment on him.
So overall it has been a pretty damn busy year when it comes to Auckland transport issues. As I noted at the start of this post, there have been a number of steps forward but also a number of steps backwards. 2012 should hopefully see the resolution of a number of these issues: a finalisation of the spatial plan, hopefully some agreed way forward on the merits of the City Rail Link, the proper implementation of integrated ticketing and many more interesting things.
I’m just hoping for a slightly less crazy year than this one.