The word ‘Transformational’ is turning up frequently around discussions about Auckland’s future. I am encouraged by this as it surely means change. More than that doesn’t it particularly mean making bold decisions precisely designed to lead to different outcomes than we have now? This is important because it goes to the heart of the debate between the Council’s plan to invest in public transport versus the road lobby’s determination to prevent that and continue to build ever more motorways.
Here are a couple of examples, the first is mayor Len Brown talking a few weeks ago about the MIT campus that is now being built directly on top of the yet to open Manukau City Station, big ups-ing its transformational nature:
“The Hayman Park site is a superb example of an integrated, transformational project aligning MIT with the local community, business and industry, Auckland Council and Auckland Transport.”
And here is Bill English a little less sure that he has any transformational projects but sure he’d like some:
“I mean, if there are transformational ideas out there we will grab them with both hands and do them. We just wish there was a few more.”
So it is an idea that gets politicians excited, and why not, because generally that’s the way they can try to improve our world: Change things. And transformation is a kind of change with bells on. Transformation is required when things need to be ‘turned around’. It implies a bold and imaginative quality. Transformation suggests a break with the past, a ‘fresh start’. A complete change.
Here is a dictionary definition:
Transformation is the process of changing from one state to another.
So it was interesting to hear Councillor Quax on Morning Report argue in the context of the council’s transformational plan to prioritise investment into public transport over roads that:
‘nothing can be transformational if it only moves a small amount of people and freight around, that’s why roads need to take precedence over rail’
In other words Quax is arguing that because we are not already in the new transformed state, the place the transformation is intended to get us to, we shouldn’t make the necessary changes to get there. Errr? Are you sure you understand what the word means, Dick?
This is clearly an absurd argument; the whole point of the transformational is to change those numbers around, so in fact, the current imbalance between road and non-road movements is the very reason for changing what we invest in. Because you get what you invest in. More roads: more driving: new alternatives; less driving. Which will then, of course, free up the existing and extensive road network [along with all the other improved health, energy use, and quality of place outcomes we know come with increased PT use].
It is interesting to see that Quax is not arguing against transformation, as you might expect, but rather simply that he can’t imagine it happening. Like Bill English above who is presiding over an enormous and expensive continuation of last century’s highway building plans [while preaching austerity] simply because he too can’t perceive any transformational projects. Is the inability to see and understand the transformational because these men are looking in the wrong place? They don’t seem to grasp that the transformational, by definition, requires a break from the past.
The problem is that if you are only prepared to look backwards it will be hard to see a better way forward. This is the hegemony of the status quo, it takes a little more effort and enquiry to see how things could be different. Because the future is uncertain isn’t it?
So to be fair to Quax it is worth rephrasing his rather wooly headed statement above into a more useful question;
‘if we do invest differently, ie if we stop building ever more motorways and instead build a rail and busway network will we get the transformation we desire?’
What evidence is there that we can change things in Auckland? If we do invest boldly in new rail and busway infrastructure for the next decade or so will people use it? First of all it is clear that we can’t, as Quax is doing, just look at the current state to see what future we could have, so we will have to look elsewhere for a model. But we can also look at what trends there are already present in Auckland to see if we get changed outcomes from changed investment.
The clearest model from the recent past is Perth. Because it is culturally not dissimilar to Auckland, a similar size, is in fact an even more spread out city, and has done many of the things that the Auckland Council has been arguing we should do here to transform both our habits of movement and the quality of the whole city. So what happened?
This is Rail patronage in Perth and Auckland to 2011[Auckland is now around 11 million]. Perth’s first jump was on the back of electrification, bus coordination stations, and the construction of an underground CBD line. Patronage from a level similar to where Auckland’s is now, trebled, then doubled again with the addition of the all new Mandurah Line. This is what Transformation looks like. Before the early 90s investment rail use was bumbling along. It is clear there is no point in looking at the 1980s figures to see what could be achieved though changed investment.
Now that we’re all facing the right way let’s see what else could happen if we are really bold, like Mayor Len Brown said he was going to be when he started his term, proposing new transit infrastructure throughout the city:
Here we’ve added Vancouver. Greater Vancouver has about 2.3 million people. So where Auckland is expected to get to quite soon this century. Vancouver’s extremely successful Sky Train only began in the 1980s and is being added to constantly because it is a huge success and means that the city does not need to spend billions and billions on highways and parking and all the other hidden costs of auto dependency. This technology is ideal for new lines in Auckland like across the harbour to the North Shore. Nick argues here that this would be considerably cheaper than any further road crossing and certainly would help transform more than just the North Shore. It also could be the answer to the transport problems in Dick Quax’s Eastern suburbs too.
Well that’s great for Perth and Vancouver, but would that happen here in Auckland? Well here is the pattern of change in Auckland since the construction of Britomart and the other improvements to our existing rail network, and remember these changes were only about fixing the existing badly neglected system, and doesn’t yet involve modern electric trains or the great changes that the CRL will bring to the whole network, let alone extending the network to new areas. So not yet what you could really call Transformational investment:
So a very consistent uptake by Aucklanders, give us a good quality alternative to driving and a lot of us will take it, leaving more room on the existing road network for the rest. The numbers are still low but are very much beginning to make a big difference especially at peak time. But really we are just at the point that this existing resource could become a very significant influence on patterns of movement and also quality of place in Auckland. So transformation is without a doubt possible but only if we choose to make it happen. What we build will determine what we get and how we live. And it is absolutely certain that if we mostly just continue what we have been doing- building roads- all we will get is more driving and more over-crowded roads no matter how much we spend. And no transformation.
The best way to live in the 21st century is to stop living in the 20th century
-Umair Haque Havard Business Review