This post has been brewing for a while. The reason being that threads on this blog are littered with comments along the lines of “I spoke to the transport/traffic engineers at Auckland Transport about issue XYZ but they simply fobbed me off.”
In the last few months I’ve also been approached by people who are trying to engage with transport engineers about various things, so it’s obviously a recurring problem. So here goes with a policy of appeasement should you find yourself needing to engage with transport engineers.
Let’s start by observing some general caveats that should be observed before anyone tries to engage with a transport engineer:
- Transport engineers operate in a complex world of standards and liability. If they are to diverge from these standards, then they’d better feel secure and able to stand up and defend their decision. In some situations their professional credibility/career will be on the line if they make a call to do something differently. Many engineers are quite understandably cautious when confronted by this risk.
- Transport is but one of the issues that influences decisions. Quite often there’s divergent views on exactly the same issue, e.g. shop owners that want more on-street parking versus local residents that want wider footpaths. And of course solutions are almost always constrained by political expectations before you even consider how much money is available (usually none).
- To not put too fine a point on it, members of the public frequently underestimate the complexity of the problem. Sometimes this is because they don’t understand the complexities of the wider network or details such as turning circles. Because engineers are exposed to this all the time it makes it harder for them to identify when people do have legitimate concerns.
One thing is very important: If you’re going to be prepared to raise an issue then at least be prepared to accept that sometimes you will be wrong. That’s not a reason to not raise it in the first place, but it’s a plea to leave the ego at the door. Easier said than done …
That said, there are numerous examples of situations where engineers, in conjunction with their political masters, seem to have “fobbed off” legitimate concerns all too quickly. The most tragic example I can think of is on Tamaki Drive, where a cyclist was killed recently. Apparently the former Auckland City Council had been informed about that particular cycle safety black-spot several years earlier and yet nothing was done. Until, that is, some poor cyclist was killed, after which it took only one week before the required changes to the road layout were made.
Incidences like provide the motivation to all of us to speak out a little more about our transport corridors. It’s potentially very very useful for AT to have feedback from the public on where something is not quite right. I think it’s fair to suggest that there’s a real opportunity for the community to communicate better with engineers, and vice versa.
So how should members of the general public engage more constructively with engineers? Well, based on my experience if you ever have the pleasure of sitting down with an engineer to discuss a particular issue then I’d suggest that you have:
- Photos - from the pedestrian/drivers perspective and also aerials from Google Earth if useful. The best photos are those that demonstrate how people are using the transport infrastructure and what the implications are for transport safety and/or efficiency. Photos that show safety issues are particularly compelling, like this one.
- Data/diagrams – information on vehicle count data can be found here here. Make sure you understand what the trends are on the street you’re interested in and in the wider area. Is vehicle traffic growing or decreasing (it is in many central areas). But note that these counts only relate to vehicles, so if you have a pedestrian or public transport issue then you may need to collect data of your own.
- Knowledge of the network - Think about the wider network. Sit down in front of Google Earth and work through in your head what would happen if a particular street/intersection had less capacity and/or more restricted movement function. This may influence whether a localised solution is sufficient, or whether a more comprehensive approach is required.
- Survey local opinions - Record the views of other people in the community about your particular issue. Make sure you talk to a variety of stakeholders: Residents, businesses, community board members (first port of call). Make sure you speak to the wider community before badgering AT/AC.
- Identify options, not solutions – with all this information in hand it’s tempting to jump to a particular solution that you think is best. Usually, however, it’s better to identify a range of options (of which “do nothing” is always one) and think about their relative strengths and weaknesses. But leave some room for the engineers to make up their own mind, especially at initial meetings.
Basically, I think that people who raise issues with transport engineers would get much further ahead if they did some relatively basic groundwork. As an example of how some simple groundword can yield dividends, I’ve downloaded and plotted the vehicle count data for Park Rd (which was brought up on another thread with regards to a missing pedestrian crossing), as shown below:
This graph tells you lots of interesting things:
- First, it suggests that vehicle volumes on Park Road grew from 2006-07, but subsequently fell back from 2007-08 (familiar story)
- Second it tells you that the latest count data for Park Road is now more than 4 years old. So if you’re sitting down to talk with AT about Park Rd and they’re relying on count data that is 4 years old, then you have a strong case for suggesting that they should arrange another count – before you even need to start talking about potential solutions to your issue (although there is likely to be other more recent counts available for nearby streets that you could use as a “control”, i.e. indicator of trends).
- Third, we the large spikes in counts around 2007, which was probably associated with construction of the Central Connector. Subsequent spikes may have been related to the construction of the new Grafton Train Station down the road. All this only reinforces the need to think about what’s going on in the wider network, especially in the future, when proposing changes to individual streets now. It may be, for example, that works proposed elsewhere requires your particular street to divert traffic onto at some point in the future.
Personally I think that there’s an opportunity for more constructive engagement between professional transport engineers and the wider community. This relies on the latter doing a little more groundwork, whereas the former needs to respect that local communities can, in the right context, make useful and non-parochial contributions to transport priorities.
Auckland Council and Auckland Transport could help drive some of this engagement.
One possible way AT/AC could facilitate constructive engagement on transport issues would be to publish a succinct guide about how people should go about investigating and documenting transport issues in their community. Such a guide could even be integrated with an expanded online form run through Auckland Transport’s website (the current one, which is good but a little limited, is here). These “online transport issue ” profiles could provide a platform for ongoing engagement with the community on this issue.
To finish, can I just observe that:
- We all fob other people off from time to time. So if you encounter an engineer who is obviously flustered then don’t push. Instead, just back off and talk in very general terms about what you should do to strengthen your case. Place the emphasis for action on yourself, rather than them, and don’t force the issue too much …
- On the other hand, if you do encounter an engineer who is genuinely obstructive and not willing to engage with issues then it may be best to go back to your local community board, if you can, and suggest that they elevate it to a managerial level. If all else fails then feel to email me and I might do a blog post about it (no guarantees, but even if I disagree I might still let you do a guest post!).
But the main takeaway message I wanted to convey is that both sides need to lift their game: More engineers need to respect the role of the community in transport issues (it’s NOT just a technical issue); on the other hand the general public should stop moaning, accept that issues are normally more complicated than they first appear, and try to work constructively with engineers to prove the case for change.
I’m be the first to admit that I myself am sometimes too quick to moan, so aspiring to do better is a job for all concerned. I think Auckland deserves it. Now ye shall go forth and engage!