It’s now almost two and a half years since Auckland Transport came into existence: joining together the transport functions of ARTA and all the old Councils into one organisation. There was a lot of angst around Auckland Transport’s creation – why should something as political and as debated as transport be pushed away into a separate organisation from the Council? Would Auckland Transport follow the direction of the Council or that of Central Government? What benefits of having an operationally focused organisation that’s independent from the day to day politics of Council really bring?
While it hasn’t been an easy first couple of years (the mess of Rugby World Cup opening night being the absolute low-point for the organisation in my opinion) it seems that most people are reasonably happy with how Auckland Transport has gone over this time. However, with the next local government elections happening later this year and public transport patronage seeming to be in a fairly lengthy stalling phase, I think the next few months will really become a true test for the whole concept of having Auckland Transport as a separate organisation to the Council.
It’s clear that the patronage issue is starting to filter through to Auckland Transport, with the new Chair Lester Levy laying down the law pretty harshly at the December board meeting:
The Chairman noted this is not a new problem and simply restating the problem will not solve it. In his view, the rail patronage had not effectively grown since October 2011 and overall public transport patronage has not really increased since January 2012. More understanding about the root causes of this is needed and must be addressed in management’s comprehensive plan due to be present to the Board in February next year. The paper needs to address not only what will be done but most importantly how actions will be undertaken and why it is believed they will work. He re-emphasised that AT needs to be a customer led organisation which will require a mindset change within the organisation. Increasing public transport patronage needs to be elevated to the number one issue for AT.
Rail patronage not growing since October 2011. Gee I wonder what might have put people off.
The response to these comments, going to the Board today, sounds a bit like 25 pages of excuses and most of the ideas around improving patronage seem to be related to marketing (not that I’m opposed to marketing) instead of actually trying to make the system better. Some quick wins like better weekend rail frequencies still seem to be ignored yet again – for example, need I remind Auckland Transport that Saturday rail frequencies on the Western Line remain unchanged from 1994?
I’m genuinely hopeful that things will improved under the new Chair, who seems to have an extremely low tolerance of the normal excuses dished out by Auckland Transport management and who seems much more interested in telling a “genuine” story about how things are, rather than the typical Auckland Transport PR strategy of pretending everything’s hunky-dory no matter how bad they’re going. I guess I’m impatient for change though.
Another Board Paper reminded me of an issue that I think cuts to the heart of testing whether it’s worth having Auckland Transport as a separate organisation or not – the issue of bus lanes. Seeing a paper on bus and transit lanes going to the Board I was excited that there might be some discussion around future additional bus lanes – what are useful trigger points for them being necessary, which routes would benefit from bus lanes, what’s the timetable for the widespread expansion of Auckland’s bus lane system over the next few years and so forth. Instead, the paper discusses just about every other possible element of bus lanes except for the most important issue – where the next ones will be.
As well as bus lanes being something of a pet issue for me, I think they’re a good test of Auckland Transport’s usefulness for a number of reasons:
- They make a lot of logical sense and provide significant benefit for low cost – but can be unpopular. Separating operation of the transport network from day to day politics through having a CCO is designed to enable sensible but potentially unpopular projects to occur where they contribute to the strategic direction the Council wants to go (i.e. improving public transport).
- They assist other parts of Auckland Transport’s responsibility – most obviously in managing the public transport network. Before amalgamation it was ARTA who benefitted from the bus lanes but the city councils that needed to put them in, so there was little incentive to see bus lanes go in and probably a lot of arguing was necessary. I would have thought having a single organisation would increase the likelihood of bus lanes for this reason – but seemingly not.
There’s a lot that the public gives up in having Auckland Transport as a CCO – less direct oversight through elected members, probably less democracy in decision-making, certainly less information made publicly available. For that loss to be worth it, Auckland Transport needs to start delivering – delivering public transport patronage growth and delivering necessary but politically challenging improvements, like bus lanes. Otherwise we might as well just fold them back into the Council so at least we know what they’re doing.