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14 January 2021

Drivers for Change

Auckland is New Zealand’s biggest, busiest and most congested city. When mobility expert Victoria Carter and urbanist Patrick Reynolds joined the Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency Board last year and became the only Aucklanders on that board, it put them firmly in the driving seat.


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Drivers for Change

As passionate Auckland advocates, Carter and Reynolds bring a wealth of transport-related and governance experience to the board. Carter, a former Auckland City councillor, is a director on the board of several private companies and is founder of Cityhop, New Zealand’s first and largest carshare business.

Reynolds has lectured on urban design at the University of Auckland and written about transport and the urban realm, most prominently at Greater Auckland. He has served on boards for Auckland Council, Auckland Transport and Rotorua Lakes Council.
We asked them what their selection means for Auckland, why change is good, and why they’re on a mission to reduce cars in the city. But first, what is the role of the Waka Kotahi Board?

The chief executive of the Waka Kotahi reports to the Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency Board. The board is appointed by the Minister of Transport and is responsible for making independent decisions on allocating and investing funds from the National Land Transport Fund. It publishes its planned programme of investment every three years in the National Land Transport Programme.

So, what does Waka Kotahi actually do?

Reynolds: Waka Kotahi designs, builds and manages the State Highway network and it co-invests in other land transport including Kiwi Rail, with partners – primarily local authorities and regional councils.

Carter: The name Waka Kotahi means travelling together as one and moving together in one direction. Patrick and I are both really familiar with new mobility. In a way, Patrick and I are drivers of change.

What does your selection mean for Auckland?

Carter: We’ve been given a really important voice where we both see the potential in our city and for other growing regions.

What exactly is your remit?

Reynolds: Firstly, to carry out the policy of the government of the day as expressed through the Government Policy Statement on land transport. We have to reflect what our masters say. We also have to take the long-term view and hold technical expertise that balances the aims or the policies of the Government. To do that, we work closely with the consultancy industry, engineering companies and councils.

What is your focus in Auckland?

Carter: The Arataki is the 10-year plan created by Waka Kotahi staff. In Auckland, the areas of focus are on improving the urban form to make Auckland a better place to live; transforming urban mobility to increase use of public transport, walking and cycling; significantly reducing harms and supporting the Road to Zero safety strategy; and tackling climate change with continuous improvements in network resilience.

Why is Waka Kotahi’s current focus on change in Auckland so important?

Reynolds: It’s the cities and especially our one city of scale where the transformation is really urgent. The thing about Auckland’s scale change is that it’s not just about being a bigger town. The whole logic of how a city works and functions, socially, economically and so forth – that changes completely as well. Because this form is new to New Zealand, our institutions aren’t set up for urban logic. We don’t have a century of running a city on this scale. We’ve run provincial towns and the countryside. It has to change.

There a perception you’re a road builder, isn’t there?

Carter: It’s a key part of the business and it’s the part that soaks up most of the money. But there’s so much more to Waka Kotahi. It’s about what sort of environment we’re shaping and making. It’s making the places where we walk and move about more beautiful. It’s fundamental to our life.

Are trees important in your plan?

Carter: There’s research that says in the suburbs with more trees people have better mental health.

Reynolds: We believe every suburb should be leafy, and every rural highway. All these things we build. We don’t just fund and walk away, we maintain and reinvest constantly.

What else does Waka Kotahi fund?

Reynolds: It’s the unglamorous, no ribbon-to-cut stuff that’s the first order of business. We do that well and nobody notices. One of the problems with safety is that when you drive somewhere and you get there safely, you don’t know what’s been done. You don’t think, ‘wow, that’s a really safe road’.

We have this programme called Road to Zero which identifies, targets and improves dangerous roads using data on where people have come a cropper. Roads should be forgiving of people making mistakes, because people make mistakes. We should have a good physical environment in all parts of the public realm that will forgive you for making a mistake. It shouldn’t be fatal.

Carter: In Auckland, that means intersection and rail crossing improvements, infrastructure improvements for pedestrian and cycleways, speed management so you have safer speeds in high-risk locations. Speed is a massive issue. That’s a really ambitious multi-year programme.

Reynolds: But it works, you can’t argue with the slower speed limit. People live.

Why did you want to get onto the board?

Reynolds: Through being involved in urbanist issues and studying cities and seeing what makes cities work and how we can make them great, so much comes back to transport. When you get immersed in it, there are always counter-intuitive things.

For example, the Downs-Thompson Paradox says the speed of driving is determined by the speed of the alternative. If you want the Southern Motorway to go faster, invest your money in the railway next to it. Once the alternative becomes attractive and useful, people will switch to it and free up the motorway.

Then the Nash Equilibrium kicks in. If you make that train so fast and so luxurious, fewer will drive, so driving will become really good and suddenly you get an equilibrium.

Is there proof of that in Auckland?

Reynolds: The Northern Busway. The only reason the bridge flows at all, regardless of the structure, is because of the busway. Forty percent of the people are going across and taking up a fraction of one lane. The other 4.5 lanes are dominated by single-occupancy vehicles that are spatially inefficient and clog each other up. We’re in a situation where the answer to Auckland’s congestion problem is to invest in the alternative. Wherever we’ve done that, it’s working brilliantly.

Are you anti-cars?

Carter: I’m not anti-car, I just think we need less of them. We have too many private cars parking in public spaces. Eighty percent of cars are parked 96 percent of the time.

Reynolds: I’m not anti-car at all. It’s the best way to go to the countryside, but it’s incredibly inefficient in cities. People who love their cars – many New Zealanders – complain about congestion. Congestion is a function of too many people driving. It’s not a question of getting people who really need to drive not to drive, it’s about improving it by giving everyone really good alternatives so access for people and goods is improved, and the great road system we already have is optimised.

Carter: Transport is an equity issue. We need to create streets for living, not roads for driving through.

Where does car share fit in?

Reynolds: Car share is a really important part of mode shift. It’s about reducing congestion in cities by reducing the amount of single occupancy vehicles.

For example, we know from overseas cities that car share takes 10 to 15 percent of cars off the road. It doesn’t mean immediately people get rid of their car and only use car share, but they slowly use them less, especially in dense urban areas. It’s an important part of our mode-share policy along with investing in transit and cycling and walking.

Auckland city is optimised for driving your own vehicle. That leads directly to the problem of congestion. We have put all our eggs in one basket. We have to expand the opportunities and offers that will increasingly be available in denser areas.

You’ve been on the board for a year. What have you learned?

Carter: What I’ve found particularly interesting is seeing how important it is for Waka Kotahi to develop deeper relationships with councils. It’s a real challenge for civic leaders, councillors and government agencies to embrace new ideas and new ways of doing things. So many people seem to want to go back to the way things were. And that’s unlikely as the population grows.

Reynolds: For me, developing relationships is one of the fundamentals of what we’re about. We’re committed to evidence-based solutions. It’s a matter of research. The role of the board is to question and to work collaboratively.

Along with population change, there are other pressing drivers. It would be extremely naïve to look at the rest of this decade and assume 2020 will finish and we’ll go back to everything being unchanged.

What about the future of Auckland?

Reynolds: As a society we went too far in one direction. We just need to correct it. It would be difficult to claim Auckland is a beautiful city. When you ask people what’s good about Auckland, they’ll list things that God gave us. They’ll say the harbour, the maunga and black sand beaches. They won’t say the glorious architecture, the beautiful streets. That’s our fault. We can’t just rest on the laurels of what nature delivered.

We need to ask, does this decorate or desecrate the natural environment? And we’ve got to stop spreading out into the wilderness or we’ll stop having any wilderness and productive farmland. We have to change our practices and become more dense, urban and various.

The great story is that offering choices improves everything: our well-being, our economic performance, everything. This isn’t a war on anybody’s lifestyle. It’s a great opportunity. Auckland could be the greatest little city of two million people on the planet.

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