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Making risky decisions about footpaths and cycleways

by Dr Jenny Condie
The Innovating Streets paper was hotly anticipated. My Twitter feed had been full of discussion about how cities around the world were changing their streets to support physical distancing in the age of Covid-19. Auckland Transport had already rolled out almost 17km of pop-up cycleways and were widening footpaths on High St and Queen St. What would Wellington do?

When I first read the Innovating Streets paper, I was impressed with how good it was. It exceeded my expectations so much that I emailed staff to congratulate them.

“You did an amazing job organising so many different requests into a way that was digestible and easy to follow… Writing such a clear and useful paper, that covers 80+ suggested projects, under severe time constraints is really impressive work.”

My Twitter feed did not share my sentiments. In the days after the paper was made public, I received messages and emails from people frustrated and angry about the weighting given to the criteria for selecting projects.

When I’m that far out of step with the public response, I definitely take time to reflect on that.

I had a similar reaction to the advice provided on the Convention Centre when I read it during the election campaign. How could 15 councillors have unanimously agreed to this project based on advice that, based on my reading of the paper, had significant gaps?

My first six months as a councillor have helped me to understand that making a decision is a journey. The public facing part of that journey is very small – only the paper and the final debate at Council. Those only capture that journey at two fixed points in time.

One of the main issues with the Innovating Streets paper was simply the timeframe. Having received the IS paper on the Monday night, we needed to decide on Thursday afternoon which of these proposals we would ask staff to submit to NZTA on Friday.

Some people called on us to completely review the criteria used in the paper, to give safety a significantly higher weighting and risk a much lower one. Doing this would have delayed all the projects for at least another week (if not two, as we don’t have a Council meeting scheduled this week). I agree that the criteria were probably flawed, although I don’t believe the analysis was as flawed as the paper made it appear. Did the quality of the advice justify this delay? I didn’t think so.

At an early meeting with officers about the draft paper, I asked questions about the risk criteria and why they had given risk such high weighting. Officers recommended that we should be cautious about pushing for projects that we knew would be highly controversial, given there would be very little time for community consultation. In particular, we talked about not wanting to install cycleways running along shop fronts because of the angst that could cause business owners at an already stressful time.

(There is, I know, plenty of evidence that installing cycleways improves retail sales, but we need to acknowledge that stressed out business owners are not in a good headspace for that conversation right now.)

In drafting the paper, some of the nuance from that conversation got lost. Yes, we discussed loss of parking as a part of the risk profile of the projects. That was just one factor in considering how different parts of the community might react to these projects being installed on short notice with minimal consultation.

Given the extreme circumstances that officers were working under to deliver this paper, I think the flaws in the paper can be understood and forgiven. I was confident this wouldn’t affect our ability to make a good decision. (In future I will definitely spend more time discussing the evaluation criteria, and how they are explained in the paper, and less discussing the details of the different projects.)

In considering the Innovating Streets projects, instead of delving into the criteria I focused on two things: could we deliver more projects than the twelve which were recommended; and could we deliver the Covid-19 response projects more quickly than set out in the paper?

The answer to whether we could deliver more projects was no – our staff are already stretched with their regular workloads, plus the work taking place to respond to Covid-19. We have no capacity to design more projects at this point. One of the amendments made to the paper, with officer endorsement, is that we will investigate a second tranche of projects, once the first set have been delivered. This holds the door open for further work if all or most of our current applications get NZTA funding, which we should find out in the next few days.

The answer to whether we could deliver the recommended Covid-19 responses faster was also no. Our officers take their legal obligations to consult appropriately very seriously. There are emergency powers allowing us to make changes to our streets during the pandemic, the legal advice we received was that only for immediate risk to safety (such as reported near misses), could we use those emergency powers. I worked with Minister Genter’s office to see if we could get a clarifying legal opinion on the appropriate use of these powers from NZTA, which may yet be forthcoming. For now, it will take three weeks for us to comply with the standard consultation process required for any traffic resolution before these Covid-19 response changes can be made.

Since we weren’t able to do more or go faster than the officers’ recommendations, the Innovating Streets package was passed with very little change.

How did we get answers to these two questions? We asked officers during our Q&A session on Tuesday, and numerous emails, phone calls, and meetings occurred over three days. By the time we get to public participation at Council meetings, councillors typically have considerably more information about the decision to be made than members of the public have. They are relying on the original version of the paper, which has by then been supplemented by hours of questions and conversations.

We need to think about how we can get more of the information that is available to councillors out to the public as well – ideally before the decisions are made. Because while the paper with officer advice may be the end of the policy process, it is often only the beginning of a decision making process. It’s important that the public be able to follow us on that journey, and not feel like they’re being left behind.

Dr Jenny Condie is a Wellington city councillor for the northern ward.

13 comments:

  1. Hempseed, 11. May 2020, 10:07

    Jenny thank you for being one of the only councillors who seems willing to engage. I would recommend that a twitter feed really isn’t a good feel of the general public mood though.

     
  2. Andrew, 11. May 2020, 14:51

    WCC’s inability to act is spelled out in the sentence that “Auckland Transport had already rolled out almost 17km of pop-up cycleways and were widening footpaths on High St and Queen St. What would Wellington do?” And what is the WCC doing? Waiting for a response from the Transport Agency. I predict that we will be at level 0 before the council manages to put out the first cone.

     
  3. Marion Leader, 11. May 2020, 16:43

    Jenny, thank you from me too.

     
  4. Jill Ford, 11. May 2020, 17:26

    Thanks Jenny, great explanation, so hopefully we will see safety having a much higher priority rating on the criteria for assessing proposals than currently. With it also prioritising safe cycle routes to schools, as so many children have been out biking on our roads whilst in lock down and I am sure would like the independence of getting to school by bike. Cycling, as you know, is a very cheap and convenient way to get around as well as being healthy for people and the environment. Let’s see the WCC put some key cycle routes into the next round of proposals to the Innovating street fund. Or we will be back to congested routes, high carbon emissions and business as usual.

     
  5. Michelle Rush, 12. May 2020, 10:42

    Last night at the Environmental Reference Group meeting with WCC staff and councillors, it appears WCC’s steps in going slow to make sure they adhered to the legal requirements for consultation and council decisions under LGA in respect of bylaws (which basically means changes MUST be by traffic resolution) were vindicated… sounds like both Auckland CC and Nelson CC are having to back track and do their legal work in retrospect. Thank you Jenny and fellow councillors for proposing at least some safety projects for implementation under IS funds.

     
  6. Sam Donald, 12. May 2020, 22:42

    Thanks Jenny. Michele: The WCC may well feel vindicated, however I do wonder which is worse, backtracking and doing legal work in retrospect, or not taking the emergency steps which may well save lives? Either by, for example: 1) Preventing a pedestrian being hit by a vehicle when stepping onto the road in an attempt to maintain a physical distance from an un-masked potentially coughing or sneezing asymptomatic infected passerby on a footpath that is narrower than 3.5m (ie. most in Wellington); or 2) Preventing a COVID-19 transmission which turns out to, at some point along its transmission path, be deadly; or 3) By preventing a cyclist being knocked off their bike while seeking alternatives to public transport running at 30% – 40% capacity with again un-masked potentially asymptomatic infected passengers. Actually I don’t wonder, seems pretty clear choice in the midst of a global pandemic!

     
  7. Andrew, 13. May 2020, 7:50

    In some cases it’s better to go hard and go early. It would have been better for WCC to put out some cones in order to protect the citizens of this city by allowing better separation on footpaths and the need to step out on the unprotected roadway during the heights of the crisis and to clean up the legalities afterwards.
    But I guess it’s too late now…

     
  8. Tom, 13. May 2020, 17:18

    I appreciate Jenny’s accurate comments about how decisions are currently made. But it’s an example of how status quo stays status quo. Fundamentally, the Council and Councillors need to ask themselves: do we want to do something meaningfully different? If the answer is no, status quo. If the answer genuinely is yes, don’t use status quo process as your argument for not making change. Change means breaking things. Breaking the chain of transmission for example.

    To pick up on Andrew’s comment, and to put it into sharp context: there was no ‘process’ or real legal framework to tell New Zealanders to stay home for 6 weeks. But it was the right thing to do and communicated clearly.

    So Jenny has a choice – as do all Councillors and officers – do you really want to do something different or not? If yes, break the process (safely by allowing offramps and ‘undos’) and ask for forgiveness later. If not, carry on. But don’t say you want to make change while simultaneously putting up an argument as to why change isn’t possible.

     
  9. JW, 13. May 2020, 20:25

    I completely agree with Tom’s comment. Where I live there has been parking removed and cones put up to allow for easy queueing outside shops, the authorities are cracking on with temporary cycle lanes, things are actually happening. There is no consultation because this is an urgent matter and frankly it is not in the public interest for busybodies to be given x amount of weeks to say ‘ohhh but but you can’t do this here because..’ One either wants things to happen or not and whether or not Council officers have done a great job in writing a paper has zero positive impact on anyone’s lives (beyond the authors) if the actual action is either delayed or not happening.

     
  10. Northland, 13. May 2020, 23:28

    Trouble is JW that your ‘busy bodies’ are someone else’s ‘Save the Basin’. Having said that, I do believe most processes at the Council are locked in analysis paralysis. Over analysing everything is a modern malaise that is rolled out to give an illusion of protection against making ‘the wrong decision’. And it gives no greater certainty of avoiding bad outcomes – case in point being Bustastrophe.

     
  11. Peter Barlow, 14. May 2020, 8:35

    Implementation of Government policy through the Innovating Streets program could have long term beneficial health and safety implications for New Zealanders who under the lock down have shown that they can be physically active give the opportunity. We await the ramifications for commuting modes of transport with the lifting of the Alert 3 restrictions.

     
  12. Ralf, 15. May 2020, 7:42

    I do not understand this comment …“we talked about not wanting to install cycleways running along shop fronts because of the angst that could cause business owners at an already stressful time.” So you are saying (thinking post-Covid) we are in a climate emergency (declared by WCC) which means that these are stressful times which means we must postpone any changes to our transport model forever? Now I understand why Helene Ritchie commented “Your proposal re taking out carparks, car-lanes etc will never happen in the near future and is at great cost with further procrastination and nothing happening.”

    If anything, THIS is the moment for radical thinking. European cities like Milan, Paris, Brussels, Berlin are taking this moment to rebuild their cities for non-car modes (more walking, more biking, more green spaces, …). Our government is willing to spend a lot of money in the next two years. Where will Wellington spend it? Probably on some consultants to make some business cases. Plus of course finishing the Convention Centre in record time.

     
  13. Peter Barlow, 16. May 2020, 8:25

    Thanks Jenny Condie backing a healthy way of life for all Welly people. I see that Dunedin has shifted to a 10kph speed limit on a main street. This would place it at another level for social distancing on a temporary basis. It will be enlightening if Dunedin keeps the limit for some of the street long term due to the advantages.