by Michael C Barnett
A major issue hampering the Wellington City Council and the Regional Council in their efforts to develop a sustainable and comprehensive transport system for the city and region is their placid acceptance of the NZ Transport Agency policy that focuses on new road construction as the answer to urban transport problems.
“It is difficult to ignore the Transport Agency and its desire to proceed with roading solutions, considering it is a major contributor of funds,” I was told by one councilor when I attended a recent meeting of the Regional Council’s Sustainable Transport Committee. And therein lies a problem.
During much of the 20th Century, planners and policy makers worked on the assumption that cities should be developed as single function zones. Housing developments were designed by sub-divisional engineers, industrial parks were designed by industrial engineers, road and traffic engineers designed roads and expressways, all in isolation.
Such cities do not work well. Single function development generates intolerable traffic. Motorways generate sprawl and divide communities. There has to be a better way.
The NZ Transport Agency is the government agency responsible for identifying and funding transport solutions for both rural and urban New Zealand. In performing this role, it seems blind to the ideas of the many professionals working in the field of the design of public spaces and urban transportation.
Danish architect Jan Gehl has spent his career observing people, designing urban environments around their movements and using public space to reduce the impact of the automobile. Australian David Engwicht, a social innovator and acknowledged international leader of efforts to reduce the negative impact of the motor vehicle in cities and towns, promotes the idea of removing defined barriers and designing streets with a surprise element. Both have visited these shores and proffered advice on innovative design of our streets and public spaces. There are many others who have promoted the same message.
However, when it comes to urban transport planning, the NZTA has blinkers on, seemingly trapped inside a cage of its own making with a road construction mindset and an inability to think outside this frame of reference.
Mission, mindset and culture is a well studied academic discipline and the effect of professional and bureaucratic mindsets on public policy outcomes has been well documented in public policy literature. This body of literature suggests that within any organization there exists a culture, a patterned way of thinking about central tasks and relationships within that organization. The bureaucratic organization is not just a technical system for resolving complex issues. It is also an institution infused with a sense of mission, whereby it moves beyond identifying what it does to determining what it shall be. The successful organization will benefit from having a strong charismatic leader and developing a sense of mission is easiest when the organization is first formed, as its leader will find it less difficult to impose his/her will on the first generation of operators.
To achieve its goals and objectives, a bureaucracy comes to rely upon the advice of technical experts. However, these experts – usually specialists in their field – often find little occasion to reflect on the broader aspects relating to their advice and this can lead to a tacit pattern of error. Such a pattern of error was identified in the NZTA’s proposal for a Basin Reserve Flyover, which was rejected by a Board of Inquiry in 2014.
I look at the NZTA and I see a large government bureaucracy with a particular mind-set and culture. It originally existed as the National Roads Board (NRB), part of the former Ministry of Works and was headed and largely staffed by civil engineers. Its mission was to develop, construct and maintain the roading infrastructure throughout New Zealand, a task at which it became quite proficient and over the years it developed a strong roading related culture.
During the government restructuring of the 1980s and 1990s, the NRB evolved into Transit New Zealand and more recently into the NZTA – tasked with the broader mission of delivering transport solutions that will help communities thrive. However, in spite of these expanded objectives and a broader range of management and technical expertise, the NZTA retained a strong roading culture and a mindset that focuses on road design and construction as the means of delivering those transport solutions.
If one looks at the committed activities in the Wellington Regional Land Transport Plan 2015 and the 10 year projected costs for all activities, one sees that $1,163.9 million is allocated for road related activities, which will be government funded. There is a mere $176.8 million for public transport and related infrastructure, which will be jointly funded by government and the region (Figure 49, page 144).
This is hardly indicative of any real commitment on the part of the NZTA to develop public transport and other transport modes. In fact, it is a task the NZTA avoids taking on, as it differs significantly from the original mission to build and maintain roads. It is also a task for which it lacks any practical experience. Trapped in this original mission and mindset, the NZTA has in the past displayed an unwillingness to think beyond constructing more road space when it comes to seeking sustainable transport solutions that will truly benefit Wellington and the region and in other metropolitan centres.
However, there appears to be some hope. The NZTA is leading a process to get Wellington moving. Among its 12 guiding principles it is proposing: better public transport, improved environmental outcomes, a people-centred city, managed travel demand, and the integration urban form and transport thinking. It also states that increased value should not be measured by cost alone. This represents a significant change in mission and mindset, but can NZTA deliver when its political master seems so intent on pushing on with its road of national significance to Wellington Airport, and a substandard motorway at that.