Wellington Scoop

Mission mindset and the Transport Agency


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.


  1. Patrick Morgan, Cycling Action Network, 8. March 2017, 14:02

    Can NZTA change its spots? Time will tell.
    I found this vision of the future of city travel enlightening
    “If you believe the hype coming out of Silicon Valley in recent years, the transportation world is about to experience its biggest disruption since the motorcar replaced the horse-drawn carriage at the beginning of the twentieth century. Within the next two decades, corporate giants such as Google, Uber, Tesla, and Ford will roll millions of autonomous vehicles onto our streets, roads, and highways, with some very serious implications on the way we design our cities, not to mention how we live our lives.
    “Those who study the issue tend to fall into two camps. The first, more optimistic group believe driverless cars will complement existing walking, cycling and public transit options, reduce the number of vehicles using our streets, increase safety and mobility options, and free up public space currently used for parking. The second, more cynical crowd fear automated vehicles will induce longer commutes, sprawling development, compete with walking and cycling, and reduce investment in high capacity transit.”

  2. Ben, 8. March 2017, 16:46

    I wonder if car-sharing which is found in Europe and the UK would work here?
    Organisations and individuals become members of a company that maintains hubs of small electric cars, which can be hired for a short time and used between different locations throughout the city and suburbs. Users only pay for the time they use the vehicle. They use their mobile device to find the location of a free vehicle, book the car and to gain entry to it. At the end of the trip the vehicle can be left at any designated charging station or parking bay. Payment is debited by card.

    Benefits include:
    • The convenience of short-term use without the burden of ownership.
    • Reduce dependency on fossil-fuelled vehicles.
    • Reduce pollution and the cost of energy imports.
    • Reduced travel times and traffic congestion.
    • Reduced parking times.
    • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions due to less cars on the road.
    • More efficient vehicle usage.

    I guess we may not have the population to sustain this kind of outlay? However, it would be a great alternative to owning a car when living in the city, or for businesses who have people wanting to travel around Wellington. We could start with a similar concept in bike sharing!

  3. Henry Filth, 9. March 2017, 7:08

    Ah, yes Ben. Privately-owned public transport.

    Top scheme.

    Its certainly where history suggests we are heading. . .

  4. Sue Watt, 9. March 2017, 9:39

    I agree, the principles are a ray of hope for an holistic, people-centred approach to transport in Wellington This is largely due to their being developed with public input from a broad range of people and interest groups.
    However, the LGWM project team has gone away and developed its own set of criteria, allegedly based on the principles, against which to measure its own set of possible scenarios (see http://www.getwellymoving.co.nz/towards-a-solution/). These criteria have been created with no public input. In my view, the principles themselves should be criteria.

  5. Trish, 9. March 2017, 12:47

    Meanwhile, casting a shadow over what may be progress with LGWM, there is still the government/Local Government Commission plan to create a Wellington Transport Authority. It would sort out the transport muddle by unifying the roles of the regional and local councils from funding busses and trains to painting lines on the roads. Totally separated from land use planning. They have got that in Auckland. The result is that accountability is totally clear – it is the AT’s responsibility to fix the traffic delays while the council is pressured by government to develop far-flung suburbs. The result is more roads, and even bigger traffic jams.

  6. Dave, 9. March 2017, 17:15

    Is there hope for change with the present National government? After 8½ years of them, the precedent is not good. Their self-styled mission is to give New Zealand the kind of roads they observe in other, more populous countries. Keeping-up-with-the-Jones’s, as it were. This means lots more multi-lane, divided highways, even though benefit-cost analysis regularly points to these being unjustified in New Zealand’s situation.
    Unfortunately, the government’s desire to “Keep up with the Jones’s” does not extend to developing the kind of successful railway systems found in other countries, and the excuse is usually that “we don’t have the population to justify it”. Yet magically, we do have the population for the development of hugely over-specified new roads! Roads which generally duplicate existing roads, and for which the additional gains are small.
    Roads are what our government does, and pretty-much all it does. Ministers will happily slash budgets for everything else, except their pet road schemes. Is it any wonder that the NZTA simply parrots out this same policy?

    In a few months we have a chance for us to send this government down the road. If we fail to, then we must expect insanity in transport-policy to persist.

  7. Richard Keller, 9. March 2017, 21:45

    Informative and inspired analysis of NZTA again, Michael. Thanks. But you still don’t address the public support for the roading program and air travel. While Wellington City has a reasonably progressive attitude toward transport, the suburbs see the City primarily as a barrier to getting to the airport. Why support for more roads and air travel is so irrational, even desperate, is a question that must be addressed if we are to have the right discussions and do the right thing to sort out transport.

  8. Kerry Wood, 10. March 2017, 8:09

    Henry: Privately owned public transport? use a car-share and pick up anybody who waves you down?
    Car sharing works very well in many places, filling in where people use public transport most of the time, and cheaper than owning a rarely-used car. I don’t see why it can’t work in at least the denser areas of Wellington, although the WCC scheme isn’t gaining much traction yet.
    Another good fill-in, also supporting and supported by good public transport, is hire bicycles. Like the cars, scheme members can pick up a bike at a street corner.

  9. Ben, 10. March 2017, 10:15

    @ Kerry: Check out @Ben where I suggest that organisations and individuals become members of a company that maintains hubs of small electric cars, which can be hired for a short time and used between different locations throughout the city and suburbs. I assume this is what Henry is responding to??

  10. Michael C Barnett, 10. March 2017, 18:04

    Richard Keller. Thank you for your good comment. You raise the question of the irrationality of public support for more roads and air travel. In large measure I think this can be attributed to a Transport Agency who are seen as the expert in these things (at least roads) and a land transport committee made up of representatives of NZTA, Greater Wellington and the outlying territorial authorities, many of whom are not prepared to stand up and question the mindset and bias of the major funder of the transport program. In writing my series of articles, it is my hope that we can generate rational debate and get the public better informed on these choices, the impact of additional traffic volumes generated, the futility of expanding the road corridor through to the airport and the potential of a world class transport system based around a high capacity light rail system operating along key corridors.

  11. KB, 10. March 2017, 23:12

    New Zealand has one of the highest car ownership rates in the world. Kiwis llove owning cars. Kiwis love driving their cars. That isn’t going to change just because more public transport options are funded. Car ownership is a sunk cost for car owners, and many will choose to take a slower car ride to maintain the personal comfort and ease of direct point to point transport. Every time people mention “such and such a public transport scheme worked in such and such a city of similar size to Wellington” they are ignoring the fact that the comparison city usually had nowhere near the cars per capita of Wellington. It’s going to take much more than simply building a such and such public transport scheme – you are going to need compelling reasons for people to buy into it after decades of loving a car. (Making it free would be a great start, but that ain’t going to happen anytime soon). One also needs to factor in another very real reason for car ownership in Wellington – you need one to get anywhere cheaply between Wellington and the Bombay Hills.

  12. Ben, 11. March 2017, 9:31

    I am sure more people would use public transport within the city if it was readily available and reasonably priced. However, as KB points out, one real reason we will still need cars is for transport out of the city, where public transport links do not give us the coverage we might need in a timely and cost effective manner.
    Take for example the many families with children playing sport on a Saturday. I had 4 children playing from regional league to local league in 4 different places and 4 different times on a Saturday. Even co-ordinating with other parents for drop offs and pick ups I could not have managed any of it without a car. Or, when I regularly take my 94 year old father out for a drive I cannot do this on public transport . . . etc etc.
    Effective public transport within the inner city is a must and should be encouraged but, given our small population base and lack of ability to afford a comprehensive widespread public transport system, we will still need cars.

  13. John Rankin, 11. March 2017, 10:08

    “Wellington 2030, city of motorways and car parks” seems to be NZTA’s implicit strategic vision. The 10,000+ extra cars predicted for Wellington when the new motorways are completed will have to go somewhere. And the 50,000 additional residents expected by 2043 are assumed to generate more traffic too.

    Perhaps because many people have little choice but to drive, as they live too far away to walk, don’t feel safe cycling, or have poor access to public transport, we have become a city of captive drivers.

    And people are showing all the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome, where the captives choose to stay with their captors, taking their captors’ side against those offering a choice of freedom.

  14. TrevorH, 11. March 2017, 10:25

    I agree with Ben and KB. And I actually think this interminable “debate” is about much more than the Transport Agency or public transport. It’s about beliefs and values, the rights of the individual versus the collectivist outlook. So it won’t be settled by empirical evidence. It’s deeply political.

  15. paul bruce, 11. March 2017, 10:43

    Thanks Michael for the excellent article.

    In response to KB, the statement that Kiwis love their cars more than any other industrialized country is total rubbish. We respond to the choices made available, and the last 60 years has made the non-car option progressively less convenient. That could be turned around by the election of a public transport friendly government similar to that of most European cities.

    When I went to school, the majority walked, rode a bike or caught public transport to school, and Wellington city had a light rail (zero emission) service that extended to every suburb mostly in their own corridor. Where public transport has seen improvement such as with the introduction of new Matangi trains to Waikanae, usage has expanded constantly. That is predicted to change with the completion of the Kapiti Expressway and the Transmission Gully Road. New motorways are extending in every direction and city roads are still being modified in favor of faster movement of cars rather than public transport, cycling, and walking. The final step in this re-alignment towards private vehicles would be the replacement of the quiet zero emission trolley buses with diesel and hybrid vehicles later this year.

    European cities and many north American cities have re-prioritised high-quality public transport and active modes providing attractive zero emission choices to commuters resulting in a big shift away from private vehicles. It could be same for Wellington – it is a political question!

    There is some hope – the decision against the Basin Reserve bridge and the formation of a Get Welly Moving team was a vote for more integrated urban planning. The upcoming election will give us another chance to consolidate that change of direction.

  16. Michael C Barnett, 11. March 2017, 10:59

    KB. Yes, New Zealanders do have a love affair with their car and in open country it is a necessity for rural folk to function in the modern world. However, I would suggest it is not such an essential item (and an expensive one at that) for many living in our large metropolitan cities. If as you say “car ownership is a sunk cost for car owners, and a slower car ride to maintain the personal comfort and ease of direct point to point transport,” I do not see this as justification for expanding the corridor from the Terrace Tunnel to the the airport on a substandard motorway that will never achieve the stated objective of less congestion

    The debate is about making rational decisions for the city and region to function and a desire to have a livable city, where people can move around safely and in comfort. To achieve this we should be designing our city around the needs of people not their cars.

    As for your trip to the Bombay Hills, I can get there for under $30 in the comfort of an Intercity Coach. Your petrol bill alone would be at least $70 and probably a lot more.

  17. Russell Tregonning, 11. March 2017, 12:37

    Excellent article, Michael. And good comments Paul Bruce. Same for me at school — people were perfectly happy with active and public transport. Now, latest research ( Dr Sandy Mandic) shows my old school ( King’s High in Dunedin) has only 1% of its pupils biking to school. In the early 60s, the streets and bike sheds were full of bikes ( King’s is on the flats of South Dunedin). Many kids now drive to school when that was rare.

    So what’s changed? Dr Mandic’s research shows the biggest factor is parental concern re safety on the roads. That fits in with the common response of my ex-patients when I encouraged cycling as rehab after knee surgery–“What–No way!–too unsafe”.

    How to change that perception? We must slow the city traffic, reduce on-road parking and provide safe cycling lanes & quiet streets. Along with congestion charging at the same time, fast, frequent reliable PT like light rail for Wellington can transform our city. Other cities do — we can, too. In fact we have to — for climate & health.

  18. Victor Davie, 11. March 2017, 14:03

    Until the early sixties, trams were the main form of inner-city public transport. Cars had to give way to them. As a very young man I observed the tracks being “torn up” and thinking this was an act of vandalism. And now the City Council and GWRC without consulting the public are about to get rid of the emission free trolley buses. Unproven hybrid buses using precious metals for batteries and still belching out fumes is highly questionable. I challenge our councils to hold a referendum. The result of which would be democratic and binding.

  19. John Rankin, 11. March 2017, 14:20

    One of my colleagues framed the politics and economics of public and private transport as follows.

    A cohesive philosophy is needed that covers all interests and has something for everyone. This story needs to describe transport system dynamics, effects and the process by which solutions can be developed.

    1. We have a multi modal transport system for both personal travel & freight

    2. Travel modes include car, bus, rail, walk, cycle, taxi, – and others may be introduced, eg light rail, autonomous vehicles, …. Freight modes: road, rail, sea, air

    3. A series of interwoven transport networks underpin the overall transport system

    4. Over time, the system and the networks respond to demand as far as they can through adaptation and modification

    5. As demand increases, conflicts between modes also increase and these conflicts become more serious and increasingly need to be managed

    6. Upgrades, often through different forms of network junction improvements are undertaken where possible, ultimately resulting in grade separation in some cases

    7. As society grows, more and more conflicts occur (for example, between cars and other modes) and associated compromises/trade-offs are increasingly required, affecting the relative levels of service (LOS) of individual modes / networks

    8. Technocrats can keep things safe and to some extent can squeeze more out of the system in the short term, but they can’t arrest the overall decline in LOS. The experts in transport management can really only keep the system running at lower levels of efficiency.

    9. It becomes increasingly expensive to manage or reduce conflicts to achieve major improvement in LOS. This can be possible, in some circumstances, through very major projects, and even underground systems, but becomes increasingly unaffordable and environmentally unacceptable. For various reasons, eventually all such initiatives must come to a halt.

    10. Once everything that can be done, has been done, simply treating traffic bottlenecks and conflict points will not materially improve the position. Solutions are not cheap and they don’t solve the problem either.

    11. It becomes increasingly difficult to find any solution, a ‘’wicked problem’’

    12. The increase in conflicts and decline in LOS results in cities becoming increasingly unattractive and environmentally damaged, with congestion, queuing and parking issues, and as a result the liveability and economic efficiency of the cities will decline

    13. Inadequate provision of transport infrastructure / services and sub-optimal pricing leads to major inefficiencies and harms the prospect for economic growth

    14. Many car drivers will then have little option but to accept their second mode preference, and this a key reason why very good alternatives are needed.

    15. In this context, more expensive solutions (such as light rail) that were previously considered unaffordable, come into play, and become part of a logical answer to the developing/ emerging problem.

    16. If the transport system is well planned and networks within it are integrated, then there is a much greater chance of success. Hence light rail needs to be very well integrated.

    17. Then to maintain and even improve efficiency, ultimately pricing need to be brought in to get the road system to perform efficiently and to get an acceptable rate of return on the huge investment the transport network represents.

  20. Pseudopanax, 12. March 2017, 20:00

    When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies there was a chap from Island Bay, Saul Goldsmith I think his name was, who stood in very election, council, general etc on the “Bring Back The Trams” platform. The general consensus was he was an eccentric dreamer. Now of course we realise he was on the money, like Dove Myer Robinson in Auckland, a voice in the wilderness of motorway mania…

  21. Paul Estoc, 13. March 2017, 15:34

    For the large part the OP is quite correct. However he does overlook a significant contributing factor in Wellington’s roading woes. The inability of the major councils to work together to create a unified transport plan not just for “Wellington” but for all the satellite cities that now feed people and cars into the Wellington grid. Wellington as a regional whole needs to be looking at solutions for delivering people from all wards, and regions into the city in ways that do not rely on more cars and more roads to hold them.

  22. luke, 14. March 2017, 16:02

    the big problem is steven joyce with his massive roads-only approach. central governments ‘free’ money for motorways vs ratepayer funded non road options. Exception being a few greenwash cycleway projects that can be tacked onto motorway construction.

  23. Russell Tregonning, 15. March 2017, 21:59

    Very true, Luke. I have just ridden on the latest greenwash bicycle trail. Please see the blog recounting our experience by my friend and cycle advocate Alastair Smith.