Auckland Transport’s reorganisation – no walking and cycling unit?

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One aspect of corporate life that I have never understood is the random and occasional destruction of office morale by a good old staff restructure.  Whole departments are consigned to oblivion and individuals face the terrifying prospect of sudden unemployment at the signing of a pen.

Of course there is always a consultation, and the need to discuss the proposal, carefully consider the feedback and then make a final decision.  I have not however yet witnessed a restructure where the original proposal was changed in no more than a superficial way.

The end result is inevitably destroyed morale, and often a dumbing down of the organisation as those who are capable move elsewhere to other work places where terror will not be such a prominent feature.

To be honest I do not understand why large reorganisations have to happen.  My preference would be that there was incremental change that was respectful of the employee rather than revolutionary change that is challenging to them.

And there is always a cost.  Even if a worker manages to avoid the cut morale tanks.  And there is a hiatus before and after the reorganisation as people settle into new roles.

So I was dismayed that Auckland Transport is going through a reorganisation, and disrupting some of the most important areas of work that it is involved in.

Simon Wilson in the Herald has the details.

Auckland Transport is axing 84 positions and creating 112 new ones in an attempt to change an internal culture it says is based on “avoidance and oppositional behaviour”. The changes include disbanding the dedicated walking and cycling unit.

The move comes a year after the appointment of a new chief executive, Shane Ellison, and follows a major internal review by the council-controlled organisation.

AT spends more than half of Auckland Council’s rates income and often comes under fire for the way it manages roading projects, bus lanes, cycle ways and even, most recently, e-scooters.

Ellison told the Herald that AT has known all year that it needs to transform the way it works.

Well it did but I cant see how this was the fault of the walking and cycling unit.  If anything it is evidence that the unit should be strengthened, not disbanded.

It seems that problems with the West Lynn village upgrade were a major feature.  Again from Wilson at the Herald:

One of the best-known examples of AT dysfunction is the West Lynn shopping village, where a cycleway became hopelessly compromised by poor consultation, demands about car parking, under-road infrastructure repairs, safety issues, bus issues, landscaping and a very poorly developed sense of how to create an appealing suburban village.

In the community and inside AT, it seemed like every group was fighting every other group, with local citizens forced to watch on in horror.

“We learned an awful lot from West Lynn,” Ellison said.

The Herald asked him what they had learned.

“That walking, cycling and placemaking are inherently linked,” he said.

But didn’t the active transport unit keep telling them that?

He said they would be working more closely with the council’s Auckland Design Office and independent consultants. AT will not be attempting to do so much of its own urban design.

And there were major problems earlier in the year with AT’s draft regional land transport plan.  Again from Simon Wilson at the Herald:

How embarrassing. The board of Auckland Transport (AT) has rejected the draft of its most important planning document, prepared for it by AT staff. The reason? The recommendations in the draft ignored AT’s own policies. They also ignored the policies of Auckland Council, which AT is supposed to answer to. And they ignored the clearly stated wishes of the new government, which has a say because it co-funds so much of the city’s transport programme.

Will heads roll? Unlikely, but possible.

It started last week, when AT published, under the signature of Shane Ellison, its brand-new CEO, the draft of its new 10-year plan. Nearly half the funding for commuter rail was gone, light rail was ranked so low it would not get any funding at all, and the cycling and walking budget was slashed by 90 per cent.

Cue immediate scrambling for cover. The chair of the AT board, Lester Levy, even rang the Minister of Transport, Phil Twyford, to apologise. Twyford tweeted: “I’ve had sincere apology from AT chair Lester Levy for internal ‘budget’ document mistakenly made public. The doc certainly doesn’t reflect my conversations with @phil_goff and @AklTransport board and our shared commitment to building a modern transport system for Auckland.”

So the solution to these problems is to dumb down AT’s urban design capacity and do away with the walking and cycling unit?

It appears possible that Kathryn King, bike protagonist extraordinaire, may struggle to find a new role.  Again from Simon Wilson:

Ellison declined to discuss individual roles, but the Herald has been advised the changes include disbanding the Walking, Cycling and Road Safety unit and disestablishing the position of its manager, currently held by Kathryn King.

King is well-known to cycling advocates in Auckland as an enthusiastic spokesperson for AT’s cycling programme. Certainly none of her seniors have a public profile associated with cycling.

The lobby group Bike Auckland has called on Auckland Transport to “explain how disestablishing its walking and cycling team will enhance its focus on walking and cycling and help remedy historic underinvestment in these modes”.

Ellison told the Herald that active transport had become a priority for the whole organisation and a steering group, led by a member of the executive, would help ensure it stayed that way. But this would not be the only responsibility of that executive.

This would be a major shame.  Kathryn has been a vocal and passionate advocate for cycling.  She is just what is needed at AT.

As an indication of her passion this is a picture I took of her holding a Guinness Book of Records certificate at the conclusion of Glen Eden Intermediate’s successful attempt at a cycling world record.

Bike Auckland has expressed concern. From their press release:

Bike Auckland, the nonprofit advocacy organisation for people on bikes, is deeply concerned by reports that Auckland Transport proposes dismantling its dedicated Walking and Cycling team, at a time when the city needs world-class infrastructure for people on foot and on bicycles more than ever.

Auckland Transport advised stakeholders on November 1st that “internal structural changes” will “provide an increased focus on strategic priorities” but gave no specifics. However, reports that specialist roles for walking and cycling within the agency are being disestablished have raised concerns about a loss of key experience and expertise – risking a downsizing of capability in the very modes Auckland Transport has been instructed to invest in by Auckland Council, the NZ Transport Agency, central government and the majority of Aucklanders.

Bike Auckland calls on Auckland Transport to explain how disestablishing its walking and cycling team will enhance its focus on walking and cycling and help remedy historic underinvestment in these modes; and to clarify who will continue to champion active transport within the organisation.

Bike Auckland is especially concerned at a loss of focus and dilution of expertise at a time when Aucklanders are demonstrably embracing reliable, affordable, nimble, sustainable and congestion-free ways to get around our growing city and connect to public transport, in ever-expanding numbers.

Others with deep interest in Auckland transport issues have similar views.

I do not know how Auckland Council will respond to the proposal, presumably do nothing as it is an AT management decision. But if I was to have a say in what was happening I would say that urban design and provision for walking and cycling should be at the centre of AT’s thinking and that it needs loud dedicated advocates. And getting rid of these roles is not the way to achieve this goal.

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