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 on it.
“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.