By the end of February, some of the billboards had been embellished with taggers’ favoured facial features: the mono-brow and toothbrush moustache. But Brown’s timing was spot-on as Auckland commuters prepared for “March madness”, the city’s perfect storm of traffic congestion, with schools back, the university year starting and everyone bar a few malingerers home from their summer holidays. All you need is an actual storm, even a decent downpour, and gridlock is pretty much guaranteed.
East Auckland is also about to experience stage one of AMETI, the friendly-sounding acronym for a $1.2 billion eastern busway that promises “dedicated, congestion-free” bus lanes all over the show, “supported by new cycling and walking connections… and urban design improvements”.
For Auckland’s congestion, I blame our forefathers for siting the city on a narrow isthmus, decades of poor urban planning (if only Rob Muldoon hadn’t shelved mayor Sir Dove-Myer Robinson’s far-sighted rapid-rail plan in the 70s), and the Key Government’s immigration programme that flattered GDP figures while funnelling tens of thousands of new residents into already overcrowded suburbs and onto a groaning transport network.
As one of the 50,000 daily commuters who use Pakuranga Rd – soon to be bus-laned and “T2-ed” – I decided to go to the 7pm meeting at the Bucklands Beach Yacht Club. It would also be interesting to observe democracy in action, I thought. Local authority elections will be held nationwide this October, and enrolment campaigns will start in July, in the hopes of lifting our parlous voter turnout – 43% in 2016. We peaked in 1989, when 57% of voters bothered to fill out their ballots for mayors, councillors, district health boards and the likes.
Democracy in action is always messy, even when the audience is told upfront to “show respect” and confine their questions to the matters at hand. Democracy in action also, inevitably, has microphone issues. The brave man from AMETI was onto his third mic by the time he got to his mantra for surviving the construction period: “Re-route, re-mode, re-time and reduce.”
Boiled down, if 10% of the area’s mostly single-occupant drivers don’t find other ways to get to work, the Pakuranga highway and its feeder roads will grind to a halt.
Looking around the room – there were at least 200 in attendance – I figured half of them were past their commuting days. But when the first question for AMETI man was, “Where’s the money coming from?” and someone in the back shouted “Rising rates!”, I assumed the Gold Carders in the audience were much more concerned about their rates bills than whether or not East Auckland ever “gets moving again”. AMETI will, in fact, be funded mostly by ratepayers, with input from the regional fuel tax. But yes, Mainlanders, some of your taxes are being hoovered into this mighty house-demolishing, road- and bridge-building exercise. And what do you care if it currently takes 15 minutes to make a left-hand turn from Cascades Rd?
Back at the yacht club, respect reserves were running low.
“Why don’t the cyclists pay for it!” Cyclophobia is a baffling affliction. Surely the more cyclists on the roads, the better? And in east Auckland, cyclists have waited a long time for a safe ride into town.
“The people giving you advice should go back to elementary school!”
“Personal insults aren’t acceptable here!”
“It wasn’t personal!”
Then a young man in the front stood up and spoke intelligently and succinctly about how T2-bus lanes could encourage car-pooling and public transport use, while requiring compromises from all parties. There was a half-hearted “Virtue signalling!” from someone trying, and failing, to sound up with this phrase du jour.
Later, I tracked down the voice of reason in the front row and found it belonged to 16-year-old Ben Fraser, a Year 13 student. He was well versed on AMETI and, as deputy chair of the Howick Youth Council, had surveyed 13- to 24-year-olds on the different transport options. Last year, he was involved in a by-election information campaign targeting young people via social media.
“You can’t push a message to young people like ‘Vote, it’s your civic duty,’” he told me. “What works better is saying, ‘Your vote could influence how much it costs you to bus to uni.’”
Democracy very much in action, and in capable – teenage – hands.
This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of North & South.