The website policy wonks winning over the Beehive
By Richard Harman (author)
A group of Auckland young transport policy wonks has developed a new political tool to push their case for a more public-transport focussed city.
In the process not only have they begun to influence the Government but they may have stumbled on to a new way of “doing” politics.
In effect, along with some other groups like Generation Zero and Bike Auckland they are challenging the whole idea and organisation of the existing political parties.
"Greater Auckland" is a blog. It's not an organisation; it doesn't hold meetings; it doesn’t mount protests. It simply relies on presenting its arguments on its website and allowing a growing audience to spread the word in the viral way that the web works.
The upshot is a powerful lobby continually pushing the case for fewer cars and more public transport in Auckland.
It is starting to be taken seriously in Wellington even if it does drive some politicians up the wall.
One senior Government Minister privately described them as “f###ng elitists who have captured the Government .”
But "Greater Auckland" can already claim some wins; like the scrapping of the East-West link between Onehunga and Penrose.
And they are keeping an eye on the Government to make sure they don’t slide their way to back for support for a limited revival of the original proposal.
” We will be keeping a very close eye on what happens next with East West Link “In particular, we want to make sure that NZTA is not sneaky and pushing forward with something that's obviously just a stage of their original proposal – probably in the hope of a change of Government.”
The author of that comment is Matt Lowrie, who works in insurance.
He got involved with the old “Auckland Transport” blog which was set up by a transport planner, Josh Arbury.
He now works for the Council and has had to stop blogging, so Lowrie and a few others filled the gap.
“It has just taken on a life of its own,” he told POLITIK.
“It wasn’t anything that was planned, I was interested, and away we went."
But the interest has to be intense.
“Greater Auckland” specialises in dense analyses of the reams of transport studies and plans that pour out of the Council, Auckland Transport and the New Zealand Transport Agency.
Lowrie says that part of the problem has been that these agencies have had a monopoly on the transport debate with only special interest groups like the truck lobby contesting what they produce.
The other thing that “Greater Auckland” has found is that there is little in the way of joined-up thinking on transport.
He says the transport planners are reluctant to promote their plans in public in case they have to change them when the politics changes, as it inevitably does.
That is how the whole light rail to the airport proposal emerged and thanks to “Greater Auckland”’s promotion of it, attracted the attention of now-Transport Minister, Phil Twyford, when he was an Opposition MP and now is Government policy.
The idea originated with a proposal called “Congestion Free Auckland” which “Greater Auckland” generated by combining together a number of existing transport plans.
“We wanted to show that it was possible to have a proper functioning public transport system and we wanted to make it appealing,” he said.
“So we did that, and we got Generation Zero and others to get the word out, and that was a huge success.
“Last year we updated that.
"In the interim, we had put light rail just down Dominion Road.
“And then Auckland Transport came out said they were looking at light rail.
“So we updated our plan but putting light rail to the airport was not our idea.
“Initially we thought it was a bad idea; but once we looked at the evidence, we agreed with it.”
But Greater Auckland's advocacy of light rail is not without challenges, most notably from veteran Auckland left-wing local body politician and former chair of Auckland Transport, Mike Lee.
Writing in “Ponsonby News” Lee says that “AT bureaucrats (none of whom had any experience with light rail) claimed trams travelling from the CBD to the airport via Dominion Road despite stopping at 20 tram stops and numerous intersections while keeping to the 50 kph speed limit would get to the airport within one minute of electric trains travelling at 110kph.”
The claim that Lee is attacking was in fact made by “Greater Auckland" and Lowrie says it was based on a computer model they developed of the two routes.
He says the light rail would have phased lights and simply by absorbing so many passengers would reduce bus movements along Dominion Road, the country's busiest bus route.
Essentially he is claiming Auckland will be able to have its light rail and less congestion at the same time.
It is precisely that kind of nerdy claim along with their associations with Groups like Generation Zero and the influence they are now having on the Labour Government that frustrates an old-time leftie like Lee.
"In Auckland, it seems there is a yawning gap opening up between the political class and ordinary citizens," he said.
“To most Aucklanders, I speak to, the idea of trams to the airport is a joke.”
Lowrie largely ignores criticism like this and says the group relies entirely on convincing people with the quality of its research.
But he does admit that they are unique.
“You can look around the world and see that there are almost no advocacy groups doing what we are doing, or at least as successfully as what we are doing.
“So the question we ask is why is this; why have we been able to do it, and others haven't.
“And part of it is the amount of time we put into developing the content and keeping things going.
“But I think it is also how are using media to get our message across.”
And this raises the question as to what Greater Auckland actually is; a blog or an advocacy group.
Lowrie says that transport agencies get confused by this as well.
“For us, we are at our core an advocacy organisation.
“We use media as a way to get attention.”
He contrasts this with groups like Road Transport Forum which has paying members and which use professionals to get their message across.
“They have legitimacy through the number of their members and who they are connected to.
“We have legitimacy through having content that people read and saying they agree with it or they don’t.
"But we understand the issues, and we talk about them constantly.
Interestingly, Lowrie says Greater Auckland has no ambition to become a formal lobby group; instead, it wants to continue to play to its strengths which are in research and analysis.
But that will not stop it linking with groups like Generation Zero, which describes itself as “a youth-led organisation, founded with the central purpose of providing solutions for New Zealand to cut carbon pollution through smarter transport, liveable cities & independence from fossil fuels.”
What is clear is that the Greens and people like Phil Twyford have embraced these new forms of political lobbying and are listening to them.
They have the potential to transform the political landscape by driving the formation of political policy, not by numbers of supporters or members in meetings, but by the clicks and support they get off their websites.
In an age when there are frequent complaints about the political apathy of young people, they may have found some answers.