With a booming population, low public transport usage and the world’s second highest car ownership rate, Auckland asks a lot of its roads.
That includes 220km of motorways and some of New Zealand’s busiest highways, with 900,000-plus vehicle trips a day – more than 8 percent of the nation's traffic.
Disruption costs Auckland an estimated $1bn a year, with a similar or greater cost associated with road trauma.
Harder to calculate is the social harm generated – “but reducing social harm and trauma fits right into Our Business,” says Inspector Brett Batty, Waitakere Area Prevention Manager and Project ATOC lead.
“Social harm is intrinsically linked to traffic congestion. Measuring social harm is difficult. But anecdotally, the ripple effect of congestion has a cumulative effect that must negatively affect quality of life.”
Managing Auckland’s roads is the job of Police (primarily Waitematā District), New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) and Auckland Transport (AT).
However, it had become apparent the agencies were not working as a team – as when, in December 2014, two motorcyclists collided with a truck on Auckland Harbour Bridge, killing one rider.
Three of four lanes were blocked for 3 hours 22 minutes; 13km of the Southern Motorway – and almost all CBD arterial roads - were gridlocked, nearly 100,000 drivers were affected; the congestion cost was put at $2 million-plus. Police were heavily criticised.
“We needed to join up our response to critical incidents,” says Brett.
Project ATOC went operational in August 2016, embedding a police liaison officer (PLO) at the Auckland Transport Operations Centre (ATOC) at Smales Farm, Takapuna.
ATOC - an AT/NZTA joint venture tasked with managing Auckland’s roads and State Highways north of Taupō - works 24/7, monitoring Police digital radio, 540 networked CCTV motorway cameras and 2000 public transport cameras. Staff answer to a single manager to ensure a coordinated approach.
It faces increasing demand - 7.9 percent from 2014/15 to 2015/16, including a 26.73 percent increase in serious incidents. “That made ‘doing nothing’ untenable,” says Brett.
The PLO works alongside ATOC operators but within Police’s Tāmaki Makaurau command and control structure.
“This was a New Zealand first for Police and our partners,” says Brett. “From that, benefits started to materialise almost immediately.”
Benefits embrace prevention, enforcement, public reassurance and forward planning – and they will continue to influence all areas of police work, says Brett.
Use of ATOC technology enhances Police’s situational awareness across Auckland and beyond, command and control, response times and service delivery.
Better management of crash scenes improves staff safety. Enhanced intelligence improves tactical decision-making. Better communication with the public improves trust and confidence.
Demand for services continues to rise, as do police requests for CCTV footage – formerly identified as a potential strain on our relationship with our partners. But with the PLO able to ‘triage’ footage and offer advice, police now spend less time searching and ATOC staff no longer have such a burden of requests.
Crucially, Traffic Normal Time – the average time the network takes to return to normal after a significant incident – fell from 3 hours 29 minutes in 2015 to 2 hours 26 minutes in 2016, a saving of 1 hour 3 minutes.
In September 2016 came another tragedy on the bridge. Two lanes were blocked – but with ATOC managing an integrated response, disruption was limited to 20 minutes, with an estimated cost of $10,000.
Senior Sergeant Mike Flatt, one of the Police staff in the PLO role, says Project ATOC has required a culture and mindset shift.
“AT, NZTA and Police staff have to work together – it really is a joint effort at a crash scene,” he says. “Previously people were in a bubble without any real comprehension of other people’s roles.”
Neil Fisher, a former Police investigator, now ATOC (Central) Manager, says the mindset shift involves all partners. “Three AT staff have received Police commendations – they’re now focused on crime, not just road issues.”
Charles Ronaldson, NZTA General Manager Customer Design and Delivery, says Project ATOC shows the benefits of harnessing partners’ diverse expertise.
“When you bring agencies together you bring about a much better outcome than you could as individual organisations,” he says. “This highlights the value of exposing people to the wider impact of things. Together we can make a real difference.”
Superintendent Tusha Penny, Waitematā District Commander, says Police must keep in mind trauma victims and the increased risk of harm when help is delayed by congestion.
“I don’t think the word ‘partnership’ does this project justice,” she says. “What we needed was a team with a really big dream … to save lives across Tāmaki Makaurau.”