It has been encouraging to hear Minister Wood’s recent announcements about investment in sustainable transport modes, and his responses in parliament. He holds a vision for a people-friendly, low-carbon transport system. And he seems prepared to steer the enormous juggernaut of central government’s transport decision-making in the right direction to achieve it.
Stuff reported on Friday:
Transport Minister Michael Wood might make further changes to transport spending, with walking, cycling and public transport possible winners…
Wood recently said he would see what he could do to make changes to the GPS and suggested these changes would also have a climate change focus…
“Northern Pathway is the missing link in Auckland’s walking and cycling network. Aucklanders finally will be able to get across the harbour by foot or bike…
With the new bridge five years away, Wood also said he had asked Waka Kotahi to present him with options for a cycling and walking lane on the current bridge now…
“I’ve given them weeks, not months. I’ve told them I want to see options on my desk.”
He understands the climate imperative, that more investment in walking and cycling is a key solution, that a link over the harbour is an important network element, and that a temporary solution should be provided soon. This is wonderful.
I hope he has the “unflinching political will” required to follow through.
When costs on the original $6.8 billion of transport projects in the NZ Upgrade Programme blew out by an extra $6 billion! – including $2.1 billion extra for Mill Rd alone – it was the ideal opportunity for Cabinet to remove the programme’s roads-heavy bias. The increase in traffic, emissions, injuries and maintenance burden from these roads will make our safety and climate goals harder to achieve. Cabinet is tentatively turning their climate narrative into action (at last) but many of the Ministers have shown little inclination within their own portfolios to help tackle the car dependent transport system. Rebalancing the programme so it was less roads-heavy from what he inherited could have been a difficult and frustrating process for Minister Wood.
Yet he managed a significant shift in balance towards public transport, walking and cycling, which will serve our communities far better.
Instead of celebrating this shift, the public have been distracted by the cost of the Northern Pathway Bridge for walking and cycling over the Waitemata Harbour. This distraction is a pity. Concerns about cost should have targeted the hugely expensive road projects that will add congestion and damage our climate instead.
I think the resistance to the new bridge simply reflects people’s surprise at seeing a new set of priorities. This is a natural part of the process of warming up to change, towards which Minister Wood will need to be patient and unflinching.
Emma McInnes has described what a great project it will be for Aucklanders:
I think we’re underestimating the fact that people will use it just for the joy of being able to walk over the water, to stop in the middle of the bridge, take photos, to go over on a jog in the morning, walk their dog, take their kids over… I think people are underestimating how popular a bridge like that would be.
The arguments against the new bridge got me thinking because they varied so wildly.
People argued there should be more traffic capacity across the harbour – or there should be less. They argued public transport should cross the harbour on the same bridge – or that it should be in a tunnel. They argued that drivers needed to finally pay for the costs they’ve imposed on other road users – or that people walking or cycling did.
It dawned on me that, set quietly apart from this hot confusion that’s racing both ways on every argument, and solid on its own foundation of reason, the bridge is actually a really good idea – because unravelling all these arguments is going to take a long time. Especially given the state of Waka Kotahi.
Waka Kotahi is only slowly shifting gear from highway builder to creator of a low-carbon transport system. The transition to proper climate planning is likely to be messy and may be fiercely resisted: although there must be visionary leaders within the organisation, for many staff it will require a U-turn in understanding, traffic modelling and priorities.
Deciding on an Alternative Waitemata Harbour Crossing for other modes is likely to be argued back and forth for several years to come. The beauty of the new bridge proposal is it protects an active travel connection over the harbour from other decisions. Meanwhile, the bridge is unlikely to be resisted by the construction industry, as they get to build a bridge.
Auckland’s Active Transport Networks
This bridge needs to be understood in terms of its importance in the networks:
This should be immediately evident to anyone who travels over the bridge in a bus or a car, who benefits from not having to take the ring road around.
But in a driving-dominant culture like Auckland has, people find it hard to imagine walking and cycling as ‘networks’. On any given trip you could encounter significant delays at intersections, noise, air pollution, traffic driving dangerously fast and through red lights, footpaths interrupted with frequent and long lengths of vehicle crossings, cars backing out of driveways far too quickly, a dangerous lack of crossing infrastructure, little priority at intersections for people outside vehicles, bleak streetscapes, road works that throw people into the traffic, unmaintained footpaths, vehicles parked to obstruct their path and to limit their vision.
Our safety and travel choices have slowly evaporated as cars and trucks dominate our world more and more, leaving us with fragmented, poor quality scraps of walking and cycling networks that do little to encourage people to get out of their cars. Motorists have a duty to pay for the facilities needed to keep all other road users safe from motor vehicles, but this hasn’t happened. Instead, decades of miniscule investment in active travel have left a legacy of an unsafe, expensive, car dependent transport network.
The level of work required to make walking and micromobility safe and pleasant is so significant it will require a complete change in transport focus.
So where does a new active bridge across the Waitemata Harbour fit into the rebuilding of our active networks?
First, it is simply part of the mitigation required. The city failed its people when it opened up a new part of the city to live in – the North Shore – without giving them a walking and cycling connection. This lack of access needs repair.
Secondly, in the five years until it is completed, we need to be building the networks that will connect to it. Fanshawe St and Northcote need immediate attention, of course. But also, extensively, the networks throughout the whole city need building quickly.
Thirdly, the transport budget should be split between repairing these networks for active travel, and on public transport. Indeed, leveraging the renewals budget to make streets safer for walking and cycling was a recommendation of the Safety Review of Auckland Transport. Resistance to investing in the Northern Pathway bridge “because other parts of the network need the funding” is based on a miserly assumption that walking and cycling should continue to get only 3, 4 or 5% of the transport budget. The UN has recommended a minimum of 20%, but Auckland will need more than this – and this money can achieve a lot if roads are properly reallocated and no project is undertaken without active travel as a focus.
The cost of this new bridge is peanuts considering how important an element it will be in a fully-funded city-wide network.
Luckily, we already have a plan for building the cycling elements of this new network. Council approved, in 2012, the following cycle network, specifying that 75% of it should be completed by 2020, 100% by 2025:
So we know what we need to build. We have a Transport Minister with a vision who seems prepared to hold firm to achieve it, and a Council who should be supportive. What else could possibly get in the way?
Time to be blunt — with everything we’ve learned from successful cities about the MANY benefits for EVERYONE of more urban biking, over the last 5+ years & the last 14 months during the pandemic, there’s NO excuse left for your leaders not to build safe infrastructure for biking. pic.twitter.com/DbTf7p61ss
— Brent Toderian (@BrentToderian) June 11, 2021
A scathing piece from Hayden Donnell in The Spinoff highlighted Auckland Transport’s failure to deliver safe cycling infrastructure in recent years.
Kate Hawkesby may be hallucinating cycleways everywhere she goes, but they remain stubbornly immaterial. Instead of a safe cycling network, we get PR and gimmicks. In June, AT is hosting an all-day hackathon on whether “new all-weather cycling fashion” or a “compelling rewards scheme” could get people biking at Auckland University… online feedback indicates the primary improvement most cyclists want is to not die during their ride…
The price for this heady mix of inaction and excruciatingly slow progress isn’t just increased carbon emissions. It’s paid for in the lives of people.. Cyclists are roughly 14 times more likely to die than motorists. In 2020, 57% of the people killed on our roads weren’t in a car.
In recent years Auckland Transport’s targets for building cycleways have been lowered repeatedly – to the point that they plan to deliver only five kilometres this year (and are still struggling to even achieve that!):
The draft Regional Land Transport Plan highlighted how far behind Auckland Transport have slipped. Over the next three years most of their cycling investment is going on the ‘Urban Cycleways Programme’ – a programme which was initially funded under the 2014-2017 National Government and was meant to be completed by 2018. This means that the actual ongoing cycling programme won’t really kick in until after 2024. Where is the pipeline of ‘ready to go’ cycling projects?
It didn’t have to turn out this way. Auckland Transport was actually getting quite good at building higher quality cycleways, implementing a whole bunch of key routes like Beach Road, Lightpath, Nelson St and Quay St in relatively quick succession. They had also developed a 10 year cycling plan to deliver well connected networks of safe cycling infrastructure across much of Auckland.
As Auckland Council’s climate and safety ambitions grew, the plan could have been sped up and extended to the remaining parts of the city.
So what went wrong? Matt highlighted last year the lack of desire to actually take cycling seriously. Key structural changes to Auckland Transport in late 2018 disbanded the walking and cycling team just when they were getting into the swing of delivery. This catastrophic mistake has led to most of the active modes expertise leaving Auckland Transport and, as predicted, no strong champion to overcome the internal objections to investing in cycling.
Auckland Council should be embarrassed by this.
Council have tools of governance they have not used well – including the Letter of Expectation, Board Appointments – walking and cycling transport experts would help, removing funding, and taking stronger legal stances.
Central and local governments should reconsider planned investments in urban highways and road expansion projects that induce more vehicle travel. At the same time, more investments are needed for travel options that generate low or no emissions, such as quality public transport services, safe and accessible walking and cycling networks, and shared mobility. Reallocation of existing road space to cater for cycle lanes and bus lanes can deliver mode shift and emissions reductions relatively quickly and affordably, using existing infrastructure.
But elected members aren’t on the same page when it comes to delivery.
Auckland Transport officials have often been required to front the public when changes are proposed. Often they have done this task admirably, despite copping huge abuse from change-averse residents. But it should not be their job.
It is our Councillors who should be explaining why the changes are needed, encouraging and modelling open-mindedness and patience. In a word, leadership. Despite a united front when accepting Council’s climate obligations, some persist in encouraging resistance to changes, arguing for parking to be retained, or campaigning for new roads.
Some Councillors have singled out the Northern Pathway Bridge to criticise, on the basis of its expense – while simultaneously arguing the $3.5 billion boondoggle of Mill Rd should have been funded. And the bridge serves our climate goals whereas Mill Rd – at over five times the cost – undermines them. If they wished to complain about a costly Auckland project they should’ve targeted Penlink.
It is hypocritical to approve the Auckland Climate Plan and support Vision Zero and then attack investment in safe, sustainable transport.
Minister Wood has given me hope we’ll get some better investment decisions. It seems that he’s tackling Cabinet, Waka Kotahi and the Ministry of Transport.
But if he is going to succeed, he will need to be backed in turn by equally active and determined mayors and local governments. If he is not, what extra measures are required?