Waka Kotahi’s leadership have been defending the need for investment in cycling. Good on them.
At the Waka Kotahi Annual Review, MPs asked about the high per km cost that Auckland Transport uses for cycling infrastructure. In reply, General Manager Transport Services, Brett Gliddon, gave an excellent explanation of the difference in cost between reallocation of road space and building new infrastructure:
cycleways are delivered in two key strategic ways. You’ve got a key strategic network, which we’ve built quite a lot of in Auckland. And the cost of that is quite expensive, and that’s because the engineering, and the design of that is like building a road. It’s up to 4m wide, sometimes it’s got structures like bridges that you have to build, and that does come at a cost. In addition to that where people and councils are converting road space, or re-utilising existing assets, the cost per km is a lot smaller.
Board Chair Sir Brian Roche explained the importance of building a network:
And there’s equally an argument that until we’ve completed all components of the network, the existing capital expenditure is sub optimal. Until it’s complete, it’s like a road network – it doesn’t; it’s not optimal… Sorry, it is a factor that we consider, because we don’t want to have stranded assets.
He’s spot on. Having a complete network is critical. Matt illustrated the network effect at work with this gif, in the post Double is Nothing.
And Aotearoa has a lot of cycle network to build: Fresh research into children’s activity levels in Tāmaki Makaurau confirms the importance of safe cycling infrastructure, and shows that children need dense cycling networks.
Most streets in Aotearoa aren’t safe for biking, and there’s been no watershed in the National Land Transport Programme 21-24 to change this – despite overall transport expenditure being at an all-time high.
What is the next step to getting cycling improvements actually happening, and rapidly?
An Active Travel Commissioner
In the UK, a new agency was established late last year, called Active Travel England, led by Interim Active Travel Commissioner, Chris Boardman. The agency is intended to:
create safer streets for cycling and walking to boost air quality and help improve the health and wellbeing of the nation
Active Travel England has sharp regulatory teeth, in line with the principles set out in Gear Change. For example, these are just two of the agency’s tasks:
- inspect finished schemes and ask for funds to be returned for any that have not been completed as promised
- inspect, and publish reports on, highway authorities for their performance on active travel, and identify particularly dangerous failings in their highways for cyclists and pedestrians
Does New Zealand need an Active Travel Agency, too? Let’s look at some ways an active travel agency could deliver benefits for New Zealand.
It’s 11pm, dark and just 4C outside.
My 75 year old asthmatic father needs to get back from Finsbury Park to the Barbican.
— Chris Kenyon (@BoxbikeLondon) February 11, 2022
Ensuring cycling is counted
Roche described Waka Kotahi’s “completing the National Land Transport Programme 2018 to 2021” as “a significant milestone in itself.”
However, a critical component of the programme – the Auckland Urban Cycleways Programme – wasn’t completed. It was supposed to be completed in 2018, but instead it has “featured” in three different National Land Transport Programmes: 2015-2018, 2018-2021 and now 2021-2024. Further, the problem wasn’t mentioned when discussing “areas for improvement”.
An active travel commissioner would consider the programme completed only when the cycling elements are finished.
Clarity about how much we should be spending on active modes
The United Nations recommends spending a minimum of 20% of the transport budget – at national level as well as in each region – on walking and cycling. For New Zealand, which is lagging further and further behind other countries as years with minimal investment rack up, the number should probably be much higher.
Yet according to an OIA response I received in November last year, neither Waka Kotahi nor the Ministry of Transport have provided the Minister with this critical information.
An active travel commissioner would be advising the Minister about the level of funding recommended by the UN and other international bodies.
Clarity about how much we are spending on active modes
At the Annual Review, Act MP Simon Court asked directly:
Just remind me of your % spend on cycleways.
The Chief Executive of Waka Kotahi, Nicole Rosie replied:
We’d have to come back. In the new NLTP it’s about 10%, 11%.
Rosie could have been out by an order of magnitude. Matt estimated cycling and walking will receive “under 4%” of the funding, but this figure included:
- walking investment,
- state highway improvements in the Hutt which are really about repairing a seawall for a highway,
- the Urban Cycleway Programme – which has already been counted in two NLTP’s in the past, so for the purposes of discussing new cycling spend, shouldn’t be included a third time.
Once the figure is adjusted for these changes, the figure could be well under 1.5%. Gliddon tried to clarify:
Sorry, the reason is – now, whenever we build a new highway, we add a cycleway on as standard practice, so we’d have to pull those costs out of the state highways we’ve built.
I doubt this would bring the figure up to anything like what the Chief Executive estimated, but I’m keen to see what they calculate.
Waka Kotahi were also asked about cost benefits of investment. Gliddon replied:
I don’t have a cost benefit in my head…
An active travel commissioner would be using these figures about cycling expenditure and the cost benefits regularly – in meetings with partners and stakeholders, and in furthering the cause of cycling – and would be able to answer the MP’s directly.
Providing answers in a timely fashion
I asked a member of the Transport and Infrastructure Committee about the December Annual Review of Waka Kotahi:
There were a number of questions asked by MP’s that the Waka Kotahi people said they would follow up with. Are you able to send me a copy of whatever they have provided as follow up?
On the 16th February, a full two months after the review, no answers had yet been provided by Waka Kotahi.
Actively working to lower the per km cycling costs
Auckland Transport’s per km costs are too high. There are reasons for this.
An active travel agency could offer economies of scale (eg standardised cycling and walking bridge designs, standardised road and intersection diet designs). They could actively shift the sector away from designing streets to “accommodate” predicted traffic volumes, to planning to keep everyone on the road safe. They could find all the process barriers to rapid cycleway implementation and overcome them.
Waka Kotahi is probably doing some of this work, but while its leaders defended the need for cycling investment, what was lacking in their replies at the Annual Review, was some substance about what is being done to lower the per km cycling costs.
Clarity that road reallocation lowers transport costs
Last year, Rosie started a really good initiative called Future NZ, Better Together, in which she interviews people about important transport topics. So far there have been two videos, on decarbonisation and safety.
The first interview was with Dr Paul Winton, of the 1Point5 Project. Here is an exchange about reducing vehicle travel in cities (at 4:35):
Winton: Roughly speaking we need to give about a quarter to a third of our existing streets – not fancy new streets – across to the active modes of transport and dedicated busways.
Rosie: But in general the cost of building dedicated lanes for one mode of transport is really hard, and we as New Zealand are probably unlikely to be able to afford that.
An active travel commissioner would probably have jumped in with enthusiastic agreement, and been clear that these lanes serve more than “one mode of transport”. Footpaths and bike lanes between them cater to people on foot, wheelchairs, mobility devices, push-scooters, bikes and trikes for wee tots, skateboards, ripsticks, prams, hand trucks, drivers accessing their cars, hoverboards, bikes, e-bikes, cargo bikes, e-scooters, bicycle buses, roller skates, roller blades, and hand-pulled trolleys. Similarly, bus lanes in New Zealand serve bikes, mopeds and motorcycles as well as any passenger service in a vehicle with seats for 8 or more passengers including: metropolitan bus services, intercity coaches, private tour buses, school bus outings, hop-on hop-off tourist buses, and accessibility service vans.
Most importantly, a commissioner would understand that reallocating road space is a way to vastly improve the affordability of the transport system. It’s a way to speed up the shift from too many people driving – which makes the whole transport system less efficient and more expensive. Indeed, recent research from Germany – scaled to NZ’s vehicle fleet size and converted into NZ dollars – would put the lifetime cost of all of New Zealand’s current light vehicles at over $4 trillion. Cycling, on the other hand, offers an excellent return on investment, improves public health, and doesn’t “cost the earth”.
Dismantling myths about parking removal
Rosie also responded to a comment by Winton about the task of removing parking in order to free up the space in our cities for active and public transport:
So, it sounds good, but those parks are usually outside a small business, or some sort of retail outlet. And those businesses are doing it really hard with Covid. So how do you balance the desire for a longer term beneficial outcome with quite a potentially significant negative impact? What things can be done to mitigate the harm to the few to get the benefits to the many over time?
Rosie was possibly playing devil’s advocate – although she did go on to defend Waka Kotahi’s investment choices – but I think the Chief Executive of an organisation tasked with substantial transport reform, in a public-facing PR video, has a responsibility to speak from an evidence-base.
An active travel commissioner would:
- use an opportunity like this to increase the public’s understanding, by challenging the myths instead of promulgating them,
- convey the evidence about the benefits to retailers of converting parking to bike lanes
- understand that the agency’s responsibility lies in fulfilling the basic right to freedom and mobility for children and other non-drivers, by creating accessible transport networks, regardless of retailers’ misconceptions.
So, how do we fix this?
First, it’s important to acknowledge that Waka Kotahi’s leaders are clever people, skilled at what they do. But people running the current system are unlikely to be the best candidates to deliver a paradigm shift away from this system, or to provide the networks that the current systems are continuing to neglect.
Secondly, this is urgent.
During the pandemic alone, insufficient focus on active modes means we’ve missed out on widespread improvements that other cities have seen:
- summer streets programmes to support both retailers and residents,
- low traffic neighbourhoods to improve our urban environment and sustainable transport options,
- school streets to keep our youngest safe, healthy and free,
- cycling improvements to bring much-needed safety so people can travel without fear of Covid transmission, and without having to resort to driving.
What do you think? Is there merit in the idea of an active travel agency for Aotearoa, led by a commissioner?
“This will be a legacy we will be proud to leave for our children and for future generations. It’s time to make it a reality – it’s time for a quiet revolution.” – Chris Boardman, Interim Active Travel Commissioner for Active Travel England.