This is a guest post by sustainable transport and accessibility advocate Tim Adriaansen.
On a sunny Sunday morning a year ago, around 5,000 people gathered in Point Erin Park to express their growing incredulousness – especially given the impending climate emergency – at the lack of access for walking and cycling on the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
They’d gathered for a rally at which speakers expressed emotions ranging from hope to frustration. Afterwards, knowing the transport agencies had announced the lanes on the northbound clip-on had already been closed to traffic, thousands of Aucklanders made their way towards the Curran Street onramp…
…and onto the bridge, in a display of public determination that their city should be a better place. Regular, ordinary people, from all over the city. Little kids to seniors, expectant mums, disabled wheelchair users, elderly people with walkers, people jogging, people with dogs.
They flowed onto the bridge, all smiles and sunshine, briefly making it accessible to all of us—the way it should always have been.
The gulf between the voices of those who briefly experienced an inclusive bridge, and the few pearl-clutching media commentators who reacted to a brief moment of mundane and unremarkable congestion, was almost as wide as the harbour itself.
I guess, as they say: you had to be there.
A year later, where are we? As with every other year over the last decade, we’re still waiting for the connected, accessible city we so desperately need.
And, having spent more than $50 million over 5 years on trying to solve this puzzle, Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency remains unable to do what children on bicycles pulled off at a moment’s notice: make it possible to ride a bike across the Harbour Bridge.
Today, the case for opening up a lane on the bridge couldn’t be stronger.
We know that reallocating a single lane of the bridge would have minimal – and potentially even positive – impacts on traffic flow. Since the first lockdown in March 2020, the bridge has had enough spare capacity to support lane reallocation without causing problematic congestion. Peak traffic volumes crossing the bridge have been steadily declining since 2016 – and the recently published Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP) requires this trend to continue.
That plan calls for a 20% reduction in motor vehicle travel across Aotearoa; and because rural journeys are harder to swap to public or active transport, most of the shift will need to happen in cities. For Aucklanders, this means driving 40-50% less within the next decade.
If we need people to drive half as much as they currently do, surely the first thing we should do is to make it possible to use alternatives to the car? And, if we need to get the amount of driving we do down by half, then there’ll be plenty of spare capacity on the bridge, from now until we’ve solved the whole Climate Change problem, right?
The most effective tool we have available to create this change is to better utilise existing road space to make room for those alternative ways of getting around.
If this doesn’t happen on the bridge, allowing North Shore residents to bike, walk, jog, scoot and generally micromobilise between the Shore and the City, then what? We’ll need to rely more heavily on other parts of Auckland – like the South and the West – to reduce their car use even more. Are we comfortable telling South Aucklanders that they must drive less, so as not to inconvenience the good folk of Northcote and Takapuna?
Opening up the bridge to active transport is an economic no-brainer, too. In a 2021 revised economic assessment of the Northern Pathway (the walking and cycling link from Albany to the central city), the section linking Westhaven and Akoranga was estimated to deliver $530 million in benefits.
With lane reallocation estimated to cost $15 million, the whole pathway to Akoranga Station could be completed for $80-90 million – which would give the project a Benefit:Cost ratio of 5.9, higher than any other transport project on the books.
Waka Kotahi’s refusal to so much as trial an accessible bridge has all the hallmarks of predatory delay, with the agency frequently deflecting to “network impacts” as a principal reason for why letting people walk and cycle across the bridge is just too hard. In other words: Mustn’t get in the way of traffic – even though, every day, traffic gets in the way of traffic, causing snarl-ups across the network.
By repeatedly rolling out this justification for banning walking and wheeling from one shore to the other, NZTA is making a troubling value judgement about the 40% of Aucklanders who can’t, won’t or shouldn’t drive due to age, medical conditions, disability, injury or income.
The very young, the very old, and those for whom driving is difficult, dangerous or otherwise impossible, are written out of the picture.
In a city which values universal accessibility, everybody is granted agency, dignity and independence in how they can travel and participate in the things which enrich their lives.
When you become dependent on a timetable, you lose that agency. When you need to tackle additional barriers in public – like awkwardly manoeuvring a mobility device onto public transport – it compromises your dignity. When you need to ask someone else to help fulfil your transport needs, you lose your independence. This is one of the main reasons why ferries or shuttles to get non-motorists across the bridge are a very impractical idea.
For an inclusive, universally accessible city, people need to be able to move in the way that works for them. They need to be able to go where they need to go, when they need to go there—without being dependent on others.
By requiring the use of a motor vehicle to cross one of our most vital connections, Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency are essentially saying: If you’re too disabled to drive, you are less valuable than those who can. If you’re too young, too old, too sick or too poor to own a car, your needs are not as important as those who want to drive.
The disheartening thing about Waka Kotahi’s performance when it comes to Auckland Harbour Bridge isn’t the huge expense, long delays, climate denial or lack of sound economic judgement.
It’s that, at a fundamental level, Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency is stopping Tāmaki Makaurau from becoming a city that values everyone who lives here.
Pushing past the barriers in 2022
Granting people access to the bridge isn’t technically difficult. It’s been done before.
In 1974, when the oil crisis coincided with a bus strike, Auckland Harbour Bridge was opened to people walking and cycling.
An iconic photo from the time shows Mr Trevor Lanigan pedalling across the bridge – from Birkenhead to his job in the city – on his daughter’s Raleigh Twenty, in his suit and shiny shoes, with his bag on the handlebars. If he can do it, we can do it.
Making it possible to walk and cycle across the bridge is safe, easy and cheap. Concerns about “safety” – which didn’t transpire a year ago, nor on any of the other times when people have walked or biked over the bridge – are largely an attempt at misdirection from an agency looking for a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Unlike motor vehicles, crashes between people walking and cycling are comparatively rare and the consequences less serious. If it’s not safe to ride a bicycle on the harbour bridge, it certainly isn’t safe to drive a truck through a city.
Quite the opposite to being a safety risk, opening the bridge up to active travel would lead to significantly improved health outcomes. The health benefits of regular exercise for cross-harbour commuters easily outweighs any potential crash risk. Upgrading the barriers, as recommended back in 2019, would also provide a well overdue fix for the real and present risk the bridge poses to people in crisis (if Waka Kotahi are so worried about safety, why hasn’t this happened already?)
The only thing standing in the way, it would seem, is the New Zealand Transport Agency itself.
So here’s a thought:
Aucklanders have pushed through the barriers to bridge access before, and it may be time to do it once again. If Waka Kotahi can’t get bikes on the bridge, perhaps it’s time to get the transport agency off it.
- With the Northern Corridor Improvements coming to completion, it’s time to consider moving road freight out of our city centre, and sending it around the Western Ring Route.
- Shift the designation of State Highway 1, so that it runs out west – and the critical link between Auckland City Centre and the North Shore becomes a strategic route which can be managed by Auckland, not Wellington.
- Set up a new harbour crossing authority, independent of any roading interests, to oversee delivery of any future harbour crossing options (given the need to reduce vehicle kilometres travelled by approximately 50% by 2030, there’s no business case for an additional harbour crossing any time soon).
- Build the Onewa Road interchange, enabling fast and frequent buses to connect Northcote and Birkenhead to the city.
- And, as part of this essential and visionary reset, transform the space on the Auckland Harbour Bridge into an accessible, equitable harbour crossing – one that moves more people, more freely, in more ways, with fewer greenhouse gas emissions – every day.
Give the bridge a chance to work for all of us. And give all of us a chance to feel what people felt a year ago: how simple, how freeing, how joyous and how fair a city can be.