There are some glimmers of light coming from Auckland Transport, even on the extremely frustrating topic of delivering the cycleway network the city needs (one of their most hobbled programmes in recent years). One of the more hopeful signs is a project announced last year to quickly add physical protection to 60km of existing painted cycleways across the region.
60km of cycling facilities across Auckland will soon be made safer – as the Auckland Transport (AT) Board has approved a proposal to separate existing on-road cycle lanes.
This work, part of AT’s Minor Cycling Programme, will now be delivered over three years and not the original five years stated in the Regional Land Transport Plan 2021-2031 (RLTP). The five-year budget was $30 million.
The programme will improve safety for people on bikes and aims to grow active mode use in Auckland – as part of AT’s commitment to low-carbon transport options.
Protected cycle lanes are dedicated paths for people using bikes. They are physically separated from people driving and people walking, using various forms of separation including planter boxes, concrete kerbs, flex-posts, or berm space.
This is a particularly useful programme, as it will hopefully help AT learn how to deliver safer cycleways cheaper and faster, by using existing street space.
However, lately we’ve also been seeing a rash of articles, primarily from the Herald’s Bernard Orsman, trying to create a beat-up about cycleway investment or adjacent policy changes, such as the parking strategy.
Last week, the first cycleway upgraded as part of the programme to protect existing painted bike lanes came under some fire, including from the police. The cycleway is along Upper Harbour Drive. It’s a route that’s quite important to me personally, as I regularly use it to commute to work – though ironically I haven’t used it since the protection was installed, as I’ve been working from home.
It’s easy to understand why Auckland Transport chose this project to start with. The painted cycleway was installed in 2015, by tweaking the road layout on this former state highway. It is the longest cycleway on the list for protection, and compared to most painted cycleways, it already had a painted buffer between the cycleway and traffic lanes. This makes it easier to place the protection without having to make any additional changes to the road layout.
From a safety perspective, this project is extremely important, as the road currently has a 70km/h speed limit – and I know from personal observation and experience that many drivers are often doing much more than that. It’s not uncommon for some to cut corners and drive right over the cycleway.
Of note, in their latest round of proposed speed limit changes, AT has proposed dropping the speed limit to 60km/h. That will be an improvement, but 60km/h is not a speed that will support its Vision Zero goal of “no deaths or serious injuries”. State Highway 18 nearby serves long distance journeys; this Upper Harbour Drive route should now be providing safe access for people using all modes. Unless AT are going to redesign the road for shared space type speeds, additional protection for people on bikes is needed.
Here’s some parts of Orsman’s article.
A roading police officer has serious concerns about the safety of one of Auckland Transport’s latest cycleway projects.
His concerns have been backed up by a competitive road cyclist who had a nasty accident on the cycleway and broke a collarbone.
AT is under fire after installing concrete barriers on an existing cycleway at Upper Harbour Drive to separate cyclists from motorists, leading to a petition signed by nearly 1500 local Greenhithe residents.
The roading policing supervisor for the North Shore, Senior Sergeant Warwick Stainton, said the barriers do not appear “conducive to road safety when taking into consideration motorists’ safety and cyclists’ safety”.
He has listed a number of concerns in a report obtained by the Herald:
- The barriers are a driving hazard, low and difficult to see and the slightest driving error can result in vehicles hitting them.
- The barriers narrow the road making them vulnerable to driver error or emergency stopping.
- The barriers have removed an emergency stopping shoulder for motorists.
- Plant material builds up, making the road surface undesirable for cyclists.
- The barriers prevent cyclists riding two abreast, so they use the road instead.
- The barriers prevent vehicles from easily and safely getting in and out of driveways.
“From a policing perspective, we are also not in favour of the barriers as it makes carrying out enforcement on the road very difficult.
“We no longer have the ability to execute U-turns or manoeuvres to stop speeding drivers and there is nowhere to stop motorists without blocking the road.
“Furthermore, running speed traps or checkpoints is impossible as once again there is nowhere to pull vehicles over without blocking the road,” said Stainton.
The article also notes that several vehicles have had tyres blow out after hitting the barriers – inadvertently highlighting exactly why the barriers are needed. You can’t win with Orsman, cycleways are either “too expensive and slow” or “too cheap and fast”.
But it’s the police comments that are the most concerning. They show that this senior officer, at least, doesn’t understand road safety or how road design influences road safety outcomes. I also wonder why he’s targeted a cycleway and not the myriad of other situations, such as on-street parking, that cause the same or worse situations for police.
I've written to @NZPCommissioner Andrew Coster seeking immediate clarity around @nzpolice's position with regards to providing protected cycleways, even if it impacts on police operations. I'll update if/when I receive a response. https://t.co/kDzublo6Du pic.twitter.com/AuXmgtlY5f
— Critical_Mass (@CriticalMassAKL) June 22, 2022
Those police comments in particular have given extra vigour to local politicians who regularly oppose measures like cycleways, and are using this to demand other roads in their area remain unsafe.
All of this isn’t to say that AT’s process has been perfect here. Perhaps more could have been done to inform locals and road users that the changes were coming; in practical terms, it appears that key improvements to visibility of the new materials, such as reflective paint, are yet to be installed. While this isn’t ideal, these are implementation issues and the lesson has been learned.
This does’t mean AT should never do this kind of project again – if anything, the opposite is true; we need to do this more often, so good delivery practice becomes embedded across Auckland Transport. This will help as they roll out the thousand of kilometres of new cycleways that we need.
AT probably also needs to change how it maintains the cycleway to ensure it doesn’t get clogged with leaves and other debris, an issue for not just this route but many other cycleways too.
They could also do some more communicating of the research on how protected cycle lanes make roads safer for everyone using them – a message that political leaders and police could also help share with the public.
One of the next painted lanes to get protection is Carrington Road – which, coincidentally, is the first of Auckland’s modern painted bike lanes. (AT says it “anticipates the changes will be constructed in mid-late June 2022”, which gives them exactly two days to get started.)
While there will be some gaps in the physical protection to accommodate parking outside the primary school (this will be addressed via a separate process), this route provides great stories to tell. It connects a town centre and train station to the Northwestern cycleway, runs past a school and tertiary institution, and is in a Local Board area that’s progressive on cycling. Hopefully the communications around this project will be better, and help everyone learn why this is happening.
Finally, it’s also worth highlighting a splendid piece on the topic by Simon Wilson. It’s paywalled, but here’s a selection:
…while it’s not perfect, the [Upper Harbour Drive] design is very good. All the parking is off-road. A painted median separates the traffic lanes. There are reflective cats’ eyes on the left-hand edge of the traffic lane, on both sides, all the way along.
All road users – pedestrians, cyclists and drivers – are catered for and safe from each other. The vehicle lanes are no narrower than many others all over town. With sticks and a lower speed limit, this design would be an excellent model for Auckland’s busy suburban streets.
So what are people complaining about?
The main issue is that concrete barriers are unforgiving. Hit one with your car and you could blow out a tyre. But this is also true for gutters.
Some residents would prefer AT to use low moulded plastic dividers, because you can drive right over them without damaging your car.
Of course, that does mean cyclists in the cycleway are not safe. So that’s a drawback.
But there’s another problem with the moulded plastic option, which AT discovered a few years ago on St Lukes Rd.
The cycleways it installed there were divided from cars by moulded plastic barriers and high-vis sticks. What happened? Motorists used to mount the barriers and drive along in the cycleway, knocking down the sticks. This happened repeatedly. AT removed the sticks.
The sad fact is, some motorists think it’s okay to threaten cyclists’ safety and okay to vandalise cycleways. So cycling infrastructure must be able to withstand that.
The whole point of cycleways is to make cycling safe. The way to think about it is this: would you let your kids ride on that cycleway? If cars can and do drift into it, then it’s not safe. Low concrete barriers are used on cycleways precisely because cars can’t drive over them.
As for the “grim warnings” from the police, that turns out to be a complaint by a senior sergeant, Warwick Stainton, a “roading police supervisor”. He says officers can’t park in the cycleways or do U-turns on the road.
But patrol cars are not supposed to park in cycleways. And if they can’t do a U-turn, how about using an intersection? There are many, all along that road.
In his defence, Stainton has perhaps been too busy to attend a single road-safety training session in the last 30 years. If he had, he’d know what the police are supposed to say. Drivers should slow down. Drive to the conditions. The roads are for all users and should be safely shared.
At least the Upper Harbour Drive cycleway is relatively cheap, so the usual complaint about “huge costs” doesn’t apply. This is because, as in Nelson St, they just repurposed some of the existing roadway and added the barriers. They didn’t have to build a whole new piece of infrastructure.
This should be the norm. But complainants can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to object to expensive off-road cycleways (like Meola Rd), don’t you have to accept cheaper on-road options?
This road asks one thing of all its users: compromise. A willingness to share the available space.
And it asks one more thing of drivers – a thing that, as it happens, will almost guarantee they don’t hit the barriers and burst their tyres. Slow down.