This is a guest post by accessibility and sustainable transport advocate Tim Adriaansen.

Recently I shared a LinkedIn post describing how Auckland’s rail shutdown omnishambles could leave a superb legacy—if Auckland Transport rises to the occasion.

There’s a silver lining to the rail network rebuild which boils down to two things:

  1. It provides a mandate for bold and decisive transport planning decisions;
  2. It’s a practical test of Auckland Transport’s Executive Leadership Team and their ability to respond to a crisis

If we were to make the best of a bad thing, here is how I’d like to think it might play out.

We need ambition, not attrition

Auckland Transport (AT) has signed up to deliver continuous safety, accessibility and sustainability improvements across their network. Under Vision Zero, no deaths or serious injuries from our transport system are acceptable, and Auckland Transport is responsible for ensuring it is so.

More recently, the Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway (TERP) spells out an ambitious plan to massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport, mostly by reducing private motor vehicle use while greatly increasing public transport patronage and cycling mode-share.

The rail network shutdown seriously threatens AT’s ability to accomplish either of these obligations, which have deliverable targets in 2030.

Rail is the safest way there is to move people around a city, per passenger-kilometre travelled. If 10,000 people per day find they can’t catch their usual train and instead hop into a car and start driving, that doesn’t just add to congestion. It immediately makes our streets less safe by creating 10,000 new sources of driver error – with hundreds of thousands of opportunities for conflict – every day.

Any increase in driving will lead to an increase in danger to everybody. And that’s without even considering the added air pollution and sedentary lifestyle related impacts.

If our streets are inundated with even more traffic as a result of this disruption, walking and cycling will become less attractive while carbon emissions will increase (not to mention that drivers won’t be going anywhere in any sort of hurry).

We can’t wait three years into a seven-year plan before substantially reducing motor vehicle use.

Nor can we afford a repeat of AT’s lacklustre response to the challenges of COVID-19: deaths and serious injuries on Auckland’s roads became more common while other cities around the world were swiftly reshaping their streets to create healthier, more sustainable transport opportunities.

AT has been handed a second chance. To stay on-track during the rail network shutdown, they must seize this as an opportunity.

Rail replacement buses ain’t it

A reactive transport planner might dive into the data on where public transport journeys start and finish, and attempt to schedule a rag-tag fleet of buses to fill the busiest routes. This way, most of the passengers who caught a train from A to B can now catch a bus that starts and finishes in the same location.

Job done, right?

Even if we can find the drivers and the buses to ensure a bus actually turns up as intended, this solution is unlikely to sit particularly well with the passengers who relied on our rail network, and even less likely to attract new customers.

Without suitable vehicles and suitable platforms, many disabled passengers will find rail replacement buses unusable. Disability advocates are calling for widespread availability of the Total Mobility scheme, however it suffers some serious limitations, getting stuck in traffic and simply not having enough mobility-assisted vehicles to scale the programme more widely. Auckland Transport is advising that total mobility users may need to book a vehicle hours or even days in advance – hardly the “turn up and go” frequency of a rapid-transit system.

Those travelling with companion animals, wheeled shopping bags, prams, pushchairs or a bicycle may find that the noisy old-school diesel bus which turns up in place of their beloved locomotive completely fails to meet their needs.

Adrienne Young-Cooper – the (now former) AT Board Chair – put it well when the TERP was approved by Auckland Council:

Every single one of these journeys needs to be made easier and needs to be safer and needs to be more accessible. This is what we’re trying to do every day, day in day out and we have got a very big job still to do.

Also: people like trains. Trains are cool.

With a shortage of drivers and Auckland’s existing bus fleet already fully allocated at peak times, simply scheduling rail replacement buses is extremely unlikely to move Auckland Transport towards the targets which have been set for safety and sustainability.

What AT can do, however, is take a few great leaps in the direction of a sustainable transport system.

As Wayne Donnelly – the (currently acting) AT Board Chair – said at the time the TERP was passed:

“If [the] Auckland Transport Board were in any way half-hearted about this we would stall the process… …This was probably the nuclear moment of our administration, and if we didn’t set the tone and set the direction then… this endeavour would slow down because of that.”

Time to embrace the e-bike opportunity

There is a mode of transport which is fast, affordable, sustainable, highly accessible and extremely quick to deploy: E-bikes.

Within the same amount of road space, dedicated cycle infrastructure moves three times as many people as general traffic. That’s not quite the level of geometric efficiency as a train, but it is enough to transport thousands of Aucklanders without clogging our existing roading network.

E-bikes are selling like hotcakes, with electrified micromobility imports (e-bikes and e-scooters) predicted to outpace car imports any month now. Which is good, because the TERP calls for nothing short of a bicycle revolution to take place on Auckland’s streets within the next 5 years.

There’s only one reason e-bikes aren’t already taking off as our most popular form of transport in Tāmaki Makaurau: It doesn’t feel safe to ride on our traffic-soaked stroads.

This has never been difficult to fix, from a technical perspective. All it takes to feel safe is a little strip down the side of the road, physically protected from light truck drivers busy snapping their latest BeReal submission.

After years of under-delivery on safe cycleways, Auckland Transport now has to re-make its own bed and quickly roll out a network of key protected cycle routes, ensuring Aucklanders have attractive options for moving across the city.

A Great South Road that’s great for people and planet:

Motorways are built with the promise of “relieving congestion on local roads”. And yet, parallel arterials are still choked with traffic, and shaped to prioritise driving. Great South Road is one such example, essentially functioning as a parallel route to the Southern Motorway.

So South Auckland is served by two hunkering great big roads for cars and trucks – but there’s no direct, safe route for people to travel by bicycle to and from Central Auckland.

From Newmarket to Papakura, Auckland Transport needs to pop up a cycle route suitable for riders of all ages and abilities. And they must do it before the rail closure takes place in 2024. Great South Road is the only corridor where this is possible.

The time has come to reap the benefits of billions of dollars and many decades invested in the motorway network. Longer distance movements across the region need to be taken along State Highway 1, so Great South Road can function as a local access street, providing for local trips of all modes and connecting drivers to their nearest motorway interchange.

The south will need improved bus services, too. We’ll need to see dedicated bus lanes wherever possible, bus signal priority at intersections, and frequent services to Middlemore and Papatoetoe.

Great South Road, more than any other corridor, is a golden opportunity for Auckland Transport to demonstrate its readiness for achieving the objectives laid out by the emissions reduction pathway.

A Peopleway for the Eastern Line:

Section 2 of Te Ara ki Uta ki Tai (aka the Glen Innes to Tamaki Drive shared path) opened up earlier this year, and it is a stunner of a journey from the ridgeline above Ōrākei down through Purewa Valley and across the basin.

Works are currently underway to provide a safe interim connection on Ngapipi Road to Tamaki Drive, while the final boardwalk section of the pathway is constructed around the water’s edge.

Inner East Auckland is so close to being well connected for cycling and scooting – and so the obvious choice for rail replacement during the eastern line closure is to supercharge the local cycle network.

There are already plans under the GI Links programme to put protected cycleways in as far as Stonefields, which is less than 2km from Panmure Station. With some clever tactical cycleways, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and 30 km/h speed limits, the area from Glen Innes to Panmure can become Auckland’s own Mini Holland.

Auckland Transport needs to light a fire under its feet to get these projects delivered ASAP, while telling KiwiRail: There will not be any closure of the Eastern Line until the Glen Innes and Ngapipi Road cycleways are built.

Get the best from the west:

West Auckland can consider itself a little lucky in that the western line is the last marked for closure—from 2024. This allows a bit more time to properly mitigate the impacts. All going to plan, the Northwestern Bus Improvements will be operational before any rail line shutdown takes place, but this is something that AT should make absolutely certain of.

If Auckland Transport implements high-frequency feeder services for the new busway, along with a healthy dose of all-day, every-day bus priority along Great North Road, the good people out West might not even miss their trains too much during the shutdown.

West Auckland is also already served by two well-connected cycle routes: The Northwestern Pathway, and the New Lynn to Avondale shared path, which links onwards to the city via the Waterview Path.

The important next step is to make sure that people can safely get to these long-distance pathways, by providing protected on-street feeder routes through local neighbourhoods.

Least accessible is Glen Eden, which is so close to the New Lynn shared path and yet inhospitable to all but the most confident of bike riders. With some clever route planning, it will be possible to quickly and affordably connect Fruitvale and Glen Eden into the safe cycling network.

Rapidly deploying all-day, every-day bus priority routes would have lasting benefits for our public transport system.

We’ve got the pathway, now let’s walk it

For decades, transport planning and investment in New Zealand has favoured moving people in private motor vehicles. As a result, most people have little choice but to use a car for their daily transport needs, with predictable results: Any proposal which interferes with someone’s ability to drive absolutely everywhere at all times must be consulted, considered and eventually constrained to near uselessness in order to appease the car-dependent masses.

So Auckland Transport needs to dig deep, recognise their purpose and make it abundantly clear to Aucklanders: people who use public transport will continue to receive a high level of service during this disruption, and that will require changing our streets.

It’s time to tip the scales back to a more balanced transport system, by allocating street space to the roughly 50% of trips which need to be made by active or public transport by 2030.

Everybody deserves to get where they’re going with a transport system that keeps them safe and meets their needs. To provide this over the next 3 years of network disruption, while staying on track towards our climate and safety goals, will require the leaders within Auckland Transport to step forward and show us what the agency can really do.

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  1. “Any increase in driving will lead to an increase in danger to everybody.” —not only through the numbers you mention but with 10,000 more cars on the road and the added congestion, people will get more frustrated and want to cut corners, run red lights, overtake unsafely, etc.

    Neilson St/Onehunga Mall and Neilson St/Selwyn St intersections in Onehunga are notorious for red light running and people squeezing through the last orange to then stop in the middle of the intersection while the lights change to the next phase, and it’s because there is too much traffic there.

    1. Yes, driver frustration at too much traffic won’t be helping, although with consistent enforcement and messaging this wouldn’t necessarily lead to poor driver behaviour. Other contributing factors that lead to bad driver behaviour include:

      AT’s street designs: these encourage drivers to try to keep their speeds up – the flush medians to allow the other traffic to keep moving, the sweeping curves at corners to prevent drivers having to slow, the outrageous “pedestrians give way to traffic” signs at pseudo-crossings that train drivers to ignore pedestrians.

      The vehicles: taller heavier ungainly vehicles encourage drivers to cut corners for a more comfortable ride, have restricted visibility of pedestrians, many more in-vehicle distractions, and are much more dangerous for people hit.

      Training and testing: The Driver License Test Guide is still directing license testers to require candidates to drive at unsafe speeds – higher than laid out in the Road Code, and way higher than Vision Zero speeds.

      The Police: the 2021 Safety Review laid out the enormous toll resulting from the Police failure to enforce adequately – both in terms of the number of people killed and seriously injured, and the impact on driving culture.

      Messaging: WK, AT and MoT continue to elevate travel time savings in their messages and processes, which instills a culture of “my time is important” instead of a culture of “it’s my responsibility to be the safest driver I can be”.

      Speed Limits: Still too high for safety.

  2. I commented the other day that Kiwirail and AT should keep one of the routes open from Britomart to Puhinui/Manukau at all times. Any work between Otahuhu and Puhinui should be done at Christmas shutdowns or weekends. Express rail replacement bus via the motorway from either Puhinui or Manukau to Papakura will make the journey less tedious. An enhanced 33 between Manukau and Papakura is required. All good for popup cycleway to augment the Glen Innes shared path. Escootes will be required in large numbers. Can I suggest a rat run Orakei Newmarket rail replacement bus. Obviously 70 bus from Panmure will need to do some heavy lifting. Newmarket to Otahuhu on a rail replacement bus isn’t too painful.

  3. AT need to be forced to face their misconceptions about consultation. The legislative requirements are not actually very onerous. AT’s months-long analysis and line by line feedback isn’t leading to better implementation of policy, nor to better public understanding or engagement. It’s simply infuriating critics who can see where policy is not being followed, and indicates a lack of confidence which they are trying to hide with a long paper trail. This is not best practice.

    This is an enormous disruption, providing the opportunity for trying new things. What we need to see, first, is an excellent response – as Tim has laid out. Appropriate consultation should enhance that response; it shouldn’t delay it.

    1. Apparently they only have to consult on small stuff. Those consultations take months and result in them doing what they wanted anyway.

      For big stuff like closing all the rail lines in Auckland they can keep it secret for 7 months and then just say that they are doing it and everybody can get stuffed.

      1. You probably have a point there – although I think the deciding factor is more about whether it’ll impact drivers. There’s no other conclusion we can draw from their pathetic claim of needing to develop another parking strategy. They’d never lost the mandate to implement the existing one. They’d simply never implemented it because they didn’t want to.

        Letting them do this was one of the previous Council’s lowest moments.

        1. Was it the loss of parking on arterials that Phil Goff (after negative press on the subject) put in the word to AT to consider all affected people or something?

        2. Goff’s comment about parking on arterials, during the discussion about the draft strategy refresh, was actually taken out of context a little by a media looking for conflict. I’m more concerned about much earlier in the piece. Where was the oversight about the existing strategy not being implemented? Where was the oversight when AT indicated they were going to refresh the strategy? Why wasn’t Goff clear that this would be a waste of ratepayers’ money and that first they should implement the existing strategy?

  4. I would love to see parking removed from the entirety of Great South Road (it’s a menace even to car drivers along there!). In an ideal world you would have both a cycleway and dedicated bus priority the whole length of it, but I’d settle for at least one of those things instead of the none we currently have.

    1. If it’s important enough to have a route number (white shield with a number on it) that links two places, it’s too important to have on street parking.

    2. Makes sense when all the town centres along it (Manurewa, Papatoetoe, Papakura etc.) have plenty of parking available off street anyway

  5. Surely our business, university and hospital people will be concerned about the situation.
    They must be supporting good solutions to help staff get to work safe and sound and on time.
    They will be aware that a good number of people want to bike to work to reduce costs and emissions.
    I hope AT will listen to them.

      1. It would be interesting if they actually keep track of this.

        It is actually a huge threat to any prospective developers to not try this mall at a train station thing ever again.

  6. I’m sure AT do not need to consult on ‘temporary’ or ‘trial’ projects. I’m 99% sure that’s how the bus lanes on Manukau Station Road were put in.

    Great post Tim, Great South Road is ready and waiting!!! There’s a huge amount of on road un-protected cycle lanes that would benefit from protection, plus so much road space to to provide bus lanes and queue jumps at intersections.

    What’s the connected communities plans for Great South Road? Get these back on the drawing board ASAP and find a quick, fast way of implementing them as trials.

    Please, please, please … Do something AT.

  7. If Kiwirail are properly organised AND commit to resourcing properly then I think they could take on very large pieces of work in short amounts of downtime. For instance, if they did a mass shutdown for the month of January 2024, it gives them 15 months from now to get everything in place (equipment, staff, materials) to really go for it.
    In the UK everyone groans about a 10 day shut down around New Year but the amount of work they achieve is huge BECAUSE they are organised and resourced.
    I’m sick of hearing about piecemeal works that will take three years, just bite the bullet, pony up the money and get it done

  8. Feeling a bit more optimistic about the opportunities with this closure now. Yes if they can finish or have an interim cycleway from Orakei to Tamaki Drive it would encourage a lot of prior train users onto bikes especially if their destination is the city.

    Yes and the Northwestern Bus Improvements will help a lot for out west. I suspect we are going to see strong growth in e-bike use from out this way. Work from home and hybrids of that will help.

    PS that’s a different “Grant” to me above.

  9. Great post. Quite right that simply ‘replacing’ the rail trips with bus trips is not actually replacing the journeys that train passengers make. More emphasis on identifying origins and destination would show what needs to be replaced. Traffic evaporation needs to be recognised and built-in to the response. Promotion of ‘replacement journeys’ to closer destinations that can offer alternative services can help – including bike, walk, local bus and on-line, as well as drive to somewhere else if you need to drive. Prioritisation of interventions (such as Great South Road) needs to be planned around closure dates. Connected Communities plans, Cycle Business Case plans and other improvements that are already in design should be fast-tracked (corny, I know). The new Mayor wants to fix Auckland – here’s a great opportunity.

  10. The North Western “Busway” is a cruel joke and I’ll eat my hat if it makes a major difference to patronage. Already, the motley handful of bus stops with megre shelter and no seating spread across 400m of exposed motorway interchange, surrounded by a dozen traffic lanes is a local laughing stock. Passengers waiting especially at Lincoln Rd/Concourse will be smothered in heavy truck exhaust.

    “If Auckland Transport implements high-frequency feeder services for the new busway, along with a healthy dose of all-day, every-day bus priority along Great North Road, the good people out West might not even miss their trains too much during the shutdown.”

    The argument often made on this very site for a busway/LR along SH16 is that it serves a different catchment to the rail line. That and the above can’t both be true. Feeder services to the “busway” will be hopeless with zero priority planned so far.

    1. “If Auckland Transport implements high-frequency feeder services for the new busway, along with a healthy dose of all-day, every-day bus priority along Great North Road, the good people out West might not even miss their trains too much during the shutdown.”

      “The argument often made on this very site for a busway/LR along SH16 is that it serves a different catchment to the rail line. “

  11. There are existing cycleway plans to connect Glen Eden to Henderson which were developed under the Waitakere local board. These have been shelved for a decade. There was also some development by the Glen Eden local residents association to get a cycleway to New Lynn alongside the rail. Carmel Sepuloni and Shane Henderson were supportive however AT has not responded or engaged with any communications. The local board were distracted with their pop up cycleway.

    Link to the proposals:

    1. Awesome cheers for the link. There being zero reasonable way to bike between New Lynn and Henderson, is incredibly irritating to to me. Particularly both spot appear get continued infrastructure being built, but nothing happened to connect them. As far I can tell, AT in its entire existence has not build any bike infrastructure in Glen Eden, how is that on?

      The handling of pop up bike Cpt Scott was hopeless. When/if another bike lane gets proposed then it will open season for ZB moaners.

  12. The KiwiRail fiefdom has demonstrated its power over the AT fiefdom and it seems the Government also. Managed decline and putting an end to PT in Auckland is alive and well. Eighty percent of track will NOT be upgraded. No level crossings will be eliminated and no bridges upgraded. All those future disruptions can be done after this ‘upgrade’. Is it really an upgrade or just a renewal of the same that has already proven its undersized for modern rail traffic.

  13. The downside of this closure has been pretty much traversed.
    How about the upside?
    I don’t know what the subsidy is for every train journey, but I imagine that the savings due to this closure will be enormous. I hope that it is spent wisely.

    1. What savings would there be? The trains are still there and need to be paid off, the train drivers are salaries I imagine and now you have to fund a whole lot of busses as well

  14. 100% agree that eBikes are the logical solution when our PT is taken away – I was literally planning to visit the eBike shop today to start selection. You got the zeitgeist, but please don’t try to pass off the Avondale-New Lynn cycleway as usable infrastructure. I tried it and it was narrow, awkward, dangerous on road crossings, and badly signposted. I would rather stick to the road and play in traffic than use it. The bike path up to Maioro and riding the Tiverton/Wolverton rollercoaster is a less-maddening cycling option.

    1. More personally – I’ll agree. I don’t think New Lynn to Avondale is fit for purpose, and it needs to be revisited. I do try to keep a positive spin on the posts, however. It’s too easy to fall into a transport quagmire, when we should be looking to promote opportunities and hoping that some of them stick.

      1. I have mellowed a bit on NL2A since its opening, despite its limitations and issues which are legion. I prefer it most mornings to unprotected riding on West Coast and Great North Roads and the Avondale roundabout in particular. It’s got problems which I’m considering doing a write up on in detail, but describing it as not usable is a stretch.

    2. On my way to the city centre this morning, I’ll be sure to tell all the kids I see using NL2A that the path is not fit for purpose and they should go play in traffic…

  15. URGENT need for a Cycle lane from South Auckland to CBD.
    Great South Road surface is terrible on bikes. Potholes and drain grates close to kerb edges and usually full of read debris. AT dont even have proper cleaning schedules for the roads.

  16. Cycleway is a cool idea but I would like to remind everyone Auckland rainy/windy days in winter. Not sure how do cycling become a reliable practical option for most train passengers?

    1. We don’t get ice and snow in the winter, so that is one major problem less compared to, say, Amsterdam.

      But mainly, you get the same problem as with trains. If we are not able or not willing to build / maintain stuff it will not work well.

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