Hard News by Russell Brown


The hard road to a cycle-friendly city

Anyone who follows me on Twitter will be aware that there is something of a controversy about new cycleways in central Auckland suburbs. I've sat down a couple of times to try and write a proper post about it, but there's been just too much noise, too many documents to link to, too much palaver to parse.

But let's have a go. I've noted here before the privileged position of Auckland's central suburbs with respect to new cycle infrastructure. We're getting the lot, while the south still waits for a single safe route into town. But it's become clear in recent weeks that that also means we get to see how difficult creeping into the cycle age can be.

The current controversy centres on two separate projects a kilometre apart.  The first, Route 2, is the upgrade to Richmond Road, which runs through West Lynn shops, a beloved destination of modern Grey Lynn's relatively wealthy, ostensibly liberal population.

Route 2 wasn't a cycleway-first project. Cycle lanes were incorporated as part of a project to calm traffic through the West Lynn shopping centre and  deal with a couple of dangerous intersections – both things that residents wanted.

It's been painful. Work near the shops started in July and it's not quite finished yet. Retailers there have experienced a fairly sharp drop in business, which isn't surprising, and Auckland Transport didn't seem to do a lot to ease the pain. It might all have been worth it had the result been stellar. But ... it wasn't.

Simon Wilson at The Spinoff wrote a lacerating assessment of the project (or rather, just the part of the project that runs through the shopping centre). While reasonable people might disagree on some of his criticisms of the traffic design, I think it's evident that AT's failure to employ an urban designer to guide the placemaking elements – this was supposed to create a village, remember – has been critical.

But here's the thing. The West Lynn business owners have been talking to AT. Like grown-ups, they've agreed a way forward, which includes the construction of off-road spaces that better meet the project's aspirations to make more of a village of a strip that's too much of a thoroughfare. AT will also fund a promotion for the shopping centre, to be called Lemonade. (You can take your own guess as to what the name signifies.)

Moreover, other parts of the project – especially the new roundabout at the Peel Street bend on Richmond – have been widely welcomed. The new cycle path up the hill from that bend to the shops, running across existing wide berms, looks great.

But you possibly haven't heard about those things. And that's largely because of what's been going on a kilometre away over on Route 1, which runs along Surrey Crescent and Old Mill and Garnet Roads. A group of people have "occupied" a traffic island on the route, demanding that the whole, partly-constructed cycleway be torn up. A recent lawyer's letter to AT on behalf of the same people further demands that the Richmond Road works also be destroyed and that all cycle infrastructure construction in Auckland be halted until their not-at-all clear demands are met. The West Lynn business owners I've spoken to really want these people to go away and stop purporting to speak for them.

I won't go into the detail of the occupiers' objections, because they're often contradictory and generally rely on misleading statements in the first place (for example, the claim that most trees will be cut down, when in fact 18 trees of the 164 on the route will be removed or replaced – three of them are actually dead – and AT will plant 36 more, for a net gain of 18 trees). And sometimes they're flat-out bizarre. I've been accused to being secretly in the pay of the cycling lobby and, more spectacularly, of being party to a United Nations-led conspiracy to impose world government in the name of environmentalism.

But I am assured that there are rational residents with genuine concerns about the Westmere route, who would like a constructive solution that works for everyone. The first thing they could do is stand well clear of the occupiers.

The chief concern seems to be that much of the northbound cycleway runs across the very wide grass berms along those roads. Some people feel that's unsafe. It's not straightforward – some local submitters during AT's consultations last year favoured that approached, because it so clearly separates riders from cars.

But let's say the berm paths aren't right for Garnet Road. There is a pretty good fix for that. As a former tram route, it's very wide. So wide, in fact, that if the flush median (the wide, painted central strip) was removed, there would be room for separated cycleways running inside the parked cars in both directions.

So why wasn't that offered as an option in the first place? Well, primarily because in addition to saying they wanted to keep parking, residents said they also wanted to keep the flush median. So when options were offered by AT during the last five-week consultation, there were but two: Option A (berm cycleways on one side, only 40 parks lost on the whole route) and Option B (fully protected cycleways, 120 parks lost). And the median was taken as a given.

I think there's a lesson there for AT. You can't say AT didn't consult on this project. There have been three rounds of consultation, the second of which included public open days. But the final choice became less a matter of compromise than simply compromised. It ended up being about car parking, rather than amenity.

If some residents (it's important to note that others residents have been enthusiastic about the prospect of a safe cycleway which runs past the local primary school) have been very exercised about it all, there's a reason why biking advocates are exercised too. This isn't just a pin stuck in a map, it's a key link in a cycleway that will run from K Road to Point Chevalier – where it will then connect to the Waterview paths (and on to the Manukau Harbour) and the northwestern cycleway. It's a gamebreaker. The principal of Point Chevalier primary school is very keen to see an offshoot to his school, where 200 kids ride every day.

The halt in construction on Garnet Road – and the ignition of a certain viral rhetoric – threatens the whole thing. It's critical.

It's critical also because getting things right on these first paths will help enormously as a citywide network expands.

The next place where these issues play out is Karangahape Road. In contrast to West Lynn, where AT forgot about amenity, K Road is almost a matter of too much amenity. It's a fully-designed upgrade to the strip, with widened footpaths, excellent integrated cycle paths and a general invitation  for people on the strip to get out and enjoy it.

But that will entail a huge construction job, one that will take at least nine months and, at worst, 18 months. That's a really hard thing for the small businesses along the road. Some may not survive. I've seen some dismissive comments from cycle advocates about that, but it can't be dismissed.

Somehow, AT has to learn as it goes and develop practices that minimise the impact on local business as the city's rollout expands. There is plenty of evidence that cycle infrastructure brings people to retail centres. As Bruce Morris writes in a nuanced post I think everyone should read, the nearly-complete cycle-friendly upgrade in Mt Albert is the culmination of a long and painful trek to a better future for a strip that was dying a degrading death. He points out that the new centre, with its upgraded train station, will now be an attractive place to live, and for residential development. Many more people will be within walking distance of those shops in years to come. But it's been tough getting there for those same businesses.

Also worth a read: this account of the redvelopment of Edgeware Village in Christchurch. It saw all the usual controversies and objections, but they're out the other side now and walkers and cyclists are safer, traffic is slower – and retail businesses are beginning to reap the benefits.

It's hard not to get upset by the sheer incoherence of some of the anti-cycle activism in Auckland's inner western suburbs. The personal attacks and allegations are quite poisonous at times. But it is a learning experience: and surely things can't get any worse than this.

And no, there's no going back on cycle infrastructure. Not when the number of cyclists killed on New Zealand roads has tripled this year. When the number of kids riding to school has plummeted 80% in the last 25 years. When a good man died in Te Atatu last week, on a stretch of road residents have begged AT to make safer. And when we have no choice but to cut our carbon emissions if we want a viable world for our grandchildren. But we should make sure every painful lesson getting there is not wasted.

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