Simon Wilson: The right and wrong way to spend money on cycling

OPINION:

There’s a proposed pathway for cycling and walking in Auckland that got $35 million last year from the “shovel-ready” projects fund. It will connect Te Atatu with Green Bay, harbour to harbour, running on boardwalks alongside the Whau River, through 33 parks and reserves, the route mostly off-road but with some on-road stretches too.

When it’s finished, it will be magnificent. A beautiful, 15km coast-to-coast asset for the citizens of New Lynn, Avondale and many other suburbs to enjoy.

“When it’s finished”? The council has decided the $35 million of funding is enough to pay for two tiny parts of the pathway, a total of less than 1.5 kilometres.

Something has gone seriously wrong.

Let’s pause to note that Te Whau Pathway is cheaper than a highway. But it’s a remarkably expensive path for walking and cycling. What’s going on?

Auckland came under attack last week for the cost of its cycleways. In Auckland Transport’s budget, the per kilometre average is about $8 million, compared to $4 million in Wellington. Te Whau Pathway will cost a lot more than that, but it isn’t funded through AT so it doesn’t show up in their numbers.

But Te Whau is still a good indicator of what can go wrong when cycleways get planned in Auckland. First, it’s gold-plated, which most of them don’t need to be.

Second, it’s mostly off-road. There are planners and politicians who love this, because it means they can avoid endless arguments about parking and where the buses will go and doesn’t everyone understand the roads are meant to be for cars. But when the path goes off-road, it almost always costs more.

You’re not just repurposing an existing road surface, you have to build the whole thing.

When Auckland mayor Phil Goff announced his proposal for a targeted rate to address climate change on December 1, he said he thought we should have more cycleways, more cheaply, by making them more “utilitarian”.

That’s not how AT sees it, so is he going to do anything about it?

Another factor adding to cost is the extra work. The Karangahape Rd project, for example, delivered cycleways, but also upgraded underground services and added new stormwater drainage, pedestrian safety measures, planting and other street enhancements. But all of that is often lumped together as “the cost of the cycleway”.

Cities need all sorts of cycling infrastructure, including some beautiful routes. Auckland is blessed for having the pink pathway, Te Ara i Whiti. But we have a crisis to confront.

Several crises: not just the climate but congestion and road safety too. When gold-plated pathways become the preferred option for new cycling infrastructure, they become part of the problem.

They suck up all the available money. The shovel-ready fund that’s paying for 1.5km of Te Whau boardwalks had a total of $3 billion to dish out, of which a paltry $220 million was earmarked for cycleways nationwide. Just 7.3 per cent of the total, and those boardwalks took a big chunk of it.

As a result, neither Auckland nor anywhere else in the country has been able to use the pandemic for a reset on cycling, as part of a larger reset on transport. Have we lost that opportunity now?

Many other cities didn’t lose it. During lockdowns last year pop-up cycleways appeared all over, catering for people who still needed to get into their city centre and were not keen on the bus or train. In Paris, they called them coronapistes and they became so popular they stayed.

Having a cool name always helps.

In Britain, transport secretary Grant Shapps said, “Millions of people have discovered cycling – whether for exercise or as a means of safe, socially distanced transport … When the country does get back to work we need those people to stay on their bikes and be joined by many more.”

How exceptional it would be to hear Auckland’s mayor, or the minister of transport, or the minister of finance or the Prime Minister, say that.

Of course, if they did, they would have to allocate the money to make it possible. And make sure it didn’t all get syphoned off into someone’s cycling dreamway.

The British Government did some other remarkable things. In May last year it created a £250 million fund for “emergency active travel”: mainly, that’s cycling. Bike shops were allowed to stay open and £50 bike repair vouchers were handed out, to encourage people to drag that old bike out from the back of the garage.

In Italy, they offered a €500 subsidy to people wanting to buy an e-bike or e-scooter. They got that idea from France, where it had been introduced in 2019, even before the pandemic, and was beefed up when Covid struck.

In New York last year they announced a goal of closing 160km of streets to cars, so bikes could be ridden more safely. They called it “Open Streets” and were two-thirds of the way there by late June.

The London equivalent of coronapistes is the “Streetspace” initiative: a “strategic cycling network, using temporary materials” that will become permanent. They project a tenfold increase in cycling.

In all these places, as in Auckland, you don’t even need to own a bike. Rideshares are there for everyone.

“This is the time to reconfigure the streets,” said New York transportation consultant Bruce Schaller. “Traffic will fill however much – or however little – street space it’s allotted. Now is the time to literally redraw the lines.”

That is true: cars will fill whatever roads you allow them on.

In Auckland, planners and politicians have watched this great Covid-inspired transport reset overseas, thought about its importance to climate action, congestion and road safety, and said to themselves, yeah nah.

Even as, in the lockdowns last year and this, suburban streets have seen a blossoming of people riding bikes. Kids. People who were less confident about riding the roads in ordinary times.

This is the enormously important lesson about cycleways. They’re not for cycling road warriors. They’re to make cycling safe for people who fear the roads are unsafe.

That fear is not misplaced. Over 50 people a year are seriously injured or killed on bikes in Auckland, almost always because they’ve been hit by a car or truck.

AT has just finished another part of the Tāmaki Drive cycleway and the Northwest Pathway, from Kingsland northwards, is also finally being made fit for purpose. This is much-needed work on the city’s two main cycling arterials.

But that should be the cherry on top. The bulk of the work should be to convert hundreds of kilometres of existing street lanes to make them safe for cycling. Cheaply, cheerfully and urgently, with a concrete barrier to stop cars drifting into the bike lane, and a lick of paint.

How about an emergency approach: get it all done next year.

That’s on AT and the council. The Government, meanwhile, could get serious about e-bikes. Every authority we have now says we should be putting everything through a climate action filter. This is what it means.

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