Tuesday, 15 Jun 2021

Simon Wilson: It’s time to bike the Auckland Harbour Bridge

OPINION:

In 2009, the city of Vancouver converted a traffic lane on the Burrard Bridge, a major commuter route, into a two-way cycle lane. There was such an outcry.

“Burrard Bridge bike lanes doomed to failure”, declared the headline in the Vancouver Sun.

Charles Gauthier, CEO of the Downtown Business Improvement Association, predicted disaster for delivery services, businesses and shoppers throughout the central city.

On day one, the local newstalk radio station CKNW had a helicopter overhead and reporters on the ground to relay the thoughts of angry commuters stuck in traffic.

“It rains too much and nobody rides bikes and it’s a radical green agenda,” said the letter writers.

In 2017, the bike lane had become so popular they doubled capacity by taking another lane off the cars.

And Gauthier had become a fan. “None of us had a crystal ball back then,” he said. “We couldn’t have predicted how popular cycling would become if you made it safer for people.”

Well, many people predicted exactly that, just as they do in Auckland today.

The principle behind this is called induced demand: if you provide more of something, people will use it more.

This applies to safe cycle lanes. It also applies to roads for cars, which is why you can’t solve congestion by building more of them.

And the reverse applies. If you reduce capacity, say by taking a vehicle lane away, fewer people will drive. The phenomenon has been studied for decades and is, in theory, understood by Waka Kotahi, the NZ Transport Agency, which controls the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

That’s theory. In practice, Waka Kotahi behaves as if it’s never heard of the idea.

In Vancouver, the Burrard cycle lane was a catalyst, not just for cyclists, but for the city as a whole. Safer, calmer, friendlier streets turned out to be good for everyone, especially business, and a whole range of other people-focused urban developments followed. Gaulthier, who retired only last year, became their champion.

Vancouver has a population of 600,000 and the wider urban area is home to 2.5 million. The bridge is about 850m long: not much shorter than the Auckland Harbour Bridge, at 1km. It now carries more than a million bike trips per year: the highest number of any bridge in North America.

And one of the most interesting things? They’d attempted it before. In 1996 the trial of a vehicle lane for cycling made drivers so incensed, it was called off after only a week.

There are lessons in that. Timing is important. And when you don’t know if a good thing will be accepted, trials are important. So is public marketing, good communication and minimising the legitimate concerns of those who might be adversely affected.

Bike Auckland and other groups in the GetAcross coalition have called for a three-month trial on the Auckland Harbour Bridge, this summer, with the outer western lane converted for cycling.

Waka Kotahi says no.

The Burrard is in good company. London Bridge has a converted vehicle lane as “part of Transport for London’s efforts to prevent a car-led recovery from Covid”. Preventing a car-led recovery: that’s a phrase it would be good to hear more of.

On Brooklyn Bridge, the existing upper level has always been shared by walkers and cyclists but is now so crowded, cyclists are getting their own lane. Taken from cars.

It’s true drivers in Vancouver, London and New York have other bridge options, but those bridges often have cycle lanes too.

In London, the Lambeth, Vauxhall, Chelsea and Southwark bridges are all part of the city’s Cycle Superhighways.

In San Francisco, even the 8.85km-long Richmond-San Rafael Bridge has a lane converted from vehicles to cycling. If it works for a bridge that long, in weather that variable, it’ll work in Auckland for sure.

It’s happening everywhere. Always despite some opposition, despite some reason why “it works over there but it won’t work for us”.

Auckland now has a glorious waterfront ribbon for cycling all the way from the bridge to the city centre and out east, connected to more cycleways heading west and south. On the other side of the bridge there’s a cycle lane right through Northcote, with plans for a Northern Pathway to connect much of the rest of the Shore.

But there’s that big, yawning hole in the middle: the harbour bridge. Change that and – just watch – it will be instrumental in changing the culture of the city.

A three-month trial. What are they afraid of?

I asked Waka Kotahi’s CEO, Nicole Rosie. She said the matter is with the Minister of Transport, Michael Wood, so she couldn’t comment.

I said yes, but you’ve recommended against it. She wouldn’t comment on that either.

I asked Wood, and he said: “Our Government is committed to walking and cycling across the Waitematā. We’re working through the options for a long-term solution now and we know the community is eager for progress. Announcements will be made in the coming weeks.”

Nothing about a trial now.

When Rosie told Bike Auckland the agency was rejecting the request for a trial, she said a cycleway would increase carbon emissions by diverting traffic to the Upper Harbour Highway.

That’s really something: we can’t have more cycling because it will damage the environment. Perhaps the answer should be to reduce the use of carbon-emitting vehicles: focus on the polluters, not those who want to stop polluting.

Rosie also said it can’t be done safely, which is clearly nonsense.

As the transport safety group Momentum says, it’s been 17 years since the Government asked the agency to find a solution to walking and cycling across the bridge.

Since then, the SkyPath plan was created by private interests and won its case in the Environment Court. In 2018 the Government said it would fund and build it.

Waka Kotahi responded with a vastly more expensive option. Then it said that couldn’t be built.

There are 50 people at Waka Kotahi working on “a solution for the bridge”. After 17 years, that looks like 50 people working on how to make nothing happen.

Their latest idea is for a whole new bridge for walking and cycling. It will be difficult to consent and even more expensive to build and pigs will be flying over the Waitematā before it happens. If that’s what the minister is “working through”, he’s wasting his time.

Momentum, which includes the SkyPath champion Bevan Woodward, has now called for an independent inquiry into Waka Kotahi’s handling of all this.

And the question remains. Why won’t they allow a trial? It’d be cheap and easy.

Is it fear of angry drivers?

Or is it fear that the trial might succeed? If that happens, imagine what it might tell us.

There’s something much bigger at stake here. Within a year, a dedicated bus lane on the northwest motorway will take thousands of cars off that heavily congested road. Trucks could then be rerouted away from the harbour bridge.

Within five years, substantially more freight will be carried by rail. Within 10, we should have expanded mass transit on the Shore.

But Waka Kotahi is convinced we need a new harbour crossing. The changes happening now threaten that, because they may reveal we don’t need it.

Cycling on the bridge is part of the threat, because it challenges two important ideas: that the bridge is full and that everyone will keep driving. Come on, minister. Trial it now. Let’s find out.

Sunday May 30, 10am: The GetAcross coalition has called a “Liberate a Lane” rally at Pt Erin, just by the city end of the bridge. Bring your bike.

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