Auckland cycling numbers in September 2018 were up by more than 15 per cent on the same month last year. Photo: Rafael Ben-Ari / getty

Auckland is turning into a city of cyclists. We must have a seat at the top table

If the rhetoric on cycling and walking means anything, why are they the only modes now set to lose their specialist focus and public champion at Auckland Transport, asks Jolisa Gracewood from Bike Auckland

“This project represents the future of Auckland’s streets and the future of travel in Auckland,” said Auckland Transport’s Walking, Cycling, and Road Safety Manager Kathryn King in late October, at a ribbon-cutting for a new side-by-side pathway in New Lynn, designed for children to walk and bike to the primary school, and for commuters to access the busy train station.

Both Phils – Goff the mayor and Twyford the minister of transport – were on hand to enthuse about the immense value of walk and bike infrastructure as children took to the new paths on foot, bikes, and scooters. “It’s back to the future,” said the mayor. “Cycling and walking is what people want to do,” said the minister.

So it was strange when just a few days later, it was reported that Auckland Transport plans to increase its focus on walking, cycling and safety in the coming year, by *checks notes* … disestablishing its dedicated walking, cycling, and safety team.

Orwellian grammar aside, you’d have to agree this is odd timing. Why would you dismantle your specialist team just as Auckland’s bike boom is kicking into high gear – and just when the government, Auckland Council and the community have lined up to commission you to deliver streets fit for 21st-century ways of getting around?

Officially, Auckland Transport is currently reshaping its mission around safety – and that’s to be applauded, with road deaths and serious injuries rising by over 70% in the last three years.

Pedestrians and cyclists (and young people) are badly over-represented in those very statistics, but glaringly under-represented at Auckland Transport’s top table. So why are walking and cycling the only modes now set to lose their specialist focus and public champion – and see their people and budget dissolved across the wider organisation – while roads and public transport will carry on as usual?

As the longtime advocates for a bikeable city, Bike Auckland asks: what’s the plan here?

Does Auckland Transport hope that crumbling up its expertise and experience in a highly vulnerable area and sprinkling it across the organisation will “embed” that rare and essential knowledge in everyone’s activities?

That’s a nice-sounding idea. The trouble is, it’s been tested already, because it’s similar to how Auckland Transport used to treat safety. Safety had a small team at a lower level in a different department, and no seat at the top table; other departments were left to figure it out within their own budgets and KPIs. The results showed that when nobody-and-everybody is responsible, no-one is accountable.

Dismantling a specialised team is also a way to watch precious experience and expertise disappear; especially given the small size of the walking and cycling team relative to the rest of the organisation. You’d think Auckland Transport would have spent the last three years expanding its capability in this area, given the National government’s investment in the Urban Cycleways Fund and the Coalition’s boost to sustainable transport. But if anything, it’s screwed the lid down.

The Bike to the Future ride in Grey Lynn. Photo: supplied

Worse, Auckland Transport still lacks a codified set of best practices to build bike-friendly streets, with its Traffic Design Manual stuck in “review purgatory” when it’s desperately needed in the hands of engineers and designers in AT and consultancies across Auckland. Even once that Manual is ratified and made public, who will train those engineers and designers in using the new standards, if the cycling experts are scattered to the four winds?

In other words, already under-strength and behind schedule when creating people-friendly streets for walking and biking, Auckland Transport seems set to dilute its ability to deliver even further – and then plans to place responsibility in the hands of the rest of the organisation, which has yet to achieve a good, let alone, stellar track record in delivery.

Forgive the metaphor, bird-lovers, but what’s proposed is a wee bit like supporting kākāpō recovery by scattering all 148 living examples (and their supporting budget) all over Aotearoa so as to “embed” them in the landscape. Who wouldn’t love a chunky green parrot up the nearest pōhutukawa? But it’s clear that’s no way to preserve, let alone expand, a still vulnerable population, especially when wildly outnumbered by cats, dogs, and mustelids with different priorities.

Beyond the health of the organisation – and the morale of the people currently doing their best for the most vulnerable on our streets – what does this move mean for the people Auckland Transport serves?

Aucklanders on bikes are not such rare birds any more. Per Auckland Transport’s own stats, more than a third of us ride bikes, and the total grew by 52,000 in the last year. Some 60% of adults regularly make a journey that could be made on a bike. And 65% of Aucklanders in general reckon that safer biking would be a boon for their neighbourhood. Long story short, lots of us like to bike, and most of us want it to happen where we live.

The citywide automatic bike counters show a year-on-year rise of 5.6% – and this September is up by 15.5% on last September. Ridership on the NW bike path is up 28.7% compared with this time last year.

Cheery stats from the Auckland Cycling Account 2018, produced by Auckland Transport’s Walking & Cycling Team

That’s a huge untapped resource to be cultivated, especially for a city aiming to reduce congestion, improve public health, cut carbon emissions, and take the squeeze out of the last mile of public transport as affordably as possible.

Auckland is a lot like Vancouver, which set and recently surpassed a target of 10% of trips into their CBD on bikes. If they can, we can. And, with 10% of Auckland’s weekday morning rush made up of cars on the school run, making it easier and safer for more kids to walk and bike would mean a school holiday on local streets, year round.

Used to be, much of Bike Auckland’s advocacy work was persuading people of the value of more of us on bikes, plus safe, convenient space to ride. Now, Aucklanders are figuring this out for themselves. Bike traffic is growing in double figures on the improved and connected bikeways (the famous “network effect”). Searches for e-bikes on Trade Me leapt by 40% in the week after the regional fuel tax came in, and while women are 27% of cyclists on the Northwestern cycleway, they’re 41% of those on e-bikes. Parents have begun organising their own “cycle trains” to school.

Meanwhile, grab-and-go bikeshare and e-scooters (plus skateboards, mobility scooters, and more) are making it vividly clear that most of our streets and footpaths just aren’t safe or fit for purpose for the new, nimble ways to get around, let alone for the mobility-challenged.

Aucklanders get it. A ground-up transformation is under way.

Graphic from Auckland Transport’s Sustainability Review 2018

So it’s time to focus on the growing gap between the promise of better streets for people on bikes and on foot, and the delivery. With public demand running well ahead of official supply – which itself is falling behind schedule – Auckland Transport’s proposed restructure risks not just slamming on the brakes, but also letting the air out of the tyres.

Mind the gap: from Auckland Transport’s Annual Report 2017

So, on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Aucklanders, young and old, who get around on bikes and everyone else who’d love to join them – plus all our walking, rolling, strolling friends – we have questions for Auckland Transport. Questions about strategy, capacity, budget, and leadership.

How will dismantling your only team with expertise on walking and cycling help deliver the transformational shift requested by Government and Auckland Council?

Where will those staff go?

What’s the logic of shifting strategy and design of the cycling programme to other departments that have struggled for years to see people on bikes as part of their picture, and expecting them to do it better than a dedicated team?

With roads and public transport represented at the highest levels of AT and safety about to get a seat at the same table – why doesn’t active transport have a champion at the top table, responsible for guiding strategy, design and delivery?

Who will champion walking and cycling and accessibility, both in public and as internal strategist? Who will oversee the delivery, setting of targets, and measurement of uptake on bikeways?

Without a leader for cycling delivery, what happens to the investment that is headed Auckland Transport’s way and explicitly tagged for cycling projects?

What happens to cycling projects promised and underway, like GI2TD, begun in 2014 to connect Glen Innes to Tamaki Drive, but still only a quarter built? Or New Lynn to Avondale, still just a line on a map?

When will you start on the “early start” areas (Henderson, Māngere East, the Central Isthmus, Devonport-Takapuna, Glen Innes, among others) identified in the ten-year cycling strategy adopted by both Auckland Transport and the New Zealand Transport Agency over a year ago?

Who will engage with key stakeholders – walking, cycling, accessibility – to make sure their needs are understood and accounted for?

Who will oversee Auckland Transport’s collaborations with developers and council partners to ensure that active modes are prioritised in new design?

What’s the plan for a “complete streets” policy that ensures any road renewals leave things better for the most vulnerable people in the system?

When will the best-practice Traffic Design Manual finally be in use – and who will train Auckland Transport’s engineers and designers in how to apply it?

What’s the plan for rapidly building your organisational capability to design and deliver more bikeable, pedestrian-friendly streets?

Until these questions are answered, Aucklanders are right to worry.

Recall the debacle at the beginning of the year with the draft RLTP budget that slashed funding for cycling by 90% (later remedied, but only covering half the planned business case, thus making it two decades before outlying areas would see anything)? If we didn’t know better, you might think the organisation somehow had it in for bikes. Or at least, that it doesn’t take Aucklanders on bikes as seriously as promised in its public statements.

But we’re optimists. The political mandate is across the board, and public support is strong and growing. And if that’s not enough, climate change is breathing down our necks. We want action on active transport and we need it now.

Road transport makes up more than a third of Auckland’s carbon emissions

Bike Auckland speaks for people on bikes, but this issue is so much bigger than that. Whether you’re sitting in a pushchair, driving to a parking building, powering a wheelchair, running or scooting or biking to catch a bus or train or ferry, cycling the whole way – every journey starts and ends with your safety and comfort on feet or wheels.

It would be brilliant if the proposed restructure meant that “access for all ages and abilities” magically became the bottom line for every project Auckland Transport touches from now on. If all road upgrades immediately put vulnerable users first. If every public transport improvement came with neighbourhood bikeways, pedestrian crossings, and bike parking, so streets and berms weren’t crammed with “hide-and-ride” vehicles. If everyone in the organisation became a champion for people on bikes and on foot, overnight.

Colour us slightly sceptical that Auckland Transport can get there by dissolving its existing walking and cycling team before Christmas.

For now, Auckland Transport is standing in front of a gap in its proposed restructure – one approximately the size of a citywide bike network – and saying: “Trust us.”

We’d love to. We really would. But we’re not quite there yet.

Jolisa Gracewood is communications manager for Bike Auckland, the nonprofit organisation working for a better city for people on bikes. More details here.


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