A call for action on the NW bottleneck

Feb 21, 2019
A call for action on the NW bottleneck

Bike Auckland

UPDATED 27 February 2019

Additional media coverage of this story in the week since this blog post was published in the wake of the initial RNZ story by Rowan Quinn:

Note the welcome development in that last story, with Auckland Transport signalling an intention to redesign this section of path in cooperation with Bike Auckland and Newton Central School, ideally faster than the medium term. We’ll keep you posted.
In the meantime, we’d reiterate the call to ride considerately and to drop your speeds through this section. Please pass the word on to everyone you know, as it’s important we play our part in keeping school children and other pedestrians safe!

The Northwestern Cycleway is in the news this week. It’s one of Auckland’s busiest commuter bike routes, second only to Tamaki Drive/ Quay St in terms of daily usage. It’s also the fastest-growing bike route in the city, tripling in usage over the last seven years, with 1000+ journeys on an average weekday, and rising by around ~20% a year. In other words, it’s a massive success story.

Growth on the Northwestern Cycleway, as measured by the automatic counter located east of the Bond St overbridge. (Graph: Greater Auckland)

It’s also home to a significant bottleneck, where growing rush hour bike traffic meets growing foot traffic – especially in the morning, when many children and parents pass through to get to the footbridge to Newton Central School across the motorway.

So, a year ago we put our thinking caps on, one of our expert engineer-volunteers put in hours of pro bono design work (danke, Max!), and with the support of the school we proposed an urgent safety fix.

Read our April 2018 post about widening the pinch point to create separated spaces for bikes and foot traffic.

At the time, the Walking and Cycling team at Auckland Transport were sympathetic, but said there was no money in the short term budget, and that it would need to compete against all the other planned or asked for works. (Meanwhile, a related request by the Waitemata Local Board to upgrade the footbridge over the motorway from Haslett St to Waima St was sitting with NZTA for investigation).

So why is the path back in the news now? Because as of the 2019 school year, Newton Central School has suspended its walking school bus on the grounds this section has become too dangerous.

Auckland’s Northwestern Cycleway Too Dangerous for Children – Principal (RNZ) [listen to audio here] 

The Newton Central School walking school bus on the path in March 2017 (with pedestrian using the adjacent roadway. (Photo: Bike Auckland)

How we got here

As we said to Rowan Quinn, the RNZ reporter who first covered the story, the Northwestern is a victim of its own success.

The first stages were built over 20 years ago by Waitakere and Auckland City Councils, at a time when cycle commuting numbers were small, and it was never envisaged that this would be the cycling superhighway it is today. The initial link from Te Atatu to Waterview was followed by steady improvements and connections over the years, each of which has turned on the tap and poured more riders into this route:

  • 2004: the overbridge at Great North Road and path through Unitec solve a ‘missing link’ for riders coming from the west
  • 2010: the connection through Western Springs/ Kingsland is completed, eliminating a zig zag back-street route (see photos here)
  • 2014: Grafton Gully cycleway opens access to the university and the eastern side of the central city
  • 2015-2016: Lightpath and the Nelson St cycleway create a bike route into the western side of the central city.
  • In the same period, the SH16 causeway upgrade greatly improves a stretch of cycleway that used to flood regularly, adds an underpass at Te Atatu, and extends the cycleway west to Lincoln Rd.
  • 2017: the Waterview Shared Path opens, extending access to the NW path from the south as far as Onehunga.
  • Late 2018: two steep hills at the city end are eliminated by the new Ian McKinnon cycleway, which has a more gradual gradient; now people can ride without pausing from St Luke’s Rd to the Nelson St end of the Lightpath.
  • By the end of 2019, the cycleway will extend westward all the way to Westgate, which will boost its catchment and cycling volumes even more.

E-bikes and now e-scooters are prompting many more people to use the route for active commuting. Add to this a surge of people walking and jogging, with dogs and strollers, and more kids walking/ biking/ scooting to school. And, while there are no official pedestrian counts, usage at peak times is likely beyond 100 pedestrian movements/ hour, the point at which shared paths are officially discouraged.

The pinch point

The section between the Bond St bridge and the Waima walking and cycling bridge is the most congested and also the oldest unreconstructed part of the Northwestern.

It’s a stretch of pre-existing footpath that’s been designated a shared path and incorporated into the route, creating an extended pinch point that is barely wide enough to accommodate bike traffic in both directions, let alone all the other foot traffic. It’s also shaded and overhung with greenery, and includes a sharp uphill/downhill slope that creates a speed differential.

Last year, a research trial of the Sensibel feedback system picked up some of the experiential flavour of this section as perceived by people on bikes.

Feedback from approximately 25 riders using the Sensibel app on a pilot trial in early October 2018. Feedback was gathered mostly on weekdays, with most participants travelling into the city between 6-9am and back out again between 4-7pm, i.e. at peak commuter times. (Image: Hamish McNair)

To be clear, while this has become a safety story, it’s also a success story. A joined-up and well-connected route from the western suburbs into the central city has enabled more and more people to actively travelling to work and school. A rising tide of people are enjoying the health benefits of a daily pedal or walk, while also taking vehicles off the adjacent motorway and sharing the positive spinoffs of their travel choices even more widely.

This is what strategic transport investment looks like!

Young riders from Pt Chevalier School heading to the city for the Travelwise Awards 2016. (Photo: Bike Auckland)

But it’s clear this older section of the path cannot safely accommodate current usage, let alone the growth we expect to massively accelerate in the next couple of years. The sort of pressure we’re seeing is what has been occurring all over Auckland on the roading and motorway network –and that network is being widened and improved constantly, so we need the same priority applied to Auckland’s #1 cycling superhighway.

So what’s to be done?

First up: slow down

The behavioural issues that have been highlighted cannot be ignored. On this narrow section of pathway – where rush hour riders are often heading into sunstrike – people absolutely need to slow down, resist the urge to overtake, and travel with care especially at peak times and around children. This much is within our control.

Whatever your motivation for speedy travel – a Strava segment, a hunger to get to work on time, miles to go before you sleep – it’s just not worth the risk of hitting someone at speed.

A yell of ‘left!’ or ‘on your right!’ means very little to a pedestrian or smaller rider of any age who has only a few seconds to react. Moderating your speed allows everybody to make eye contact and allows more reaction time. It’s the intelligent thing to do.

It’s on us to ride responsibly, safely, and kindly. Slow down, use your bell, take your time. As more than one commenter on social media put it, in an observation that applies on a bike just as behind the wheel of a car: ‘don’t be a dick.’

(Also, just to be clear, this is not about e-bikes vs acoustic bikes: some of the fastest commuters we know are powered by human strength alone, and most e-bike motors cut out around 25-30kmh. It is true that most e-bikes are heavier and thus would need more stopping distance. It’s also true that by allowing more kinds of commuter – including more women, and parents transporting children – as well as longer commutes, e-bikes are contributing to the increase of riders on the path. A manual count this week recorded 50% of the 240 bikes passing through the Ian McKinnon/ Upper Queen St intersection at the morning peak were e-bikes.)

All ages traffic at 8.30am on a Tuesday morning in December. (Photo: Bike Auckland)

A plan to widen and separate the path

Above all, an infrastructure fix is urgently necessary, which is why we proposed a potential design a year ago.

We have strong working relationships with both AT and the NZTA, and we’re raising the issue again with renewed urgency. We will be looking to them to collaborate and work with us to investigate how budget can be sourced to plan improvements.

Given AT’s stated number one priority is now safety, plus the strong new political direction from government and council to make it easier and safer for kids to walk and bike to school, we expect a swift response on this.

We’re also glad to hear of some progress on improving the footbridge over the motorway, with Waitemata Local Board chair Pippa Coom reporting that three concepts for a bridge upgrade are being looked at (although the budget is not fully confirmed).

Share your thoughts

We’re grateful for Rowan’s work in bringing this story to a wider readership. There’s been a lot of discussion on social media as a result (see this thread for example). We’re eager to continue to help put a human face on this issue, as it will help make the case for urgency. What are your thoughts and experiences along this path? If you have an experience to share, let us know.

Signage near the Haslett Rd- Waima Rd footbridge asks riders to slow down for the walking school bus. (Photo: Bike Auckland)

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