On being angry with Auckland Transport three times

Aug 09, 2016
On being angry with Auckland Transport three times

Bike Auckland

We enjoy working with Auckland Transport, particularly in recent years with the steady rise in cycle projects and bike-friendly people inside AT. We like getting to know people and how they work (and what they, like us, have to work against), and it’s great to get to collaborate on improving this city.

At the recent opening of the Quay St protected cycleway, it gladdened our hearts to hear the top level of AT publicly singing the praises of how bike culture makes this city better in every way – and enjoying the instant, enthusiastic uptake of this latest flagship project. The ‘network effect‘ isn’t just happening at street level – it’s a human thing across the city’s management. The recent unanimous vote by Council in favour of SkyPath is evidence that the ‘vision thing’ is contagious.

But every now and then, we hit a snag – it’s a massive organisation, and cycling is still working its way into the thinking.

As some of you may know, the “Have your say” section of AT’s website has changed and expanded a lot in the last year – it now lists pretty much all public consultations underway, making it much easier for the public to comment. Many of these are very tiny local projects (two car parks changed here, an intersection slightly modified there). And most of it isn’t explicitly cycling-related – but can still be modified slightly to make life easier or safer for people riding a bike.

Our suggestions are often small things, like:

  • making sure new traffic islands don’t create dangerous pinch points for riders
  • suggesting a short bit of cycle lane be added at the same time (maybe even a protected lane!)
  • simply stating our support for removing a few car parks to make a pedestrian crossing safer and easier (indeed, a lot of these small consultations improve things for pedestrians, which in itself is a positive step for AT).

A couple months ago, a huge number of these works came through at the same time (easily 40+ plus in a couple of months), and our small team of experts did our very best to comment on them all. Then we waited for responses to our suggested changes.

Unfortunately, some of the responses showed a plain lack of interest by project managers in taking any steps at all towards better bike (or pedestrian) safety. Worse, the reasons given for why they can’t help are sometimes just plain wrong. In these cases, ut makes you wonder if the organisation is truly on the same page with itself.

We’d like to take you through three examples, and then share some thoughts on what this means, and how we, as a city, need to deal with it…

Case 1 – A table, a table! My kingdom for a table!

In May, we encouraged you to write in support of AT’s consultation about adding zebra crossings to the slip lanes on Symonds Street / Khyber Pass Road.

We liked the idea – but felt strongly that because the sweeping curves encourage relatively high speeds, it’d be safer for pedestrians if the new crossings were placed on ‘raised tables’, i.e. ramped platforms, to slow drivers down. And slower speeds here also benefit the large number of people on bikes who travel through this intersection (even without proper bike lanes!).

The original proposed plan, showing the northern and southern slip lanes at Khyber Pass Road. (Click to enlarge; full size image available here)

AT since quietly updated its website with the response to public feedback, and not only were all the suggested improvements rejected (not just ours), but some of the reasons given for rejection are plain wrong, or dismissive.

Let’s run through a few key examples (you can see the whole list here):

Clipboard01 KhyberOkay. We know raised crossings aren’t loved by AT’s public transport people, because they feel that:

  1. raising the roadway slows down buses [except, at a zebra crossing where buses literally cross paths with pedestrians, isn’t that a good thing?] and
  2. traversing a raised table can feel unpleasant for bus passengers [yes, but that’s why long, relatively gentle tables are generally used on bus routes]

True, AT’s Central Isthmus New Network means a few bus routes will use the slip lane from Symonds onto Khyber Pass. But no bus routes turn left from Khyber Pass onto Symonds, i.e. just past Bike Barn. Nor is that slip-lane part of the Over-Dimensional vehicle network, the routes taken by trucks carrying large loads, like houses (or our new electric trains last year).

And as for the slip lane from Symonds onto Khyber Pass? In many ways, a raised table – especially if built with gentle gradients – is more suitable for traffic-calming on over-dimension routes. Yes, the OD vehicles and buses would need to slow down, maybe even to walking speed, to get over the hump – but is this a bad thing in an urban environment, for a very short distance, at exactly the point where the largest vehicles on the road literally cross paths with pedestrians?

So why were raised tables rejected here, including on the southern side? Our guess is mainly because they are more complex to design and more expensive to construct than mere stripes of paint – but AT is probably unwilling to say out loud that road safety for pedestrians and cyclists sits so very low in its budget priorities (and its not something an individual project manager can change).

Ironically, if AT were to fess up that costs (and avoiding scope change) played a major role in this decision, some people might even empathise with project managers given a pocket-change budget to improve conditions for pedestrians.

At any rate, it would be better than being fobbed off with other excuses, some of which are self-evidently not true. We still support adding zebra crossings here (better than nothing, even if they’re something of a ‘fingers crossed’ approach to safety). And we’re not opposed in principle to ‘fast and simple’ minimal changes. That said, if minimal changes are all that’s on offer, that much should be clear from the start.

But wait, there’s more. We asked…

Clipboard03 KhyberInsufficient road w-? Nope. Not buying this one at all. There’s so much space at this intersection that you could go out with a paint pot tomorrow and have bike lanes two hours later! We’d add them on the northern slip lane (from Symonds onto Khyber Pass), which has space for a 1.5m bike lane and a 3m traffic lane (and you could subtly reshape the pedestrian island for more width, if preferred).

Over on the slip lane from Khyber Pass onto Symonds, there’s approximately 7.5m to play with – enough for a 1.5m cycle lane and SIX METRES of road left over. Oh, some might say, but what about really large trucks that might need to swing out across the cycle lane as they turn – that wouldn’t be safe! We say: tell us how the current situation is safe, where a truck like that can overtake a cyclist on this curve without even a bit of green paint to remind the driver that there might be a cyclist on the inside?

And repeat after us (because this will become important again later): A cycle lane (whether paint-only or not!) does not prevent access for oversize trucks – they can simply drive over it.

The space was even hatched out. On both sides. You could even build these as proper Copenhagen cycle lanes (set higher than the road and lower than the footpath) without reducing the over-dimension requirements or borrowing space from traffic lanes or footpaths.

As AT discovered in the meantime, there is space on Symonds St itself for a bike lane. Why, it’s almost as if they read our minds on that one – and used the changes needed for double-decker buses to add a southbound cycle lane on the last section of Symonds Street before Mt Eden Road!

Well, we recently heard that the slip-lane project has been deferred for now. We hope down the track, they’ll reconsider raised tables as an option here – it’s an opportunity to make things safer for pedestrians and all the people on bikes who already travel through here every day, no matter how inadequate the conditions. And as we’ve seen, bike conditions are especially fixable when they help fix another issue (the double-decker bus question).

Case 2 – No bike lane, no service!

The proposed Blockhouse Bay Road / Chalmers St signals. Some green spots are all that bikes get.
The proposed Blockhouse Bay Road / Chalmers St signals. Some green spots are all that bikes get.

In March 2016, AT consulted on traffic signals planned for the intersection of Blockhouse Bay Road and Chalmers St / New Windsor Road, between Avondale and Blockhouse Bay.

This is one of the many projects AT is pursuing under the banner ‘keep our city moving’ – yet it quickly became clear that it’s more about keeping cars moving.

To be fair, the intersection apparently experiences a whole load of car crashes, so AT wants to signalise it for safety reasons. Fair enough.

But Blockhouse Bay Road is on the Auckland Cycle Network as a future ‘connector’ route. So whenever something big is done along here, like adding traffic signals, you’d think surely AT would take the opportunity to make sure the signals work for bikes, AND that the current works don’t make it harder to implement a bikeway in future.

Yeah, nah. The consultation plans included only some greened bike boxes.

So we asked for feeder cycle lanes to be added, maybe 20-30m long, along Blockhouse Bay Road at least, so that cyclists can actually access the intersection more safely and conveniently.

This was the response:

Blockhouse Bay Reponse

Wow. Let’s meditate on that sentence. AT are saying that unless a cycleway is built along the entirety of Blockhouse Bay Road, it’s neither possible NOR beneficial to add any green lanes approaching this major intersection.

AT seems to be saying it makes NO sense to provide local improvements (like this one) unless the whole route can be simultaneously improved. In other words, Rome was (or should have been) built in a day; it’s all or nothing; a journey does not begin with a single step.

Our questions:

  • Why then is AT providing short sections of bus lanes at some intersections? Shouldn’t we wait for the entire road to get bus lanes first?
  • In fact, why provide a third lane for cars at this same intersection, given Blockhouse Bay Road has only two lanes? By AT’s own logic, this makes no sense – unless the third lane is ‘feasible and beneficial’ for this specific intersection. Then, why would a bike feeder lane not be feasible and beneficial?
  • Or maybe AT believes that since there is no bikeway, there are no cyclists on Blockhouse Bay Road, and any we see are figments of our imagination?

The real answer is almost certainly that what we were asking for would cost more money and be more difficult to build. There is space for cycle lanes, but you’d need to move the kerbs and use some of the grassed berm, and AT probably simply doesn’t have the money (because kerb changes don’t come cheap). Local safety projects like this often have to scrimp and save (just like cycle projects do), even as big money is spent on new motorways elsewhere.

Now, let’s be clear on this – we weren’t necessarily expecting the project to be changed to incorporate cycle lanes – although in cases where we’ve had the resources and time to mount a bit of a campaign, we have previously won cases much like this one.

What we were hoping for, and what we still wish for, is proper consideration of the issues we raise – rather than illogical arguments in response to reasonable requests. We would also like to see AT’s Walking & Cycling team alerted earlier to these projects internally. That way they can provide feedback much earlier in the design and planning process, so hopefully bike-blind projects like this (on the planned cycle network!) don’t slip through.

Case 3 – No one likes a (road) diet, apparently

Great South Road, Hunters Corner - this wide traffic lane is too narrow for a cycle lane, according to AT.
Great South Road, Hunters Corner – this wide traffic lane is too narrow for a cycle lane, according to AT.

This is the response that really spurred us to complete this blog post, because it felt like the last straw.

At Hunters Corner, South Auckland, AT is proposing to add a signalised pedestrian crossing over the southern side of the Sutton Crescent / Great South Road intersection.

This is actually a perfect example of a great pedestrian project – the kind we often speak up in support of, even if it doesn’t change anything for cycling.

Looking at the plans, we noticed that the northbound traffic lane at this signal was very, very wide! More than 5m wide, actually.

Given that traffic lanes are generally 3.5m wide, you could add a 1.5m cycle lane here and easily leave a normal-width general lane.

So we suggested that AT add a short section of cycle lane. No need to even remove car parking; this stretch of road already has yellow lines. No need to re-arrange traffic lanes. Just some paint, since you’re already out on site to do the new signalised pedestrian crossing anyway. The ideal example of an easy fix. Only some gain, but also no pain.

The response from AT? This gem:

Great South Road Sutton Crescent Response

This plain flabbergasted us. As noted earlier, over-dimension transports are not in any serious way infringed by a cycle lane, and especially not by a painted lane. Designing corridors for the occasional OD transport is mainly about ensuring traffic signal poles or trees, or verandas do not block the designed space envelope.

And even more so: over-width transports are RARE. Even the busiest OD routes would struggle to get more than one such transport for every couple of thousand vehicles. Most ‘wide loads’ proceed at night, when other traffic (including cyclists) is scarce. They travel with warning vehicles fore and aft. And the very occasional over-width transport that might have to momentarily straddle a painted cycle lane is much, much less of a risk than the constant stream of drivers of stock-standard cars and trucks passing cyclists at speed (and at proximity), as encouraged by our current extremely wide roads without clearly marked space for cycling.

And guess what: at the next intersection, at Kolmar Road, the general traffic lanes become a lot narrower anyway.

This response was the perfect example of a dismissive ‘Not in my project scope – please go away!’ and is what made us sit down and write this post.

UPDATE: after we responded to the above reply in a polite-but-very-grouchy way (and copied in the Walking & Cycling team), an answer came back along these lines: ‘Hmm, actually, hold on – here are some other concerns, BUT we are investigating whether it’s do-able.’ So, fingers crossed – let’s wait and see on this one. Not holding our breath though. 

What does this all really mean?

With these three projects, AT may proceed more or less as originally outlined. Or they may find a way to improve them. Either way, we’ll keep calling AT and others to account on these decisions, and challenge the more implausible excuses offered in support of the status quo. We hope you will, too.

Overall, what do we learn from interactions like these? Well, inertia is a mighty thing, young grasshopper. Not just in terms of the ongoing dominance of cars over other modes, but also when it comes to projects that seem to have been all-but-finalised before they finally go out for public consultation.

Cycling in Auckland has come a long way in the last 10 years. But it will only become a city-wide, normal, everyday mode of transport when every roading project is a real chance to improve things for people on bikes (and pedestrians too).

To get there, Auckland Transport needs an organisation-wide culture that encourages project managers to seize opportunities to improve safety and convenience for people cycling and walking. Otherwise, projects like these will just reinforce the same mono-modal decisions, over and over again, literally casting them in stone (and tarmac).

Fortunately, AT isn’t monolithic. It’s made up of teams of people who work for a city made up of people. That’s why, generally, we try and keep a sunny approach – and celebrate positive change – but we will also be straight-up when we’re exasperated on behalf of a city that deserves better.

Because really, AT? A friend would tell you.

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