Cycle highways: Why do we build so many of them?

Guest blog by Lucy H.

Yesterday, I did a blog post about the pros and cons of cycling highways. I think it showed that they are a good form of transport investment but they do have their drawbacks as well.

I should probably say right now that I personally love cycling highways. I live near the North-Western and I go for rides along it frequently. I probably wouldn’t do a lot of those rides otherwise (because I dislike riding in heavy traffic) and if I did do them on regional arterials I wouldn’t enjoy them as much.

There is no doubt in my mind that my physical and mental health benefits from living so close to a cycling highway.

Having said that, while cycling highways are great for recreational cycling, I’m still not convinced that they are the most cost-efficient way to get more people cycling for transport, i.e., to get places they need to go.

In fact, I suspect that in many cases, it would probably be a lot more cost-efficient to put cycle lanes onto an existing road. So why is it that we are building a lot of cycling highways in Auckland?

I think it is a result of the following three factors.

  1. A huge reluctance to take any road space away from cars ever. By their nature, almost all on-road cycle facilities require you to take space away from existing road users. Whether you just paint a cycle lane on the road or you put in a separated cycle way with bollards as in the photo above, you will almost certainly take space from cars. You can do that by narrowing lanes, getting rid of carparks or cutting the number of lanes on the road. Aucklanders and Auckland transport agencies have historically been extremely reluctant to do all three of these things. Let’s not forget – Jane Bishop likely died because Auckland City Council took 5 years to remove a carpark that cyclists pointed out as a hazard in 2006.
  2. All of our funding goes to state highways. The main reason we keep on building cycle highways next to motorways is probably to do with funding. The government is pouring huge amounts of money into new motorways while allocating only 0.8% of the national transport budget to walking and cycling. That constrains what councils can spend and so the only transport agency with any money to spare for cycling improvements in Auckland is the NZTA. To give them credit, the NZTA in Auckland have also been pretty good about including cycle ways along new motorways. This is why we have built some cycle ways next to highways in really weird places (from a getting more commuters perspective) like Greenhithe or Hillsborough rather than in town centres or villages.
  3. Auckland has a very high proportion of recreational cyclists. Statistics suggest that at least half, probably more, of the people in Auckland who cycle regularly are doing it for fitness, rather than to get somewhere. Recreational cyclists love cycling highways because they’re long, they’re often quite flat, and they have few lights. Because recreational cyclists make up a big proportion of voters and they give positive feedback on cycling highways that encourages local body politicians to build more of them and so on.

These are all good reasons why we’ve built a lot of cycling highways and we’re planning to build more. But I think it’s a mistake to see these reasons as immutable laws. We know that there are cities overseas (Portland, Copenhagen) which have actually changed these things.

We don’t have to just accept that every time in New Zealand we elect a right wing government (or a left wing one, actually, because Labour didn’t do a whole lot for cycling either) that we will not get any funding for active modes, for 3 or 6 or 9 years.

We don’t have to accept that our transport funding is split up into all these crazy little pots (NZTA, council, local boards) and allocated in a really weird way which has pretty much nothing to do with the merits of projects and everything to do with the whim of the current Minister of Transport.

And we don’t have to accept that Auckland will always be a place where it is impossible to take space on our roads away from cars. In fact, the only way we’ll ever change that paradigm is by not accepting it.

What do you think? Do you think too much funding and effort is going into cycle highways and not enough into on-road cycle lanes? Would you prefer to make Auckland Council push through one really controversial on-road cycling project, rather than two off road cycling highways? Or do you disagree with everything I’ve just said?

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