We all share a love of bikes and the joy and freedom of riding around Auckland.  Cycle Action is about celebrating and evangalising this lifestyle, of course. But we’re also about the gritty grind of advocating for better street design, so that the 60% of Aucklanders who say they would ride if there was safe infrastructure can enjoy the city on bikes as well.

And that sometimes has to happen one neighbourhood and one street at a time.

Here’s an update on a small but very significant project for Auckland’s bikeable future: Auckland Transport’s proposed $10m upgrade of Franklin Road in Ponsonby. Best known as the city’s premier street for Christmas lights, Franklin Rd’s strong sense of civic pride is well known through Ponsonby and beyond.

The street is well overdue for an upgrade, with potholes and bumpy footpaths and a dangerous intersection halfway down at Wellington St. In revamping the street, AT aims to (indeed, is obliged to) address the needs of everyone who uses it – motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists, whether they be locals or regulars or just passing through.

In the course of the process, some of the residents have decided that their street is unique – in that it is completely unsuitable for cycling. Their proposed solution: that cyclists should just use College Hill as an alternative (College Hill connects to Ponsonby Rd by a route almost 1km further along – talk about taking the long way round).

Unfortunately, the rhetoric about why bikes should be excluded from the street redesign gets a lot worse. I quote from a note sent to the Waitemata Local Board: “Mix the visibility and speed issues on our street [with people on bikes] and you have a serious safety issue and one which will end with blood on someone’s hands. Don’t make that blood be on yours.

Ouch and gulp, I think it’s our blood that they are talking about. It’s hyperbolic, very, very emotional, and upsetting that it’s directed specifically against people on bikes. Apparently, the meetings and consultations have been very intimidating, with local residents who are more than happy with a bike-friendly street upgrade finding it difficult to add their voices in public.

JSK - On an electric bike we are pleased to see!
Janette Sadik Khan heading up Franklin!

Connection-wise, Franklin Road has been an unsung hero of the cycling community. It’s one of only a few key links between “the ridges” (Ponsonby Ridge, that is not Sally or Matthew) and the flat part of downtown Auckland. When Janette Sadik-Khan was in town, the Frocks on Bikes crew chose to bike up Franklin Rd, to showcase how easy it is to get from downtown to Ponsonby and back around in a loop along K Rd.

With all the bike infrastructure happening elsewhere in the central city, Franklin Road is a vital link. Indeed, we understand Auckland Transport has recorded 200 cyclists a day, which is pretty high considering how bike-hostile the street design is currently, and that so far, there aren’t any cycleways at either end (at the bottom end, they are coming soon with the Urban Cycleway Programme routes into town!). An upgrade that’s friendly to bikes is inevitable – and we have to get there sooner rather than later.

Frocks on Bikes heading down Franklin

One of the residents’ arguments against Franklin Rd’s suitability for cycling is the gradient (as if that’s ever stopped people biking, anywhere in the world). It’s a climb, for sure, but I use Franklin Road a couple of times a week (on my electric bike) and I get up there at 25kmh with barely a bead of sweat. On the way down, I take the opportunity to recharge my battery, travelling well below the speed limit. I often see hardier types than me grinding up the hill, some using the footpath, while others hop off to walk their bikes if they need to. With proper cycle facilities allowing everyone to go at their own pace (instead of combining an uphill climb with a nagging feeling of insecurity while being overtaken by speeding cars), the hill will become what it was once before we made it all about cars – a key route that Aucklanders use to cycle from Ponsonby to town and back.

Freeman's Bay School bike track (pic via NZ Education Gazette)
Freeman’s Bay School bike track (pic via NZ Education Gazette)

And not only do plenty of people bike here now, this number will only increase. Nearby Freeman’s Bay School has just opened a Bikes in Schools bike track, encouraging kids to bring their bikes to school not just on schooldays but on weekends with their families. As the chair of the Board of Trustees said, “We are always encouraging our community to use the school grounds on the weekends, as a safe community hub.” And with the liveliness of Ponsonby Rd, the green space of Victoria Park, and the nearby Wynyard Quarter increasingly beckoning people to visit, we all need to be thinking ahead about safe and connected routes for walkers and bikers.

Not only is Franklin Rd a direct link between the ridge and the park, it’s also unusually wide. So it seems like a no-brainer that we go ahead and improve this handsome boulevard for all transport modes, not just for motorists passing through. Adding bike lanes – rather than detracting from the quality of a street – helps calm traffic by ensuring traffic lanes are narrower, and this makes drivers more attentive, which is a positive thing for pedestrians as well as residents trying to get cars in and out of driveways. No parking needs to be lost, either. All around, this could be a win / win.

There’s plenty of space to work with, as this picture shows…

And as recently noted on Twitter by Patrick Reynolds, there are beautiful examples from Sydney that show us what it could be like.

So what are the handful of very opposed local residents so concerned about? Beyond concerns about cyclists on footpaths, the key safety concern seems to be around visibility when reversing out of driveways. They are worried about hitting a cyclist, or a cyclist hitting them… which I guess is where the blood comes in. Given the volume of traffic on the street, though, surely car on car collisions must be a bigger concern?

This die-hard opposition seems concerned that if you build bike lanes, more cyclists will show up (in the same way I guess that if you put up Christmas lights, you’ll get more foot traffic). But this is happening anyway, so we need to plan to accommodate it, not put a paper bag over our heads. And obviously what obscures vision for residents reversing their cars isn’t the cyclists themselves (nor the pedestrians on the footpath), but the large plane trees – a glorious feature of the street, and something we can all agree needs to be worked around – and the cars parked on the road.

A design that prioritises the best safety for all is, surely, what we’re all after. Slower speeds and a careful attitude help everyone.

Unfortunately, it now seems that the extremely strong opinions of the group of opposed residents may find some sway within AT, against the larger questions. With four designs under consideration, AT had an independent road safety audit conducted. The latest news since is that options A & B – which were the only ones with real dedicated cycling infrastructure – may not go forward into further design.

Check it out for yourself here: https://at.govt.nz/projects-roadworks/franklin-road/

We don’t know why Options A & B were deemed problematic. We have asked AT for a copy of this safety audit, as it seems inconceivable that this can be a reasonable result when the remaining options leave serious safety issues unresolved. We have had no luck yet, and may have to make an Official Information Act request (if the audit is not shared at an upcoming meeting – hopefully it won’t come to that).

Those further stakeholder meetings will be kicking off next month, and the team at Cycle Action will be working hard to try and keep high quality cycling amenity on the agenda for Franklin Road. This street could be a shining example for how our neighbourhoods can be positively transformed so they’re not just about speeding cars on their way to somewhere else.

We are hopeful that if we can sit down with Franklin Road residents and listen to their concerns we can contribute towards a solution that keeps everyone happy. But at the moment, anybody interested in making local streets friendlier for people on bikes and on foot should be very concerned with where this is heading.

— Bruce Copeland

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