People who want to see Auckland improving for bikes often look at our horribly slow roll-out of new bikeways and despair. Is throwing millions of dollars per kilometre on some high-profile backbone bikeways really the best thing? And how are we ever going to get significant results if every route seems to be interminably delayed by local opponents and political pushback?
So far, urban cycleways have been a muddled combination of a few high-profile successes (such as Lightpath), a few compromised and equally high-profile failures all but abandoned by Auckland Transport (Grey Lynn), and a lot of delayed or MIA projects (SkyPath, where art thou?).
But at the same time, a quiet revolution has been happening in Auckland, out of sight of the (current) Auckland public. In the “greenfields”, where massive new housing developments are being developed along Auckland’s fringes.
These greenfields may just hold one of the keys to making Auckland’s cycling future more sustainable – meaning, less likely to simply be folded up again after the next local or national election, and less likely to forever be fated to delays and pushback.
[Disclaimer: The author, in his paid day job, is a transport designer, working on a number of large current greenfields (and a few urban) residential projects in Auckland. As such, it could be argued that he has a conflict of interest talking about greenfields. But he feels that he is well aware of the substantial problems with Auckland’s ongoing sprawl. Most of all, this article is not about the positives and negatives of greenfields themselves, but about what they may mean for Auckland’s long term cycling future.]
Greenfields – a chance for a “do over”
One of the worst things about post – World War II (and current) greenfield development are the long distances; commuting to work is time consuming, visiting friends or buying some milk at the nearest dairy needs a car, and takes far too long.
On top of this, the designers of many Auckland suburbs developed from the 1940s into the second half of the 20th century also did a lot of other things that we now realise were very anti-urban. One of the worst was the lack of connectivity, matched only by the lack of dedicated walking and cycling infrastructure.
Basically, new subdivisions tended to be cul-de-sac patterns. All the local streets function like ever-spreading branches from a main trunk, instead of ropes in a net – and with no way to get from one branch to the next except by going all the way back to the trunk, or even out of the whole tree!
To get anywhere out of places like this means a long, long trip out of one subdivision, onto the nearest arterial or motorway, then back down into the honeycomb series of cul-de-sacs making up the next suburb. There are examples like Greenhithe, where a 200-metre walking distance can require a 6-kilometre drive, or 30 times the distance. (It’s been improved with retrofitted paths, but how much better to get it right first time.)
While most examples aren’t this extreme, they do show how this disjointed, dead-end planning has made driving the “easiest” option.
A related problem in this era was the lack of thought about future, onward links. For example, the Ōrakei Local Board is now considering the acquisition of expensive local housing property (at Auckland’s ridiculous market prices) to somehow create a side access – really, any access at all – onto the new Glen Innes to Tāmaki Drive Shared Path from the Gowing Drive to the south. All because nobody thought to leave any space for a new road, or even just waking access, across the rail line by setting aside a single strip of land somewhere.
And of course, nobody designed their new roads with bikeways, not even the busiest ones. At best, those new subdivisions got a few narrow shared paths through parks and narrow cut-through paths between streets, good for a quick trundle for adults jogging between streets, but totally inadequate for everyday transport use.
Much of this is changing. In fact it has already changed dramatically for some decades, and even more dramatically for bikes over the last five or so years – though few people know it yet.
Better design precedes consents, which precedes construction, which precedes people living in new suburbs.
It can easily take half a decade for a change in design practice to come through to reality, to appear on the streets you can drive, walk or cycle. And of course, it will take much longer until significant numbers of Auckland’s people live in these new areas, and get the chance to tell their friends at work how much better things can be.
It started with subdivision designs that tried to reduce car speeds – and added a network of bikeways in the form of shared paths and painted lanes. An example would be Hobsonville, with designs like this and this. Design issues and half-measures for cycling have meant mixed success. But since then, we’ve seen real progress.
My work for the past two years on new bike links has focused almost exclusively on protected cycleways. Shared paths, if present at all, are usually proposed for interim bikeways. (Though we need to be careful with these too – “interim” can often stay around for decades without close attention and advocacy.)
Auckland Transport and Auckland Council planners now also insist on networks that provide connectivity for walking, cycling and (future) public transport networks.
Where cul-de-sacs are designed, they tend to be pretty short and avoid the “whole suburb as a cul-de-sac” issue. They also have cut-throughs for walking and cycling that tend to be a lot more generous than the classic narrow walking path between two high fences. (A classic example: this legacy path in Grafton is so narrow I once got my handlebars stuck).
These designs establish a clear hierarchy, which, if everything comes together well, will create a cycleable suburb – slow(er) speed local roads, leading to collector and arterial roads with protected bike lanes. The design industry is not fully there yet; we’re still fumbling a bit about how to do proper intersections, safe and convenient for bikes, but we’re slowly getting there.
I’m aware that useful changes can also occur after the roads are developed and before residents have moved in. In these cases the developers will generally have moved on, and residents haven’t had the chance to claim the road in front of their houses for overflow parking. If we’re lucky, Auckland Transport may take advantage of extra road width next to traffic lanes to add proper protected bike lanes. It’s fair game, considering the road is a public asset.
So the overall layout of transport networks within our 2020s greenfields suburbs tend to be pretty good (ignoring, again, the wider implications of doing greenfields instead of more multi-storey housing closer to town).
I’m thinking there is a lesson in this greenfields’ development that is potentially beneficial for improving cycling across the city. It’s about what it teaches our professions about bikeways.
From apprentices to masters?
Several times in the last decade there have been announcements in New Zealand politics – national and local – that trumpeted large increases to cycle funding.
In 2009 the National Government led by John Key launched the NZ Cycle Trail programme with initial funding of $50m, and followed it up in 2014 with $100m for a 3 year programme to to build urban cycleways. This led to Auckland Transport developing the “PBC” (Programme Business Case for Cycling) and the ATAP agreement setting out (among many other transport projects), substantial funding for Auckland walking and cycling projects.
The Urban Cycleway Programme has featured brave announcements but in most cases the projects have been bogged down in the design stages and plagued with difficulties in getting out of the ground. In Auckland major projects like Tamaki Drive and Glen Innes to Tamaki Drive are still yet to be completed. In the latter case GI2TD was begun in 2015 and we’re still waiting for the last stage around Hobson Bay to receive resource consent, let alone seeing a sod turning, so it’s still at least a couple of years from being ready to ride.
The problems stemmed in part from the lack of experience from the design and construction sectors and lack of political and institutional leadership. (I’ll talk about the first of these factors below.)
The issue with leadership came to the fore when protests by local minorities against cycle spending occurred, projects were delayed, redesigned, or even pulled outright. The projects that deservingly survive these firestorms still moved, and often are still moving, like molasses. For every Lightpath (built in just over half a year), there are at least three others like Tāmaki Drive that took several years extra – as well as some like Gladstone Rd / St Stephens Ave in Parnell that was extensively consulted on at significant time and expense, but has sunk without trace. The project for Great North Road has been redesigned three times and has still not started, (although initial designs this month look promising).
Some of that, as I said above, was (is) institutional and political skepticism; a feeling among the decision-makers that projects to provide safe and connected cycling are an expensive fad. They seem to feel cycling projects mean a lot of grief to go to, while benefitting just a small minority of the public.
Also, if you stretch a project out over such long times, you “lose puff”. Politicians feel the heat when two elections later the promised happy families using the new bike routes still don’t arrive (because there’s still no bike routes!). And institutional knowledge is lost, as staff find new jobs elsewhere. We find it’s not unusual for the infrastructure team in Bike Auckland to have better knowledge of past project decisions than many staff in the lead agency working on them years later.
But another factor that has slowed our progress has been the lack of skill in the transport industry and in our authorities. From my day job of work in the industry and my experience as an advocate reviewing many cycle projects, I have seen too many projects flounder. They’ve run aground because of the simple fact that designers – and their managers – didn’t know how to design and build bikeways properly.
And how surprising is that?
The good message in all those “we are tripling our [abysmally low] cycle funding” announcements was clear. The actual challenge, however, included a question: “Who will design and build them, when we have no one experienced available to do it?”
And as much as we in cycle advocacy joke about it, we can’t really just hand this over to immigrants from the Netherlands. Most works were, are and will be designed by staff from New Zealand companies, with the work managed and decisions approved by Kiwis – quite a few of them immigrants of course, but all people very much within the New Zealand system.
On the way, mistakes were made. Plans were redesigned five times before the public sees them, thrice more afterwards (often with re-consultation), and maybe a few more times for good measure during construction.
At the same time we’ve had massive changes in public expectations, including among bike advocates. In past years we would have been happy with a new shared path – now we consider these often bring too many new problems, such as built-in congestion and conflict with pedestrians, to be worth it. Oh, and new intersections should be safer, not just for bikes. For everyone. And bring the excessive speeds down. And the stormwater should be redone if we build a new cycleway …. and what about the street lights ….and so it goes on.
Some of the early problems were also due to insufficient design standards. We had no local design guides to follow. How wide should a bikeway be? How do we deal with an intersection? Is it even legal under New Zealand law to use our planned intersection design? ‘No’ you say? Well, ‘dang, how the heck do we work around that then?’ Just put up a “please dismount” sign and call it a day?
Design standards have massively improved in recent years, especially after the Transport Design Manual came out fully in 2020. But giving people good instructions doesn’t make them skilled. Learning and experience does. And the meagre amount of retrofit projects for cycleways in existing suburbs is not enough to get them there – which is why greenfields may turn out to be a boon to cycling in Auckland in the long run.
The future is (more) cycleable
It’s easy enough to see that building fresh is easier than retrofitting. People dislike change, so there’s political and community pushback. Changing existing roads also often reveals problems that have been hidden for decades. (Have you ever tried to repaint a weatherboard wall and found that a third of the boards need replacing?).
And, if the new “cycleway upgrade” is the first encountered by the designer, or the Auckland Transport manager, or the contractor – or maybe all of them – so many things can go wrong. This explains some of those stalled projects, and the real or exaggerated issues that some media stories love to publicise.
While this often slow progress is underway in the inner suburbs and town centres, out on the greenfields on Auckland’s periphery, far from most people’s eyes, a lot of our profession is building many more bikeways.
Our colleagues in the design industry working in greenfields are learning more about what can go wrong. And even more so, they’re normalising bikeways – in their heads, in their agencies and in their companies. Normalising proper, protected bikeways.
Not so long ago, every attempt to get such a style of bikeway into a greenfields subdivision was an uphill battle for a transport engineer. We had to convince developers that they made sense, and were worth the extra space and cost. We had to convince grizzled civil engineers and contractors that this fluffy nonsense was worth their time when they had real things like water and earth-moving and pipes and tarmac to worry about.
In the end, we often had to hope that the Auckland Transport person on the project was knowledgeable enough to resist the “This isn’t really needed, is it?” crowd in your own team and pull the rug out from all the work that’s been invested to get the best result.
Increasingly, the experience is there, and including protected cycleways is treated as just a cost of business by developers. And many more in the industry are increasingly equipped with the experience to question if a project doesn’t hit all of the best-practice boxes like safe and connected cycling, slow-speed local streets and safer intersections.
I think this process will also transform streets across Auckland as maintenance work and other opportunities arise.
I’m thinking of the engineer who might be tasked with doing a street re-build design, and hoping that they will see the lack of bikeways, and ask how they could fit in. With luck, they’ll have a few greenfield designs under their belt by then, and can move on to the next difficulty level – retrofits of existing streets.
Engineers told to implement a pop-up or interim bikeway as part of a smaller scale maintenance or safety programme may of course still grumble a bit. Their budget and space constraints are tighter, unlike the flashy job of brand-new streets or flagship street rebuilds. But they, too, will be much more likely to have worked on roads with proper cycleways. It won’t be something “they do in Europe”, it will be “like up the road in Whenuapai, right?”
And the local resident grumbling about “those bloody cycleways”? They may well have a mate living out in the sticks who rides to the train station, whose kids cycle to school, and who tells them not to worry: “those bikeways will be great!”
Greenfields cycleways won’t save the world. But they might just help make cycling a long-term part of Auckland, both out in the sticks and closer in.