It’s time to take a lane: What Auckland can learn from Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge

Mar 26, 2021
It’s time to take a lane: What Auckland can learn from Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge

Bike Auckland

The Burrard Bridge, Vancouver, home to the busiest cycle lane in North America.

Thanks to Michael Tritt, founder and director of Electrify NZ, for these important words.

In 2008, I did the one-year “OE working holiday”, travelling with my wife to live and work in Vancouver, Canada.

Keen to continue with regular cycle commuting, we bought second-hand bikes from Craigslist (a popular but rudimentary sort-of “Trademe”) and acquired a familiarity with Vancouver from a cycling perspective.

Like Auckland, it’s a fast-growing but dispersed harbour city, historically built around the car.  Cycling infrastructure wasn’t great, but already better than Auckland’s at the time.  There were plans to improve it further, and they had stirred a lively debate.

The most contentious proposal involved converting a vehicle lane into cycle lanes on the Burrard Bridge, a traffic thoroughfare crossing the water into downtown Vancouver.

In 2009, as the debate continued, we returned to New Zealand, and shortly thereafter I found myself among thousands of other Aucklanders at the “Get Across” rally in support of cycling and walking access on the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

On a sunny Sunday in May, thousands of us streamed across the Harbour Bridge – on bike, on foot, with strollers and kids.  Organiser Bevan Woodward later told me he was struck by just how happy people were that day.  For the first time, many were experiencing an iconic part of their city from a new vantagepoint, out in the fresh air rather than behind a windscreen.

Meanwhile, I maintained a key interest in developments in Vancouver, and what has occurred since really is a tale of two cities.

In July 2009, a vehicle lane on the Burrard Bridge was indeed removed and converted to cycle lanes.  Howls of protest ensued.  The Vancouver Sun recounted the headlines of the day:

“Burrard Bridge bike lanes doomed to failure”

“Chaos feared”

“Business plunging because of bike lane, owner says”

Fast forward a decade and it was clear that brave decision became the catalyst for extraordinary change. The Burrard Bridge cycle lanes now enjoy overwhelming support. It is now the single busiest section of cycle lane in the entirety of North America, recording more than a million cycle trips annually.

The Burrard Bridge, Vancouver, home to the busiest cycle lane in North America.
The Burrard Bridge, Vancouver, home to the busiest cycle lane in North America.

What has occurred in Auckland over the same time however is a depressing tale of procrastination and incompetence.

While the NZTA gave their official blessing to what we now know as “Skypath” in 2012, there have since been nine years of delays and changes of plan.  The latest news is that the design we were told was going to be built soon, after a tortuously long process, is now no longer suitable.

Enough is enough. If Auckland is ever going to realise its potential as a cycling city, change needs to happen now.

The endless delays have real consequences.  Auckland, like many global cities, has committed to emissions reductions in the battle against climate change.

Auckland’s latest “Transport Alignment Project” update admits that it will fail the city’s own climate goals, with emissions increasing 6% over the next decade.

Meanwhile, the City of Vancouver managed a doubling of cycling mode share in the six years to 2020 (to nearly 9%.)  Less than half of trips by residents are now taken by car.

Back here, bureaucrats and politicians seem happy to wait while yet another plan is formulated.  The climate, however, is unlikely to be as patient.

Dr Paul Winton has produced a sobering analysis on this matter. If Auckland is going to get anywhere near its climate change obligations, billions of dollars of spending currently proposed barely move the dial.

What does move the dial is a rapid and radical modal shift to cycling.

We can’t afford to wait several more years for action on this.  A lane needs to be reallocated on Auckland’s Harbour Bridge as soon as possible.

Some will argue that it will create traffic “chaos” (just like they did in Vancouver) but they misunderstand how traffic adapts.  When travel speeds reduce to a certain point, people change behaviour.  They may choose to avoid non-essential trips, to reschedule, or switch to an alternative mode of transport that is faster (such as the Busway).

For many people, that alternative mode of transport will be a bike (or, quite possibly, an e-bike) if they are given the opportunity.

This won’t take billions of dollars, but it will take the kind of courage that Vancouver’s leaders had in 2009, in the face of vocal opposition.

Ten years later, one of those vocal opponents, Vancouver’s Downtown Business Association admitted “we were wrong and we don’t mind saying we were wrong, but nobody had a crystal ball back then”.

Fortunately, Auckland does have a crystal ball.  We know what will happen, because there is real world evidence of what happens when similar cities reallocate space away from cars, and towards bikes and people.  Let’s make this Auckland’s “Burrard Bridge” moment.

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