Left hooked at Nelson Street

Oct 07, 2019
Left hooked at Nelson Street

Bike Auckland

To many Aucklanders on bikes, the Nelson Street Cycleway – while not pretty – represents “how a proper cycleway should be” when it comes to protecting you from traffic. The solid, wide separators allow you the peace of mind to ride on one of the largest and busiest streets of our city, and to take your kids along too. Connecting the magnetic Lightpath to the attractive waterfront, it plays a very important role in our central city network.

Early adopters in the very first months of the Nelson St Cycleway. (Image: Matt Lowrie, Greater Auckland).

However, when you’re riding next to so much traffic, every intersection is still a potential danger spot – even when the rest of your ride is safe and comfortable.

When Auckland Transport designed this route several years ago, they had the benefit that pretty much all intersections along the route already had traffic signals, so the task of safely connecting a two-way cycleway across these big junctions was made easier. But issues remain.

In the absence of a “bike green wave“, for example, some intersections phased for vehicles can cause long delays for people on bikes, until people may become tempted to zip across when they see a safe gap. But the even more dangerous intersections are those where drivers are tempted to ignore the rules, for the simple reason that a motor vehicle is at least an order of magnitude heavier than a bike & rider. With great power comes great responsibility. And as we have seen at the Cook Street / Nelson Street corner, not everyone is ready for that responsibility.

Pretty much since the layout was created, with a ban on left turns into Cook Street to protect the two-way traffic on the bikeway, some drivers have ignored the NO LEFT TURN rule. Instead of taking alternative routes via Union Street or Wellesley Street, they kept turning left here.

And with the size of the intersection, some of those left turns can be fast and sudden, leading to frequent close calls – see extensive documentation in these threads on Twitter and Facebook– with at least one hit-and-run that left a person cycling with injuries requiring surgery. (For some reason, in reporting the latter crash, the Herald confirmed that the cyclist had a green – but omitted the fact that the fleeing driver had made an illegal turn, as well as leaving the scene of a crash.)

The issue of dangerous and illegal left turns is extensively documented on social media with people raising the issue to AT  – including the fact that the “NO LEFT TURN” sign was constantly being hit and shunted out of place by trucks. The latter issue has been fixed for now with a new sign mounting – but the fundamental danger posed by turning vehicles remains. And occasional enforcement by the police at Auckland Transport’s request has not (and cannot) remove that risk.

Whether illegal left turns here are accidental or intentional (and we suspect quite a few are fully “no worries” intentional), things need to improve here, and before someone dies.

So what could and should be done here? Bike Auckland and AT have looked into a variety of possible options:

    • Better advance signage to make sure people don’t make a left turn out of panic (e.g. if they’ve noticed the turn ban too late, but think there’s no other way to get to their destination). Drivers could be directed to go via Union Street, or via Wellesley St West / Sale Street – or even through the small slip lane alongside Nelson Street which gets its own signal phase. AT have promised to look into this, but it could be difficult, as for some of the routes, signs would need to be almost on the motorway to alert people early enough to make the right decisions.
    • Better signage, full stop: AT is currently looking into adding an illuminated no-left-turn sign, to make it much more obvious that the turn is illegal. This is good in itself, but it won’t help those who do it out of convenience, knowing full well it is illegal…
    • Ground flashers: Bike Auckland suggested AT could look into having the line of the cycleway across the intersection lit up by flashing ground studs to make it clear that drivers should not turn across. Again, this wouldn’t deter people who know full well they should not turn – although it might make them a bit more aware of the risk? AT may look into this further, we hope.
    • Cameras: At a recent meeting with AT, there was discussion about whether a red light camera here would be able to capture illegal left-turners. However, the question is whether current cameras are even able to detect illegal left turns separately from someone running a red light in general, given illegal left-turning drivers current do so on a green phase for Nelson Street car traffic. AT was going to look into this, and it would be great, but we’re not holding our breath for this approach to solve the matter yet.
    • Island Protection – Small: Bike Auckland suggested adding a small traffic island (red in the image below) to extend the protection from the cycleway a bit further into the intersection, and make it harder / slower to turn left. Auckland Transport felt this was feasible – but on testing it, found that it was going to be too limited. It would not effectively block (or even much slow down) the illegal turns. Extending the island further would mean it would block one of the westbound Cook Street lanes across the intersection.
Red: A small traffic island we suggested initially to make illegal turns harder. Blue: A potential bigger traffic island option. This is feasible… but only if one of the two westbound lanes along Cook Street is removed. Note: For extra irony, the photo shows the old left-turn sign knocked out of position… (Photo: Google Streetview)
    • Island Protection – Larger: The basic idea of blocking illegal left turns with an island itself is sound. If we could reduce traffic lanes west on Cook Street to only one, then it would be fully feasible. Well guess what, AT already proposed reducing the lanes! As part of their “Cook Street Surprise Bikeway” in 2018. This added a westbound bike lane onto Cook Street and removed the second car lane here, as there was no big demand for two westbound lanes anyway. We have slightly edited the intersection plan proposed then to show how the blue island(s) could be added, while also providing a bike lane bypass. Great idea? Well, yes. Except for two issues: The Cook Street project is delayed until further notice due to funding issues (not even a timeframe given). And at the same time, there are plans for new “temporary” (a year or more) bus re-routing along Cook Street to turn right onto Nelson Street. AT has promised to pull the bike safety issue into the intersection review for the bus re-routing, so we don’t get two different silo-ed approaches here as can otherwise happen.
The original AT redesign of Cook St / Nelson Street – with our suggested longer blue island added (see the two small blue dots in the southern centre of the intersection).
  • If all fails… make the left turns legal again? This option – which we haven’t discussed with AT yet – may seem somewhat counter-intuitive. But one of the key reasons the left turn is now illegal (unlike at other intersections along Nelson, where drivers can turn left across the bikeway) is because AT prioritises maintaining maximum flow / least delays for all the other movements. So the designers, a few years ago, felt that an added lane running straight ahead was needed. But there are still four (!) traffic lanes on Nelson St. Would it not be possible to simply make one of them into a dedicated left turn lane? This would leave two through lanes, and one lane for right turns into Cook Street. Maybe other car movements would be a few seconds delayed during the peak hour as a result, but surely – with AT avowing that safety is now a prime directive – safety improvements should trump that! All this said, we would only support this solution if the arrangement preserved quality of service and convenience for riders, and was clearly safe. And it would need to be a fully separate phase for vehicles, rather than “cars wait a bit before proceeding across bike traffic”. Even with those caveats, this option might be worth looking into.

As you can see, it’s not an easy solution. But it’s a necessary one. On the inner city’s fastest growing cycleway, too many people every day are being exposed to a known danger. With Lightpath / Nelson Street route one of the busiest bike routes of the city, AT must act on improving this obvious safety risk. And it must do something fast, before it becomes a matter of “if only we’d done something before…”

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