More roads… or more modes? Our take on the NZ Upgrade Programme

More roads… or more modes? Our take on the NZ Upgrade Programme


Dear Members and Friends of Bike Auckland,

I was invited by the Prime Minister’s office to attend the 29 January 2020 launch of the Government’s big New Zealand Upgrade Programme, heralding $6.8 billion investment for new and upgraded infrastructure projects across the country. As the launch rolled out I was initially overwhelmed by the list of new roads; but as I digested the detail, it became clear this could equally be viewed as a platter of multi-modal projects, including worthwhile cycling gains.

People at Bike Auckland’s monthly breakfast gathering on the morning after the announcement were confused and subdued by media reports of roads and more roads. I tried to lift the mood by saying there was sunlight amongst the clouds, and promised to report in more detail on our website. (See also my letter to the NZ Herald today).

Here’s my pragmatic take. I believe that cycling has done well in the package, especially in an election year. Is the package a rich bonanza of projects to instantly transform East, West, North and South Auckland from Bike Bermuda Triangles and cycling wastelands into safe territory for people on bikes? No, sorry – we didn’t win the Powerball prize this time.

But neither is this a deluge of “more roads” that sweeps trains, buses, bikes and walking ahead of it and into the gutter. Rather, it’s about roads with multi-modal extras, plus a big batch of rail benefits that will enrich the experience of getting around our city.

In short: this package will noticeably improve cycling in Auckland for people who want to ride on safe and convenient paths that run alongside regional arterials, the way the Northwestern Cycleway runs along SH16. The Harbour Bridge will get the stunning and spectacular people’s pathway that it’s deserved for decades. And money will be left in the kitty to fund other long-desired major projects for cycling.

As one who works with Bike Auckland’s dedicated team and sees the funding, design and construction struggles behind every new cycling project in Auckland, I believe these gains from the Upgrade Programme are well worth having.

What’s in the package for Auckland?

Here’s a map summarizing the Auckland part of the package: seven projects, which make up $3.48b of the total $6.8b Upgrade Programme budget. You’ll find more information about the projects for Auckland and the whole country in the NZTA’s report.

Mayor Phil Goff warmly welcomed the investment for Auckland, as reported in Thursday’s 6am RNZ news. He was quick to scotch the reporter’s suggestion that this new money would allow the removal of the Regional Fuel Tax – by pointing out Auckland’s huge infrastructure backlog of work and expanding transport needs, the decades of poor public transport investment to catch up on, the hungry economy, and the booming population in a city that’s home to more than a third of New Zealanders.

Interestingly, he used the lack of a connected and safe cycling network as an illustration of the city’s many unmet transport needs that mean Auckland will retain the fuel tax:

“Closing up the network of walking and cycling paths will be critical to getting that mass change to using active modes of transportation that you see in other countries, in Europe.”

The Great Political Divide

I’ll dig into the details of the Upgrade Programme below. But first, as we head into this election year, it’s useful to take stock of the gulf between the transport policies of the left and the right.

The party-political divide is illustrated by two contrasting takes on the package, from Associate Transport Minister Julie-Anne Genter (Greens) and former Transport Minister Steven Joyce (National).

In her article for The Spinoff, Julie Anne Genter spells out the Greens’ position: transport is a major contributor to climate change, and “every sector needs to pull its weight in cleaning up our act”, she writes. “A few things need to happen for us to reduce transport pollution in line with our 1.5C goals. We need a step-change in public transport, active transport, rail and sea freight; and we need rapid electrification of our car fleet.”

She then lists the Greens’ range of priorities:

  • Electrification of more rail lines around our major cities to shift trains away from diesel.
  • New rolling stock to increase the services for people, making rail more reliable and accessible.
  • Re-scoping roading projects to focus more on safety rather than increasing capacity far beyond what is needed.
  • Bus and other rapid transit projects, including light rail.
  • Supporting cycling and walking infrastructure in our towns and cities.
  • Electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

By contrast, the headline of Steven Joyce’s column was “Hallelujah!…Roads are back!”

And this theme didn’t let up, as Joyce spelt out his shopping list for new expressways and motorways for provincial cities, and more besides. Multi-modal and more efficient private transport are dispensed with as he declares: “The Government is to investigate dedicating one of the two lanes each way on each project for buses, or cars with multiple occupancy. I can see that going down like a cup of the proverbial.”

Maybe someone could tell Steven that cycling along with buses and trains are the fastest growing transport modes in Auckland. And that Australia, which he seems to want to emulate, has been burning since the start of summer, to the point that even their politicians are at last recognising climate change as a crisis? Steven is no longer National’s political spokesperson, but Simon Bridges’ recent speeches highlight that National intends to focus on roads as an election topic.

Watch this space.

The launch of the Upgrade Programme

I was very glad Bike Auckland was invited to the launch of the Upgrade Programme for Transport, because cycling is such a popular and fast-growing transport mode in Auckland. But I wasn’t expecting to be one of only two women invitees amongst a sea of men in suits from the infrastructure sector. It was good to see other stakeholders like Greater Auckland and the AA in the room.

The Prime Minister (accompanied by Grant Robertson, Winston Peters, James Shaw, Phil Twyford and Shane Jones), welcomed each of us at the door. She said she was glad I could come, as the announcement was good news for cycling.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the infrastructure package launch, Wednesday 29 January 2020.

As the Prime Minister and Finance Minister Grant Robertson introduced the Upgrade programme, a picture emerged of roads… and more roads.

So I was very relieved to hear the picture filled in for Auckland as various Ministers stepped up to the podium, describing plans for multi-modal vehicle lanes, and separated cycle and walking routes on the new highways. Money to improve train travel for new South Auckland suburbs at Drury, Paerata and around Pukekohe also grabbed my attention.

Of course I was hanging out for more detail on the cycle projects, but my ears were equally tuned in to the rail improvements, because Auckland’s trains are increasingly being used by people with bikes. Some bike to their local train station and catch the train, but reports from our members describe significant and growing numbers of people bringing their bikes on Western and Southern line services.

I was especially excited to hear the Upgrade Programme will electrify the 19km diesel link to Pukekohe, as well as building two new stations at Drury and revamping Pukekohe Station. This caught my attention as I’d had a recent experience taking my bike on the Devonport ferry and the Southern train line to Pukekohe, a journey that took two and a half hours because of problems changing platforms with my bike at Papakura, and a train fault that meant I and many other locals had to wait an hour for the arrival of the Pukekohe diesel train.

On arrival at Pukekohe, I was met by an inspiring group of local residents who biked me around Pukekohe’s fast expanding housing areas. They highlighted the total absence of safe on-road cycling around and within the town – a missed opportunity to connect locals with their attractive shopping centre, local high school and train station.

Looking ahead, I hope NZTA is aware the same issue will apply at the new Drury stations, which will absolutely need safe local access for cycling from opening day to truly benefit locals and realise the wider benefits of investment.

New shared walking and cycling paths

The Upgrade intends to pay for safe cycling on every new or upgraded road planned for Auckland – a point that led James Shaw to announce that numbers-wise, the Upgrade actually delivers more kilometres for people biking than for people traveling in cars.

Green Party co-leader James Shaw at the infrastructure package launch, Wednesday 29 January 2020.

Auckland is now used to new walking and cycling lanes coming as part of new and upgraded motorways. It’s how we got the Waterview Shared Path, as well as the ongoing extensions and improvements to the Northwestern Cycleway. It’s also the reason we’re seeing a new pathway for walking and biking along SH1 on the North Shore, from Albany to Constellation Drive, and on the Southern Corridor Improvement project, with a new stretch of cycleway along SH1 soon to open between Takanini to Papakura.

The Upgrade package includes three new road projects that will likewise come with walking and cycling paths alongside:

  1. Penlink might be at first glance the least appealing to people on bikes: it connects midway along the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, and will be a 7km tolled two-lane corridor – which comes with a separated shared walking and cycling shared path.

We know that shared paths are increasingly coming under pressure and causing concerns, especially with more people commuting longer distances around Auckland, and more and longer trips enabled by the rise of e-bikes. Putting pedestrians and bikes (whether electric or otherwise) in the same space creates a messy mix of speeds and expectations, and fails the public need for predictable and safe active transport.

So, along with reviewing the design of the proposed Penlink shared path, we’ll be asking for cycling facilities to be extended into the neighbourhoods of Whangaparaoa Peninsula, so people can reach the Penlink path safely on their bikes.

2. A new road for Mill Rd has been on the books for some time now, and we had strong concerns about the inadequacies of the walking and cycling provision in the initial design. But the new 21km project, with separated, non-shared walking and cycling facilities and improved public transport is better news.

3. The last new road project upgrades SH1 from the Papakura interchange to a new Drury South interchange. As well as adding more traffic lanes, this project will add another 6km to the nearly completed 4.5km path from Takanini to the Papakura interchange, which will in turn link to the Mill Rd route. This is already being welcomed by the cycling contacts Bike Auckland has in Pukekohe, as it will supplement the new safer cycling links planned by the NZTA from Drury to Paerata as part of Supporting Growth programme.

I’m aware that cycleways along motorways can be seen as sweeteners for the pill of major roading projects. However, the reality is that motorways and expressways have easy gradients and provide hugely valuable connectivity for longer commuting rides across Auckland. The booming workday numbers using the Northwestern Cycleway show that we need more of these safe, fast and convenient intra-regional commuting cycleways for South, North and East Auckland – along with easy and safe local community connections along the way, for more bikeable neighbourhoods.

The Northern Pathway (SkyPath & SeaPath) and what they make possible

The cycling centrepiece of the Upgrade Programme is the $360m to fully fund “the Northern Pathway, popularly known as SkyPath and SeaPath”. This is a stunning amount for a single cycle project – but it’s not out of scale with the project’s complexity and national strategic significance for transport, tourism, and resilience.

Image of the proposed pathway across the Auckland Harbour Bridge (Artist’s impression, NZTA, 22 May 2019)

The cost of SeaPath and SeaPath would have had a major impact on the national cycling programme, affecting and likely delaying other projects. So, funding this essential link as part of the Upgrade Programme will avoid draining the bucket of money, and creates scope for the NZTA to deliver other major cycling projects in the near term. We don’t know yet what the full extent of this scope will be, but we expect it to allow progress on other high-priority projects on NZTA’s books for Auckland.

The first of these may be on the North Shore, where a gap along SH1 will need closing between where SeaPath ends (at Akoranga/ Esmonde Road) and where the new Albany–Constellation cycleway ends at Constellation Drive.

We’ll also be talking to the NZTA about accelerating work along the Southern Motorway, through what we’ve dubbed the infamous ‘Bike Bermuda Triangle’. That’s our term to capture the startling absence of safe bike routes in our central isthmus, which is both densely populated and handily criss-crossed by nice wide former tram routes.

People in the isthmus desperately need safe connections to access the concentration of work, learning and healthcare institutions in and around the Central City. With a Northern Pathway now in sight, the most glaring lack at the citywide scale is a route down SH1 from Newmarket, covering Ellerslie, Greenlane, parts of Onehunga and Penrose, and connecting strategically important residential and employment areas.*

The prospect of progressing these long overdue and highly valuable cycle projects is significant for Auckland, and is keenly welcomed by Bike Auckland.

*Relatedly, on the isthmus: Auckland Transport is working on an Integrated Corridor Priority Programme, aka “Connected Communities”, which aims to bring bus priority, safety, and cycling and walking improvements to key arterials within the next decade, including Sandringham Road, Mt Eden Road, Manukau Road and Great South Road. Of course, safe west-east bike routes on the isthmus will be crucial to supplement these north-south corridors.

So how about local links?

Local links connecting neighbourhoods to the wider network are hard to achieve when Auckland Transport is working to a rigid Programme Business Case for cycling, and is years behind its original timeframes for completing the package of projects.

Gaining road space for bikes in a city where vehicles do not give ground readily, and where other worthy projects are claiming priority, makes AT’s job hard.

This goes some way to explaining why, for example, AT is only now about to get started on one of two overdue extensions to the hugely successful Nelson St cycleway. Nelson St first opened in in December 2015; two years later, was extended from Victoria St to Fanshawe St; and the upcoming extension will bring the route through Market Place. (Unfortunately, the link to Quay St appears to have been deferred until after the Americas’ Cup, so people on bikes and scooters will have to weave through the busy Viaduct restaurant precinct to connect to Quay St.)

Even if road space and logistics weren’t an issue, the new Upgrade Programme highlights the fact that as things stand, AT is simply not resourced to keep up with NZTA’s expanding network of backbone cycleways by building local links to match, in time.

Those local links are essential to making the new arterial routes truly accessible and viable. They’ll enable the ridership booms that we know happen when networks expand, and they will nurture local bike use, allowing more kids to bike to school and more people to jump on bikes for everyday trips around and between neighbourhoods.

That’s why the new Government Policy Statement for Transport (currently in preparation) needs to recognise this situation and remedy it, by allocating the funding and the means to deliver local links as an integral part of the Upgrade Programme’s new major arterial cycleways. Networks are about serving and connecting communities, and the investment needs to reflect that reality.

–Barb Cuthbert, Chair of Bike Auckland

illustrations from the official NZ Upgrade Programme for Transport document, showing some of the kinds of journeys that the infrastructure investment hopes to enable.


Header image: illustrations from the official NZ Upgrade Programme -Transport document, showing some of the kinds of journeys that the infrastructure investment should enable. 

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