Of Social Media, Politicians, Sacred Cows (and safe cycling)

I recently blogged on AT’s proposal for the Northcote Safe Cycle Route.  Apart from a connectivity issue at Onewa Rd which needs to be remedied, Cycle Action is strongly in favour of this proposal, and we compliment AT on a sound design that meets both strategic and local objectives.

But I sensed some criticism of AT’s plan, and recent press coverage has confirmed it.  Amongst others, Councillor George Wood was apparently not in favour, and I was anxious to discover why.  Here is a plan that is in alignment with both the Kaipatiki Local Board’s strategy and AT’s Auckland Cycle Network strategy, and would deliver protected cycleways or shared paths over a 5.2km section of densely trafficked Northcote.  With the safe cycle route servicing the ferry terminal, four schools, a shopping centre and sports grounds, what’s not to like?

So I hopped on George’s public Facebook page to try and find out.  Media studies students may find this an interesting case study, and politicians may view it as a cautionary tale about social media presence to minimise embarrassment.

Because George’s supporters are an embarrassment to him.  All the tired old cliches about cyclists being a bunch of unlicensed crackpots, greenies, and lycra louts who flout the law and don’t pay anything came flooding out. Rather than debating the issue, snide remarks and personal attacks predominated.  And unfortunately George didn’t rein them in – so the reader is left wondering whether he agrees with them or not.  As a politician and elected representative, George should know it’s not good to be associated with such extremist and ill-informed views.  They don’t reflect well on him.  Social media can be a double-edged sword.

Which brings us to sacred cows.  There are really two important issues that are at the root of the Northcote Safe Cycling Route controversy – the cost, and the loss of on-street parking.

Budget?  Parking?
Budget? Parking?

Sacred Cow Number One is the transport budget, and how it should only be spent on motor vehicles.  How dare cyclists (or residents who would like to get about by bike but are too scared to) ask for a few crumbs from the transport budget. If cyclists want cycle lanes, they can pay for them.

This of course completely ignores the personal and community benefits that arise from getting more people out on bikes – increased personal mobility, reduced traffic congestion, reduced fossil fuel consumption, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, cleaner air, increased social cohesion, a fitter and healthier population reducing the burden on the health system, tourism opportunities.  I could go on.  In other words, a more liveable city – what we all aspire to live in.  When the Benefit/Cost ratios are calculated, projects like this are generally streets ahead of expensive road widening projects, where the time saving benefits are quickly lost through induced demand.  But try and tell dyed-in-the-wool motorists that, who claim we need more and more spending on roads.

Sacred Cow Number Two is on-street parking, or the notion that residents have ownership of the parking space outside their properties.  They don’t of course.  As AT correctly points out on their Consultation page for the project:

  • The loss of on-street parking is a common occurrence when new walking and cycling facilities are established. As the Road Controlling Authority, Auckland Transport is responsible for the road reserve which is the entire corridor between property boundaries (e.g. footpaths, berms, and road). When determining how to utilise this space, Auckland Transport gives priority to safety, pedestrian and cycle facilities, bus stops, bus lanes, loading zones and traffic flow over other uses.
  • On-street parking is only permitted when there is not an activity of greater priority that requires use of the space. As such the proposed walking and cycling facilities take priority over the use of these spaces for parking.

But even George falls into this fallacy of ownership.  As he says in one of his posts:
I doubt the people of Northcote Point will willingly hand over their on street parking as Auckland Transport is proposing right now.

Hand over “their” on-street parking, George?

It’s important to understand the difference between inconvenience and hardship.  Some residents or their visitors may need to walk an extra few metres from a property entrance to an on-street car park.  That’s a small price to pay for a safe cycling route.  But I fully acknowledge that some residents may suffer hardship due to the heritage nature of some homes in the area, which lack any form of off-street parking.  In these cases residents should make a submission to AT, and no doubt AT will be able to design a solution.  But if you walk along Queen St you’ll find that most houses have generous garages and off-street parking, so the number of residents with genuine hardship is likely to be small.

So what does George say on his FB page about the Northcote Safe Cycling Route?

I can’t understand the need for this Queen Street cycle lane Steve. Very few cyclists use this road and the project has all the hallmarks of the Birkenhead Wharf ferry terminal cycle shed. I will listen to the views of the residents although preliminary correspondence has a negative view to the proposal.

There are so many issues I have with this statement, but I’ll refrain in the interests of brevity, and allow readers to draw their own conclusions.  I trust George’s understanding will improve over time, particularly when more than a vocal subset of residents’ views are canvassed.

And what are the lessons for cyclists out of all of this? From an advocacy perspective, we need to continue to make calm, reasoned, and informed submissions, and ask our supporters to do the same.  Here’s the link to AT’s Northcote Safe Cycling Route so you can submit on this proposal.

Times are changing.  Last century’s transportation planning based on the dominance of motor vehicles above all else has given way to more enlightened thinking where active mode transport (walking and cycling) and public transport are seen in their proper context – an integral component of good urban design, and a viable choice for those who cannot or choose to not travel by car.

And for cyclists out on the road? We need to foster goodwill to counter the negative images held by some sections of the community.  Always put your own safety first, but otherwise be courteous and follow the rules.

I look forward to cycling the Northcote Safe Cycling Route with my children and grandchildren in due course.

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