The future is coming – can Ponsonby Road catch up in time?

The future is coming – can Ponsonby Road catch up in time?

Bike Auckland

LennartPonsonbyRdbiketweetThe cycling renaissance, like every sea-change, comes with waves. Sometimes a lot of them.

Through the grapevine, we hear that a few retailers may make waves about the fact their road is included on the Auckland Transport Cycle Network map currently being consulted on (read our blog post about the consultation here).

We wouldn’t be surprised to see submissions of a categorically anti-bike-lane nature, along the lines of “nope, nope, never, nope – over our businesses” – alongside imaginative businesses exploring overseas examples and getting excited about the possibilities.

The fearful reactions are surprising, for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s pretty early to be putting stakes in the ground. Firm plans aren’t even on the close horizon! The consultation is for a 10-year scheme, of which only the first 3 years are currently guaranteed funding, and none of that early funding goes to Ponsonby Road.

(On the question of timing: bike lanes are in the Ponsonby Road plan, but as Auckland Transport’s Walking and Cycling Manager Kathryn King explained to Russell Brown recently, “Ponsonby Road needs to be addressed as part of a wider streetscape upgrade.”)

So people on bikes will unfortunately have to keep braving the current conditions for a few years yet, while we wait for a comprehensive plan for safe and easy access via bike to the fabulous shops, restaurants and other offerings of the street.

And brave the conditions they will. Because we’re seeing growing numbers of bikes along Ponsonby Road, and more and more atypical riders – gals in stylish frocks; older people; even families with kids. The reality is, people on bikes are coming – before the city’s even fixed anything!

As Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, says of his city’s recent bike boom: ‘the sheer numbers of cyclists rose so high that it became absurd not to cater for them.’


Secondly, we know retailers are highly attuned to seasonal shifts and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and are naturally inclined to worry about change. But for one thing, the bikes have been part of the picture since the very beginning…

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19071128-7-2
‘Opening of the cycling season in New Zealand’ – the Rudge Cycling Club sets off from Ponsonby for a ride to One Tree Hill, November 1907 (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19071128-7-2)
Three Lamps, Ponsonby Road, 1909 (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A7638)

And for another, Ponsonby Road itself has undergone any number of changes over the years, without scaring away shoppers. Quite the contrary.

(Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A1301)
The Three Lamps end has been made a bit less traffic-centric and more pedestrian-friendly since this 1964 photo was taken. Strangely, shoppers haven’t stopped arriving. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A1301)
(Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 802-2-1)
1996: the Allen Calendars building, on the corner of Richmond Rd; the future site of Ponsonby Central. Believe it or not, people still shop on this corner! (Photo by Di Stewart, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 802-2-1)
The new building in the background on the left? Used to be a gas station. (Photo: Patrick Reynolds, via Twitter)
The opposite corner of Richmond Rd, today. That new building in the background on the left? Used to be a gas station. Yep. People still shopping. (Photo: Patrick Reynolds, via Twitter)

Still, even knowing that the street has successfully evolved with the times, some businesses will likely be worried about the changes posed by making the street safer and friendlier for bikes and pedestrians.

Often the greatest fear is around loss of car parking and of car priority. And sure, construction is never fun, and can steer some shoppers away until things settle down again. If car parks or traffic lanes are lost and nothing else replaces them but dead air or another lane of traffic, then there might well be a decline in custom. But what if you’re adding a whole new source of custom?

How many customers can fit in one parking space? (Image courtesy Bike Te Atatu. )
How many customers does it take to change a parking space? (Image by Bike Te Atatu. )

As merchants and shoppers discovered during a similar recent refit of a major shopping street in Salt Lake City, ‘bike lanes are typically best for business when they’re part of a general rethinking of the street to make it a more pleasant place to linger.’

Broadway, Salt Lake City.
Broadway, Salt Lake City. (Pic via SLC Division of Transportation)

In other words, bike lanes aren’t just good for cyclists – they’re part of a transformation that makes a street feel like a better place to be. They add vitality to downtrodden shopping strips currently coughing in the fumes of car traffic. They help buffer pedestrians from the constant stream of vehicles. And in conjunction with slowing traffic down, they give pedestrians better access to both sides of a street that can sometimes feel like a canyon. Double your business – now, that’s a proposition.

Brilliant illustration by Karl Jilg, for the Swedish Road Association.
Public Domain: illustration by Karl Jilg, for the Swedish Road Association. More here.

Thing is, a shopping and restaurant strip needs to stay fresh, or it dies. And inviting people on bikes would totally play to Ponsonby Road’s strengths. If you really want to drive to the shops, where do you go? Ponsonby Road – or a mall? If you want to go for a fancy meal, would you prefer somewhere you can easily bike to, buffered from traffic by wide footpaths and a lane of handsome folk quietly swishing past on their bikes  – or would you like to drive there, spend ages searching for car parking, and then ‘enjoy’ your meal while watching others do the same?

(Let’s also not discount the untapped potential of the Link Bus as a hop-on hop-off limousine. When people can choose to hop the ‘party bus’ to town and leave the car at home, the parking issues that worry retailers tend to solve themselves).

At the moment, the blunt truth is that despite its official 40kph speed limit, Ponsonby Road isn’t an especially pleasant place to cycle or walk.

  • There’s a shortage of street trees to shade and soften the pavement.
  • The pedestrian refuges are scary for pedestrians and create pinch points for bikes.
  • Promenading shoppers have to stop at every side street to give way to cars.
  • People on bikes have to assertively take the full lane to avoid another dreaded dooring disaster (to be honest we’re not sure why retailers aren’t clamouring to address this one – surely it’s a bad look to have your parking spots blocked by ambulances carting away another injured young person who was just hoping to shop at your place!).

Something will have to change, and the current Local Board/ AT collaboration on the pedestrian experience project is a great start. Bike-enabling the street is the logical next step. Bike lanes bring shoppers, they bring vibe, and they bring money – including other Council investment.

From a Melbourne study of the benefits of bike vs car parking along a shopping strip. (Image from here; original study here)
From a Melbourne study of the benefits of bike vs car parking along a shopping strip. (Image via here; original study here)

It’s time to start talking. As researcher Alistair Woodward put it recently, our public street space is our shared common wealth, and we need to collaborate on how to use it:

The issue is how we, as a society, negotiate access to resources that are shared and limited. Roads are part of the public commons – they belong to everyone and they belong to no-one in particular. Everybody benefits from access, but concessions must be made because the resource is finite. Who concedes, and by how much, are matters that are vital to everyone’s welfare and must be agreed upon collectively.

So our invitation to any worried retailers – and also of course to those who can see the potential – is: share your ideas!

Meet us in the design room and help figure this out. It doesn’t make sense to envision a world in which the increasing numbers of people on bikes can be banished from polite society and sent rat-running through alternative routes on back streets. We’ve got a few years up our sleeve to imagine how to make it work.

So tell us, how would you make this thoroughfare safer for all potential customers? How can a street welcome shoppers on bikes? What about parking-protected bike lanes? If on-street parking is a priority, would we happily trade a lane of traffic to preserve it? Where shall we put the bike parking?

One last observation: the less palatable alternative to a shared vision of a revamped Ponsonby Road is that K Road’s coming upgrade may see it eclipsing Ponsonby as the hip strip.

K Road, with much improved new footpaths and cycleways, will soon be our urban cycling equivalent of the Fort Street shared spaces: breathable, connected, calm and welcoming – while Ponsonby Road may find itself playing High Street, of the narrow cramped footpaths and traffic that chokes any attempt at pleasant shopping.

But we want all our streets to be successful and safe. And so, we’re sure, do you.

And that’s why you should express your wish for bike-friendly conditions on Ponsonby Road loudly in your submission. Even though any transformation is a few years off, we all want Ponsonby Road to be a success. And in the 21st century, a shopping street without bikes is not a success.

Ponsonby parade, pic by John McKillop via Facebook.
Here come the bikes along Ponsonby Rd! (Photo of the October 2015 Sunday Best Ride, by John McKillop, via Facebook.)


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