Straight talk: Dominion Road bike routes and Light Rail

Nov 19, 2018
Straight talk: Dominion Road bike routes and Light Rail

Bike Auckland

With light rail now planned for Dominion Road, and NZTA coming forth with timely new updates, people are starting to get their heads around what a major boulevard truly optimised for public transport round the clock might look like. For our part, we naturally picture it as including world-class bikeways. There’s space, bike use is growing, it’s a way to leverage your public transport investment, and really, in 2018, why wouldn’t you?

In a Herald article back in July, the manager of the Dominion Road Business Association had a slightly different take:

[Gary] Holmes said light rail down Dominion Rd will only work if it is about urban regeneration, rather than just transport. He said light rail will remove all on-street parking down Dominion Rd and it is his understanding there will be no buses, just cars, commercial vehicles and taxis on the two remaining lanes. A little-used cycleway built parallel to the east of Dominion Rd would be used for cyclists, he said.

Well, that got our attention. If you’re wondering what the ‘little-used cycleway built parallel to the east of Dominion Rd’ might be, it refers to the Dominion Road Parallel Routes, of which there are two: one to the east and one to the west. These were the result of the last attempt to bring this major route into the 21st century. And, as we pointed out in the same Herald article, they’ve been a mixed blessing at best, and are no substitute for safe cycling on the main street.

Bike Auckland believes this ‘back-street’ route is a bad compromise and today launched a petition for dedicated bike lanes to be included in the light rail project on Dominion Rd.

‘For all the reasons Dominion Rd makes sense for light rail, it also makes sense as a popular and practical route for people on bikes,’ said Bike Auckland chairwoman Barb Cuthbert.

That makes now the perfect time to revisit how the parallel routes came to be – so we can ensure history doesn’t repeat (in a bad way) for people on bikes.

The Dominion Road parallel routes in green, either side of Dominion Road in blue. You can see how the main road flows like a river through the watershed of side streets.

Where did the parallel routes come from?

In 2004, Dominion Road was designated a 24-hour public transport corridor, leading to a $100m proposal in the early 2010s to create wide, continuous 24/7 bus lanes running the full 5km of Dominion Rd. Amazingly, early designs not only included people on bikes, but proposed Auckland’s first real Copenhagen-style bike lanes!

A 2010 design for Dominion Road, with actual Copenhagen-style cycle lanes!! (This design was never built.)

This proposal was welcomed as a significant safety improvement by cycling advocates – and the bus companies. As we noted at the time, while confident riders can travel in bus lanes, it’s not ideal for either bikes OR buses as it creates inefficiencies and risks. Indeed, research at the time showed Dominion Road’s bus lanes (narrow, at just 3m) generated twice the expected number of bike crashes.

In the end, the design wasn’t built, after pushback on the grounds of cost and sacrificing street parking for continuous 24/7 bus lanes. The big vision was steadily scaled down (see this guest post from January 2013, and Greater Auckland May 2014), and then suddenly, bikes were nudged out of the streetscape altogether…

…and pushed into the side streets, with around $6m devoted to constructing a pair of ‘supplementary’ cycle routes either side of the main road.

As reported by the Herald, while we certainly weren’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth – and we advised extensively on making the routes more usable for people on bikes – but we really didn’t see them catching on as an alternative to Dominion Rd itself.

“The back roads linking schools will be good for inexperienced cyclists but they don’t cater for commuting, where time and convenience are the priority,” said [Barb] Cuthbert.

Experienced cyclists would continue to travel in Dominion Rd’s narrow bus lanes, [she said], rather than use “meandering inconvenient back roads”.

What’s wrong with the parallel routes?

As one of the respondents to our recent Dominion Road survey put it, the parallel routes are ‘nice if you want to toddle around, but they’re not direct and they’re also not protected’. In other words, there’s nothing especially wrong with them as traffic-calmed quietways go – except that, as quietways go, they’re not especially quiet. Although less busy than Dominion Road itself, those side streets are still dominated by cars, many seeking rat runs to dodge congestion and traveling at 50kmh or more. Let’s be clear: these are not attractive all-ages bikeways equivalent to, say, the Northwestern Cycleway or even the protected lanes on Nelson St or Quay St.

But above all, the parallel routes fail to achieve the holy grail of bike routes – they’re not convenient, comfortable, legible, and direct. For those traveling longer distances, the parallel routes are approximately a third longer than the direct route. Getting from Mt Albert to the CBD along Dominion Road is (traffic dangers aside) an easy ride of 6km, or about 20 minutes, whereas the parallel routes, if you stretch them out, are about 8km, or a ~30 minute journey.

And that doesn’t count how often you have to stop at decision points along the way – places where an unfamiliar rider would have to stop and check maps, signs, or more: nine times on the western route and eleven times on the eastern route! Hands up if you’ve ever attempted to ride these routes and gotten lost or frustrated.

An aerial view showing the relative length of the western and eastern Parallel Routes, compared to Dominion Road itself. (Image: Timothee Duhamel, made using Google Earth).

Also, note how – as if to add insult to injury – the parallel routes drop you back on to Dominion Road at one of the hairiest sections – the flyover at the city edge. Funnily enough, that zone where Dominion Road becomes Ian McKinnon Drive is also the one section where early light rail renderings actually show dedicated bikeways. If they make sense here, it would be logical to ensure they run the whole route, surely?

One of the early renderings of the project, showing light rail at the city end of Dominion Road, plus adjacent bikeways.

Secondly, as we made 100% clear at the time they were conceived and built (and as NZTA and AT agreed), the parallel routes are no substitute for access to and along the main road with all its shops and destinations. That’s why they were explicitly scoped as ‘supplementary‘ routes – they were never officially intended to replace access on Dominion Rd itself. (Which didn’t stop at least one councillor suggesting at the time that people on bikes be literally banned from Dominion Road!)

Spot the person quaxing past Love a Duck; one of hundreds of local bike shopping trips made per day, even though Dominion Road is currently pretty hostile for cycling.

And another thing: the parallel routes also involve more uphill stretches than the direct route along Dominion Road – an extra 20m or so of elevation to climb.

Comparing the length and hilliness of the Dominion Road parallel routes with the main drag. The purple dots show ‘points of interest’: schools, reserves, sports fields, bowling lawns, playgrounds, restaurants, shops, public services and other amenities, as found in the OpenStreetMap database. Not only is Dominion Road the shortest, most direct, and flattest route through this part of the isthmus, it’s also the most destination-rich. (Image: Timothee Duhamel).

So, are these parallel routes ‘little-used’?

Let’s take a look at the numbers. Well, this is awkward, and yet it fits with what we described above: in a time of Auckland-wide bike growth, especially on the isthmus, ridership fell on the parallel routes! That’s right – these routes are less popular now than when they were first built.

According to two one-off counts carried out by Auckland Transport, on average – and adjusted for seasonality – bike traffic on the parallel routes dropped by 21% between March 2015 and April 2017, from 353 to 254 per day.

Interestingly, the only two locations where bike counts went up instead were Frost Rd and Sherbourne Road, both of which are home to primary schools. Traffic-calmed side street routes do have their place in a complete network – and school travel is a key reason. But the numbers strongly suggest that the routes aren’t exactly attracting new riders.

Meanwhile, on Dominion Road, the bikes keep coming

By contrast, bike traffic on Dominion Road is steady and growing, as measured by the automatic counter near View Road installed in August 2017. The daily average for 2018 to date is 312 trips a day, but that’s across all seasons and all days of the week. The average weekday sees about twice as many trips as the average Saturday or Sunday, and a busy weekday easily sees 500 trips on the counter. Not bad for a route without painted bike lanes, let alone proper bikeways!

The strong weekday/weekend split also suggests that a good half of the users clocked by the counter are long-haul commuters – and, as the counter sits at the city end, this makes sense. Of course, the automatic counter only captures some of Dominion Road’s bike traffic: there are many more short local bike trips happening along the full 5km, to, at and between the various village centres, which will never register on the counter up at View Road. Here’s one, south of Balmoral, north of Mt Albert.

Just another bike shopper on Dominion Road. (Image: Bike Auckland)

Even just counting trips that register on the auto counter, bike traffic from August to October this year is up by around 10% on this time last year. As the counter was installed in August 2017, those are the earliest months for which we have year-on-year comparisons, and 10% growth is highly impressive under the current circumstances! It also maps well onto the general bike boom citywide versus this time year, which is 17.1% in general, and much higher wherever bike routes are being improved and connected.

Monthly totals as measured by AT’s automatic counter on Dominion Road near View Road. Spot the classic dips for the summer holidays and mid-winter – and note that the midwinter dip is becoming shallower across the city as Auckalnders get used to riding year-round.

People prefer the direct route – so it’s time to make it safer and more attractive

As laid out above, the direct route isn’t just direct: it’s flatter, shorter, easier to navigate, and given Dominion Road is one of the city’s premiere shopping streets, it just has way more going on. Even without bikeways or even bike lanes, Dominion Road is attracting more and more people on bikes. Clearly, the inherent qualities of this route speak loudly over the din of danger. This is telling us something.

And so are you. In your responses to our survey about biking on Dominion Road, you told us that (traffic fears aside), there’s just so much to love about this street, and not just for A to B commuters:

‘It gets me where I need to go… It is a direct flat route into town with good shops and cafes along its length… Straight and efficient… Interest along the street, lots of tasks can be fulfilled – shopping and services… It’s direct and mostly flat plus it’s got lots of places to visit.’

So what would it take to get thousands of us riding along Dominion Rd each day? We’ll cover that in our next blog post, which takes a closer look at what you told us in the survey about what currently puts you off cycling on Dominion Road – and how you’d love to ride this royal route more often, if only it felt safer.

Which is good news for the whole strip: because when people can bike safely along a great grand boulevard lined with shops, their main worry is around where to stop and spend money. (The latest data from London says that people walking, biking, and hopping on and off public transport spend 40% more in shops than people in cars!)

And this urban regeneration – to loop back to the beginning of this post – is surely a key reason for any business association to warmly welcome people on bikes, rather than assume we’ll be banished to back streets.

Plus, we haven’t even mentioned e-scooters, which in less than a month on our streets have made two things abundantly clear: 1) Aucklanders want to get around by any nimble means that presents itself, and 2) to do that safely, we need travel space that’s separated from pedestrians yet protected from traffic.

Our city is changing under our noses and the transport corridors of the future will need to embrace all the ways we travel now. Bike Auckland is pretty confident that NZTA, which has taken over the planning for Dominion Road light rail, understands this new reality. In fact, a meeting we had with the design team after we first proposed the idea left us *cautiously* optimistic that NZTA – guided by a government that’s emphasising not just public transport, but also walking and cycling – won’t just put two-wheelers straight into the ‘too-hard bike basket’.

Still, revisiting what happened the last time Dominion Road was revamped for public transport reminds us we really can’t take anything for granted!

So please add your voice to our petition if you haven’t already done so – it only takes a second.


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