Tāmaki Drive and the shoreline that it follows is a lot of things for many people.
A glorious view over the bays and to Rangitoto. A route to work or home. The street in front of one’s house or shop. Endless traffic jams into town. The place where you go for a summer swim or an ice cream. An ancestral taonga of the local iwi, particularly Ngāti Whātua. A long stretch of Pohutukawa gracing the water’s edge.
For people on bikes, it also has a lot of associations. Most but not all are positive – a lazy trundle to the beach with your little kids. A busy bike route – even back when cycling seemed to disappear in Auckland for a few decades. A road with far too many injuries and death at the same time. The place of one of Auckland’s first bikeways back in the 1970s. That same bikeway staying a bumpy and far too narrow shared path for the five decades after. The joy of going hard out in a bunch ride on the long stretches. Fighting the headwinds, and enjoying the push as the wind sped you home. The pleasure of looking at the sparkling water as you pass.
A lot of things have improved for bikes on Tāmaki Drive over the last two decades and recently a new stretch opened of a massively improved bikeway. The new section from The Strand to Ngapipi that was built over the last 2+ years and follows on from a collection of minor improvements, each of which had to be fought for.
Future projects still to come will include Mission Bay, with Auckland Transport having confirmed that the new bikeway through the centre will be properly separated, and widened even in the middle section, as Bike Auckland had fought for (essentially as per our blog here). And at Ngapipi, the Glen Innes to Tamaki Drive route, with section 2 about to open, will in the next couple years bring a fantastic new link to more suburbs further to the south.
Far too many of these projects were graced by endless delays, and the section from The Strand to Ngapipi managed to get delayed in turn as well – not only taking many years to start, but then being hit by COVID-delays, construction defects, and battles with Ports of Auckland over the shape of the crucial section past the SH16 truck entry at Solent Street.
All these challenges were eventually overcome, but we think it’s worth looking back, and seeing an alternate future in which the bikeway wouldn’t have happened at all, or, somewhat more likely, in a much lesser form. Because that’s how it was proposed back in May 2017.
What almost was
The current Tāmaki Drive bikeway project was established around 2015 as part of the Urban Cycleways Programme. This was created by the then-National government under John Key, on the heels of the highly popular rural New Zealand Cycle Trails Programme. While some routes became contentious, improving Tāmaki Drive – Auckland’s busiest bike route – was a no-brainer in principle. Linking it to the also-announced path to Glen Innes made a lot of sense too, and clarified which section would get done first.
But when, some two years later, Auckland Transport finally produced the public consultation plans, the reception was deservedly chilly.
Between The Strand and Ngapipi, the proposals could, at best, be called “uneven” – a mixture of some short bits of separated two-way cycleway, interspersed with long stretches of shared paths and pinch points to be left unfixed. And even with all these limitations, it at the same time managed to reduce the convenience and safety of riders who would have simply stayed on-road, avoiding the continued mess.
The proposal was a bad mixture of old “good enough” thinking and claims that all possible further design improvements would either affect trees or car parks too much – mixed with Auckland Transport senior management initially leaning towards prioritising construction costs over actually achieving quality.
[Industry-wide, a boom had increased infrastructure costs over 30% within less than 3 years during the mid 2010s, so a lot of initial budgets were being blown left and right – but you can believe that no motorway designs during those years were modified to see fewer lanes!]
So it came to pass that in Bike Auckland, we were suddenly faced with having to say “No”.
For the first time in the Urban Cycleways Programme – which we had enthusiastically cheer-led from the start – we decided to outright oppose a project. It wasn’t an easy choice – we knew that the bike people in Auckland Transport were under enormous pressure to achieve, while avoiding cost increases. And the scope creep demands that every cycleway project had to be everything – a road safety project, an urban design project, a landscaping and stormwater upgrade – didn’t make it any easier.
It was a hard decision for us – we were saying “no”. But what could we suggest instead?
Bike Auckland has always tried to say “Do this instead” rather than just “Do not”.
Our first call to action came out on 20 May 2017, proposing the “Bike Auckland Interim Option” – asking you, the public, to push for certain improvements. But, developed over a rushed night or two after we saw the consultation design, it was still severely limited. The best you could say of our proposal really was that it would have been more consistent, and a little less problematic for on-road riders. But it was still only a shared path with some wider on-road lanes.
Social media and a re-think
After our initial blog and design alternative (written by volunteers at night during a busy week!) went live, extensive public interest occurred. We got a lot of praise – even from some key people in the transport industry and government – for pointing out the shortcomings. But it also soon became clear that some people were – unsurprisingly! – still far from happy with the interim ideas!
Some early criticism focussed on the (mis)perception that we were supporting Auckland Transport in their unwillingness to remove car parking. While we had acknowledged that parking removal in some sections – such as Parnell Baths – would be more politically challenging, we had made it clear that parking removal was key to improving on-road rider safety.
It was nagging at the back of our own minds – and it came through in a lot of the social media comments on our blog and on Facebook and Twitter: “This isn’t good enough – and it won’t be good enough”. Even with some slightly more consistent shared paths and other minor tweaks.
So we went back to the drawing board. Using our technical skills – some of the people in Bike Auckland’s core group were themselves transport engineers – we looked at what the real constraints were. How wide was the road? How close are the trees? How narrow can things get and still function? What could be changed and chopped to make things work to get an ACTUAL cycle path? One where bike riders get their own space.
The result, several days later, was us effectively “recalling” our hurried “Interim” proposal, and proposing what we called the “Bike AKL Quality Option” in another big blog, which focused a lot more on how the glory of Tāmaki Drive deserved a proper bikeway, not another major compromise. Using a free program called “Streetmix”, we developed our example cross-sections, targeted at the worst (narrowest) pinch points such as west of Parnell Baths, where the Pohutukawa come closest to the road edge. If it worked there, it could be made to work elsewhere along the route.
The design wasn’t without its own limitations – we proposed removing the existing shared path on the south side and changing it to footpath width. And the unlikely chances of Auckland Transport being willing to remove one of four traffic lanes meant that the two-way cycleway we were asking for was not as wide as we would have wanted.
But we managed to make it work. This solution would allow bike riders their own space, just as pedestrians would get the shore-edge path for themselves. Tāmaki Drive would become safer and nicer not only for people on bikes, but also for those on foot.
And the public responded. Facing the choice between a muddled compromised option, and an alternative that was a lot cleaner, better and higher quality, the vast majority of over 600 respondents either asked for similarly significant improvements to the initial proposal, or outright pushed Auckland Transport to take up our proposed design. We have said it before but will say it again: Thank you if you were part of that!
Social media saved the day (and the bikeway).
First by giving us that last kick we needed to get over our own disappointment, and think less about ambulances at the bottom of the cliff, and more about a real future.
Second by getting together a resounding wave of support. If you have been part of the Bike Auckland whanau for a while, you know that we keep asking you to “write in” all the time. Examples like this are why.
It was an enormous relief and celebration for us somewhat later in 2017 when Auckland Transport announced that they had undertaken further study, and reflected on the public opinions received in their consultation. And that they would now be proceeding with a new design. One that, essentially, mimicked our proposal.
Not only was a separate bikeway now included – the proposal now also included adding separate bridges to the several pinch points, such as west of Ngapipi – to ensure the two-way bikeway was more consistent.
The way from there to here
Of course the journey was far from finished. In the subsequent years, Auckland Transport and their consultants had to knuckle down hard to make their new commitments work, down on the ground. We certainly never claimed it wasn’t a difficult space to design in – only that it was possible, and well worth it.
Numerous challenges still had to be overcome – ranging from protecting the root systems of the adjacent trees, to designing bridges, allowing for some of the sections of the road to be raised as a temporary fix to sea level rise – and of course, managing construction in a busy corridor where both existing bike riders and drivers could get quite irate when they felt that the works restricted their movement too much. And then COVID happened, which threw a few more extra spanners into the wheels.
Also, there was the large stouch over undulating path surfaces not meeting expectations, which took a long time to fix and – depending on your position – could be anything from a disgraceful quality control issue showing systemic issues in the bikeway delivery programme (a position which some news media people seemed to like, especially when they weren’t too keen on money spent on bikeways in the first place) to an internal contract matter that was totally overblown in part because Auckland Transport didn’t want to just keep a fence around the new path until it was fixed.
And of course there were also squabbles – some rather public and apparently using some rather harsh language at times – between Ports of Auckland and Auckland Transport over how to redesign the Solent Street signals. Which essentially came down to the port company arguing that an overbridge was needed for walking and cycling over their port entrance – but with nobody being willing to offer the many millions of extra dollars this would have required. Obviously this didn’t happen, and the new signals DO have some compromises that aren’t ideal – but considering this project was proposed in 2015, did it really have to add another half year or more?
In fact, it feels a bit churlish to gloss over this work by the teams in Auckland Transport and at the designers and contractors, who have poured years of work and sweat and passion into this to resolve these various challenges. But a lot of that work was out of sight (while in plain view), so we may not be the best to comment in greater depth.
What we do know is that those people will for decades be able to travel along Tāmaki Drive, and look at what they built and be proud.
We think all Auckland can be proud. Perfection is always out of reach. But striving for better never is.