The Karangahape Road enhancement project is finally underway. It’s good news not just because the new-look K Road will be the heart of Auckland’s emerging cycling network and will deliver much more than cycle lanes, but also because it has been free of much of the public rancour that has accompanied similar projects. For a look at what goes on inside a high-profile road transformation, Ross Inglis spoke with project insider Kit McLean:

Bike Auckland: Tell us about your role on the K Road enhancement project.

Kit: My role was client representative; my background is planning and my job was to make sure that what was then the cycling team at Auckland Transport, which was the client, got what it needed from the project in terms of the outcomes agreed upfront.

Kit McLean and his go-to family vehicle, an e-cargo bike.

I was brought in early in 2015, after the K Road Plan had been brought in by the Local Board and after Generation Zero’s great work to get 2,500 submissions in support of separated bike lanes. So that had all happened and Auckland Transport had done a very quick bit of work to look at what sort of cycle lanes could be put along K Road. I came in when Auckland Council got interested in the project and decided to contribute targeted rate funding through the city centre advisory board, in addition to NZTA’s funding under the urban cycle programme.

Auckland Council’s funding was important because it was more about enhancing the street rather than just putting in cycle lanes.

Auckland Council’s involvement changed the project; it differed from pretty much all of the cycling infrastructure projects in the city at the time. The outcomes expanded; it was legitimately allowed to look at improving the streets rather than just delivering cycling infrastructure. Which I think is a fantastic thing; hopefully what all projects will be like. The context is that invariably cycling projects have been saddled with the need to also upgrade the street. Historically, it hasn’t been fair on AT; cycling projects have always ended up as street upgrades when there was no intention for that at the outset.

It’s also a project that feels like it’s taken forever.

It feels like it took forever to me, too. But if I look back at what has happened, it isn’t that long. It started with the K Road Plan in late 2014. in 2015 AT had an initial look at the street, then the urban cycling funding got approved. Then Auckland Council came on board and by mid-2015 the designers were brought in to look at the concept options. By the end of that year the first consultation happened.

So that seems like a long time but there’s a whole lot of processes that have to be gone through, like procurement and tender periods, and evaluations to make sure you’re getting value for money. All of those things add time. But a year from getting a concept from the local board and a concept from AT to having a public communication about the wider project is actually pretty quick.

Yes, it’s really happening. The fluro and the construction machinery are getting stuck into K Road.

Is the process something like an iceberg, with the bulk of the activity unseen below the surface?

Yes, and the iceberg is probably a maze underneath. You can’t see it, and it’s impenetrable even if you can see it. There’s a whole lot of stuff that happens at AT that is a requirement, for example making sure you get value for money. So there’s a procurement process that means you go out to the open market for tender. And those things take time. And approvals, too. So, before you appoint consultants there has to be a sign-off and depending on the value of the project, the people who sign it off might meet only once a month.

What is the end result going to be like?

I’m super excited. I’ve done the client rep job on lots of different facilities around town and K Road is the one that I’m most excited about. It will be transformational for the street. The cycling facilities are one thing and they’re great, but the extra space created in the public realm will be better for people walking, people shopping, better for shop keepers. And I’m hoping it becomes the blueprint for how we deal with Auckland’s busy arterial roads through shopping areas.

The start of it is thinking about how a street is used, not about delivering one particular thing. AT is tasked with delivering transport infrastructure, not with revitalizing streets or about economic output. So the partnership with Auckland Council and the extra money that came with it allowed all of that to be considered at once. The focus shifted from delivering transport infrastructure to delivering street improvements. That broadening of scope is super-important for getting an outcome that is good for the city. That’s an approach that ends in a better, more holistic outcome.

Will that approach be more common in Auckland?

Yes. There are difficulties in doing that around funding. NZTA, where much of AT’s funding comes from, is not set up to fund streetscape upgrades. Having said that, I think AT, through this project and other projects, has seen the benefits of looking at a whole street and is certainly more interested in getting urban design and assessing what the community wants, early on.

In this case, once Auckland Council was on board, the decision was made to go with a design-led approach. Generally, urban designers will start thinking wider about the context of the street and the activity that’s happening on the street. The alternative is to go straight to an engineering firm and say: deliver me a cycleway from here to here. And that’s exactly what you’ll get.

A design-led approach starts slower because you start by figuring out the context and then slowly moving in. So the very first thing we did on the project was to understood the special community around K Road and how people felt passionately about the street. It’s probably one of the three best-known streets in the country. So we went out with the Myers Park Medley and the White Night event and we asked questions. We had a big board asking: what do you love about K Road?

How did you engage with businesses on K Road?

We worked really closely with the business association right from the start. The other thing we did was set up data collection right at the beginning, and that was about parking and about how people were using the street for shopping. And we had a really strong comms team that would just walk up and down the street and talk to people about the project.

The parking data was interesting. The shopkeepers thought between 40 and 50 percent of shoppers were coming by car and in reality it was about 12 percent, and of that only two percent of the people were actually parking on K Road. The majority of people who were coming by car were parking elsewhere anyway.

Kit McLean: K Road will become the link that’s been missing in Auckland’s cycling network.

What was the impact of that data on the project?

I can’t overestimate how important data like that is. It doesn’t help convince the shops, not in an overt manner anyway, because they can still say: that data applies to other shops, not to mine. And of course, the data wasn’t broken down by shop. If you’ve got a preconceived position you’ll go looking for data to support it, and they weren’t looking to change their minds.

Where it was useful was when we went back to the senior teams at AT and the city centre advisory board, and said: look, we’re going to make some quite significant changes to parking, here’s some research we’ve done that will give you confidence that the changes won’t be catastrophic.

So the parking data didn’t convince the retailers, and yet you managed to get them on board.

Some. Not all. Generation Zero did great work at the start to get support for separated cycle lanes and we continued to work with the retailers to address their concerns. Don’t forget that effectively we’re losing all the parking along K Road in the bus peaks. In those times there will be no parking, no loading and no taxis. They’ll be bus lanes.

So we put a lot of effort into finding additional parking. The data we had showed that we probably didn’t need to do that, but the fact that we could give shopkeepers additional parking and the perception they had that they were part of the process was as important as what we actually came up with.

What we found that at the western end of K Road there was a whole block that had some time restrictions but it wasn’t paid parking. We did parking surveys that showed that most of the cars there were parked at six in the morning and didn’t shift until four o’clock. That wasn’t helping retailers at all. So by showing that converting that area to paid parking, and we know what the turnover of paid parking is, we were effectively creating new spaces.

We also released the ground floor of the Upper Queen Street carpark to pay and display, which favours short stays. Plus there is a former Wilsons Car park off Howe Street, that converts to short-term parking. All of those measures together released just over 300 short-term parking spaces.

What will K Road be like for cyclists?

A lot better than it is now. It’s still going to be a lively and vibrant place and yes, there will probably be people stepping into the cycleway and there will be people crossing it from car parks. It will be a busy street. But it will be a safe busy street and you’re not going to have that thought that there’s always a bus or a car right next to you on the road.

There will be a protected cycleway the full length of K Road, separated for the majority of it by a 1.2 metre area which basically is part of the footpath but with a mix of rain gardens and nikau palms and paving. So it will be a cycling place but it will read as you stand in the street as part of the public realm, and that’s what I think is the greatest benefit of the project. We’re reclaiming three and bit metres of space for the public realm. It will just feel nicer.

Happily, K Road is also going to be part of a connected cycle network. Tell us about that.

The urban cycling fund was about creating a connected network, each project connecting with the others. K Road is probably the most important of those links in terms of touching the most other facilities: Ian McKinnon Drive, Lightpath and Grafton Gully. And Great North Road, when that gets built.

K Road is really the link that has been missing, but it was still regularly used. Today we have cycle volumes 500 to 600 a day along K road without any facilities. By comparison, Quay Street when it’s busy now is between 1000 and 2000 per day. So there’s a lot of people riding on K Road already and that is an indication that it’s such an important part of the network. It’s also an indication that the money we’re spending is well spent because people are going to be using it.

You’re an everyday cyclist yourself. What difference has that made to your role on the K Road project?

Yes. I grew up in the back blocks of Northland and seldom drove there. Then I came to university in Auckland and I rode everywhere here, too. I was riding when it wasn’t cool. When we first had kids I started relying on the car a bit more. The kids are now eight and four, and I ride them around on a e-cargo bike. I love it and they love it as well.

That experience helps me understand which changes are worth pushing for. The nice-to-haves versus the must-haves, and the differences between them. If you don’t know what it’s like as a cyclist in Auckland, that stuff would be much harder. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword because I’m not a new rider, and I have to think about them as well.

You’d think any cycling infrastructure project should have someone who rides a bike on the team. And that doesn’t always happen, which is a shame. It’s probably a gap in the industry.

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