Transport design is a question of freedom

Jul 15, 2022
Transport design is a question of freedom

Helen King

“I’m not anti-cycling but” has become the catch phrase in opinion pieces about transport design. Often followed with arguments about the economic impact of reducing parking or accusations of forcing people on to bikes. 

At the heart of this point of view is the fear of losing freedom. Driving has been the norm for decades, our city was designed with cars front and centre. Changing people’s perspective is not going to be an easy task.   

For a moment, set aside the car vs. bike duality and reframe the conversation as one about freedom. Freedom is fundamentally about privilege. As the cost of living surges, the privilege of choice will become more of an issue. If you live in a part of Auckland with reliable public transport taking your car out less is a simple transition.

Some communities face disadvantages in terms of how they are able to get around. When decent public transport and cycle infrastructure isn’t extend throughout Auckland then people have to rely on their cars. Faced with the rising cost of petrol the argument for remaining in the status quo loses its shine.

A recent series of NZ Herald op-eds by Andrew Barnes, businessman and philanthropist, provides a springboard for discussion. At the heart of both pieces, Barnes expresses an issue with Auckland Transports rolling out of the cycle network. 

“Adding more cycleways and bus lanes is part of the grand vision to get more of us out of our cars and onto bikes, e-bikes, buses, trains and ferries, but Auckland public transport meets resistance because it is slower and less reliable than a private car. It eats into your time and reduces your options; you have to leave home and catch an earlier bus, train or ferry to get to work on time, and you cannot drop the kids at school first.”

Often missing from an argument on transport design are the reasons outside of commuting to work people move around the city. Transportations function is to get you from A to B. A might be home, B meeting a friend, shopping, leisure activities, connecting with family.

For me, one of the greatest things about riding a bike is pure joy. Taking longer to get places can be factored into journey planning. For instance, it takes one hour for me to ride my e-bike from our home to the city. In rush hour traffic it can take anywhere from 40-60min to drive the same distance. After a day at work I feel less stressed if I ride home than sitting in traffic or on a bus. 

More importantly, if Auckland public transport is unreliable surely the answer is creating a reliable one? 

Barnes followed his first op-ed by calling for Auckland Transport to only allow employees to walk, bike or take public transport to get to work or meetings. He argues AT’s policy discriminates against how a journey is made, therefore employees must also stick to active transport options.

“A tradie or a retailer who needs to transport tools or goods from job to job should not be inconvenienced by having the parking outside their shop or job site removed. Nor should a working parent who needs to drop the kids off and then get to work be forced to use public transport; after all, they are simply going between jobs and are “required to drive as part of their roles”.”

His argument about AT’s employee policies isn’t what interested me about his discussion. Living with a tradie, I know the amount of time many spend in gridlock trying to get around the city. We’ve often talked about how great it would be to find an e-bike that would handle transporting heavy builders tools. 

An alternative question to pose is how flexible are employers when it comes to parents who need to do the school run before heading to work? Or how can we make it easier for parents to choose to take public transport with their children? Why is rushing accepted as a normal part of our days? And what can we do to help parents feel it’s safe to allow their kids to walk, cycle, or take the bus to school? 

In this second op-ed, Barnes’ dissatisfaction sits with AT’s Auckland Cycling and Micro Mobility Programme Business Case. He argues it hasn’t calculated the impact on business or the wider economy. 

“The problem is that by not calculating any of the impacts – including the adverse health and time travel impact of forcing people to use bikes or public transport over the convenience of vehicles – the analysis may reach an incorrect, unrealistic or unsafe conclusion”. 

We know cycling is good for health, wellbeing, and the environment. Barnes proposes rather than investing in cycle design putting the money into better healthcare facilities, diabetes programmes, promoting healthy eating, reducing work hours, and more exercise programmes in schools. 

None of these suggestions are negative, however, some if not all of these could be mitigated by active transport options. When we have great cycling design, all road users benefit. 

A glaring omission from his argument is the issue of climate change. Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri: Auckland’s Climate Plan has targets and actions to reduce transport emissions by 41% by 2035. We know that more change is needed and at a quicker pace.

Reducing transport emissions can be achieved through changing the way we move around the city. This is done through better transport design, linking the current cycle network, and making public transport an easy option for people.

Barnes finishes with this,  

“A final message to AT’s leaders. Actions speak louder than words. Let’s focus on the job of keeping Auckland moving and implement transport policies that are calculated and demonstrated to materially reduce carbon emissions, support businesses, and improve Aucklanders’ quality of life.”  

If we take this statement in isolation there is little disagreement. Yes we need to keep Auckland moving, we cannot delay on reducing carbon emissions, and health is important. 

Where we differ is a call to put aside our individual desires and put our energy into designing a city that caters for the collective. 

Circling back to the car vs. bike division, both parties want the same end goal. The freedom to choose how you get around Auckland. When we shift our perspective to what freedom looks like we are open to the possibility of a livable city. 

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