Authorities need to adopt a “build it and they will come” attitude when it comes to connecting up Auckland’s cycling network, Stephen Knight-Lenihan tells Alexia Russell

How do you measure the number of people who would use something that hasn’t yet been built? 

You can’t. You can have a guess, based on past projects and events. However, looking backwards and not far enough forwards is part of this problem. 

We are talking about getting around Auckland – specifically, by bike – on dedicated cycling corridors. Justifying spending on those projects would be helped by solving the latent use equation. Also, a crystal ball would be handy. 

If you could peer into the future, Auckland University architecture and planning expert Dr Stephen Knight-Lenihan believes projects such as the $33.5 million SkyPath under the Harbour Bridge would be no-brainer, done-deals, the tools already in action. They would be paid for by the Government, which is responsible for the Bridge, as it is part of State Highway One. As it is however, the future of the plan that would see a cycling and walking path hang like a long plastic bubble across the Waitemata has hit a hiccup. 

It has gained resource consent and an agreement with the Auckland Council to be built as a toll-paying, public-private partnership, but it turns out the project is a tricky one. Construction company Downer has pulled out due to “complexities” – the Bridge is old, it’s not clear what issues will be found once they get under there, and Downer has decided its development money is best invested elsewhere given the lack of elasticity in the contract. 

Knight-Lenihan doesn’t blame them for that. 

“I can totally understand that business decision but it’s a pity the Government doesn’t come to the party,” he said. “It is part of a national network. The National Government has stepped up when it comes to cycling, but I think in this instance it needs to go to the private sector and say ‘Tell us what you perceive as the risks, and we’ll see what we can do’.” 

In the case of the SkyPath, Auckland Council assures Newsroom it has matters under control and the project is not in danger of collapse. 

Planning committee chairman Chris Darby – who has been waving the flag for the SkyPath for nearly 12 years – said that between the council and PIP Fund II (the proposed project funder) work is progressing on the procurement process, the underlying contracts and the design of the project, including works at both landings at Northcote Point and Westhaven.

“The team is also regularly engaging with NZTA. All of these work streams are progressing well. While Downer has withdrawn their expression of interest to the PIP Fund to be the construction sub-contractor, they may still become involved in the project as the procurement process proceeds,” he said. 

That’s good news for cycling advocates who see it as plugging a gaping hole in the network. They would also like to see more speed on other links, but Knight-Lenihan says justifying the costs and proving the benefits is a tricky exercise. 

He says it’s difficult to argue them because of the way we do cost-benefit analysis in transport. 

“We tend not to look sufficiently far enough into the future,” he said. “I really think we should be looking 30 to 50 years out. We are not doing that, which is why roads tend to come out on top.” 

He said it’s also not possible to take a drop in road carbon emissions into account when arguing transport projects, as under the ETS those are offset by taxes. “The assessment manual which local government uses as a guide to go to get money from central government is flawed.”  

As an example of not taking future technology into account he cites the newly-developed cycle lane alongside the north-western motorway, which now continues through Grafton and gives foot and bike traffic easy and safe access to the University of Auckland and Auckland City Hospital. Far more people than originally estimated are using the link, and one of the reasons is something that couldn’t have been guessed at when the budget was approved – electric bikes.

Knight-Lenihan says even though these are still at the expensive stage (the cheapest is around $2000) people as far out as Te Atatu are realising that by using them in the new protected cycling lane they can be in the CBD in under half an hour, rather than fighting Auckland’s notorious and unpredictable traffic jams. What’s more they no longer face a fight with buses along cramped Symonds St and can get to their destination safely. It’s about joining up the network. One dedicated cycle lane by itself will be used by cyclists used to dodging traffic; create a safe network and people who previously hadn’t considered cycling to work will give it a go. They are the latent users – the ones who can’t be measured. 

Darby is well aware of the e-bike revolution, and said the council is too – it’s one reason it is accelerating the city’s cycling programme. 

“On the back of the global e-bike revolution we are seeing a completely different demographic taking on cycling. E-bike sales in 2015 of just under 3000 units have blown out to 14,000 units in 2016, and going by international data the average age of the purchaser is 45 years.

“We are currently in the early stages of scoping a bike-share scheme for the city centre and city fringe, including the scoping of an all-electric option.”

Knight-Lenihan would like our town planners to look at cycling networks, not just lanes, all over the city. Sorting out pinch points (such as the Harbour Bridge), and developing whole projects that would enable cyclists to get safely from their homes to other places, not just to complete part of the journey on a dedicated cycle lane. A prime example is Tamaki Drive, where you can cycle on a special green path, as long as cars aren’t parked on it, and as long as you can brave crossing the hazardous waterfront drive to get from your home to the lane in the first place. The bike path is so notorious that the Herald’s Phil Taylor in 2012 detailed the swag of incidents along it – and there have been more fatal crashes since then. 

“The network has big gaps in it,” said Knight-Lenihan. “How much more cycling would occur if you plugged up those gaps? We don’t know. But on the evidence we have, it would be significant.”

A cycling link which would join up lanes through the North Shore, CDB and through to Grey Lynn would, he believes, spark a cycling revelation from people who aren’t thinking of that mode of transport right now. 

He believes however – and Darby is evidence of it – that those in authority may be coming around to his way of thinking, “What’s changing is that people are actually starting to say, ‘Actually, I think you just build the damn thing and see what happens’,” he said. “In New York where the mayor can basically do what he likes he’s said ‘build it and they will come’ – a classic non-cost benefit analysis. And it’s worked. That’s difficult to do here. But when you start putting in cycle lanes … people like cafe owners start to put in cycle parking … the middle class or reasonably wealthy start buying electric bikes and they want to buy coffee go to those cafes because of the bike parking … people’s behaviour changes and it normalises cycling. You can’t measure that.”

He says Auckland Council is trying really hard to connect all this stuff up, so the physical network becomes a mental network. 

“That’s when you discover money starts to get siphoned off towards cycling. 

“And that’s why the Bridge is important – partly because of its iconic value. 

“It’s a measure of willingness of government to recognise the importance of putting in a cycle lane. Because we recognise the need for a network.”

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