A Week in Auckland – Is there hope for Cycling?

I’ve just had a week teaching up in Auckland, which is much more time than I usually get to spend up there. A lot of that week was spent inside presenting course sessions or listening to others. But I did get a few chances to look around and chat to some of the locals. We’re often regaled with stories about how auto-centric Auckland is, so it was interesting to see first-hand how things are currently.

I arrived on the Saturday and got into town from the airport during the closing stages of their first ever waterfront ciclovía. Just like our Open Streets last year, about 600m of the normally busy Quay Street was closed during the day to motor traffic, allowing people to bike, walk, play, whatever along this stretch and the adjacent waterfront area. Now, admittedly I turned up near the end when a lot would have been gone (and I know from the pics at CAA that many a good time was had earlier). But it did seem to me that many people were quite timid about getting out onto the street, whether on foot or bike. Perhaps this is what many years of motor vehicle dominance does to the human psyche? The circuit was also rather small (and still seemed to have many motor vehicles getting access to hotel, carparks, etc), but I guess sometimes it’s a case of baby steps…

Six Lanes without Motor Traffic for ciclovía – but where are the bicycles?

To me this encapsulates the situation in Auckland at the moment – it is just beyond comprehension to most people (including many transport officials and politicians it seems) that cycling could ever be reasonably provided for in the City of Sails. So for now, it is largely just the “strong and fearless” who are taking to the streets, and of course they’re not many.

The classic Auckland arterial road consists of at least four lanes wall-to-wall, with not a hint of shoulder (let alone cycle lane) for cycling. So effectively you have to “claim a lane” if you don’t want to get squeezed by passing traffic. Sure, slowly some facilities are being added in where they can (for example, the six-lane monstrosity called Mt Wellington Highway down the road from where I was staying has plans to add some cycle lanes and paths). But this is only if they can add them without reducing road capacity. Actually removing a traffic (or parking) lane to provide for safe cycling space just doesn’t seem to be considered as a possible option, yet my gut feeling is that a number of the streets around Auckland are over-engineered for the amount of traffic (considering that nearly 30,000 vehicles along Riccarton or Papanui Rds seem to manage OK with just two lanes).

This is the road outside where I was staying – not exactly cycle-friendly… (c/ Google)

Another underlying problem is simply the sheer size of the city and hence the distances to get to places. It is not uncommon for people to commute >40km each way to get to work, and even 10-15km will seem like too far for most people to bike. What seems to be missing from that conversation is the fact that the nearest train/bus/ferry station may be only 2-3km away, a distance easily cycled in less than 10 minutes. We’ve discussed here before how bikes on buses can extend the range of your cycling trip, and better integrating public transport with cycling seems like the obvious way in Auckland to provide a viable alternative to the car. But to date, the signs haven’t been promising… Mind you, it’s just as bad for getting there on foot; in fact, I probably have more sympathy for those walking around Auckland than biking.

“Ghost Bike” memorial in Auckland (c/ CAA)

Recent cycling tragedies like John Tangiia, Jane Farrelly and Jane Bishop have become rallying calls for many in Auckland to highlight the decades of relative inaction. While I was in town, there was a memorial ride held to remember those who had passed away while cycling. Now I’m always a bit wary of highlighting events like these in the media, because I feel like the general public only ever takes a misleading “cycling is very dangerous” message from them. But for those who’ve lost someone dear, I get that it can be a way to help get through it all and hope that some good tangible improvements will come out the other side.

{BTW, that reminds me, if you haven’t already signed the petition calling the Govt to introduce legislation to improve protection for horse riders, walkers and cyclists (including safe passing distances), please do so!}

There is no shortage of pockets of sanity in the discussion world about encouraging more cycling in Auckland. Local advocates Cycle Action Auckland have a fantastic website/blog, the widely-read and respected Auckland Transport Blog regularly raises cycling issues, and “ginger group” Generation Zero have recently been making some very pointed promotions about cycling (or lack of) in Auckland. Even the local rag, The Herald has been upping the discussion about cycling’s place in Auckland, some of it good, some of it not so

As we’ve highlighted before, there are bits of promising things happening around Auckland, including separated cycleways, off-road pathways and neighbourhood greenways. But the rate of progress has not been fast, especially given that their entire planned network is ~900km of cycleways and they’ve been struggling to roll out even 10km/year (it will be interesting to see how quickly Christchurch’s Major Cycleways actually see the light of day).

I don’t want to sound too pessimistic about Auckland (although it should make us appreciate a bit more the underlying base that we are starting from for cycling in Christchurch). The former NZTA Akld Regional Director Stephen Town (who made a lot of good progress cycling-wise during his tenure) is moving over to take on the reins at Auckland Transport (the transport arm of Auckland Council) and some knowledgeable locals I spoke to are quietly optimistic that this could help change the “culture” of how Akld Trpt deal with cycling. And some of the key groups like CAA and Gen.Zero have been asked to present their vision for cycling to the Board of Akld Trpt this month. Who knows; maybe that will mark the turning point for taking cycling seriously in Auckland.

What are your impressions of cycling in Auckland? How does Christchurch compare?

7 thoughts on “A Week in Auckland – Is there hope for Cycling?”

  1. Very thoughtful column – it seems a wasted opportunity not to make use of all those long curves of (slow, often) motorway to slice off a stretch for cyclists, plus the mindset comment is very relevant – a few years ago a friend assured me there would never be access for cyclists across the bridge, it was beyond Aucklanders’ imagination, but that clip on idea has taken root. The length of commute is a very negative feature – like encouraging Rangiora people to commute to Christchurch daily, too far for most.

  2. I’ve never travelled across Auckland but the point is that people shouldn’t have to cycle the full distance if the travel system allows them to take the bus or train with their bike. 10-20km is the perfect commute distance, even if that is for a return trip. Also wanted to say what a great collection of pics on this page! Six lanes and no cars? A car driver on the outside (overtaking?) lane opposite a motel? Hmmm, as you say, has anyone from Auckland been to Riccarton Road?

  3. I bike in Auckland on a pretty regular basis – leave a bike with my mother in Mt Eden. It’s pretty good if you remember to stick to the ridges – surprisingly, bike trips in the Auckland CBD are hillier than in Wellington. The NW cycleway is a good spine to build trips on, and is gradually extending to the central city.

    Pity Lenny didn’t feel more positive about the Ciclovia in Auckland – in contrast the Wellington Ciclovia the following weekend attracted 2500 people, who weren’t at all timid about getting out!

  4. Having just read a blog about Netherlands cycle ways and bus stops, it was interesting to see that every bus stop has places to lock a bike.
    I can certainly see how promoting cycling and public transport together would be benifical rather than people thinking they have to cycle all the way to work.
    It always amazed me when I lived in Auckland how far people traveled by car to get to work. A lot of those trips are across the outer suburbs rather than into the CBD. Howick to Penrose or Papatoetoe to East Tamaki sort of thing. Routes that are not always very well supported by public transport.
    Alastair yes Auckland CBD is a lot hillier than Wellington’s. I have cycled around both. Go go electric bikes !

  5. Thanks a lot for that very thoughtful and insightful article. I am the editor of the CAA blog (and native Cantabrian). I agree very much with your impression of where cycling is at in Auckland.

    It is certainly marked in Auckland compared to Chch how little is thought of cycling as a transport option. Though the same could be said for public transport. It is possibly the most, and definitely one of the most, auto dominated cities in the developed world. Cycle advocacy here is a real challenge and you get some really amazing attitudes. People are just so auto dependent that the thought of travelling anywhere, even to the shops 1km away, without a car is dismissed as fairy tale stuff. It is also assumed here that bicycles and PT are for the wealthy, while the real working class vehcile is the private motor car. As someone having returned from living in Europe, that attitude is just bewildering.

    But there is hope. As you say, Stephen Town at Auckland Council is an ally and also Lester Levy at Auckland Transport has his heart in the right place. Auckland Transport has some very enthusiastic and switched on people at the top and bottom. The problem is the middle management which is dominated by cardigan wearing traffic engineers whose last original non-auto dominated idea was at University.

    I do encourage you all to subscribe to the CAA blog on Facebook. I am very proud that Chch is leading the way but if Auckland moves that could really swing the whole culture of NZ towards a more cycle friendly attitude. With a third of the population, it is a big opinion maker.

  6. Auckland is not that bad. My wife and I caught the ferry back from Waiheke a couple of years ago on a Sunday then had to fly back to Christchurch in the evening. We did the trip in between by bike starting off on the notorious Tamaki Drive. We got way out to the East on the southside of Waitemata then progressed to Panmure for lunch. Most of the afternoon was spent on a dedicated cycle path on the shores of the Manukau Harbour and we used the bike lanes to access the airport. Dismantling and packing our bikes up in front of the domestic lounge in the late May sun was a pleasure.
    Last year at CANdo CAA reported they had a 22% increase in cycling during peak times. Not many other cities can boast such change. The base was low but with such a big city a small increase can be numerically like a whole town taking to cycles in smaller centres.

  7. You should check out this CAA blog, was a real shift at council a couple of weeks ago. Councillors supportive of big boost to cycle funding in the LTP. Motions suggested by officers were weak, but councillors, led by Chris Darby substantially strengthened them. This occurred after 4 different groups presented to the meeting beforehand Greenways, CAA, Generation Zero and TransportBlog. So great collaborative effort with different groups with a shared interest.

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