Has Auckland Cycling turned a corner?

So I spent half of last week up in Auckland attending the annual IPENZ Transportation Conference. As always, the conference itself was a great mix of technical and policy presentations, including some very interesting speakers talking about the possible ways that transport may dramatically change how we get around; be it self-driving vehicles, Uber-like call-up services, or whether we drive much at all. Cycling was well represented in the presentations, with about 12 papers directly covering cycleway planning/design issues and a number of others including it in the mix (e.g. my paper on ways to make space for everyone in constrained road corridors). Keynote speaker Skye Duncan from the Global Designing Cities Initiative also showed how our streets could be reconfigured to make them more people-friendly; here’s a video of a public presentation she also gave while in Auckland.

It’s a keen person who currently bikes down Queen St, but the 30km/h limit helps

But the visit also allowed me the opportunity to have a good look around the central Auckland area and see what they’ve been up to lately. It’s been almost two years since my last visit, and a lot has happened in the intervening time, particularly now that the Urban Cycleways Programme has got into full swing (fortunately for me, much of it around the central part of the city). You may recall that I was rather pessimistic previously about whether Auckland could truly change its ways and produce a cycle-friendly city to be proud of. So how are things looking now?

Lots of cycleway plans coming up for Auckland

Mention Auckland and cycling together in the past six months and the dominant thought is “the pink path” – Te Ara i Whiti or “Lightpath”, which takes a disused motorway bridge to create a 900m walking/cycling link from the southern entrance of the CBD around to the west of the central city. The outrageously bright magenta coloured surfacing has ensured a global photo opportunity since its opening in December (interestingly, no-one has yet added it to Google Maps, but OpenStreetMap is onto it…). It’s a neat piece of cycleway, with lots of space and nice views of the city (I gather that the light show along it at night-time is pretty cool too). But of course it’s still only one piece of the entire puzzle, taking advantage of a unique opportunity provided by the motorway network. The challenge is to complete enough of the other pieces to form a coherent cycling network.

All aboard the Lightpath

A number of those pieces have also popped up over the past two years, including:

  • Immediately north of the Lightpath is the first part of the Nelson St cycleway. This was created by requisitioning one of the traffic or parking lanes from the previously ridiculously wide one-way street. The result is a 3m wide two-way separated cycleway down towards the harbour, with signalised crossings of each major crossroad. Currently they’re trying to work out the final alignment for the last section down to the water; it gets a bit trickier to weave through the various traffic routes coming into the city.
One less traffic lane made space for the Nelson St cycleway
  • The Grafton Gully cycleway provides a mirror image route to Lightpath, swinging around the eastern side of the CBD past Auckland University towards the harbour. Taking advantage of the space alongside the SH16 motorway corridor to the port, it’s quite a scenic ride amongst the vegetation and with the historic Grafton Bridge towering above you. One niggle I noted was that the adjacent vegetation was a little too close – in places, if you wanted to avoid getting constantly whacked by the plants as you passed, you effectively lost ~1m of the 3m path width…
Cruising up Grafton Gully
  • The end of the Grafton Gully cycleway leads straight onto the Beach Rd cycleway, which brings riders in towards the centre of the city. The first part of this, a 3m-wide two-way separated cycleway, is arguably the best designed cycle facility in Auckland at present, including clever raised bumps where driveways cross over. There is even a diagonal signalised crossing to get the cycleway from one side of the road of the other.
Clear separation along Beach Rd, plus driveway crossings
  • The second stage of the Beach Rd cycleway has been less successful to date. As shown to you the other day, the urban designers have got their mitts on this section and the result is an overly subtle way of distinguishing the cycleway from the ordinary footpath alongside. Not surprisingly, the general public have voted with their feet and just deemed all of it to be “shared pathway”, no doubt frustrating a few cyclists (luckily, at present it is often only a few who are riding…).
This is a cycleway only – clear to everyone?
  • The above pieces are almost forming an orbital route around the Auckland CBD. The missing section is Quay St, a rather unfriendly multi-lane road running directly along the waterfront, and past the ferry and train terminals. Just last week the diggers started on developing a two-way separated cycleway along here to provide the missing link; even this is an “interim” project ahead of when Quay St is significantly downgraded as a traffic route in the next 5-10 years
Not nice to bike along Quay St at present, but soon to change
  • This one is not a cycle facility as such but, as a public space for people, it’s hard to beat the Wynyard Quarter (and it’s also where I saw the most people biking). On the waterfront immediately west of the central city, Wynyard is slowly reclaiming old port areas into some fantastic places to live and play. There are fun things to do for all ages; I came across a great playground, wharfside bars and restaurants, craft markets, music entertainment, swimming areas into the adjacent harbour, and so on. One interesting challenge for the numerous people biking around was the old port railway tracks still incorporated into the new pathway surfaces – I heard that a few have come to grief on these.
A pleasant afternoon in the Wynyard Quarter
  • Heading further west from the city towards the Auckland Harbour Bridge and you come across the new Westhaven promenade, a wooden shared pathway perched along the edge of the Westhaven marina. Roughly 4-5m wide, it provides a very pleasant place to walk or bike out to the Harbour Bridge and beyond; certainly beats the old narrow shared path alongside the access road. More importantly, it will provide the key link from town if and when the Skypath walking/cycling link over the Harbour Bridge come to fruition.
Promenading along Westhaven Marina
  • Another success story for Auckland has been the gradual introduction of shared spaces throughout the CBD along various smaller streets and lanes. A shared space is designed to not have separate walking/driving spaces, with everyone sharing the same space at lower speeds (a 10km/h speed limit is common). This of course makes for a more pleasant people space, where motor vehicles are effectively guests. Not all of them work perfectly in that regard yet; often there still tends to be an expectation of motorists to be able to get through unimpeded, while many pedestrians still instinctively linger around the edges. But they certainly make for more friendlier cycling routes.
Shared space in Fort St – does it change behaviour?

There’s still more to come; thanks to the Urban Cycleways Programme and the increased cycle funding allocated by Auckland Council, I gather that Auckland’s network is looking at ~$200 million of works over the next three years. This includes a pretty impressive connection out east towards Orakei, Glen Innes and Panmure, an innovative “Future Streets” programme of reconfigured local streets in Mangere, as well as a number of local greenway routes through parks and quiet streets, and many other improvements across the network.

Diagonal cycle crossing along Beach Rd

So is it making a difference yet? Well, in terms of raw numbers, there have been some impressive percentage increases in cycle counts over the past few years; about a 30% increase over the past five years. But it has to be remembered that this is coming off a low base. On a lovely warm, sunny Sunday afternoon, I wandered alongside the Nelson St cycleway and then onto Lightpath. For over 1km, more than 30 minutes of walking and taking photos, I saw no-one riding a bike along there (finally I encountered a couple of people on their bikes towards the Canada St bridge end). What would be the chances of seeing no-one cycling on (say) the Matai St cycleway in half an hour on a similarly fine weekend afternoon in Christchurch?

Having the whole cycleway to yourself…

To me, this suggests that (a) there are still quite a lot of bits of Auckland’s cycling network to be created and joined together (and that includes the less obvious bits like low-speed quiet precincts), and (b) more work is also needed to combine with public transport to get people and their bikes in from the more far-flung parts of Auckland. The city is on its way towards a more cycle-friendly future, but it has a long way to go.

What do you think of Auckland’s recent cycleway initiatives? Will it help to make a difference?

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