Wednesday, August 7, 2013

How many houses does it take to build a cycle way?

In our small, sheltered world, Spider and I try not to take pot shots at community groups because we know they are invariably underfunded, often rely on volunteer labour and are usually up against far better resourced professional lobby groups.

So it is with some reservations we feel the need to call Cycle Action Auckland (CAA) out on the recent post on their website wherein they mull the cycling benefits of the proposed East-West link - the roading project this blog posted on a mere few days ago. 

The first thing is that we generally support the work CAA does. As racing and commuting cyclists of many years we (a wee handful of us in this instance) support any efforts to make cycling in Auckland safer and more pleasant. Because, let's be honest, cycling in Auckland can be a life-threatening experience, which is not conductive to getting people out of cars and onto bikes.

But back to the article. It opens by correctly noting that the East-West link was a "last minute addition to the Auckland Plan". To be less polite, it was polevaulted to second place by being attached, without public consultation, to the existing AMETI-ville horror. The original plan for the East-West link was to plough a motorway along the south of Onehunga (a project dating back to the early 1950s). This has since morphed into four rather grandiose options that involve demolishing lots of houses and building bridges across an ecologically sensitive estuary, with officials' preferred option now seeming to be one that only goes through Labour-voting areas.

The key question no one seems to be asking is what transport problem, exactly, is the East-West link going to solve? And is it a problem that can be dealt with effectively by some local road and intersection improvements that won't cost many millions of dollars? The answer to the first question is congestion around the Neilson St/Church St/SH1 intersection, and the answer to the second question is yes, probably. So why has CAA unquestioningly fallen for the tripe on the Auckland Transport website? There are two possibilities: the first is that CAA has been selectively briefed by Auckland Transport and the New Zealand Transport Agency; the second is that CAA is comprised of persons who don't understand that the maps do not show new roads going through empty land - they go through populated, old established neighbourhoods.

The selective briefing theory is possible. AT have been selective in what they have shown others, and have only recently been upfront with key stakeholders about some of the more radical options. This theory is supported by the map in the CAA article showing improvements to the cycle lanes around Highbrook. This map fails to show the proposed new road in three of the four options that goes through a heritage area in Otahuhu then becomes a bridge over the estuary to Highbrook. It runs just under the bit saying Curlew Bay (sadly the curlews have gone but there's lots of other bird life there for now).  On the other hand one of the comments under the CAA article talks about "big new bridges" (how exciting!!) so perhaps they have been adequately briefed after all.

The other possibility - that whoever wrote the article and one or two of the subsequent commenters are prepared to trade off houses for cycleways - is, unfortunately, more likely. I don't believe all the individuals who comprise CAA would actively support motorway construction through urban areas, especially when it involves demolishing many existing houses in a city with a housing shortage. But somewhere along the way the idea seems to have taken hold that it is better to support such projects if they include a token cycle lane or two than to fight to get spending reallocated from roading projects to cycleways and improved PT and pedestrian facilities. Of course, that is a much tougher battle ("...that’s one of our hopes for this project. It has funding, the cycling budget hasn’t") but one that is, in the long run, going to improve the lives of all Aucklanders rather than a few middle class commuters.

There's one other point a couple of us would like to make about 2 of the 4 options. These involve constructing a new road along the Onehunga foreshore before proceeding, in one case, to go through Panama peninsula (another place where actual people live) and thence over the Tamaki estuary. So the map on the CAA website showing the link between the existing cycleway and Sylvia Park is undoubtedly a good thing for cyclists who want to head that way. But the foreshore cycleway is not just a cycleway. It is one of the few off-leash dog areas on the Auckland isthmus and is used by people walking their kids and picnicking etc. Surely CAA can not think it is acceptable that two much larger groups of users lose their recreation space so that cyclists get an extra cycle lane? Here's a thought: why not be bold and tell Auckland Transport to spend the money on removing some roading and put in cycling and pedestrian facilities instead?

Cheonggyecheon, South Korea was formerly the route for an major elevated highway. Completed in 1976, removed in 2005.

We want to love CAA. They've done some fab work over the years and some of their members have an awe-inspiring knowledge of Auckland traffic, and traffic and cycling planning. But by taking the political soft option they risk becoming part of the problem. It is mindboggling that in 2013 Auckland transport planners are still contemplating knocking down houses to make way for new roading. It is even worse that the region's cycling advocates seem to think this is OK. How many houses does it take to make a cycle lane? Who cares? Build us some bridges.

CAA response:
We are aware that some people see this post as “support” or “endorsement” of the East-West-Link project – and its potentially quite destructive effects on large areas of housing in South Auckland. To make it clear – we do not endorse the project, even though we are admittedly keen to use it as a chance to fix some key missing links in the cycle network.
However, on projects like this, CAA always faces a hard choice. If we fundamentally oppose them, and have nothing to do with them, then we have no ability to provide input closely to the planning teams. We could hope that overall opposition was strong enough to simply not make the project happen at all. Our experience of the last 5-10 years has sadly shown that that never seems to be the case – mainly due to pressure from Wellington, these projects happen. On the other hand, where we DID get involved, like on Waterview, we won substantial concessions for cycling, and we and others are building on them.
We are aware that to some, such compromises make us “beyond the pale”. But they are not compromises we make easily.

Thanks for taking the time to respond. We accept that the involvement of CAA in projects can improve facilities for cyclists but we stand by our point that by becoming an integral part of the planning process CAA risks becoming part of the problem. Let's be clear: the East-West link is about planning traffic around freight. I'm sure many CAA members saw The Human Scale at the film festival. This project is moving Auckland firmly in the opposite direction.
As an aside, I'm not sure why 'beyond the pale' is in quote marks. This blog did not say that nor can I see it in any of the comments under the CAA post.