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Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images
Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

OPINIONAucklandSeptember 5, 2020

In search of Auckland’s post-Covid transformation

Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images
Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

Dozens of major cities are building cycleways and pedestrianising streets as they adapt to the post-pandemic world. Hayden Donnell asks why Auckland hasn’t experienced a similar level of transformation.

All over the world, cities are transforming as they adapt to an age of lockdowns and social distancing. London’s Soho district has been almost completely pedestrianised, its carless roads now filled with restaurant tables. Dublin has twice pedestrianised its entire city centre. Oakland is closing 120km, or 10%, of its streets to cars. New York is closing 160km of streets. Hundreds of kilometres of quick-build cycle and footpaths are being installed everywhere from Melbourne to Athens. 

In Auckland, Waitematā local board member Sarah Trotman filmed a video of herself complaining about the road cones marking a temporary bike lane on Ponsonby Rd. Partway through the video, a man called Glen appears to encourage people to steal the cones. He shouldn’t have bothered. They were removed just a few days later by Auckland Transport.

Trotman’s video from May is a bleak illustration of Auckland’s missed opportunity. Other major cities are already seeing the benefits of increasing the space for cyclists and pedestrians using fast, cheap, tactical urbanism. The changes have allowed restaurants and shops the room they need to stay open, while still doing the vital work of keeping customers apart. They’ve enlivened stagnant urban environments amidst the ongoing economic and social fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Auckland hasn’t seen that kind of transformative change. Women In Urbanism designer and co-founder Emma McInnes says the city’s authorities didn’t act fast enough during the months of lockdown. “We had an incredible period of time to test out new ways of organising and using our streets in level four and level three, and we were so slow to act,” she says.

That’s not to say nothing has been done. Trotman’s hated road cones were part of a 17km package of temporary cycleways installed during level three. Most were removed when the country stepped down into level two in May, but a widened pedestrian lane has remained on Queen St, despite complaints from shop owners who say that kind of thing would never happen in Paris.

Auckland Council also recently made it easier for restaurants to set up tables on footpaths. It announced last week that it would carry out a series of new walking and cycling projects, using Waka Kotahi funding set aside by associate transport minister Julie Anne Genter. 

But the changes aren’t extensive by global standards. That may partly be a symptom of New Zealand’s success achieving Covid-19 elimination. Our transition to alert level one came with a powerful pull to return to normal. People got back in their cars, and the Trotmans of the world started whining about having to look at our makeshift active transport projects. Little progress seems to have been made in the almost four months between the city’s first and second lockdowns. People got complacent. Perhaps local authorities did too. If the return of Covid-19 and another lockdown as proved anything, it’s that complacency was overly optimistic. 

The lack of action is also an indictment on the culture at Auckland Council, and its biggest council-controlled organisation, Auckland Transport. Both organisations have made promises to create a compact city centred around active transport and public transport, and written screeds of policy to support that aim. Even before a pandemic hit, they were consistently failing to fully deliver on those promises. Auckland Transport is lagging behind schedule on its commitment to build an extensive cycleway network, which shouldn’t be a surprise given its baffling decision to eliminate its own specialised cycling unit. A recent review of the council’s CCOs criticised the organisation for its lack of delivery on smaller projects under $20 million. Despite the recent walkway development and a 2018 council vote in favour of pedestrianisation, it’s still wrestling with the basic, obvious question of whether to close Queen St to cars (it should).

Greater Auckland’s Matt Lowrie says Auckland Transport has a habit of finding reasons not to do things, instead of looking for ways to make them happen. He blames that on stagnant management. “There are some really good people with Auckland Transport who are really dedicated to trying to make things better. But it’s not them that’s the problem. There’s a layer of middle management that’s like a layer of clay on the organisation, and it’s preventing good ideas from rising.”

Auckland Council also has its share of rule-obsessed punishers. Like Auckland Transport, it has cut departments after they’ve showed hints of initiative and vision. It notably moved to eliminate its Auckland Design Office, presumably as punishment for winning too many awards. The council may have needed the savings from that move to fund more reports on why we shouldn’t build medium density housing, or wars on outdoor cafe seating

Both organisations can seem terrified of annoying the 500 anti-change golems who show up to meetings to yell about bike lanes. Cam Perkins, who used to work at the dismembered Auckland Design Office, says the council and its CCOs need to reorient their risk assessments so they’re less worried about pleasing Nimbys and more focused on things like Covid-19 and the looming climate apocalypse. “The city needs more vision. It needs to celebrate the direction that it needs to take, instead of being afraid of it,” he says. “If we as a city have agreed on a strategy and vision, then why aren’t we pulling out all the stops to achieve that?”

A global pandemic has offered Auckland the greatest opportunity for rapid urban renewal in decades – an opportunity being seized by cities the world over – and it’s still not rising to the challenge of that vision. Bike Auckland chair Barbara Cuthbert says Auckland Transport and Auckland Council have good strategies to guide post-Covid urban renewal, but not the ability to follow through. “We saw the staff working on it, and they were doing their very best. But the organisation wasn’t ready for it. You could say no organisation was ready for it but across the world cities have stepped up in a strong way that is fit for purpose more than what we saw.”

McInnes can rattle off a series of projects the council could champion during its Covid-19 recovery. They include opening up the Chamberlain Park golf course for walking and cycling during lockdowns, introducing more structurally sound, non-road cone based pop-up bike lanes at all alert levels, and creating an extensive program of footpath widening. Both she and Perkins are imploring the council to remove on-street parking to open up streets to people across the city. Places like High St could be fully pedestrianised. Queen St could be closed to all traffic bar buses. Arterial roads could be cleared to make room for public transport.

Those kinds of policies have been implemented in dozens of cities across the world. Auckland still has a chance to show that same bravery. The city squandered the opportunities of the first lockdown. It doesn’t need to squander the second.

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