The face of a new Auckland: safe riding for people of all ages, more public transport capacity being busily built in the background – and greenery framing it all. (Credit: Bike Auckland)
The face of a new Auckland: safe riding for people of all ages, more public transport capacity being busily built in the background – and greenery framing it all. (Credit: Bike Auckland)

AucklandJanuary 16, 2018

Is the Quay St protest really about the trees?

The face of a new Auckland: safe riding for people of all ages, more public transport capacity being busily built in the background – and greenery framing it all. (Credit: Bike Auckland)
The face of a new Auckland: safe riding for people of all ages, more public transport capacity being busily built in the background – and greenery framing it all. (Credit: Bike Auckland)

A protest against the relocation of 15 mature trees from Quay St to nearby parks is continuing to prevent work on the cycleway extension. Jolisa Gracewood and Max Robitzsch of Bike Auckland sigh deeply, and explain how we got here.

Having ended 2017 with a story about the opposition to the Grey Lynn cycleway, we hoped to start the New Year with more positive news – and indeed, works finally began a couple of days ago on the next section of the Quay St cycleway.

This is what we’re talking about: the green section has just gotten underway.

Tamaki Drive is Auckland’s busiest bike route (which may make it New Zealand’s busiest), with 43,000 trips in November, and growing.

But currently the 1000+ Aucklanders who bike along this route daily are forced to choose between braving the roadway – busy with port traffic, buses, and cars – or sharing the footpath with pedestrians.

The state of it: this is where Quay St becomes Tamaki Drive. Historic shared path on the left; live traffic lane on the right, with bonus container truck. Choose your poison.

The existing Quay St cycleway, a two-way protected path on the north side, running from Princes Wharf to Plumer St, has seen enthusiastic uptake. The new extension, which should take about six months to build (although we’ll come back to that) will continue eastwards for 1km past the Spark Arena and the port.

Just another cyclist on the Quay St cycleway. School holidays, barefoot and loving it. Until this protected cycleway was opened in July 2016, this scene was unthinkable.

Eventually, the Quay St cycleway will connect into the Tamaki Drive cycleway along the waterfront and past the Orakei Basin, which in turn will connect at Ngapipi Drive to the new great eastern cycleway. Once this is all completed, you’ll literally be able to ride from Lincoln Rd out west all the way to Glen Innes, entirely on safe cycleways. And to and from any place in-between, whether it might be Pt Chev or Parnell or Meadowbank.

So what’s the catch?

Fifteen trees are being relocated as part of the Quay St Cycleway extension works: 14 young pohutukawa which currently live on the median strip, along with one nearby houpara. In response, the West Lynn protesters and others representing the Urban Tree Alliance (who, to be clear, have stated they support the cycleway but not the timing of the tree moving) have occupied and temporarily stopped the tree relocation works.

Ten of the trees at the centre of the dispute are being moved to nearby Teal Park at the bottom of Parnell, and five will find homes around the central city, giving them a chance to spread their roots and branches and grow to their full extent (and sequester more carbon whilst doing so). Note: the trees along both footpaths of Quay St are staying exactly where they are, continuing to provide beauty and shade for pedestrians in particular.

In other words, the median along here will change from looking like this section (current image via Google Streetview)…
…to this (also a current image via Google Streetview) except that there will be a new two-way protected cycleway along the left hand side of the road.

So Quay St’s tree-lined boulevard vibe will happily remain – as will all existing vehicle lanes. Relocating the 14 trees away from the middle of the road will allow for a narrower central median, which is the key to providing space to add a properly protected two-way cycleway on the north side of the road.

It’s worth pointing out that Auckland Transport also looked at options that wouldn’t require moving trees from the median strip – like removing the bus layover parking along this stretch (which serves the many bus routes starting at Britomart) or taking Quay Street down to just one traffic lane (the road carries 24,000 vehicles on an average weekday, including heavy port traffic). But ultimately those alternatives were ruled out.

The proposed street redesign was publicly consulted on last year precisely because Auckland Transport wanted the public to have a say on the tree move. Nothing else about the redesign was in the least bit controversial. In fact, it was originally hoped that the cycleway would be finished around March 2017 – until the decision was made to take the extra step of a full consultation and hearings process. Yet another important bike project delayed, all to ensure the decision making was seen as entirely above board.

On the specific issue of moving the trees, this project then went to a resource consent hearing, at which our organisation, Bike Auckland, was one of only a small number of submitters who showed up to speak. The current protesters, to our knowledge, neither submitted nor spoke.

The Tree Council, a venerable city organisation which did give evidence at the hearing, supported the consent. They favoured moving the trees off the median strip because, as they reiterated this week: “We felt the trees had a far better chance of a long and healthy life in the berm than in such a tiny bed in the middle of the road where they would be trimmed from both sides to accommodate the traffic.”

Consent was duly granted, with conditions around transplanting the trees, a process that is being monitored by an arborist. While it’s usually better to move trees in autumn and winter, pohutukawa are hardy, and these ones will be receiving careful treatment and extensive aftercare. The Tree Council notes that, although they’ve requested AT consider delaying transplanting until cooler weather, “if the trees are well watered once transplanted they should be fine regardless of when it is done.” They add, for good measure: “This should not be made into a battle between cyclists and trees. Both are vitally important for a healthy city.”

One of the trees, a houpara, in its new location in Teal Park (image: Auckland Transport/ Auckland Council)

Bike Auckland strongly supports this project, and has done so throughout the public consultation and hearings process, for all the reasons you’d expect: it closes a crucial gap in the growing cycling network, it extends a safe cycleway that is drawing more and more riders of all ages and abilities, and it makes a very dangerous stretch of road much safer for both weekend leisure rides and daily commutes.

It also improves life for pedestrians, who will no longer have to share the footpath with significant numbers of bikes. As Auckland Transport notes about the first, already complete section of the Quay St cycleway:

“Since it opened [in July 2016], the proportion of people cycling on the footpath has decreased from 47% to 3%, creating a much more pleasant space for pedestrians. The proportion of people cycling on the road decreased from 53% to 33%.”

Of course we’re inherently sympathetic to concerns about trees. Decades of over-reliance on car travel has cost Auckland so many of its beautiful tree-lined boulevards, with roads widened across the city to fit more cars (and it should be noted that urban trees, even protected ones, are currently at greatest risk from private citizens thanks to the watering down of legal protections – something that crucially needs addressing if our urban canopy is to be seriously protected).

Jervois Rd in Ponsonby/ Herne Bay, before the trams were removed and the plane trees cut down. Still no safe cycleways along this key route. (Image from Graham Stewart’s ‘Around Auckland by Tram in the 1950s’, via Greater Auckland.)

People on bikes especially love the shade and urban gentleness trees provide, and in our discussions with authorities on numerous bikeway projects, we have repeatedly pushed for options that not only keep trees but add more – even at times when this meant compromises on the bikeway design.

After the great Pohutukawa 6 debate a few years ago – in which Bike Auckland clearly stated our opposition to felling these magnificent mature trees – it’s encouraging to see that, at least on cycleway projects, AT is now prioritising moving trees and adding more, instead of the classic chopping and chipping of old-style projects.

And the Mayor’s Million Tree Programme and Panuku’s commitment to greening all of its projects suggest the city is committed to a leafier future. Think of Wynyard Quarter’s dramatic change from industrial wasteland to tree-filled neighbourhood, or Otahuhu, which is getting tree-lined streets as part of a town centre makeover.

Wynyard Quarter, 2015: a growing spot for bikes and trees.

Even so, you can’t get around the fact that sometimes, some changes to the physical context are necessary. Urban design isn’t fixed in stone; it needs to respond to shifting imperatives and new understandings. It’s a constant balancing act. As Auckland University ecologist and tree physiologist Cate Macinnis-Ng puts it:

“Trees are so important for the health and well-being of our cities. They capture and store carbon, provide shade, bind and stabilise soil, prevent floods by returning water to the atmosphere and they enhance biodiversity. We need to stop cutting down trees in Auckland and we also need to replace our trees that have been lost. At the same time, we need to improve our transport options in Auckland and building safe bicycle lanes is a great way to get cars off the street and get people more active.”

Sometimes there are good reasons to remove trees and the Quay Street situation is a prime example of this. The trees are being moved to make way for the cycleway. Trees of that size on a median strip will eventually outgrow the space available or become stunted. These are not the most comfortable conditions for a tree to be living in and it’s likely they’ll grow larger and remain healthy for longer in their new location.

And building safe routes to encourage more people on bikes is a crucial part of a much larger, urgent – and we think inevitable – shift in transport, sustainability and health.

Auckland’s emissions profile: 35% comes from road transport. Could Do Better.

People on bikes are as green as trees, sometimes more so. Even the loveliest tree working as hard as it can will extract about 20kg of carbon from the atmosphere each year while it’s growing, whereas the average car emits about 4000kg of carbon a year. So if you can swap just one car for a bike – say, if one person driving daily along Quay St and around town decides they’ll give the bike lane a try for a year – you’ve accomplished the carbon-reduction equivalent of planting two hundred trees. Building safe cycleways is like planting forests.

And that’s not even counting the society-wide lifelong health benefits of people being more active, starting with kids being free to bike to school.

The other number to bear in mind is the rising road toll. For people, just as for trees, this is about life and limb. Every loss on the road is irreplaceable. The status quo – with roads dangerous and discouraging for people on bikes and foot, young and old; and a growing all-ages cycling population increasingly constrained to (or seeking refuge on) footpaths – is simply no longer an option.

The need is now. Which cuts to the heart of our concern with this latest protest: the timing.

As we mentioned, the Quay Street cycleway extension was meant to have been completed in 2017, but has already been delayed nearly a year to allow for public consultation and the notified resource consent hearing, both of which were extensively reported on. Consent to move the trees was granted on the basis that adding a safe cycleway was a net benefit – with measures put in place to limit negative impacts on the trees, including moving them rather than simply destroying them. In every meaningful sense this counts as a sensible win for trees and for people on bikes – and for those of us who love them both.

And yet, despite all these efforts, and despite all the formal and proper steps being taken, all the caution and care for the well-being of the trees, this crucial safely project now risks being delayed once again.

This is the worry. If every bike-related project in Auckland that includes any sort of modification to car parking or trees can be held up so easily with a few camping chairs, it will take until our children’s children are grown before Aucklanders can fully enjoy the restoration of safe everyday cycling to our streets.

Conversely, if we can see the forest for the trees, we will all find ourselves living in a greener city, in every sense, all the sooner.

The face of a new Auckland: safe riding for people of all ages, more public transport capacity being busily built in the background – and greenery framing it all.

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