Cycleways are under fire this week following an incredibly misleading Herald story. Hayden Donnell goes in search of some transport projects to actually get angry about.
A peloton of bullshit rode forth from NZME headquarters this week. Its journey began with a story by the Herald’s supercity reporter Bernard Orsman on Monday, which claimed several Auckland cycleways were failing to live up to their projected demand. Citing a leaked report, Orsman said an Auckland Transport business case had predicted 986 cyclists would use a new Nelson St cycleway every day. In January 2017 the count was just 333, the story said. In Grafton, the prediction was 975 cyclists daily, while its January 2017 the actual figure was 292.
The figures seemed damning, but one important detail was obscured: the projections the cycleways were failing to live up to were for 2026, which is at last count, eight years in the future*. The paper version of the story never mentioned that arguably important fact, while the online version tacked the detail 20 paragraphs down in a quote from the New Zealand Transport Authority. According to Matt Lowrie at Greater Auckland the report leaked to Orsman had been discarded at draft stage because it was so inaccurate. Orsman’s story was, at best, misleading.
Nevertheless, the report propelled the peloton forward. Mike Hosking fired off a column calling cycleways a “sham”. Cycleways are promoted by zealots who distort facts to suit their ideology, he wrote, in a passage forged from the distilled essence of pure hypocrisy.
New Zealand’s worst amateur climate scientist Leighton Smith followed that with a barely literate seven-paragraph opinion piece. It opened with the immortal words “On the cycle lanes, I saw an e-scooter. There was one of the new e-scooters on the cycle lanes”, before meandering around to calling cycleways a disgrace. Both claimed cycleways were failing to live up to their projected usage rates, citing Orsman’s report. The peloton had become a human centipede of inaccurate transport commentary.
There is a grain of truth to the trio’s idea that our transport authorities are getting it wrong though. There really are some wasteful, underused, prohibitively expensive transport projects being funded in New Zealand. Even if the worst horror stories about cycleways were all true, these projects’ overruns would still make them pale into economic insignificance. Hosking, Orsman, and Smith should check out some of the stuff that’s happening with roads.
Forget Nelson Street’s cycleway. If they want to see a project that’s actually vastly underperforming its usage targets, they could look at the Manukau Harbour crossing on State Highway 20. A post-implementation review of its user numbers contains this graph.
The cost of this underused 4.7km stretch of motorway was $218 million – $200 million more than the cost of the cycling improvements to Nelson Street.
If they believe cycleways are a frivolous waste of money because they have run, on average, 15% over budget in Auckland, they would be incensed to learn that the Mount Roskill extension of State Highway 20 was delivered 22% over budget at $227 million recently.
They would be equally outraged by the prospect of the Warkworth to Wellsford section of the Puhoi to Wellsford highway, which is supported by National. Its projected cost went up nearly a billion to about $1.9 billion between 2015 and 2017, and it is expected to provide just 25 cents of benefit for every dollar spent.
Or if they think cycleways are disproportionately expensive compared to the benefit they provide, wait till they hear about the Kapiti Expressway. Its cost-benefit ratio is estimated at 0.2, meaning it provides just $120 million of benefit for its $630 million bill. Compare that to the bill for the nationwide Urban Cycleways Programme being driven by NZTA, which will provide 54 cycleways in centres across New Zealand over four years at a cost of $333 million.
These are only a few of the expensive-to-financially disastrous roading projects put forward or completed in recent years. There are more: Transmission Gully has a cost-benefit ratio of somewhere between 0.6 and 1.1 and the mercifully scrapped East-West Link would have been the most expensive roading project in New Zealand ‘s history at $327 million per kilometre.
But the most important cost of roads isn’t economic. The latest IPCC report estimates that we have 12 years to limit some – not even all – of the most catastrophic effects of climate change, which is caused in no small part by carbon emissions from vehicles. Even the very best roading project entrenches a system of transport that’s harming our planet, while the most botched, over-budget cycleway still results in some healthier people and fewer carbon emissions.
Despite that, we have a large swathes of the media freaking out about the advent of Lime Scooters; columnists like Hosking who lapse into hand-wringing panic over comparatively inexpensive cycleways cutting into the airstrip-sized space they want reserved for their Alfa Romeos.
Maybe it’s because these things represent change, and change is scary. Maybe it’s just more interesting and newsworthy to heap scorn on new ways of doing things than to properly examine our existing system.
That’s understandable. But the truth is we’ve institutionalised an often prohibitively expensive, inefficient, unsafe transport model that’s literally killing us. Cycleways are at least a feint in a different direction. They might cost us a few million and a little extra time in our cars, but keeping things the way they are may cost the Earth.
*In Orsman’s defence, his story seems to say Auckland Transport had improperly used the 2026 user projections in its business case to secure government cycleway funding. But the story was still misleading. It consistently implied cycleways were failing to meet projected demand, when in fact many – including the Nelson St one featured – look well ahead of schedule.
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