South Auckland’s multimillion-dollar bike paths set a new gold standard, but getting locals on track with council’s grand plan has proved an uphill battle.
A scene from the 1962 film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner often plays through my mind as I ride along the relatively new multimillion-dollar award-winning cycleways around Māngere.
The reason for this random movie flashback, as I hurtle down these debris-strewn emerald corridors, is that I’m often alone on these bike lanes, a bit like the film’s main character who takes long solitary runs around the streets near his boys’ home.
In the three or so years I’ve been commuting along the Te Ara Mua Future Streets cycleways, it’s so rare for me to see another cyclist that when I spot someone I’m almost compelled to chase them down like Tom Hanks looking for Wilson on his desert island.
The Te Ara Mua Future Streets research team, led by Hamish Mackie’s consultancy firm Mackie Research, is currently conducting follow-up studies into how the project has changed transport behaviours in the community, and what key lessons can be taken on board for future projects.
“We’ve seen positive changes that we’d expect, like lower traffic speeds, and evidence that crossing roads is now much easier for people,” Mackie says.
“In terms of the amount of walking and cycling, at this stage we haven’t seen huge change to be honest, as usage is pretty much consistent, but we will be able to get a longer-term understanding through further analysis next year.”
So, after all this time, why aren’t people using these cycleways?
Ben Ross, an urban geographer and spatial planner for cOlab and Associates, has followed the project’s development closely. He feels there is a certain arrogance in the way governmental agencies operate in places like South Auckland.
“There’s definitely an element of classism at play – you have these engineers and designers coming out of the city, they do some consultation, do the project, but there’s no follow-up and the community don’t have that place to give that ongoing feedback.”
Mackie says it has also become clear that to get locals using the new infrastructure, investment into building up local champions is required, as well as dealing to things like stray dogs. “The biggest lesson from all of this is that more support is needed to ensure there are positive voices who can articulate in their own way the importance of walking and cycling.
“If you spend a lot of money on a cycleway or pathway, it totally undermines that investment if you don’t take care of the barriers to people using it.”
The Te Ara Mua Future Streets cycleways around the Māngere Town Centre are part of a wider $10.4-million project that was officially opened in 2016 and was funded by the NZ Transport Agency, Auckland Transport, and the Māngere-Ōtāhuhu Local Board. The project was established to combat both the high rates of serious road crashes in the area, and to encourage people to take up walking and cycling to reduce the prevalence of obesity.
NZTA’s 2017 Bike to the Future Awards gave the Supreme prize to the project based on its ability to make cycling “a more attractive transport choice”.
So why invest millions in a bunch of new walkways and bike lanes and not do more to get people using them?
Mackie says Māngere local Teau Aiturau was identified early on as a potential community leader in activating the cycleways, but he acknowledges more could have been done to support Aiturau in this role.
Aiturau, or Mr T as he’s known around the community, is a bike fanatic. For more than six years he’s been voluntarily running a bike club for children and adults, teaching safety skills and maintenance as well as managing events to encourage people into riding.
He has been given access to a large council-owned workshop at the back of a park, about 1.5km from the Future Streets cycleways, to use as a base for supporting riders in the area. But he has struggled to attract people to the site, given its lack of visibility.
He’s grateful to Auckland Council for providing him such a large workshop, but admits he had always hoped to create a bike hub, similar to those in Henderson, Mission Bay or Glen Innes, right next to where the cycleways were built.
“Being based right by the pools would be better because that’s where all the kids are – it’s the perfect spot. The downfall is that no one can see us here,” he says. “They’ve built them [the cycle lanes] but no one’s riding them. They say they support us and they give us funding for a few activations, but it’s not just me, there’s a team of people.
“The vision is for Māngere to be the bike capital of the Pacific – we can still make it happen. I just need the space.”
In 2018, Toni Helleur, a Māngere central resident and the crime protection officer for the Māngere Town Centre, took it upon herself to get Aiturau a large container kitted out with solar panels and gear to fix and store bikes. It was almost a done deal, but they needed final approval from the Māngere-Ōtāhuhu Local Board and Auckland Council’s parks department.
“The first issue raised was that the logo was wrong, and then they said no due to health and safety,” explains an exasperated Helleur. “But we had agreement from Council’s onsite pools staff to make sure it met all the health and safety guidelines.”
Māngere-Ōtāhuhu local board chair Lemauga Lydia Sosene says her board supported the container idea but she believes it’s been held up by council staff. “It’s frustrating because I can see people wanting to get things done and the council processes slow things up.”
Auckland Council team leader, parks and places, David Barker says the council is also in favour of a container for Aiturau.
“Auckland Council is extremely supportive of Mr T’s activities at Centre Park. In the case of this initiative, the Kāinga Ora container was used for another purpose. Auckland Council Parks did not oppose the idea. If a suitable container became available, it’s safe to say that an application to temporarily locate it somewhere close to the Moana-[Nui-]ā-Kiwa Pools for Mr T to run events and encourage more people to cycle would, I am sure, be supported by council.”
So despite all parties showing keenness for a local bike hub to be set up, there’s still no bike hub and no one is willing to say why.
Auckland Transport and NZTA both say they have been trying to get more people cycling in the area as well. “In Māngere we continue to work with the local bike hub and Time To Thrive – To Stay Alive charitable trust [Aiturau’s registered charity],“ says an AT spokesperson.
“[Through] planning and delivery of cycling activations, including guided rides, community events and cycle training for the community, including adult bike skills and children’s learn-to-ride sessions – all of which help encourage uptake of cycling.”
NZTA’s senior manager system design Robyn Elston cites the agency’s Safe and Healthy Streets South Auckland programme, which aims to “improve transport choice and quality-of-life outcomes in Māngere”. She says the initiative is “undertaken with input from, and for the benefit of, the local communities of Māngere”.
But you would be forgiven for thinking something’s missing, given the lack of visible success ie more people using the cycleways.
Mackie says the answer could be as simple as paying a guy like Aiturau to be a “community health ambassador” who would kick-start more ongoing activity. “If we want real change to happen, there needs to be much more investment, in the right way.”
One person who does love the cycle lanes is John Catmur. Originally from Great Britain, he has lived in central Māngere for six years, working as a pastor for the local Baptist congregation.
“When I ride in the cycle lanes of Māngere, I feel like I belong on the road. It feels so safe, so I can just relax and have fun,” he says.
However, these lanes weren’t built for guys like John and me, and even though we appreciate them, it seems unfair having such an expensive project only being used by a couple of e-bike enthusiasts like us.
The film I mentioned in my introduction is not merely a tale of a working class kid who finds solace in long-distance running, quitting the sport when he realises how his upper-class headmaster is manipulating him. It’s a snapshot of the growing divide between rich and poor in 1960s England.
These cycleways also highlight such a disconnect. At face value this project seems like such a good idea for a community beset with type 2 diabetes and obesity, but for a variety of reasons the community hasn’t got the memo.
Manukau ward councillor Fa’anana Efeso Collins was elected the same year this project was completed. He’s all too familiar with Auckland Council making flawed assumptions and in this instance he sees the Future Streets project as part of a wider issue that will only get worse unless local and central government takes a different approach to community engagement.
“Future Streets is just one example where people in my ward feel like big changes are just being done to them, without a real understanding of why or how they can input,” says Collins. “So rather than just slap something in and then gap it, we need to journey and consult with communities in more meaningful ways. It might cost a bit more, but in the long run it will mean our investments actually deliver on the healthier communities we all want to see.”