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An artists render of a liberated Auckland Harbour Bridge with its new cycling and walking pathway.
Image: Bike Auckland.

SocietyJuly 28, 2023

How can Auckland bridge the harbour-sized gap in its cycling network?

An artists render of a liberated Auckland Harbour Bridge with its new cycling and walking pathway.
Image: Bike Auckland.

There’s a new plan to get cyclists and pedestrians across the harbour that would be cheap, easy and quick to set up – but with a catch for drivers.

Three years ago, headlines like “The 2020s will be a defining decade for climate action” and “‘Failure is not an option’: after a lost decade on climate action, the 2020s offer one last chance” dominated the news cycle. But this decade’s calendar has already flipped past the one-quarter mark, and John Kerry, the US’s special envoy for climate, recently warned that the world is “way off track” in its goal to limit global warming. New Zealand is no exception, and Auckland notably lags behind. 

In this notoriously traffic-clogged city, transport is the biggest culprit. Aucklanders rank highly on the global leaderboard for per capita transport emissions by city, with 45% of the supercity’s greenhouse gas emissions coming from transport alone. Yet our biggest city has deferred, postponed or cancelled transport emissions reduction proposals, whereas Christchurch, Nelson, Wellington and Whanganui are setting them out and enacting them. Auckland Light Rail is the punchline to a planning professional’s joke rather than a tangible transport project. The completion date of the City Rail Link continues getting pushed back and its budget keeps swelling. Community-supported, long-awaited cycling projects are canned, postponed or watered down. At least the Eastern busway is on track.

Auckland’s pathway to reducing emissions

Although Auckland’s sustainable transport initiatives aren’t in the best shape, the city’s transformative policy – the Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway – already exists. TERP calls for a 64% reduction in transport emissions by 2030. However, Timothy Welch – a University of Auckland urban planning lecturer and the Future Cities Research Hub co-director – notes that “almost nothing has happened to implement TERP in the year since it was passed”. 

A photo of Timothy Welch.
Timothy Welch. (Image: University of Auckland)

TERP calls for Aucklanders to drive much less, because cars contribute close to two-thirds of the city’s transport emissions and 30% of its total emissions. The plan’s first two suggestions to reduce driving are to “supercharge walking and cycling” and “to use public transport much more”. The former goal envisions 22% of all trips being made on foot and 17% by bikes, scooters, skateboards and other similar modes (known collectively as active/micromobility). 

Since footpaths already exist, promoting walking is less about building sidewalks than it is about behavioural change and building walkable neighbourhoods (although footpaths are not always sufficient to increase pedestrian traffic). On the other hand, encouraging cycling is primarily about building infrastructure. Auckland Transport found 60% of Aucklanders are interested in cycling but are also concerned that bike infrastructure is unsafe, and a Waka Kotahi study discovered that the single most prominent barrier to cycling uptake is New Zealanders feeling unsafe riding around cars. However, Welch explains the remedy to these safety issues – which by association would increase biking – is simple: build dedicated cycleways. “Safe infrastructure lures out mothers with kids and businesspeople in suits onto bikes,” he explains.   

But building safe cycleways costs money, which AT’s parent Auckland Council is currently in short supply of. Because of its financial predicament, the council ordered AT to slash its costs, and the transport agency’s recently-passed budget delivered a cut of 10.8% to its coffers. As reported by Newsroom’s Mathew Scott and Greater Auckland’s Matt Lowrie, the biggest victim of those cuts was cycling infrastructure. 

The budget focus is renewing existing infrastructure, storm recovery and completing underway projects – like the eastern busway – which “doesn’t leave much money for anything else”, AT CFO Mark Laing explains. He admits that approach “will never deliver TERP’s outcomes… there is a massive difference between emissions reduction aspirations and available money.” Because of that Laing and CEO Dean Kimpton are exploring longer-term, more sustainable funding solutions. 

How can Auckland achieve TERP? 

It’s not easy to supercharge active/micromobility, as TERP suggests, without investing in infrastructure that makes people feel safe enough to ditch their cars. A connected cycleway network that takes you where you want to go is another critical factor (other forms of transport, like scooters and electric skateboards, also frequent cycleways). New Zealand’s Climate Change Commission even endorses completing urban cycleway networks by 2030 as an act of climate resilience.

Auckland’s current biking network has more gaps than connections – and few are as gaping as the Harbour Bridge. Under current plans – tied to a second harbour crossing and its $15bn-$25bn price tag – the bridge won’t connect to the biking network for at least 15 years, if at all. And a decision on that second harbour crossing has now been delayed too. But Welch says, “We can’t afford to kick the can for 15 years. We can’t wait for the second crossing.”

An image that explains the Harbour-sized gap.
Image: Bike Auckland.

Waka Kotahi found that 78% of people support biking and walking harbour connections, and 66% would do it themselves. Yet Aucklanders have never been allowed to cross the Harbour Bridge under their own steam (except for special circumstances like marathons and protests). That privilege was first promised in the 1950s and became a topic of interest again recently with the failed Skypath proposal. If active/micromobility users want to cross the harbour, some must travel upwards of 40km – a three-hour bike or nine-hour walk – or take busy ferries with no promise there will be space onboard. Crossing the bridge, however, would take bikes five minutes and walkers 15-20 minutes. 

78% supported walking and cycling across the bridge in recent consultation by Waka Kotahi (2023).

66% of Aucklanders say they would walk or bike over the harbour.
Image: Bike Auckland

A new proposal for Auckland’s Harbour Bridge

A new report commissioned by Bike Auckland found that allowing people to cross the bridge under their own steam can be done cheaply, easily and quickly. It would also address multiple issues at once – the climate, cost of living/economic inequity, health and transport crises, argues Bike Auckland’s chair Karen Hormann. The catch: it requires removing one car lane from the bridge. The report, authored by Richard Young, a chartered engineer with four decades of experience delivering major infrastructure projects, suggests doing so wouldn’t worsen traffic. Instead it would alleviate car congestion by providing alternatives to driving, Young argues. 

Karen Hormann and Richard Young.
Left: Karen Hormann. Right: Richard Young. (Images: Supplied)

The plan would transform the easternmost lane of the Auckland Harbour Bridge into a 4m wide shared path for cyclists, pedestrians, scooterists and their buddies. Being on the eastern side provides the path with the best possible wind protection and enables easy access on and off the bridge. The design uses barriers between the shared path and traffic that are safety approved by Waka Kotahi, and the water side would have an anti-climb fence. Weather conditions would allow the lane to be open 98% of the time, essentially the same as for cars, according to the report. 

A mockup of the shared path on Auckland's Harbour Bridge.
Image: Bike Auckland

After analysing a decade’s worth of traffic flow data, Young discovered a “significant amount of unused capacity” on the bridge – largely because of the northern busway, a testament to the fact that providing alternatives to driving decreases traffic. That unused capacity could safely be filled by 600 bikes and 200 pedestrians an hour, Young says. The design could be built for just under $30m, a minuscule figure compared to the $785m Skypath price tag and the $15bn-$25bn cost of a second crossing over Te Waitematā.

Young and Welch both note that the money spent just on consultants for Skypath could have funded this entire new proposal with millions to spare. Not only is it cheap, but Young’s design could be constructed in eight months, as opposed to the decades-long timeline of the current second crossing plan. As Bike Auckland’s Hormann argues, “15 years away is not good enough.” The cycling advocacy group recently presented the report to Waka Kotahi, and say the agency was keen to engage in further discussion on the topic.

Bridging the gap

Welch has a personal stake in the project as a North Shore resident and sustainable transport expert. He takes his kids to school by cargo bike then returns home to switch to an ordinary-sized bike that fits onboard his ferry commute. “Going across the bridge would save me a lot of time,” he notes, adding that he’s only one of “thousands of people who can’t get just over the water”.

Citing overseas examples, Young and Welch highlight the difference that bridge connections make to world-class cities. Recently in New York, the Brooklyn Bridge improved its offerings for active/micromobility users, and “one month after it opened, biking doubled”, says Welch. Lately, London has expanded its cycleway network, with Young noting that “London’s bridges now have more bikes than cars” – quite the change from when he grew up in the city. 

The reasons for and against the proposal.
Image: Bike Auckland.

Bridging the harbour-sized gap in Auckland’s cycling network would contribute towards achieving the supercity’s climate goals. What TERP and the Climate Change Commission call for is ambitious, but Hormann believes it’s essential if Auckland wants to join the ranks of the cities leading the charge – both nationally and internationally – on climate action.

“Quick and easy wins will be what it takes” to get people out of their planet-heating gas guzzlers, says Welch. With an eight-month timeframe and by utilising the existing bridge, Bike Auckland and Young’s proposal could be built cheaply, easily and quickly within this most crucial decade of climate action, not a decade too late.

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