This is a guest post from Max Robitzsch who is the Infrastructure liaison for Cycle Action Auckland
Auckland’s City Centre has often been described in the same term as a fortified city – one surrounded by a “moat” on three sides, and the coast on the fourth. Except that this moat doesn’t contain water, but traffic. Speeding traffic, noisy traffic, fuming traffic, jammed traffic, depending on time of day. It works well as a defense against cyclists and pedestrians!
Like any good fortified city, the city centre has only a few limited entrances. And unless you do what the original designers of those gateways intended you to do – arrive in a metal box – access can be somewhere between inconvenient and daunting. This story is about the construction of a new gateway to the fortress, one especially for cyclists.
It started some years back, when some of the engineers and managers at NZTA in Auckland became increasingly aware that they had neglected cycling for too long. Cycle Action Auckland, my organisation, had successfully worked with NZTA on a better a relationship for cycling, and the appetite was growing to do more. But like in any story, even protagonists don’t get to make all the choices themselves. There was (and still is) little money set aside for cycling by the political higher ups in Wellington. So NZTA started with a somewhat smaller project, namely upgrading the Kingsland section of the Northwestern Cycleway.
When that turned into a success story, further plans were made. At least one compass point of the city now had a cycleway that led all the way to the edge of the city moat. But there it stopped dead, right at Upper Queen Street. Six lanes of traffic, a bridge with car parking on it (!), yet no safe route for cyclists wanting to reach the universities, offices and workplaces in the city centre. The problem was rather easily identified by NZTA and Cycle Action. Solutions would prove more difficult.
The two most logical routes from Upper Queen Street (Queen Street and Symonds Street) had just been rebuilt mere years ago for many millions of dollars each. Rebuilding them again, to the level of quality needed for a REAL cycleway, suitable for all cycling levels, would hit a lot of resistance. After bus lanes and wider footpaths, the issues that would be raised about a cycleway on either of the two streets were only too predictable: from business disruption due to new construction, to reduced vehicle capacity to loss of car parking.
Would that fight have been worth it? If the likelihood of success at Council for such a scheme would have been bigger – yes.
But you need an institutional champion to drive a project forward – cycleways don’t get built by advocates. And NZTA owned no land in the city centre, but a lot of land around it – the “moat” areas. So the idea of circling around the edge of the city was born as the alternative – work with what you have, not with what you wish you had.
Initially, the project was known as the CMJ Cycleway, the abbreviation standing for the “Central Motorway Junction” – better known to Aucklanders for a type of pasta. But the more we looked at it, the clearer it became that the key challenge was not crossing State Highway 1 at Spaghetti Junction – but where to re-enter the city centre once you crossed it. Links to the western edge of the city were considered. But Nelson and Hobson Street areas were, if anything, even more hostile to cycling than Upper Queen Street. It soon became clear that the best route would lead around the eastern edge of the city centre, connecting to the university areas, and then further down the hill to the lower CBD.
So Grafton Gully Cycleway it became, and that’s really where the route has stayed since, and where it is now being prepared for construction.
But any good story needs a few more obstacles to overcome.
In 2011, when construction was originally due to start, NZTA was experiencing major financial cashflow issues (on which this blog reported a lot). The message came down from Wellington that no advance funding for the cycleway was available. Certainly not in the several-million-range needed, and despite a good BCR of around 4. Go through the usual funding channels – for the next funding cycle – we were told. So the project went into hibernation.
Early in 2012, Cycle Action thought it was time to revive it. A new supercity had been elected and a plan for a better centre of Auckland was also taking shape with the City Centre Masterplan – a plan more friendly to the thought of cycling, but also possibly somewhat unsure of how to go about it. Yet in the end, it didn’t turn out to be too hard to connect NZTA and Council, as both sides now saw a lot of merit in cooperation.
NZTA was still funding the cycleway construction, while Auckland Council would help in treating the route more like a park and an urban design opportunity than just a transport corridor. Auckland Transport meanwhile revived older plans for Beach Road cycle facilities. The Waterfront Boulevard had also just been announced by Waterfront Auckland – to run from the Auckland Harbour Bridge to Tamaki Drive. So Cycle Action started promoting this opportunity for “everything meets at the Waterfront”. To turn the Grafton Gully Cycleway plan from a “terminus” commuter transport link (shades of Britomart?) into a “through link” – connecting the two busiest cycle routes of the city, the Northwestern and Tamaki Drive.
Of course, no backbone is useful if it doesn’t provide side accesses to get on and off (one of the cool things about the new Kingsland section of the Northwestern is that there are so many accesses onto it). NZTA, with the help of Council and enthusiastic urban designers (working pro bono – shout out to the folks at “Matter”) developed a wider concept of links both immediate and more long-term.
In the short run, there will be links onto the new cyleway at Upper Queen Street, Wellesley Street East (i.e. up to Symonds Street), Grafton Road at the Business School, Alten Road and Beach Road. There are also plans to provide a link near Whittaker Place or St Martin’s Lane (hopefully in the initial construction, though that has still to be confirmed). In the mid-term, it is hoped to provide some form of access near Symonds Street (though as a somewhat misinformed column by Brian Rudman showed, any link in that area will have to be very careful not to disturb the heritage areas of the Symonds Street cemetery – though with heritage advisors having been on-board in the project team since the very start in 2010, Rudman’s outrage clearly had more to do with his aversion to cycling than with any take-over of cemetary land, which is, quite simply, not planned).
Outside of the direct project scope, there are future plans to create a walking and cycling bridge on the northern side of Wellesley Street East, to finally get a route over the motorway towards the Domain side. There are also plans to construct a cycleway on the western side of the last section of Ian McKinnon Drive, to avoid the Newton Road Bridge, and to better tie in with Dominion Road. No, they aren’t included in this project – to do so would have meant robbing the rest of New Zealand of the last cycle funding (yes – the money allocated to cycling by the Ministry of Transport is THAT tight).
The most far-reaching options for the longer term are a forking of the Northwestern Cycleway as it enters the city – one branch will head east (the Grafton Gully Cycleway). The second one would turn west, along Canada Street, and then use the Nelson Street on-ramp to reach the western part of the city – with a side access from Day Street / K’Road. It may take a while, but once built, it will combine beautifully with Nelson and Hobson Streets becoming two-way boulevards (something this blog has often supported).
But before we envision that, let’s get back to what will be built now – starting from about November this year (the most-up-to-date estimate). Staging for the project is proving a bit more complex than expected, so don’t be disappointed if some sections appear finished sometime during the next year, but remain disconnected for a while – it’s a matter of what can be constructed first, while the rest is being prepared. The whole project will likely run through to at least early 2014 before all sections are open.
On the way, we hope you will see that this is a real high-quality project. No more cost-cutting on the quality side like we saw when the first Northwestern Cycleway sections were treaded through Auckland some 15 or so years ago. This will be a path designed for a 30 km/h design speed, be 3m wide (plus so-called “shy space” to any obstructions like fences), with widening on the steeper sections (to make sure slower uphill cyclists and faster downhill cyclists have extra width to pass), with path lighting and cyclist-friendly terminal treatments (you will have to slow down – but if the lights are green at the Upper Queen Street or Grafton Road signal crossings, you should not have to dismount). The underpass that links under Wellesley Street East meanwhile will be designed with extra width and height to feel safe, and good sightlines will make sure there are no entrapment spots on the path.
Another important aspect of course is gradient. When heading out west, this is definitely an uphill ride. From where the work stands currently, AECOM (the designers) have managed to “smooth out” most of the gradient, but there will likely still be two rather steep sections – one being between Alten Road and Grafton Road, and another short one as one goes around the cemetery corner (south of Grafton Bridge). These sections will be almost 6% (i.e. 6m up for every 100m along).
But at least the steepest bit is at the bottom, when you are just starting out – a nice metaphor for most cycling projects. Hope to see you on the path in slightly over a year!