Simon Wilson: Robbie’s rapid transit and the city we could still have


“It’s more than a botchup – it’s a catastrophe. Auckland car traffic is at standstill because AT and the council are turning roads into cycle ways and walk ways and saying use public transport. We are a driving city and public transport is hopeless.”

Really? I wrote about bicycles last week, specifically the poorly finished new cycleway on Tāmaki Drive, and the feedback was vigorous. Several people quite rightly linked cycling and public transport as two arms of Auckland Transport’s professed strategy to “mode shift” the way a lot of us move around.

But some of their comments were curiously … what’s the word? Adrift.

Few were quite as hyperbolic as the above. Just for the record, bumpy tarseal is not a “catastrophe”, traffic is not at a “standstill” and public transport is not “hopeless”.

There are bigger issues. “We are a driving city” is what critics of the Northern Busway used to say, until it opened in 2008, when it changed the prospects for transport in Auckland forever.

The lesson is stark. The population of Auckland has climbed by 27 per cent since 2000, but the number of vehicles on the bridge has risen only a little. That’s because buses now carry 40 per cent of all commuters in the morning peak. A thousand buses a day.

If those bus passengers got back into their cars, they’d fill up at least three more lanes, on the bridge and on the motorway north and south.

The number of vehicles per day is now 170,000, nearly all of them private cars. Without buses, that number could rise to 230,000. And as bus passengers are nearly all heading for the central city, the extra 60,000 cars would need somewhere in the city to park.

And that’s just people coming from the north.

We could not have asked for a clearer lesson of how rapid transit, by bus or rail, is the most effective way to manage a rising population’s transport demands. For Auckland, in fact, it’s the only one.

The same lesson also plays out every day in Auckland, in reverse: if the National Government had not scrapped plans to put a rapid busway on the Northwestern Motorway, the dreadful congestion on that route would be manageable too.

It’s not just National at fault. For 50 years, Labour and National have lacked the courage to stand up to “we are a driving city”.

Fifty years of wilful neglect. Auckland mayor Dove-Myer Robinson had a plan for a rapid transit network in the 1970s, which incorporated the existing rail lines and added links from Panmure to Howick, Dominion Rd to the airport, Henderson to Hobsonville and the city centre all the way north from Barrys Pt through Albany to Whangaparaoa.

There’s a question Climate Commission Chair Rod Carr likes to ask: “If we’d started mitigating climate risk 30 years ago, when the science was already clear, imagine what we’d be able to spend our money on now.”

If they’d built Robbie’s transit system last century, we’d have added to it by now. Botany and Flat Bush might already be connected to Manukau and the airport. Onehunga through Hillsborough to New Lynn. Hobsonville to Albany, Westgate to Kumeu.

Our roads would still be busy, but they always will be. But they’d be far more functional. A great many of the people who don’t need to drive would have better options, so they’d leave the car at home.

Even without a big rapid network, though, public transport isn’t “hopeless”. Yes, it should be better, and the long summer of rail line repairs has been terribly disruptive.

But the improvements made in recent years are significant. Double-decker buses on the new arterial routes, so frequent you don’t need a timetable. Electrified rail, also running frequently. Integrated ticketing. More ferries.

And, coming soon: electric buses and the city rail link, which will double rail patronage. We’re making progress.

But the Government has still not produced a plan to build even a single light-rail line. Robbie would be weeping about that.

As Carr also says, “If we don’t act now, imagine how much more expensive it’s going to be later on.” A light-rail network is still within our grasp.

Where do bikes fit in? Electric bikes make the hills of Auckland manageable and demand for them has outstripped supply. That’s only partly due to shipping delays. E-bikes, like e-scooters, are still finding their place in the transport ecosystem, but it’s already obvious it will be a far bigger place than traditional bikes ever had.

Partly because they’re expensive, the market to date has been dominated by middle-class riders of a certain age, women and men. If the strategic goal is to get a much wider range of people riding bikes, one way or another e-bike prices must come down.

That’s one of the two key requirements. The other is a greatly expanded cycling network. For so many people, and their kids, cycling has to be safe or they won’t do it.

A network, not simply bits of bike lane. You can ride semi-safely for 100 metres through the Mt Albert shops, but you risk your life on a very busy road at either end.

You can ride on dedicated cycleways into town, but what should you do when you get there? The Queen St valley discourages cars, but it’s still astonishingly unsafe for bikes and scooters – and because there are no dedicated cycleways, that makes it unsafe for pedestrians too.

Some schools have safe cycleways nearby. Many, many more are needed.

The Climate Change Commission fronted an Auckland Council meeting this week. Rod Carr was asked about people not well served by public transport and not able to buy expensive bikes. As climate action steps up, will they be left behind?

He agreed, there are many people driving petrol cars who are unable to see how they could do anything different. “But people need to be supported to change, not supported to keep doing what they are doing now.”

Carr’s CEO, Jo Hendy, added, “It’s not just persuading people that change is important, but enabling it. Removing the barriers.”

It was a direct challenge: more public transport now, please, and more cycling networks too.

But wait, aren’t electric cars going to change everything? “The future is electric cars, not push bikes,” said several people in response to my column last week.

It’s true, we’re heading fast towards a changeover to electric vehicles, but they will not make all our problems disappear.

On the contrary. If we want to solve congestion, the most pointless thing we could possibly do is find a cheap, green way for everyone to drive a new car. Gridlock all the way to Armageddon.

New York Times transport writer Neil Boudette said this week: “We’re on the cusp of one of those big industrial transformations in which we shift from an old way of doing things to a completely new one, and everything will be turned upside down.”

Cycleways, better transit and electric vehicles – four-wheeled and two-wheeled – are all part of it. Carr’s warning is that as we decide what to build, what to subsidise, where to spend the money, we have to ask ourselves: “If we make this decision, are we locking in an outcome we will regret?”

The big question, he says, is this: “We must decide where our ambition lies.”

Meanwhile, as Bike Auckland has asked, where the hell is the SkyPath?

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