SkyPath: The Path of Most Resistance
This story first appeared in the April 2015 issue of Metro.
One morning in early March, a few hours before taking a sunny lunchtime bike ride along the new Westhaven bike path with SkyPath project director Bevan Woodward, I faced a strangely severe telephone outburst from a person I had never spoken to before, who was opposed to SkyPath and told me: “If you’re a cycling freak, I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”
I haven’t owned a bike since I was 14, and have never thought of getting one in the decades since, but I admit I really enjoyed that ride along the waterfront, from the CBD through Westhaven to the base of the harbour bridge. It was something I had never even considered possible during my more than 30 years living in Auckland. In fact, it hadn’t been possible until the opening of the Westhaven promenade earlier this year.
The views, the feeling of coasting along and enjoying the breeze, the sense of possibility that the opening of the city’s waterfront provided: I felt a bit guilty and wondered whether, without even admitting it to myself, I was in fact — or at least could someday become — a cycling freak.
On arriving home, I called the man who had earlier chastised me for my possible cycling proclivities, Tony Skelton of the St Mary’s Bay Association. I was still full of the sun and freedom of the ride, and maybe he could feel it emanating from me, because my questioning soon provoked him to anger.
After a while, I asked if he could see the benefits of SkyPath: commuter use, reduction in traffic, increase in tourism spending, opening up the centre of the city.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “All those assumptions are sheer pie in the sky, blue-sky bullshit.”
SkyPath is to be a privately funded, shared pedestrian walkway and cycleway attached to the eastern side of the harbour bridge. The proposed cost to a SkyPath user with an Auckland Transport Hop card is $2 per one-way trip. For non-users, it’s $4, or $6 return.
On the northern side, it will link with SeaPath, a proposed walkway/cycleway that will stretch to Takapuna. On the southern side, if things go to plan, it will be part of a walking and cycling network stretching all the way to St Heliers.
“This is a wildly popular project. It’s supported by NZTA, the Auckland Council, the AA, the Prime Minister. It’s privately funded, for fuck’s sake!”
It will have an overhead shelter and a western-side wall, being the side of the harbour bridge. The eastern side will be open to the elements, with safety railings. It will be made of composite materials and will be about a kilometre long, and so on and so forth. The details are all widely available online and a very large proportion of them have been thoroughly and vigorously contested by residents’ associations on either side of the bridge.
“This is a wildly popular project,” says Patrick Reynolds of Transport Blog. “It’s supported by NZTA, the Auckland Council, the AA, the Prime Minister. It’s privately funded, for fuck’s sake! And, in terms of its value, it’s a drop in the transport funding bucket anyway. Change is always opposed.”
11,574 submissions have been made in support of SkyPath’s resource consent application, with 11,400 in support, 169 opposed and five neutral. 11,324 of the submissions in support came through a quick response form created by Generation Zero.
Without fail, every SkyPath opponent I spoke to for this story stressed to me, often repeatedly, that they hoped this article would be balanced.
Bikes need to be balanced and so do bridges. Are some of the people shouting at me and each other unbalanced? If I spend any more time hearing, thinking or reading about dysfunction in the Northcote Residents Association (NRA), will I become unbalanced?
The NRA provides the northern resistance to SkyPath and its strongest public voice is executive committee member Kevin Clarke. His antipathy to the proposal is no less severe than that of Skelton, but his devotion to the cause shows in the sort of language and syntax you might expect in a courtroom (with occasional discursions into the language of war and words like “arses”).
One of the big concerns of residents and others on both sides of the bridge is parking. Councillor George Wood, who has expressed much concern about SkyPath, says many properties on Northcote Point don’t have off-street parking or have parking for only one car.
Kevin Clarke heatedly denied to Metro several times that this was a nimby issue.
“There’s the car parking for people that want to come down there in their car and park up and go for a ride over the bridge and come back and get into their car. That’s one thing, but then you’ve got buses, because these guys are saying, ‘We’re going to have buses coming over, dropping people off one side of the harbour, come over and pick them up and then carry on.’ Where are those buses going to park?”
But what’s interesting about the opposition to SkyPath is just how extensive the objections are. People aren’t just worried about the parking, and sometimes even deny that’s a significant issue — they’re opposed to a huge range of things going way beyond any potential negative impact on their own lives. (It’s striking how angry Kevin Clarke gets at any hint of nimbyism. He heatedly denied to Metro several times that this was a nimby issue.)
The NRA, together with the St Mary’s Bay Association and Westhaven Marina Users Association, have lodged an “issues register” with 83 issues on it.
If you had to pick one that speaks louder than the rest, it would almost certainly be issue 60, which contains the question: “Is SkyPath a priority project for Auckland’s infrastructure needs?”
To which the council’s response is: “SkyPath would complete a critical missing gap in Auckland’s cycling and walking networks.”
To which the associations’ response is: “The currently missing link is not ‘critical’ and comes at the destruction of a heritage suburb and a world-class marina.”
When asked why his concerns go so far beyond the impact on his suburb, Clarke, an architect, says: “I regularly get engaged as an expert to review major buildings and infrastructure designs, usually within a litigated context. And what we’re dealing with is a legal process, so it’s a well-suited background to addressing legal process.”
The NRA has submitted in opposition to SkyPath’s resource consent application. Surprisingly, though, it is not at all clear that Clarke speaks for a consensus or even a majority of the local residents who belong to the NRA. Nor does he appear to speak more generally for the residents of Northcote Point or Northcote.
There is, in fact, no evidence of what the members of the NRA believe, because they have not been asked. An internal attempt to survey the membership was blocked by the executive committee. Clarke says the reason for this is that the survey, proposed by three committee members, was a “dumbed-down”, “I support it/I don’t support it” survey. Clarke says it was therefore irrelevant and had the potential to undo all the due diligence the NRA had already performed.
The three minority committee members have since resigned.
Clarke explains it like this: “Our objects are very plain and clear, one of which is that NRA shall support issues that enhance and protect our heritage environment and enhance and protect the existing character of the area. With regard to that, we have no option that allows us to support SkyPath, because we already know, having read their submission, that it’s an environmental disaster and that they have taken no cognisance whatsoever of the heritage nature of Northcote Point. We actually don’t have the option of supporting it. It would be against the object of our society.”
That doesn’t wash with everyone. NRA non-executive member William Potter says: “One of the people on the executive who put forward the submission justified it to me on the phone by saying that, under the rules, the executive has a duty to oppose anything that is detrimental to the heritage and character of Northcote, which is just replacing one personal opinion with another. If that’s his and some other people’s personal opinions that [the project will] be detrimental to the heritage and character of Northcote, it doesn’t address what seems to me the central issue, which is, why should their personal opinions about those issues be substituted for the views of the membership?”
SkyPath’s resource consent application attracted around 200 submissions from Northcote Point residents. The split was roughly 110 in support of SkyPath, 90 against. In wider Northcote, it was roughly 220 in support and 30 against.
The NRA claims that SkyPath will be an “environmental disaster”, that it will result in the “destruction of a heritage suburb” and will lead to “industrialisation” — which anti-SkyPath literature suggests will include provision of toilets and extra policing, and also “cafes, bicycle hire outlets and other commercial add-ons”.
According to Clarke’s best projections, the number of people using SkyPath annually will be about 80,000. That’s an average of about 220 people a day. Take out a few weeks a year that the bridge might be closed and the average could be as high as 250 or 260. On weekdays the numbers might be a bit lower, on weekends a bit higher. Even if 50 percent of those people were Hells Angels, it’s really hard to imagine they could cause the destruction of anything.
The NRA’s claims of destruction, however, are based not on their own projections but on the council’s, which have the number at about 800,000, rising to two million after 20 years — although that’s trips, not visitors: one person going over and back counts as two trips. The council estimates that, on a summer Saturday in its first year of operation, SkyPath will be crossed an average of 9000 times.
Despite the NRA basing its “environmental disaster” argument on these numbers, Clarke finds them baffling. “How,” he asks, “could a cramped, inaccessible, unserviced, compromised tourism facility such as SkyPath enjoy patronage levels three times the size of the Waiheke Annual Jazz Festival’s peak attendance in perfect weather — every Saturday, all summer long from the outset — then grow to eight times that patronage level, every Saturday all summer long, in 20 years?”
The council’s patronage report was prepared by marketing, research and strategic planning consultants Angus & Associates, whose approach to the production of their 107-page report is summarised by Clarke as follows:
“They went to people who knew nothing about SkyPath whatsoever and said: ‘What do you think about a facility that gets you across the harbour bridge at really low cost?’
“They said, ‘That’s a great idea.’
“‘Mmhmm, tick. And how often would you use it?’
“‘Oh, all the time!’
“Multiply one by the other and, ‘Wow! Look at the patronage!’ 800,000 the first year, going to two million in 20 years’ time. And it’s as dumb as that.
“Our patronage assessment — mine, because no one else did it — simply took all the comparative competitive facilities and compared this with them. So therefore if you’re looking at Sky Tower, which has got about 500,000 people a year, say: ‘Okay, let’s have a look at the influences: Sky Tower can accommodate any fitness level, this can’t, so there will have to be a discount from 500,000 for that. Sky Tower, anyone can get to — footpath, taxi, car, bus and you can’t with SkyPath. Okay, so it’s a discount there. Sky Tower is spectacular, SkyPath isn’t. Another demerit there. Sky Tower has an increase of patronage in inclement weather whereas SkyPath will have its patronage collapse in inclement weather. So there’s a deduction there.”
In exchange for the private funding of SkyPath’s build and operational costs (estimated at $32.5 million), and the fact ownership will be transferred to the council after 20 years, and the fact the council will share in any surplus, the council is undertaking to ensure that if not enough people use SkyPath, it pays in part for any shortfall in projected revenue.
The private funder, Morrison & Co’s PIP Fund, covers the first part of any shortfall, the riskiest bit, but the council’s underwrite ensures that if SkyPath is a total disaster, investors don’t lose everything.
“The reason for having pumped-up patronage,” Clarke says, “is for the trust to say to council, ‘Mate, there’s no risk with your underwrite. Look at the revenue! Look at the patronage! And council nods like the nodding dog on the back seat of a car, ‘It’s no real risk at all! We’ll underwrite it! No trouble!’ Of course, the minute they do that, the trust and its financiers can then sail on. It can lose a million dollars a second because council pays. That’s the game.”
SkyPath is obviously a good idea. Even Clarke and Skelton claim to like the idea, just not this version of it. What they want is an alternative to be introduced at the time of the next harbour crossing. The details of the best alternative differ.
Clarke says he was involved in the design of a walking and cycling bridge, which was costed at $3 billion. “And since NZTA’s expenditure in the Auckland region is in excess of $3 billion per annum, any fool knows that they could raise the $3 billion tomorrow and service it from their existing income. So the new bridge could start tomorrow.
“If the government took its head out of its arse for a second, they’d get on with it right now and we’d have a bridge quicker than SkyPath could do this, or just about. The whole thing could be done in three years, go to whoa.”
He says they don’t because they believe there would be too much objection on aesthetic grounds, which is misguided.
“If you took a shaker full of common sense, you’d have the thing sorted in two days. It’s not the way democracy works. Democracy’s based on knee-jerk dumbness or information that can be processed by a nine-year-old. Unfortunately, that’s how the country, I suppose, gets run.”
Skelton is more of a believer in putting a cycle/pedestrian lane over the existing harbour bridge when the next harbour crossing goes in.
NZTA doesn’t like that idea. NZTA used to oppose SkyPath too, but now endorses it. The government transport funding agency says it will save the $25 million in taxpayer money that would have been required for its earlier plan to extend the eastern clip-on for cyclist and pedestrian use.
Also, it has no idea when the new harbour crossing will be completed or even started. A few weeks ago, Transport Minister Simon Bridges asked NZTA to prepare a business case, preliminary work for which they say should be done by 2017. Still, no serious planning can take place until traffic patterns are analysed on the western ring route we don’t yet have.
NZTA have said that analysis will take place between 2017 and 2021. If it gets the go-ahead and everything goes to plan, NZTA has recommended construction for sometime between 2025 and 2030.
Christine Cavanagh of the Herne Bay Residents’ Association believes SkyPath needs more planning to better deal with the pressure it will create on the surrounding suburbs. “The issue for us is dealing with parking. If the trust can come up with a solution, we’d be delighted to work with them.
“There are issues around things like the width of the cycle path. I’m familiar with a lot of that. And there are issues over whether the bridge has got the capability to wear it, structurally. They’re issues that I don’t know anything about, other than what I’ve read. Our major concern will always be any adverse impact on our area. We are not opposed to cyclists and other users of this area.”
I asked Skelton if his primary concern about SkyPath is its potential impact on parking and transport issues in his neighbourhood.
“No!” he said. “Our primary concern is that this is a project that shouldn’t even see the light of day.”
He thinks it is because “the bureaucracy of the council” are cyclists themselves, who will not listen to “anything other than their own indoctrinated cycling — ‘We’ve got to have cycling in this city come hell or high water!’
“The parking issue is just the sidelines of this whole issue. It’s that the fundamental core project itself doesn’t stack up.”
Along with “cycling ideology”, Skelton believes SkyPath is being driven by ego, and is also politically motivated. “It’s a project they’ve said is going to go ahead because it has a political will. And Nikki Kaye, who is the Auckland Central MP, will not listen to logic. Mind you she wouldn’t know one end of a pencil from the other. Even if her bloody arse was on fire, she’d tell you it wasn’t.”
The more Skelton talked, the angrier he became. “Why should any private-public partnership or private organisation, as they say they are, be allowed to run their business tagged onto New Zealand’s most strategic piece of motorway?
“What entitles them to do that, against any other organisation? Next thing you’re going to find, the precedent set by that is, ‘Oh, I’ve got a mobile coffee van, why can’t I park it up on the side of the motorway so that people can stop and buy a cup of coffee?’”
And later: “If anybody thinks this is going to take a whole lot of traffic off the roads, that concept is fundamentally flawed. It will never happen. How many storms did we have last year in this city?”
I wasn’t sure.
“We had three or four major storms and they were all from the northeast direction. Some of them had winds upwards of 130km/h. They won’t even allow you on the bridge in a storm like that. So, are you going to cycle along the SeaPath from Takapuna in a 100km northeasterly? These storms went on for days. That thing would have been closed more times than it would be open. And that’s a basic average weather pattern we get through our winters. All right?”
Skelton and others have expressed concern over the structural integrity of the harbour bridge once SkyPath is built — concerns perhaps best captured by the catchy and alarming phrase, “Attaching a clip-on to a clip-on”.
Garth Falconer, director of SkyPath design company Reset Urban Design, says that in 2010 NZTA commissioned a first feasibility study into SkyPath, which involved Reset’s engineers. That study found the design was feasible to proceed to the next phase, which is the structural testing phase it’s in now.
“It’s thorough, comprehensive, takes account of live loads, temperature changes through the year, through the day. It takes account of storm-wind events, transportation loading, for instance, worst-case scenarios.”
For years, Falconer says, he has listened to technical objections like “clip- on to a clip-on” from people who have little or no expertise. He sort of sighed. “Our team of professionals have been working on this thoroughly for a number of years. It’s complex, it’s engineering and this is what we do. It’s not going to be shot down with one-liners.”
The Northcote Residents Association says SkyPath contravenes a number of standards and regulations the council is responsible for administering. They give several examples by reference to the “most appropriate cycling pathway code (AUS6A)”: “The proposed gradient is 80 per cent steeper than the acceptable maximum, the continuous gradient is 450 per cent longer than the acceptable length, the proposed mobility platforms (flat-ish sections) in the pathway would need to be increased by 1150 per cent to be code compliant.”
SkyPath’s management have written a long and boring technical rebuttal to these claims, but the knockdown argument is that the “code” is only a guideline. From page 5: “This Guide is produced by Austroads as a general guide. Its application is discretionary.”
Still, if classified under the New Zealand Cycle Trail design guidelines, SkyPath’s management says SkyPath’s gradient would be graded “easy”. It says the gradient is the same as the existing pedestrian/cycle pathway on the Greenhithe bridge.
It also benchmarks SkyPath against comparable international bridges with pedestrian and cycling facilities. For instance, the shared cycle/pedestrian path on the Canada Line Bridge in Vancouver, opened in 2009, with a narrower path and steeper gradient than SkyPath. It has never been closed, and no accidents or injuries have been recorded.
Councillor Chris Darby says: “This single project will be the single biggest educator on cycling without doubt, because it is so visible — a cycleway over a body of water connecting two parts of the city and it sits on one of the most iconic structures in Auckland.”
Mayor Len Brown calls it “a game changer” for Auckland, operating both as a tourist hook and as an integral component of 1000km of cycleways around the city.
“I love it as part of a vision of a cycleway that would commence from Devonport, around the shore, across the harbour bridge and eventually back out to St Heliers. I think that is a really extraordinary vision for a cycle/walkway.”
Rather than creating problems, SkyPath’s management see it as a potential fix for parking and traffic issues, particularly in Westhaven and Northcote Point, with good connections to public transport and through the connection to SeaPath in the North and the Westhaven Promenade in the south.
“It might be terribly costly to the city. It will be, but they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s fun!’ But that’s what it is: it’s fun. It’s playtime stuff.”
In a position document, SkyPath project director Bevan Woodward wrote: “The landing for SkyPath is under the AHB [Auckland Harbour Bridge]. This is currently a noisy, shaded, industrial and barren area. It is underutilised, not particularly pleasant and suffers from anti-social behaviour at night. SkyPath will enhance this space, seeking to humanise and reclaim by bringing life and activity.”
Kevin Clarke says: “Don’t get me wrong. I’d quite like to walk over to the city from time to time too. Anyone would. Anyone from those areas not affected by it would see it as beneficial. It might be terribly costly to the city. It will be, but they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s fun!’ But that’s what it is: it’s fun. It’s playtime stuff.”
This is a story of conflict and how a small but heavily fortified opposition attempted to block a project that has overwhelming public and institutional support. But if SkyPath is granted its resource consent and any subsequent appeals to the Environment Court are dismissed, the story is likely to be framed differently. It will be about a humble accountant who fought to bring the project to life, despite tremendous institutional opposition and public apathy.
Bevan Woodward estimates he now spends six to nine hours each day working on SkyPath, and that for long periods over the past 10 years he worked even harder, until he realised he was burning himself out.
For many years, almost nobody supported it: not NZTA, not Auckland Transport, not Waterfront Auckland. SkyPath had supporters at Auckland Council, but few other people in power were prepared to help it succeed.
He’s an unlikely champion for a project that almost everyone now wants. He seems surprised by it himself. “I’m a former accountant. I was a business owner in Takapuna, I now live up in Warkworth for family reasons and once a week I carpool down to Auckland, go to my meetings. I’m not being paid to do this. Why is it that one of the most important transport projects has to be run by some unpaid members of the community?”
In 2009, before 5000 Aucklanders pushed through police lines, crossing the bridge on foot and on bike to demonstrate their support, he was ready to quit. He still talks about that event with reverence, as if its memory still sustains him.
In the video recording of the crossing, Woodward’s attempts to rally the masses with a megaphone had an awkward quality. He’s not charismatic and he doesn’t come across as a natural leader.
After our ride along the Westhaven promenade, as we rolled our bikes back into the Nextbike rack by the ferry terminal, I told Woodward that somebody had said to me that if SkyPath went ahead, there should be a statue of him in Aotea Square. He laughed. I said if that happened, I’d be proud to say I knew him when he was just a guy on a bike.
“But who knows?” I said, possibly insensitively, “maybe in a couple of months’ time, you don’t get resource consent and then it’s all been for nothing.”
He laughed, possibly self-deprecatingly, and said, “No, I would just keep going. I’m not going to give up.”