Why great cycle paths are the way to end Auckland's traffic woes

Photography by Meek Zuiderwyk

Kathryn King.

A solution to Auckland’s traffic crisis is arriving – and it’s two-wheeled. With $200 million to spend on the city’s cycling network, Auckland Transport’s manager for walking and cycling, Kathryn King, is changing the way people commute.

We no longer live in a city where cyclists uniformly stay off the roads because they fear for their lives. More and more people are choosing the bicycle as the most efficient way to get around Auckland, and much of that is thanks to Kathryn King, who returned to New Zealand in 2015 after a decade and a half abroad, most latterly in London, where she successfully spearheaded cycling initiatives in the city’s boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea.

In Auckland, she’s been in charge of the rollout of protected cycle lanes and shared paths all over the city, with the goal of making cycling a more safe and attractive proposition for as many people as possible. We meet at her Viaduct Harbour office to talk about how she thinks cycling can alleviate the city’s traffic woes.“You can’t build yourself out of a road congestion problem with more roads,” she says.

BIANCA ZANDER: The cycling and walking maps of Auckland make it look like a
carefully planned cycling takeover is underway. The pink Lightpath is just the
beginning. Do drivers know the city is being remodelled for bicycles?

KATHRYN KING: I think they are starting to pay attention, but we’re building a network in the same way there’s a bus network and a road network and a footpath network, so eventually we do need to have connections in that same quantum of journey possibilities.

It’s hardly fender-to-fender on the Lightpath. Is cycling on the rise?
In the last year, we’ve seen a 44 percent increase across the whole city centre. So where we’re building infrastructure, we’re seeing people use it. Those city cycleways all connect at Upper Queen Street and at that location, it’s almost a 250 percent increase since 2013. We’re starting to see real growth, albeit from low numbers from the outset.

Are we a long way behind other cities?
Yes. At the last census, in 2013, we had just over one percent of people cycling to work. If you look at a city like Vancouver, for example, that’s been investing for the last five years in separated cycleways, so they’re a few years ahead of us, they have recently reached 10 percent of people riding, from a similar base: one percent. It’s a city with a similar climate, similar topography, and demonstrating the impact of a good network.

There’s never been a better time to think about cycling. Auckland traffic is shit –
and getting shitter by the day. When it comes to commuting, the city is broken.
Absolutely, I think people want travel choice. Often people say to me, ‘well I can’t ride my bike every day, so I don’t think I can ride a bike’. But it isn’t about totally committing to cycling. You have choice in how you travel if it makes sense on that day. You have an option to ride a bike and for many at the moment, there’s no option. Giving Aucklanders choice is a big part of our investment strategy, so that’s across different transport modes, of which cycling is a component. 

But we love sitting one-by-one in our cars on the motorway, crying into our steering wheels about how bad the traffic is. How do we break up with our cars? 
You have to make the alternatives attractive. We need to build cycleways that people feel protected in. Give people a positive experience. People sit frustrated in their cars in traffic, but if you see people passing by going at a faster speed on their bikes, that’s quite attractive. I live in Sandringham, and with traffic the amount of time it would take to drive to work would vary every day, whereas I know if I get on my bike it takes me the same 25 minutes every day without fail.

The last time I rode a bike in Auckland it was 1993. I cycled to university and almost got killed. How do you make cycling safe?
People don’t want to cycle with traffic, particularly fast traffic and heavy traffic. So, where there’s demand for travel along a corridor that does have a lot of traffic, we want to make sure we’re protecting people with our infrastructure. 

Separated cycleways. Because you can’t change how people drive?
I’m of the view that people behave the way they do as a result of the environment you create for them. We see increasingly on our shared space streets in the city centre that it’s really calmed people down. People walk, people drive much slower, and feel more comfortable. Take O’Connell Street. There are cars but they’re travelling slower.

You change the power balance. Let the people in cars know they’re not the kings
of the road.
Exactly. We can put a lot of investment into training and changing rules and changing behaviour but if we don’t change the infrastructure that invites you to speed around the corner or race down a road, we’re not going to see a dramatic change in behaviours. It’s really led by the environment that we provide people.

But is our transport infrastructure so far behind that we’ll never catch up?
It’s well understood that you can’t build yourself out of a road congestion problem with more roads. It’s a really inefficient way to move people – on their own, in their cars. If you look at the Northwestern Motorway, anyone who tries to drive at peak hour will understand how congested it can get. The lanes are moving around a thousand people an hour. The cycleway next to it has the capacity to move four and a half thousand people an hour. So if we can make getting to it attractive enough, that’s where there’s free capacity. Not in the motorway. We really need to think about efficiency, and take that seriously, if we want to get our city moving.

Is Auckland too big and sprawly for cycling? Along with infrastructure, we’re going to need housing density.
Exactly. But in the central area, particularly five to seven kilometres from the city centre, there’s a good density of population within those areas now, and an awful lot of people that work in one place in the city centre, or that study here. There’s a lot of people on that motorway right now that are coming from Te Atatu, or Avondale, or Mount Albert or Point Chev, that you can really conceivably, easily cycle from.

Is the electric bike a game changer?
Enormously. In 2013, we imported about 3000 e-bikes to New Zealand and last year we imported almost 14,000. So the growth is phenomenal and if you go out and stand on a cycleway now, you’ll start to see every five bikes or so is an e-bike. It really makes cycling accessible to more people. And it means you can wear your normal clothes, hop on your bike, ride to work, and not have to change.

Will Auckland get a cycle-share scheme like in other parts of the world?
Over the rest of this year we’ll be looking at what the key ingredients to a successful system are, and who might be interested in working on it with us, from investors to potential partners. Generally, it takes a few years from that starting point to seeing the bikes live on the ground. Most cities of this size that are running successful schemes launch with 1000 to 2000 bikes. They tend to use comfortable, accessible bikes, not sport bikes.

There’s quite a bit of bike snobbery around, fixies and suchlike. Do you follow
bike trends?
Starting to watch bike culture develop in Auckland is something that really heartens me. I worked for a long time in London during the bike boom, and the different niche cultures that grew up, you’re starting to see that here. We’ve seen people in south Auckland on their chopper bikes with big stereos, and then we’ve seen the fixie crowd with their trendy bikes and a certain look, and ladies that decorate their bikes with flowers.

Is the end goal a sea of bicycles on the Southern Motorway, not a car in sight – or something more modest?
In Auckland at the moment, if you consider 40 percent of trips Aucklanders make are under two kilometres, and then 70 percent of trips we make are under five kilometres, those distances are really cyclable. I think we could follow the pattern a city like Vancouver has taken, having 10 percent of people riding to work within the central area within a fairly short time frame. 

The five Auckland cycleway projects Kathryn King is most excited about.