Now is the time to "lock in" Auckland's lockdown walking and cycling boom to not only create a more liveable city but slash the city's greenhouse gas emissions, say active transport advocates.
For just over a month at alert level 4 some of the city's most dangerous, car-choked streets were transformed and Aucklanders responded accordingly.
A survey by Bike Auckland found walking and biking accounted for 63.5 per cent of trips across the city during the lockdown.
Cycling became so popular bike shops have even been reporting shortages of parts as limited shopping resumes.
"It showed people want to be out doing these things, but only when it is safe," Bike Auckland's Jolisa Gracewood says.
However, as the city has opened up from lockdown this week and cars returned in droves cyclists have already begun slowing down.
Meanwhile the steep drop in air pollution from cars during the lockdown has already returned to pre-lockdown levels, according to Niwa.
Air quality scientists say some recent 🚗🚛#trafficpollution readings from #Auckland have already spiked higher than pre-lockdown levels. Previous @niwa_nz measurements in Level-4 #lockdown confirm pollution levels fell by more than 70 % in some areas. https://t.co/XGSZZtAy6L pic.twitter.com/uECH0g7HGU— NIWA (@niwa_nz) April 30, 2020
Auckland Transport (AT) has responded immediately to the "boom" in walking and cycling by installing 17km of temporary cycleways and walkways on 20 roads and popular walkways, to assist with safe physical distancing in level 3.
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The Government has also offered to fund 90 per cent of "tactical urbanism" projects as part of a Covid-19 recovery package, although that funding would not be available until July.
Gracewood said the city could not wait and now was the time to bring forward projects to "lock in" the changes and realise the environmental, community and health benefits of active transport.
Along with a group of public health experts, they were calling for a citywide 30km/h speed limit; pop-up protected lanes, and quiet traffic-free streets in all neighbourhoods - all to be delivered as fast as possible in level 3.
Lack of investment in "active transport"
The moves are supported by transport group Greater Auckland's Matt Lowrie, who said there had long been underinvestment and delays of such initiatives in the city.
AT had not met its annual targets of 10km cycleways for the past three years, falling 6km short, and the city's footpaths were also not up to scratch.
A Herald review of annual reports showed public satisfaction dropping from 79 per cent in 2013 to just 55 per cent in 2019.
The quality was also slipping, with nearly 90 per cent of footpaths in the highest category in 2016/17, but dropping to just over 30 per cent in 2018/2019.
Lowrie said delays to some of the projects were often due to minority groups opposed to temporary inconveniences during construction, but that now was the time to make up for it.
Along with completing major projects like the Seapath and Harbour Bridge Skypath connecting the city to the North Shore as soon as possible, it was important existing cycleways were linked together.
As the Northwestern Cycleway gained crucial links, through Kingsland and all the way to the waterfront, patronage had grown dramatically, doubling in the past five years.
In Kingsland it hit 2000 daily users for the first time in February, and had pushed above that14 times since.
"The crisis has shown the demand is there, and enabled us to start evaluating this," Lowrie said.
Changes needed to meet emissions targets
Auckland Council's chief sustainability officer Alec Tang is well known on social media for his horror first-person near-miss cycle videos, but over the lockdown, instead were videos of him out with his three children also riding, aged 3, 5 and 7.
"The kids loved it. It is not something we would normally do, and seeing other families out as well was a brilliant experience."
Tang is working on the city's climate change action plan, due around July, which will lay out how Auckland can achieve its commitment to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050.
making the most of the quiet streets w/ a whānau-tastic ride down onto the Manukau’s much more awesome waterside esplanade.— Alec Tang 鄧振揚 (@AlecTang_) April 26, 2020
eat your heart out Tāmaki Drive.
sooo many families out exploring the path on their 2+ wheelers.
👏👍🎉🚲💨💪#MāngereBridge #AKLBikeLife pic.twitter.com/0k0sriVefd
The last stocktake from 2016 showed Auckland's overall emissions increased by 5.6 per cent since 2009, and 33.6 per cent since 1990.
While there had been a decrease in some sectors, they were largely negated by an increase in transport emissions, which now made up about 37 per cent - the largest sector, reflected by the 1.6 million vehicles on Auckland roads at the end of 2018, with about another 50,000 registered each year.
If Auckland continued current trends emissions would increase 27 per cent by 2050, meaning drastic changes were needed.
"Transport is the big one. We need to be getting more people onto public and active transport," Tang said.
"But also reducing the need to get into the car in the first place and encouraging people travelling shorter distances to go to the shops by walking or cycling, which is exactly what has been happening through the lockdown."
So what's planned?
Auckland Council planning committee chair and Auckland Transport liaison, Chris Darby, said the cycling uptake was "something we have never witnessed before".
"It shows there is a readiness. The big question is how do we seize this opportunity?"
Rather than "recovery", Darby wanted to see a "reset" for the city, and a lot of the groundwork already been done, he said.
In October the council voted to lower speed limits in the city, has vast plans to increase cycleways, to make the city more pedestrian-friendly through its "Access For Everyone" citywide masterplan, and has declared a climate emergency.
He also called for more "agile" projects such as "Slow Sundays", as adopted by many car-heavy cities all across the world, where certain streets are closed off to vehicles a day a week - or month - and instead replaced by anything from markets to yoga to games of basketball.
Standing in the way were "convoluted road closure requirements".
"But that is something we need to work through. We do need to be more agile."
The recent changes have not been without criticism, Heart of the City chief executive Vic Beck raising concerns about more cones added to a central city already heavily disrupted by roadworks.
Ōrākei Local Board chairman Scott Milne said "the cycling pendulum is swinging too far and too fast", saying he had heard the trial in his area could become permanent.
Many were fully on board though, with Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Trust deputy chair Ngarimu Blair tweeting the initiative had their full support, noting the huge benefits a month without "40,000 cars a day" had on the water quality at Okahu Bay.
AT chair Adrienne Young-Cooper said some people had criticised the temporary moves as simply "adding more cones" and acknowledged it was not perfect, but they could be adjusted as necessary and were required during the emergency period.
She acknowledged they had been "slow" on walking and cycling projects in the past, but said things were changing and the increased uptake added impetus.
In the short-term this would be supported by the emergency-related initiatives, which were flexible and could be altered as needed, she said.
In the medium-term they would be making full use of the Government's offer to fund 90 per cent of "tactical urbanism" projects, although this would not come through until July. Meanwhile, long-term there was about $100m allocated for projects including cycleways, she said.
She declined to comment if speed limits could immediately be reduced, but from June 30 as planned the Safer Streets programme would come into force, lowering speed limits on key roads across the city, with some central and populated areas dropping to 30km/h.
She wouldn't say which tactical urbanism projects were planned as the board was deciding the "first tranche" at a closed meeting on Wednesday, but said they would likely resemble those seen on High St last year when it was transformed into a pedestrian-only space.
"They will be projects we have already been planning, but instead of waiting three or four years it makes sense we capitalise on this Government offer and start as soon as possible.
"I acknowledge we have not been meeting our targets on these in the past, and there have been delays - but that is largely due to the need to engage with affected communities.
"The criticism that we have been slow is reasonable, but that does not sit with where we are at today."
Ideas and projects to come
• Now: Temporary widening of walkways and cycleways in popular areas across the city, including Queen St, Ponsonby Rd, Oteha Valley Rd, Lonely Track Rd and Mangere, Otara and Manukau town centres, and removing car parks on the seaward side of Tāmaki Drive between The Strand and St Heliers.
• From June 30: Safer Streets programme, which will see speed limits lowered across the city including 30km/h in some central areas. Transport advocates are calling for this date to be brought forward.
• From July: Innovating Streets - NZTA to fund 90 per cent of tactical urbanism projects, such as the pedestrian-only High St trial last year. The "first tranche" of Auckland projects will be decided this Wednesday during the AT board meeting.
• Future: "Slow Sundays" - no formal plans in place, but the concept would see a region-wide programme of closing targeted streets to vehicles, allowing everything from street ball jams to markets, music and events.