Why are e-scooters allowed on the footpath? If we're thinking about e-scooters and e-bikes as just scooters and bikes but with motors, we're thinking about them wrong. And what's really going on with the proposed new "trials" on central Auckland streets?
The Auckland Design Office held a forum this week called "The Footpath as Contested Space". The panellists said some things the ADO, which is in charge of trials in the inner-city streets, may not have wanted to hear.
Gay Richards, from Living Streets Aotearoa, bluntly condemned the use of e-scooters on footpaths. She's vision impaired and for her it was simple: scooters on footpaths, whether ridden or left standing or lying there, are a menace.
You don't have to be blind to understand that. You don't have to be frail or elderly, either.
Another panellist, Elise Copeland, who heads up the council's universal access and design programme, talked about her child "the runner". Copeland has a 3-year-old who never walks when she can dart, rush or scurry instead, often without warning, always at some risk to herself.
"Anyone else got a runner?" Copeland asked. Many parents know the feeling. Many cyclists and scooter riders do too: riders and children are a danger to each other when they share the same space. So are riders and people on their phones.
Universal design, by the way, is design for everyone, whatever their mobility and vulnerability. We all need it, some of us all the time, some of us in only a part of our lives, none of us knowing whether that part might start tomorrow. The public spaces of our cities need good universal design.
Oliver Bruce, a "micromobility" advocate, raised a different issue. Micromobility is the word given to single-person transport, especially when it's powered by electricity. E-bikes and e-scooters, most obviously, but he also thought they could evolve into autonomous vehicles. The future is still so hard to know.
Bruce said because these vehicles are faster and more functional than ordinary bikes and scooters, we should think of them as a new mode of transport. You can commute in your work clothes, without putting yourself through a workout and arriving covered in sweat. You can get across town on an e-bike, no matter the traffic, faster than with any other mode.
E-bikes and e-scooters, whether privately owned or in share schemes like Lime, will also prove their worth in the suburbs: connecting from home to rapid transit, doing other short trips.
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They're not for everyone, or even for most people. Of course not. But with implications for convenience, health, combating climate change and ways to enjoy being out and about, they look like genuinely disruptive technology. When prices fall low enough, they will change this undulating city.
But there's a problem. For e-bikes and e-scooters to succeed, they need infrastructure. Bike lanes. Riders need to be safe from cars; pedestrians need to be safe from riders.
We have, broadly, three classes of road users and they don't mix. It's very simple.
But transport authorities are not making it simple. Auckland Transport is working with government transport agencies to trial e-scooters – on footpaths.
Why? Is there a single person in the world who thinks inner-city footpaths should be used by e-scooters?
That we need more bike lanes should be obvious. That e-scooters should be able to use them is also obvious. Exactly where those lanes should go is less obvious, so that needs trialling. But Auckland currently has no bike lane trials underway and no plans for any. Not one. Why not?
There are several answers, and none of them is good enough.
The first is that for all the fuss about e-scooters on footpaths, the politicians and planners have been overwhelmed by fear of an even bigger fuss: the one about cycle lanes. It's such nonsense.
The second reason for no bike-lane trials: not enough budget. But Auckland Transport isn't even spending the bike-lane budget is does have. Why not? See the point above.
The third reason is that it's complicated. Nelson St needed a dedicated cycleway but Auckland Transport has preferred to lay wide shared pathways around some suburban schools. But that's fair enough: it doesn't need to be one rule for all.
The fourth reason is that changing the use of a road is a difficult regulatory process. Kathryn King, formerly head of cycling and safety at Auckland Transport, is now at the NZ Transport Agency, charged with working out how to simplify and speed up this process. That's great news, but she doesn't have a magic wand.
In the meantime, how about some inventive use of temporary regulations? If you can close Queen St for a Santa Parade, can you really not use planters and other portable barriers for a temporary "Summer Cycling in the City" trial?
There's a fifth reason bike lanes are not being trialled, and it trumps all the rest. The planners don't want to do it.
Two trials have recently been proposed for inner-city streets – one in lower Queen St, the other in High St – and neither includes dedicated bike/scooter lanes. The Auckland Design Office is in charge of both.
I asked the head of ADO, Ludo Campbell-Reid, about this. "I don't know that a bike lane is right on Queen St," he said.
Once the City Rail Link, light rail and the new bus network are all in place, he said, there will be "fountains of people". Therefore, "separated e-bike/cycle/micromobility lanes are not appropriate everywhere". He meant Queen St.
Campbell-Reid's comments are a surprise. They suggest he does not understand the meaning of "trial" and has already decided what's going to work. He also has not grasped that once those "fountains of people" flow, it will be even more critical to remove scooters and bikes from their midst.
And he misunderstands how all this will unfold. The new public transport services are years away from completion. We need something for now. If it evolves later that's really not a problem.
When you boil it right down, all the council is going to trial is the removal of some car parks on Queen St and High St.
Welcome as that is, we won't learn much from it if we don't also trial the infrastructure essential to making the public spaces work. That's more lanes for bikes and scooters, more bike stands and some dedicated parking areas for scooters. Convert every fifth car park space?
Queen St and the cross streets are the obvious places to start.
Perhaps I'm too impatient. Oliver Bruce noted that when the motorcar first arrived, it took a couple of decades for the streets to adapt: tarseal, kerbside parking, the invention of traffic lights. In good time, he suggested, it'll happen again for bikes and scooters.
Maybe. My worry is that, when we trial something no one wants, we run the risk of setting positive progress back. In the council election in October, I hope voters will look for candidates keen to bring more life, more commercial activity and more safety to our streets – with wider footpaths, more dedicated cycle/scooter lanes, better shopping experiences and havens of greenery.
I fear that many, instead, may ask which idiots let e-scooters onto the footpaths, and punish them accordingly.