There are some things it's worth knowing when debates about Auckland's cycleways come up.
Over the weekend complaints were aired that cycleway spending is focused on comfortable middle-class suburbs like Pt Chevalier, which means South Auckland is missing out. And it is absolutely true: South Auckland needs more cycleways. But here are a few things to remember.
First, the largest single cycle project in the city, costing $38 million, is the new bridge connecting Mangere Bridge to Onehunga. That's a South Auckland project with commuter and recreational benefits. It's not just for cycling, true, but that's always the case with expensive "cycling" projects: the money buys a lot more.
Second, there's a lot of work going on in the south right now to develop cycling, along with a whole lot of other services. The Government transport agency Waka Kotahi has a programme called Safe and Healthy Streets South Auckland, which is focused on Māngere East and Manukau. The housing agency Kainga Ora is a key stakeholder in the business cases for both projects. Another project is focused on Māngere West.
Auckland Council is involved. Its "place making" agency Eke Panuku has the lead role in a big "Transform Manukau" project, and Auckland Transport's own planning is integrated into this. The local boards in Māngere-Ōtāhuhu, Ōtara-Papatoetoe and Manurewa are all part of it.
The transport aim is to make the areas safe for walking and cycling: to allow everyone who wants to, especially kids, to ride to school, the parks and playing fields, to work and the shops, to visit friends. The same aim as with cycleways everywhere.
The approach is specifically focused. Initiatives are trialled. The aim is to "build on a common purpose, value cultural worldviews, and utilise a delivery model that is place-sourced and led by the South".
That's jargon, but it has a real meaning: the planners are saying they understand they have to win the trust of local residents and businesses, or they'll get nowhere. You could, if you like, contrast that with the early days of the Covid vaccine rollout in South Auckland.
Five workshops have been held, engaging agencies, community groups and other local stakeholders, and now public consultation is about to start. This is model planning.
Could they do more? Of course, always.
But – this is the third thing to remember – putting cycleways into South Auckland is a complex operation.
The area is immensely deprived. There are not enough parks, play areas and other recreational facilities, not enough trees, not enough community centres or community services, not enough public transport, not enough cycleways.
Are cycleways the most urgent thing on that list? Not many people would say so. In fact, when even the cheapest version of a cycleway – painted lines on the road – goes into South Auckland, there are still complaints that it's a waste of money.
This is not to say South Auckland shouldn't have a network for safe cycling. It absolutely should. But taking a properly consultative approach and building community support is a good way to go about it.
Meanwhile, the fourth thing to remember. The complaints on the weekend focused on Meola Rd, a narrow arterial route that connects Pt Chevalier to Westmere and the city. It's also used to get to and from local schools, the sports grounds of Seddon Fields and the dog-walking park at Meola Reef.
It's a busy bus route and, despite the narrow width, parking is allowed down both sides. The road is very dangerous for cyclists and, on some stretches, buses can't even get past each other. And Pt Chev, as it happens, is home to many people who cycle, or would if it was safe.
Their numbers are growing: the suburb has several new apartment blocks, with more under construction. The nearby Unitec is a busy tertiary campus and the future site for thousands of new homes.
Will the new residents want to cycle? That's the wrong question to ask. Big new developments – all big new developments – should have infrastructure that makes cycling an attractive option for those who want to do it.
For all these reasons, Meola Rd is a no-brainer for a safe cycleway. It's one of the most obvious candidates in the entire city.
The local boards have certainly thought so, consistently advocating for it. And yet there have been six years of delay, while Auckland Transport produced poor schemes and found one reason after another to put the whole thing off.
One of those reasons was the extraordinarily vitriolic response of a small bunch of middle-class protesters in Westmere and West Lynn, the last time cycleways were built in this part of town. Even though they're on roads wide enough to land an aeroplane on.
Now, finally, AT has a decent plan. It's not gold-plated, as some have said, but it will cost $35 million.
Ordinarily, I'd agree that's excessive: better to just reallocate an existing road lane. But Meola Rd, unlike most arterial roads in Auckland, really is too narrow for that. So they have to build anew, and replant, and manage the drainage, and widen the bridge, and do all the other things that add to the cost.
The phrase for this is not gold-plating. Think of it as fit for purpose.
Fifth: This is not a cycleway that deprives South Auckland. The inner west needs a safe cycling network and South Auckland does too. Pitting "middle class" against the poor, when all you're really trying to do is mock cycleways, is called concern trolling.
As Julie Fairey, one of the local board chairs, said over the weekend, "We need more investment in emission-reducing infrastructure all over Auckland, not scrapping over crumbs."
Here's the sixth thing. Cycleways, whatever they cost, are by far the cheapest transport infrastructure available to us. We should be rolling out as many as we can.
A full network for safe cycling and a scheme to subsidise or even give away e-bikes would cost billions of dollars less than all the other transport projects planned and hoped for at the moment.
We could get it done within five years. And then measure the impact on congestion and emissions and decide: do we still need to spend hysterically large amounts of money on tunnels, either for road or rail?
With carbon emissions, petrol prices and construction costs all heading skyward, are we really going to keep pretending bicycles have nothing to contribute?
Finally, number seven. Safety on the road isn't an abstract idea. It's not a nice to have and we have to stop treating it as such.
Nineteen-year-old cyclist Levi James died last week on Manukau Rd near the Royal Oak roundabout. He was hit by a vehicle.
That road is supposed to be a "priority route" on AT's "strategic cycling network". But like Meola Rd, it's exceptionally dangerous, especially as it's lined with parked cars.
As Greater Auckland has noted, "AT's own Parking Policy says street parking should be removed if it endangers people on bikes. And it's not like there's any shortage of off-road parking in this neighbourhood. Every shop is a few steps away from a parking space that doesn't create a door-zone danger strip for people on bikes."
AT consulted on the area in 2019. Safety recommendations were made by the public and independent experts. Nothing has been done.
That's a scandal for which Levi James and his family and friends have paid a terrible price. And complaining about projects that will make Meola Rd or any other dangerous road safer? That's part of the very same scandal.