On Thursday the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) released their review of Wellington City Council's (WCC) Urban Cycleways Programme (UCP) conducted by consultants Morrison Low.
NZTA press release
WCC press release
Overall, I'm in general agreement with the findings and recommendations from the review. There's a lot of good things in there and a few not so good things. Most of my focus in the analysis below is on Island Bay but I'll also note a few things related to the wider Wellington UCP.
Good things in the report:
A partnership model is proposed between NZTA and WCC going forward, with greater involvement of NZTA in Island Bay. On balance, this is a good thing and NZTA will bring some much needed capability and capacity to the Wellington UCP overall. As the report notes the transport agency now has a broad interest in cycling, e.g. utility, recreational and commuter cycling, that reflects their strategic priority to "Make urban cycling a safer and more attractive transport choice". The report makes the point that "Some people commented to us that the UCP has driven a more aspirational approach to cycleway design and that this goes further than the community can understand or agree with". One of the most important things that NZTA can do is help to build the public understanding and acceptance of the business case for cycleways, and the importance of separated cycleways to the growth of cycling. It's a tough job (obviously) because it runs counter to 60+ years of car-centric transport & urban development and associated beliefs around entitlement and what's 'normal' (for more on that read Professor Alistair Woodward's excellent blog: The Island Bay Cycleway - Terribly Important and Nothing New). NZTA's involvement should also help to reduce the Island Bay cycleway's exposure to opportunistic local politicking, which will be absolutely crucial in the run-up to local body elections in October.
There will be a review of Island Bay and modifications made after consultation with the community. At face value those are the words everyone wants to hear but it's worth noting that there's no detail on what will be consulted on and how the consultation will be done - that's yet to come. There's also no mention of needing to achieve consensus. In fact, as pointed out in The Dominion Post on Friday, a stronger role for NZTA may result in more official resolve not less. The Dominion Post rightly notes that while consultation needs to be thorough and genuine it is not an end in itself: "In the end a good job is more important than consultation". The review of Island Bay will include the appointment of an independent expert to advise on options for changes to the current cycleway, which will be a crucial role.
The review of Island Bay will reflect a broader urban design and regeneration approach. This is a good idea and probably should have been the approach from the start. It's something that WCC tried to pivot towards half-way through the process by re-naming the project "The Parade Upgrade". Despite this one of the strongest criticisms of the upgrade is that although the cycleway works really well from a functional perspective it doesn't look particularly attractive and the standard of some of the work is not very good. Nobody will disagree with the concept of "urban design and regeneration" but it will be interesting to see what that actually means and how far it goes. The Dominion Post speculated this could include raised Copenhagen-style lanes, which would integrate the cycleway more closely into the urban form and also make parking much easier. I recently discussed this very subject in a blog post: 3 options for kerbside vehicle parking.
The report doesn't make any comment on the merits of the Island Bay cycleway and carefully stays away from expressing an opinion on whether the current design "works". The report is focused almost entirely on the handling of the Island Bay cycleway and WCC's communication and consultation around cycleways generally. It notes that “Wellington is not the only city to experience adverse community reaction to a delivered cycle way (Dunedin, for example) and international evidence suggests that cycleways are inherently difficult to successfully deliver because of sometimes polarised public attitudes". WCC have already made big improvements to their consultation around other projects such as Hutt Road and the eastern suburbs but it's good to see the report not pulling any punches on the need to do even better. We'll have to wait and see if NZTA can practice what they preach.
Money is being made available to make modifications in Island Bay and also give WCC some more flexibility around the delivery of the rest of their urban cycleways programme. This is great news because it was becoming increasingly difficult to see how WCC was going to manage the roll-out of their UCP within the timeframes required by the Urban Cycling Fund, where much of the money comes from (in WCC's defence the report does note that "Wellington was not as advanced as other cities when the UCP was initiated"). However, the report says "The National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) presents a separate opportunity to work with WCC without the restricted time frame of the UCP". Crucially, it also says "while NZTA was not a funder [of Island Bay] there is an opportunity for them to now be part of the solution to Island Bay". Presumably this means there is money available to be spent in Island Bay from the NLTF, something that was not previously available (although the waters were very muddy around that for a long time and it remains a mystery why WCC did not make a UCP bid for a southern suburbs route package). It also remains to be seen just how much money that is.
The other parts of the southern route to CBD could now be back on the table. Yes please! One of the most frustrating aspects of this whole saga has been the way the interminable delays in Island Bay led to Stages 2 & 3 of the Island Bay to City route through Berhampore and Newtown dropping off the radar. This fed into the self-fulfilling prophesy that the Island Bay cycleway was a "cycleway to nowhere". Putting the route all the way into the city back on the table will help increase uptake in Island Bay and re-establishes the Island Bay cycleway as an important component of an integrated transport network. It's also great news for our neighbours in Berhampore and Newtown.
Wellington city councillors have been told to behave themselves. The reviewers found that Wellington city councillors have been too involved in decisions around the design and timing of Island Bay and that "drove an approach to delivery that was sub-optimal". The report also says "WCC had a model for governance that would have reflected the respective interests of WCC and the NZTA, but it has not yet been implemented". The report recommends that a new programme steering group be set up with NZTA representation and an independent advisor. It also warns city councillors that they need to "provide political support for a recommissioned programme and a review of Island Bay, but should be careful to make decisions based on sound evidence and advice". In other words, cut the crap. Personally, I hope to never again hear a Wellington city councillor refer to a constituent as a "keyboard warrior", "dolt" or "zealot" just because they have dared to express a different view to them.
Not so good things in the report:
There's a lack of input from different voices in the Island Bay community. It's quite ironic that a report recommending better community engagement interviewed 29 public servants and politicians but only one community stakeholder. The only community stakeholder interviewed was from the Island Bay Residents Association, who for all their good intentions are simply not representative of the community. They are also guilty of adopting an anti-kerbside cycleway stance based on a very mis-leading interpretation of the results from a poorly designed self-selecting survey.
As such, it's really disappointing to see so many generalisations about "the Island Bay community". This is not just frustrating for Island Bay residents who support the cycleway but creates a real risk around getting the right outcome from the proposed review. A mis-diagnosis of what's really wrong in Island Bay, or the extent of the problem, could just make matters worse. I don't know how many of the public servants and politicians interviewed actually live in Island Bay but I doubt it's very many. This means that the statements in the report about what the (apparently homogeneous) Island Bay community hive-mind thinks are based almost entirely on the views of a tiny sample of locals and what the rest of the interviewees have heard about second-hand, most of which has probably filtered into their minds via the media. This is just about the worst possible source of fair and balanced information possible (although it's not entirely the media's fault, they are just competing for attention in an increasingly clickbait-focused media environment). For better or for worse I have always been extremely reluctant to try and make the case for the cycleway through the media. Like many other people I know I simply don't think that it's a good forum in which to have a constructive discussion in a non-adversarial way. That probably has led to an imbalance in the way the community's views are perceived but WCC and NZTA are going to need to put in a bit more effort than just reading the news if they want to find out what's really going on. Every morning and night as I ride along the cycleway I am always amazed by the total disconnect between the reality of using the cycleway on a daily basis and the way it is portrayed in the media (and by certain grandstanding politicians) - they really are two completely different worlds.
NZTA's increased involvement could still go either way. Although I think that, on balance, an increased role for NZTA is a good thing it's hardly the "victory for the people" that Councillor Paul Eagle described it as. What's actually happening is that the influence of elected city councillors is being reduced and more decision-making power handed over to unelected technocrats (and I don't mean for that to sound pejorative at all). The composition of the new Wellington UCP steering committee and its terms of reference will shed more light on the real extent of that. As noted above a stronger role for NZTA may result in more official resolve not less and and ratepayers in Island Bay and elsewhere, regardless of their views on cycling and cycleways, should be at least a little bit nervous that the report's promises of better consultation and engagement are just lip-service. I'm hopeful that won't be the case.
Have you read the report? What do you think?
Cycle Aware Wellington