Simon Wilson: All I want for Christmas is … the Swiss solution

OPINION

All I want for Christmas is free e-bikes and a new CEO at Auckland Transport who will take the climate crisis seriously.

Oh, and lots more great online comments. It’s thrilling to hear from so many people who just get so excited about the things I write, especially about cycling.

Having free or heavily subsidised e-bikes isn’t a fantasy. It’s been proposed in New York and it’s already well established in parts of Europe.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has just announced a Climate Emergency Response Fund, $4.5 billion to be spent over four years, and I can’t think of anything better to spend some of that money on. It would transform cycling in the cities.

I know, I know. It’s too wet, too hilly, too car-centric, too wrong for here. But there are lots of countries that give the lie to those claims, and my favourite is not the Netherlands, which people love to remind me is flat. It’s Switzerland.

A reader who’d been living there wrote last week to say he rode to work every day, even in winter. Cycleways, he said, are common: some are dedicated lanes on the roads, some share the roadway with cars and there are some “just through the fields and forests”.

“We bought our e-bikes through the equivalent of the Automobile Association, who had discounted e-bikes and promote them like mad to try and get vehicles off the road.” There was also a cash grant of 500 Swiss francs (about $800), provided by the local commune (council), because they also “want cars off the road”.

“And this,” said my correspondent, “from a place where public transport is already great, accessible, cheap and has lots of scheduled trips.”

What’s not to love about every part of that? And honestly, what is stopping Auckland?

The cycling allocation of the Climate Emergency Response Fund should be large and it should be spent in three ways. One: building more cycleways. Two: subsidising e-bikes and ordinary bikes. And three: re-establishing a bike-building industry.

People think, oh no, manufacturing? That’s not the way things work anymore. The immutable rules of economics and all that. But we’re in a climate emergency. The economic rules of the last 40 years are what got us into this mess and they are not going to get us out of it.

The emergency response fund is not nearly big enough, by the way. But it’s a good start.

Those Swiss cycle paths through the fields and forests sound lovely, and we have the equivalent here. Cycleways that don’t follow the road but take you along the edge of waterways and through parkland can be a joy to ride on.

My personal Christmas shoutout goes to everyone who created the shared paths that run near Oakley Creek and connect Waterview to Mt Roskill in a long, lovely ribbon of greenery.

It’s a magnificent civic amenity in some of the city’s poorer suburbs, with much lovely design work on show: in the planting and landscaping, the furniture and the bridges. You ride slow, watch for kids, because there are always a lot of people about, enjoy the beauty and the way families and everyone else is out enjoying themselves too.

It’s been a lockdown lifesaver for thousands, that corridor of paths and parks.

It’s also the perfect antidote to everyone who thinks councils and transport authorities can’t do anything right or shouldn’t waste money on non-essentials. Amenities like that enrich urban life and build communities.

But off-road urban cycling is only one component of a cycling city and it’s not the most important. For one thing, it’s too expensive to be done everywhere. For another, it encourages irritable drivers to think they really do own the roads and cyclists should stay off them.

But cyclists can’t stay off them. The roads go where they want to go.

As I wrote last week, the key to becoming a cycling city is to take some street space from cars and convert it for safe cycling. That’s carriageway space and car parks. The new climate fund should pay for the rapid growth of on-road cycleways, done cheaply with barriers like concrete kerbs and planter boxes to keep cars out. Auckland Transport should fund many more of them too.

The welcome news from 2021 is that after years of very little progress, several new bike lanes have opened. Witness Quay St, Karangahape Rd, Hurstmere Rd, Project Wave in the Viaduct, Tāmaki Drive, Puhinui to near the airport and a new bridge connecting Wiri to Manukau centre.

New off-road lanes have opened too, including Takanini to Papakura and Panmure to Pakuranga.

There’s good work gone into all of them and some of them are pretty flash. Mayor Phil Goff’s proposed new targeted rate for climate action includes more: $144 million will be allocated to 18km of new cycleways as well as a network focus on New Lynn.

The focus on cycling is good, but let’s not get diverted. The priority is quantity.

Some of the new climate emergency fund should also be spent on a major campaign to build public support. This is public health, climate health, road safety, stronger communities, great new ways for the kids to get to school and fun time in the city: there are so many benefits, just waiting to be uplifted.

Something else they should do, but without spending a single cent on it, is sideline everyone at Waka Kotahi who is sabotaging hopes for a bike-lane trial on the harbour bridge. Transport Minister Michael Wood has had a tough year, but no excuses please: it’s not so long since he agreed a trial had merit and he still has to make good on that.

Bike ferries or bike buses, by the way, are not the answer. Cyclists want to ride across the harbour. Why is Waka Kotahi so terrified of a trial? Because it might work?

Auckland Transport boss Shane Ellison has resigned and will leave in June. Ellison arrived four years ago with a brief to overhaul a traditionally focused transport organisation and has seemed at times like a man with a proverbial brick wall and sore head.

AT, like Waka Kotahi, has many staffers working hard to make a better world. But, as a senior insider at AT said to me last week, there is never any shortage of people who will just say no.

Bus and rail services got better on Ellison’s watch and there’s a new focus on safety rather than travel times. But these are minimum achievements for transport planners in the 21st century.

Here’s an idea, from Papakura transport analyst Ben Ross. Give the new chief executive a single KPI: reduce emissions. Put a number on it.

The number should correspond to Auckland Council policy that the city’s emissions must fall by 50 per cent by 2030. Which probably means something closer to 70 per cent for transport.

Failure to give the CEO that goal will reveal they don’t take it seriously. But if they write it into the contract, the climate emergency will be at the heart of all AT’s planning and decision-making. Which is where it should be.

Imagine it. They’d change the debate about the climate and the entire approach to planning. Not just in that organisation, but in the wider council and in the city itself.

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