NZTA considers cycling lane on Harbour Bridge as Councillor pushes for certainty

On Sunday hundreds of cyclists pushed past a police barricade and pedalled across the Bridge.
On Sunday hundreds of cyclists pushed past a police barricade and pedalled across the Bridge. Photo credit: Getty Images

Waka Kotahi is investigating the possibility of converting a traffic lane on Auckland's Harbour Bridge to a cycle way,  but cannot say how far off a decision is.

On Sunday hundreds of cyclists pushed past a police barricade and pedalled across the Bridge, forcing lane closures.

They're frustrated, they say, by a lack of action over calls for a cycle lane trial this summer.

Auckland Councillor Chris Darby said frustration at the government's slow movement on a SkyPath plan had boiled up, but Waka Kotahi's Brett Gliddon said opening up a lane was not that simple.

"I had no issue whatsoever with their cause. We're committed to walking and cycling as well, and I think it's fantastic that they got such a great turn out, because it's a really important issue for New Zealand and Auckland," Gliddon told Checkpoint.

"When it comes to getting onto the bridge I guess I had a few more concerns, and that was simply around the health and safety for everyone involved. Not just the walkers and cyclists that were on the bridge, but the motorists and our staff who had to lay out the closure to close down the lanes. 

"But as far as the cause - absolutely aligned and committed, as they are trying to find a solution for this."

Auckland Councillor Chris Darby, who participated in the event, told Checkpoint it brought a lot more attention to the government on a long-standing issue that was still unresolved.

However, Gliddon said it was the hardest part of the cycling network to build.

"We're listening, and we've been listening for a long time," Gliddon said.

"We have been been working on solutions for that. We've been looking at whether we can build the Northern Pathway and that's now with government to consider an option around delivering that.

"As far as providing access to walkers and cyclists on lanes of the bridge. We are doing work on that. However, it's not as straightforward as everyone seems to think it is. There are a few challenges.

"The main things we're looking at is the health and safety. You've got to be able to provide a safe environment. The barriers on the side of the bridge, they are not compliant for walking and cycling. They're not high enough. They're not suitable, if someone happened to fall off, they could potentially go over the edge.

"We haven't got any protection back to the live vehicle lane, so we have to think about debris, vehicles that might lose control, we don't want them ending up in those walking and cycle lanes.

"So you have to come up with a design that is going to be safe for the users walking and cycling across the bridge."

He said Waka Kotahi believed a trial of using the existing harbour bridge for cyclists and pedestrians would require two lanes.

"We think that realistically to put in the barriers and the protection you need for motorists and for walkers and cyclists, it's probably going to require two."

"Under one lane by the time you put in barriers to protect everybody you get a very narrow width. 

"So we're thinking about the operational use of this to make sure that if you are going to do it, you can do it safely for everyone and there is enough room."

He also said work needed to be done assessing whether diverting the use of two lanes would increase motor vehicle congestion.

"At the moment the bridge isn't the bottleneck on the network, but if you reduce it from eight lanes to six, and it's such a strategic part of the network, it will have an impact. 

"It will impact other parts of the network, and we saw that last year when we had the lanes out on the bridge with the incident [when a truck hit part of the bridge structure].

"It had a big impact across the western ring route, right down into the south.

"We've got some modelling, but we need to do more to fully understand the potential impacts.

"We're looking at options now around how you can do it, but we're not going to be able to make a decision until we're comfortable that we can mitigate all the potential risks

"That's going to happen over the next couple of months. But as far as making a decision, we've got to satisfy ourselves that everyone is going to be safe that's going to use it."

Bike Auckland and the GetAcross campaign are advocating for a lane of the bridge to be opened up as a cycleway in this coming summer.

Gliddon said he did not yet know if it could be achieved by summer.

"It depends what we have to do to the barriers on the side, it depends what consenting we would need to do to put those in, and what construction is required. Until we work all that out, I can't give a date and say that it would be possible this summer.

"It may be, but not until we're comfortable that we can safely protect everybody that would be using that facility."

SkyPath 'a long-standing issue, unresolved' - Councillor Chris Darby

Darby told Checkpoint it was a long-standing issue that remained unresolved. 

"I'm just one of 1500 that attended a gathering, which ended up being a ride across the bridge for an hour," he said. 

"There's been a lot of good feedback from the government over the last year or so, but there's a real desire for some certainty. We don't have that right now.

"The frustration levels have just really boiled up.

"The SkyPath funding is currently part of the New Zealand Upgrade Programme which was announced in January 2020.

"It's a big programme, an ambitious programme. The government put up some $6.8 billion in transport across the country.

"But they've run into some headwind on that programme, they've got evolving business cases and massive construction inflation pressures and they have to recalibrate that programme.

"They have to do that in time to inform the regional transport committees all around the country, in our case Auckland Council and Auckland Transport, so that we can grapple and land our regional land transport plan.

"Because there's consequential spend, there's an intertwining. So it's pretty clear that government have to make some calls on the New Zealand Upgrade Programme in double quick time.

"The SkyPath across the Harbour Bridge is one of those in the Auckland part of the overall programme.

"You need some certainty, you need some direction, you need a final call that there is going to be a project that is funded.

"I think those 1500 cyclists, if they had known on Sunday that there was going to be a project that's going to start on an 'x' date and finish on an 'x' date and we're going to ride it on an 'x' date, they would not have turned up.

"But we don't have that. I am hopeful that the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Transport can find a way through and give that certainty quite soon."

Darby said having an existing lane of the bridge for cyclists and walkers in the meantime was certainly an option advocates could pursue.

"We treat it as an option, we'd like to work that up with Waka Kotahi and look at the business case for that, look at how that might or might not work.

"There's always barriers. If you turn away at the first barrier that faces you when you're confronting the issues of transport in Auckland, you'll never get anything done.

"There's a whole bunch of us that aren't prepared to turn away at those barriers. We want to look at solutions, not being stuck in concrete on the problem itself.

"There are solutions there. Right now we can't even get cyclists on ferries - the number that want to be on ferries to cross the harbour from the North Shore to learning and earning in the city centre at the moment."

Darby told Checkpoint with the frustration at the slow movement of Waka Kotahi on a link over the harbour, if nothing was pledged from the government soon there was the risk of more protests.

"I'm hopeful that we don't have to go there. I'm hopeful of a positive announcement from the Minister of Transport.

"I am prepared and I know that there are a lot of other people that are prepared to take this further. To what extent I don't know but the protest in support of SkyPath across the Auckland Harbour is not going away any time soon."