Posted on: 28 February 2019    

Recent news that Auckland’s Northwestern cycleway is sparking conflict between pedestrians and cyclists raises some questions about the nature and operation of shared paths. In this case, cyclists travelling at up to 40kph have been deemed a danger to pedestrians sharing the path, and walking buses have been cancelled.

One perspective is that this is great news and a sign of a maturing network. There are too many pedestrians and cyclists wanting to use a piece of infrastructure.  How many times have we heard complaints about empty cycleways and money being wasted on infrastructure nobody will use? And yet this is undoubtedly not a good news story which reflects badly on designers and users alike.

The Northwestern Cycleway (or correctly, Northwestern Shared Path) is one of the best cycling facilities in Auckland, used by commuter cyclists and even training cyclists, as well as pedestrians and school children. It is located immediately adjacent to the Northwestern Motorway and runs virtually uninterrupted for 13km from central Auckland to Lincoln Road.  What is interesting about this facility is that it is high enough quality that it’s possible to reach speeds of 40kph, with good surface and few pedestrians in most areas. Other routes in Auckland (such as Tamaki Drive) have poor surfacing meaning high speeds would be difficult to maintain, or is short and requires you to stop every few hundred metres to cross side roads or avoid pedestrians (eg on Beach Road).  So it’s little wonder that cyclists can and will travel at speed on the Northwestern Shared Path.  However, despite being one of the best facilities in the city, it’s still not good enough.

Shared paths have their place.  They work where the user numbers and speeds are not excessive and sufficient width is available. However, they will not operate well with disparate speeds or narrow cross sections.  We don’t expect fast moving cars and pedestrians to mix.  Should we expect fast moving cyclists to mix with pedestrians?

The only sure solutions are to force cyclists to slow down through design – for example, rough up the surface, or stick a few obstacles like raised tables in the way – or to improve the environment by providing separated facilities for pedestrians and cyclists.

Some have called for those travelling on the cycleway to moderate their speed, which is the usual approach in shared spaces and indeed, many cyclists would respond in this way.  But is it really practical to expect cyclists to moderate their speed in this case when they have been provided with a high quality facility? There’s no speed limit after all. The proliferation of new forms of mobility such as e-bikes and e-scooters mean that the potential for users travelling at high speed will only increase in future.

The question is – should this facility be shared at all? Given the current demands and the way the facility has been designed, the answer is no.  It has been designed for cyclists to travel at speed, and it is therefore unrealistic to expect cyclists to slow down to walking pace around pedestrians. 

According to a recent report by Auckland Transport, cycle use is growing rapidly in Auckland. Further growth in e-vehicles will only increase the number of higher speed users on shared facilities.  In an environment of growth, expecting shared cycleways/footways to provide a good level of service can actually do more damage when, as in this case, facilities become a victim of their own success. Shared paths can be seen as a youthful facility – to test demand.  In a mature network, segregation is required.

Shared paths have their use, however in a maturing cycle and pedestrian environment isn’t there a need for separated facilities that avoid user conflict?

Blog written by Jo Draper, Principal Transportation Planner, Abley

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