Simon Wilson: Glasgow gloom and bumpy bike paths

OPINION:

About 10 days ago I tried to use my face to smooth out a nasty bump on a bike path. It didn’t go so well.

I know what the lesson is: ride to the conditions. Just because it’s a bike path doesn’t mean it’s safe for bikes.

I have to admit I found it pretty galling to write that sentence, but it is true. I should have taken more care.

I accept that. But I don’t think it excuses Auckland Transport for their casual neglect of rider safety. Earlier the same day another rider hit the same bump and crashed. Like me, she was left hurt and distraught. On another day, a rider was hospitalised and needed metal plates in his head. There have been more.

The bike path in question is shared with pedestrians and is part of a major route for both commuters and recreational users. AT knew it was dangerous and even had it on the list for repair: coincidentally, they’ve told me that’s due to start in a week. But they’d been content to leave it in a treacherous state for several years.

The problem is that AT is not committed to good cycling infrastructure. It builds only a few kilometres of new bike paths and lanes a year and maintains the existing ones poorly.

In March this year, mayor Phil Goff wrote to AT to complain about this. He said the city needs a “more rapid and flexible delivery of cycle infrastructure”.

He also noted the cycling projects that do proceed “suffer unnecessary complications in delivery, have become more expensive than necessary and even once delivered, regularly suffered from a range of design shortcomings”.

If cycling is to achieve its potential in Auckland, it has to become safe. Safe from other traffic, with bike paths that are inherently safe to ride on. That means having cycling networks, including safe intersections, and not just strips of bike lane that don’t go anywhere.

You should be able to ride around town. Kids should be able to ride to school, to the park, to the local shops, safely and without adult supervision.

As Goff told AT, “there also needs to be a focus on joined-up cycleways capable of maximising the use of cycles for transport purposes to have the greatest impact on minimising carbon emissions.”

That’s right too. It’s not just about riding for its own sake. It’s also about what just happened in Glasgow.

If you’re looking for explanations for why so many countries could not agree on decisive climate action at COP26, start here. Start with us.

We have a transport agency that weaves and ducks and says the right things but avoids doing them. Is that really so different from the finance companies in Glasgow that boasted of their funding for renewable energy projects but still invest five times as much in the fossil fuel industry?

In better news, while COP was underway, AT and the council revealed a new proposal to create more dedicated bus lanes on arterial roads.

What a splendid idea. Buses carry close to half of all morning commuters on the harbour bridge, and a key reason for that is the clear run the buses get. If you’re commuting by bus on that route, you are not stuck in traffic.

Now it’s proposed we’ll see a lot more of that, especially in isthmus Auckland.

There were complaints about it being “bizarre” and “a war on cars”, of course, because car parks on those roads will be removed.

Bring it on. Transport contributes 40 per cent of Auckland emissions. Finding ways to make buses, like cycling, more attractive, is the least we can do.

The only problem is that they’re expecting to take nine more years to introduce the new bus lanes. That is utter nonsense. Consult now and roll it out next year.

With even simple things like bus lanes taking so long here, you get a glimmer of why they had problems making a decent deal stick in Glasgow. Still, they did hope to do more. Conference president Alok Sharma was almost in tears at the end, as he took the astonishing step of apologising to delegates for the outcome.

Sharma had declared even as recently as a week ago that “the end of coal is in sight”. It’s not, and he knows it now.

But was it because big coal users like India and China refused to ruin their economies by weaning themselves off coal too fast? Let’s not heap all the blame on them.

The coal issue reveals the real reason Glasgow ended in such gloom. The “Global North” went yeah, nah.

Historically, the North grew giant economies on the back of coal, creating the climate crisis in the process, but they don’t burn it much anymore. Most of the big coal users now are developing countries seeking to raise their own standards of living.

After Paris in 2015, the Global North promised them US$100 billion a year to help them do that without raising emissions. But too little of that money has ever arrived. And in Glasgow, although the issue was top of the agenda, there was still no commitment that it will.

Put it this way: India will burn coal because no one will help it enough with solar.

Meanwhile, Australia used Glasgow as a kind of trade fair for its “clean coal” technology.

For the record, all forms of coal are dirtier than all other fossil fuels. But Australia wants the world to burn more of it and they’ll offer seductive deals to their customers to keep buying it.

It would be great if India took more of a lead on coal, but it is not the principal villain.

And yet, there was good news in Glasgow. They strengthened the rules around carbon trading and other complex, wonky and important issues.

Countries have agreed to review their national commitments and turn up to COP27, in the Egyptian coastal resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, with plans to improve them. They know their commitments for Glasgow were not good enough and that, paradoxically, may spur them to greater progress in 2022.

Perhaps most of all, COP26 witnessed the ongoing rise of civil society. From the hedge fund managers of the new Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero to the civil disobedience activists of Extinction Rebellion, the clamour for change in Glasgow came from every corner.

This is how it has to be. Civil society will lead, demanding change and making change itself, and governments will follow.

The test case is Australia, scene of infernal wildfires the last two summers and heading into an election next year. For the first time in their lives, will a majority of Aussies vote against coal?

As for me and my face plant, I’m okay now. A long night in the ED, but nothing broken. I was lucky.

And the good news does keep coming. Urgent Couriers has bought five e-cargo bikes to use instead of cars. The company had some funding from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority and the council has provided charging stations. Two of the bikes are already in use. That’s great.

Hey council, how about asking all the other couriers to do the same, and telling them the days of courier vans in the city centre are numbered? Call it a Glasgow challenge. They’ll need smooth bike paths, though.

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