How we get around our cities has suddenly flared up in our news. Even media colleagues are calling each other haters and zealots, and calling each other out for fake news. But is this just background noise or does it have a real impact?
Under the headline Cycleway figures in doubt, the New Zealand Herald said last Tuesday a leaked report showed demand for bike lanes in Auckland had not lived up to expectations.
The report showed figures used in the business cases for funding from the government may have overestimated demand for them, according to the Herald.
That was a red rag to vocal cycleway opponent - and sports car enthusiast - Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB.
He said the Herald had revealed cycleways as a product of “sheer dishonesty” based on “exaggerated nonsense” and dodgy numbers.
Not for the first time, Mike Hosking framed the issue as a 'cyclists vs motorists' battle, and he was on the frontline with the drivers.
When Leighton Smith took over from him later than morning, he claimed he could have written the Herald's story all by himself.
The cycleways were a wasteful disgrace he said, and he knew all along they were based on "lies" and "fake figures." He wanted the heads of the top five to ten people at Auckland Council to roll over this.
By this time, Mike Hosking’s earlier on-air editorial had also been published by the Herald online, and as a Mike’s Minute's daily video sermon.
On his show’s Facebook page, his followers overwhelmingly agreed cycleways were an expensive sham and a financial fraud on ratepayers.
"Perhaps some balance should be applied to future projected cycle usage. Good things take time," said one who bucked the trend.
"But this doesn’t excuse Auckland Transport using false figures. Well done for exposing this, if this is the case," he added.
But was it? The next ZB host on air last Tuesday didn't think so.
"So I need to warn you that there are forces abroad that are prepared to fudge the facts to get their arguments across. They are guilty of spreading fake news," said Andrew Dickens.
He ran through the same numbers of cycleway users in the Herald's report, but pointed out Auckland Transport's claim the target figures were for the year 2026.
"The figures being compared after two years should be compared after 10," he said.
The Herald’s report compared "last year’s apples with oranges from 2026," Jolisa Gracewood from cycle advocacy group Bike Auckland said on the Spinoff.
Asked for clarification, AT released new figures and cycling manager Kathryn King said:
"Staff identified that early business cases were predicting trip levels that weren’t expected until 2026, and this has been rectified in the process."
Readers of the Herald in print on Tuesday would have no idea the yet-to-be-met targets were actually figures for the future when a fuller network would be up and running.
Readers of the online version would only know that if they read to the very end of the Herald's article.
Andrew Dickens reckoned that called for a re-write from the top down.
"You could have written a completely opposite headline: ‘Demand for parts of the unfinished Auckland urban cycle way are eight years ahead of schedule’. Another headline could have been: ‘Auckland cycleway numbers increased 15 per cent in the past year’ - which is true," he told ZB listeners.
Andrew Dickens said the actual cycling stats would not convince those he called the anti-cycleway “fake news purveyors”.
Hosts and journalists at NZME's flagship news brands calling each other out for fake news and fact-checking their reckons on air and in print isn’t a great look for a company currently working on how to charge people for its premium content.
If AT has presented misleading figures to get funding for cycleways, it wasn't obvious in the Herald's report on Tuesday.
Mediawatch has not seen the leaked draft report the story was based on - so we can't be sure what it says.
But after criticism of The Herald report - and its amplification on Newstalk ZB - there was no clarification in the paper later in the week.
On Friday The Herald’s senior writer Simon Wilson reported Auckland Transport's boss Shane Ellison had nothing to say about his organisation coming under under “a highly publicised attack”. That's odd, if AT is sure the story was wrong.
But all the same, Simon Wilson wondered why bikes and bikers provoke such a “flamethrower of fury” especially among people in the media - including his own colleagues.
"Hating on bikes has had a destructive impact in this city. Good plans have been compromised and delayed and good planners have been sidelined. Several of the city’s senior public servants have been spooked," he wrote.
Scooting round the issue
Meanwhile in Wellington, Newstalk ZB's political editor Barry Soper said he was pleased to see the controversial Lime e-scooters on the Wellington waterfront.
They were there because of a charm offensive by the Lime company outside a major conference about transport in New Zealand - Traffinz 2018.
A press release issued from Sydney airily referred to the Auckland and Christchurch roll-outs as “a success” - overlooking all the negative publicity about the injury toll (more than 150 ACC claims so far according to recent reports).
Lime wants a green light to roll out in Wellington, sparking a flood of reckons on the region's ZB morning show on Tuesday.
But we heard nothing from any of the the transport experts from here and overseas at the Trafinz conference who might have shed some light on all this.
One was Hamish Mackie, from self-titled Mackie Consulting company, who’s been hired by MBIE and others to research plans for transport.
He said what's playing out in our media has happened in other places where cycleways have developed earlier.
"It's common overseas. There's been big media problems in the New York story where they've had major boulevards where they've put in cycle lanes and the media have conspired against it," he told Mediawatch.
"But the thing that's overcome that hurdle was clear leadership and a plan for what they want to do. Bitter arguments have turned around around into progress," he said
Dr Alistair Woodward from the University of Auckland's school of population health said media controversy can influence decision-makers.
"I think people are conscious of the way they're being presented. Policymakers need to lead but they don't want to be seen as out of touch with what people are expecting and tolerating," he said.
He sees positive moves in the media now.
"The diversity of voices is increasing. There are 'the regulars' who have predictable views but we are now seeing commentary from other angles," he said.
"There are people other than middle aged men like me who have things to say and we should listen," he said.
Herald social media reporter Vera Alves - a non-cycling driver - wrote a rebuttal to "the loud naysayers" who say Auckland's cycle lanes are underused.
"Cycle lanes are often empty because they are so efficient. Your cycling workmates are already at work, showered and ready to start. Meanwhile, you (and me) are still sitting at the stupid traffic lights on the motorway on-ramp," she wrote.
"When you get a range of voices that gives you a more accurate reflection of what people really want and what they think," said Hamish Mackie.