15 Aug 2021

The double standard in the bike bridge backlash

From Mediawatch, 9:11 am on 15 August 2021

A proposed walk and cycle bridge over the Waitematā provoked a furious media backlash over the government's wasteful spending. Why don't roading projects get the same treatment?

An aerial view of the proposed Northern Pathway Waitemata Harbour crossing.

An aerial view of the proposed Northern Pathway Waitemata Harbour crossing. Photo: Supplied/Waka Kotahi

When Transport Minister Michael Wood announced a $685 million bike and pedestrian bridge over the Waitematā Harbour in Auckland, the howls of protests rose up almost immediately.

The loudest cries came from the Newstalk ZB studios, where several popular hosts cleared their schedules to take potshots at the project.

"In the week we've talked about the Three Waters, and the infrastructure issues in this country being $180 billion we suddenly have close to a billion for a cycleway. That seems nuts doesn't it?" asked breakfast host Mike Hosking.

Afternoons host Heather du Plessis-Allan came up with a handy slogan for the bridge: the "Boomer bike bridge to Birkenhead". 

Kerre McIvor implied the walk and cycle bridge was coming at the expense of roading projects in the regions.  

"You've got the 'boomers bike bridge to Birkenhead' when you have the small towns screaming for driveable roads so they can drive the many hundreds of kilometres they need to drive to access hospital treatment," she said. 

Credit where credit’s due - the ‘Boomer Bike Bridge to Birkenhead’ is a powerful and memorable insult, though it could be worth noting the bridge would have also served Northcote which is home to one of the largest Kāinga Ora developments in the country.

A mid-June Herald story revealed Waka Kotahi assessed the bridge’s benefit cost ratio, or BCR, at 0.4 or 40c for every dollar invested.

It carried the headline ‘Stupidly expensive: Real cost of new Auckland harbour bike bridge revealed’. 

That ‘stupidly expensive’ quote came from ACT’s David Seymour, who also told the New Zealand Herald "we'd lose less if Michael Wood sent taxpayers' money to a Nigerian prince to keep safe until he can pay us back."

In her Herald on Sunday column, Kerre McIvor pointed out the pedestrian and cycle bridge cost as much as 26 new bridges in flooded Ashburton.

But she went on to point out "successive governments and councils have squabbled over who should pay for the bridge and have chosen, year after year, not to prioritise the bridge."

In May, Ashburton’s mayor told Stuff his council has yet to officially ask Waka Kotahi for the money to build the new bridge.

But in the next edition of the same paper, fellow ZB host Heather du Plessis-Allan didn't mention any of that in a column criticising the government.

"When you’re in Ashburton and you’ve been begging for a second bridge for years so that your town doesn’t get cut in half like it did during the recent rain storms, you are going to resent being told no, while the Government spends 21 times that money on a luxury bike lane," she wrote. 

But these attacks clearly struck a chord with both the public and the media.

Newshub's Tova O’Brien described the crossing as "a really overpriced cycle bridge" in her story accompanying the release of the latest Newshub-Reid Research poll.

Newshub went on to reveal that 81.7 percent of its poll respondents opposed the bridge.

Given that, it came as little surprise when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern signaled over the weekend it wouldn’t be going ahead. She toled the Herald’s political editor Claire Trevett that she’s a pragmatist.

The following day, the Herald’s post-mortem on the ill-fated proposal matter-of-factly described it as a “white elephant”.

Maybe that’s fair enough. The bridge could really have included public transport. Even accounting for some institutional anti-bike bias at Waka Kotahi, which has spent the last few decades building a succession of motorways, its BCR wasn’t great.

It was easy to create the impression it was overpriced; an extravagance.

But the coverage also reveals a double-standard in how the media assesses these transport projects. 

In the same transport plan that funded the 'Boomer Bike Bridge to Birkenhead' there's a project that will cost at least twice as much - and deliver less than half the benefits. 

The Ōtaki to north of Levin highway had a BCR of 0.37 in 2018 when it was projected to cost $817m.

In the latest funding round that price tag has blown out to $1.5b and the BCR is now thought to be 0.2 or lower.

Unlike the bike bridge it will encourage more people to drive, leading to more carbon emissions, which the IPCC has identified as a key player in a catastrophic unfurling environmental disaster.

Despite that, outside of a few news reports on potential court challenges to the proposal, the media response has been muted. 

There have been no on-air eviscerations, no angry wails about the potholes the government could be fixing instead.

It’s hardly the only overpriced roading project that’s enjoyed relative anonymity.

The Kāpiti Expressway funded under John Key’s National-led government had a BCR of 0.2. That provoked a bit of critical coverage from Campbell Live at the time, but few other outlets followed suit.

Perhaps the most egregious recent example of this double standard is in the coverage of the project Labour has signaled it wants to focus on instead of the bike and pedestrian bridge.

A road and public transport tunnel under the Waitematā harbour had a BCR of just 0.2 when it was expected to cost $10b.

That price tag has now risen to $15b, or 22 times more than a walk and cycle bridge, and it’s unlikely the BCR has got better as a result.

The howls of protest over that have mostly only come from one journalist: the Herald's Simon Wilson, who recently wrote an article headlined “Blowout: Auckland harbour tunnels will cost $15 billion”.

He said the headline was partially meant as a dig at the more sympathetic coverage roading projects typically enjoy.

"You don't get the same level of complaints about roading costs," he said.

"Many cycling projects have very good business cases attached to them. Very few major roads do. Mill Rd didn't. The East-West Link proposal in Auckland doesn't. Even Penlink doesn't. Yet we're very quick to hear about any problem with the cycling infrastructure but people do tend to take it on the chin a bit when it comes to roads."

Many broadcasters and reporters intuitively support roading projects because they assume they'll reduce traffic, when international studies have found the opposite is more often true, Wilson said.

"If you create more capacity on a road, you're encouraging more people to drive, and they will. You're inviting more people onto the road, and you don't fix congestion, you simply make it worse." 

For all the anger over its price tag, maybe the most honest appraisal of the opposition to the walk and cycle bridge came from Newstalk’s Glenn Hart, who explained he didn’t support the proposal but did support the expensive Puhoi to Warkworth motorway extension.

"I'm certainly looking forward to having that road. I don't care how much it costs. I'd rather they spent money on that than things I'll never use, like a cycle bridge over the harbour."

Maybe that’s understandable. Most people drive, and so they see roads as the most practical transport investment.

But the world is warming, transport emissions are contributing to that, and encouraging more people to bike and walk is just about the most effective thing governments can do to address the problem.

There’s also the issue of simple geometry.  Wider roads induce more driving, which creates more congestion, which means you need wider roads. Eventually you just run out of space.

In a comment piece on Tuesday Stuff’s political editor Luke Malpass wrote that the latest IPCC report will be the basis of commitments our government will have to make on emissions - like it or not.

“New Zealand has been much better at giving lip service to emission reductions than actually driving down emissions – including the current Government. This report will again make the case for relative inertia and complacency harder to make," he wrote.

Given that, you’d think the media would view cycle and pedestrian infrastructure a little more favourably.

If the opposite is true, it’s hard to see how we’ll ever start building for the future we want, rather than the congested, polluted present we have.