Follow the Yellow Brick Road

One of the most famous lines from “The Wizard of Oz” is when Dorothy says to her little dog “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” That particular line has become a cultural metaphor used when we visit places or see things  that are not familiar to us and we relate them back to our own personal vision of the world. That same cultural metaphor may well apply to the proposals being put together by the Dunedin City Council for the Otago Peninsula.

The Dunedin City Council road widening programme will include reclaiming 5-8 metres of the Otago Harbour shoreline along a 13 kilometre stretch from Burns Point (near Vauxhall) to the entrance point of Taiaroa Head. It will cost the City Council nearly $28 million over 9 years, with a further 66% of the construction subsidised by the New Zealand Transport Agency. That’s a total project fund of $84 million. The driving force behind this development has been the Council’s desire to create better cycling and pedestrian access to and around the Peninsula from Portobello and Harrington Point Roads. Traffic safety has also been mooted as the justification for the project and on the face of it that sounds reasonable. However, like all things the devil is always in the detail, and this project requires deeper financial, landscape and ecological scrutiny.

In a 2011 Council report the Otago Peninsula route did not even rank within the top ten in terms of safety, accident history, population, topography and demand. However, the same report recommends that the Peninsula be given priority since the 2011 Annual Plan because the City Council had already undertaken work at Vauxhall and Macandrew Bay. Which raises the question, what is the real reason for this project?  Looking through the City Council’s Cycling Strategy there is some description of the benefits to tourism, but the strategy has no data and only a recommendation that further research is required to understand this dimension of cycling use. So despite not ranking as a priority in the City Council’s own assessment, the Council decided that because work had already been undertaken it should continue. Yet the Council seems confused as to why it undertook that work in the first place and how it came to that decision. That’s misguided and muddled thinking.

The reclamation of Otago Harbour’s rocky shore and intertidal zone will have a significant effect on the ecosystem of the harbour and the associated food web of the Otago Peninsula. Current estimates of the total reclamation undertaken by the City Council will total 11 hectares, and that may actually exceed 14-16 hectares when looking at the proposed extent of the reclamation described in the proposal. Which is ironic given that the City Council’s Cycling Strategy suggests that “cycling improves the quality of our natural environment and minimises environmental impacts because bicycles are the most energy-efficient land transport vehicles.” Well that’s probably quite reasonable, providing you don’t destroy almost all of the intertidal shoreline habitat from Vauxhall to Taiaroa Head with reclamation and then cover it with an oil based asphalt pathway.

The environmental impacts of this project on the health and functionality of the harbour are immense. Reclamation will result in significant loss of rocky shore and intertidal sand flat habitat, damage and loss of traditional fish breeding sites, and changes in the tidal structure of the harbour that will deplete further intertidal areas. The destruction of the interrelated food and habitat web in the harbour could be catastrophic on many bird species such as shags, spoonbills, wading species, and marine birds that populate the harbour and its environs. Which is ironic given that most of the Peninsula tourism market is based on bird life, the Royal Albatross, Blue Penguin and the Yellow-eyed Penguin.

There are also significant implications for the landscape with the destruction of the harbour landscape features that have become part of the natural and modified character of the Otago Peninsula for over 150 years. Many older landforms that were once part of the original harbour and cliff edges for thousands of years are to be demolished to make way for the smooth. One area of particular concern to the Society will be the removal of all of the trees on the harbour’s edge from Burns Point to Glenfalloch.

Climate change and sea level rise considerations also need closer consideration with this proposal. The report “Climate Change – Impacts on Dunedin” by  Professor Fitzharris suggests that natural ecosystems will be particularly at risk from the sea level rise associated with anthropogenic climate change. Which raises further questions of the sustainability and wisdom of reclamation in the face of these predictions. Professor Fitzharris clearly demonstrates that the “harbour side shoreline, including the entrance to Otago Harbour” will be one of five specific hot spot areas vulnerable to climate change. He goes on to state that “rock protection walls around Otago Harbour will need to be continually strengthened and eventually raised.” The Fitzharris report clearly indicates that coastal communities like the Peninsula may experience severe risks of inundation by a 1-in-100 year storm surge which “will more than double after 2040” and this will lead to on-going coastal erosion. Where is the forward thinking in the face of mankind’s worst environmental disasters when the City Council is planning to reclaim the harbour and build new walls which may well not stand the long term impacts of sea level rise?

The really sad thing about this proposal though is that the citizens of Dunedin know virtually nothing about it. The level of public consultation undertaken by the City Council and the Otago Peninsula Community Board has been very quiet indeed. The City Council presented the proposal to the Community Board on May 24th, 2012 and little was reported at the time. Indeed the Community Board were asked to provide feedback to the City Council by the 29th June 2012, but have never reported what that feedback was to the community. It begs the question, if both political arms of the Council were making these plans 9 months ago why did the public only get the opportunity to comment on them in March 2013, and only for a trifling 4 weeks?

By no means does the Society not support the need for cycling and recreation, our organisation has supported public recreation for 125 years, but where is the sustainable rationale behind this scheme? If this proposal is allowed to come to fruition it will irrevocably damage the biodiversity, landscape and tourism brand that defines both our harbour and the Otago Peninsula. If that happens there will be many people in Dunedin saying “I’ve a feeling we’re not on the Peninsula anymore.”

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10 thoughts on “Follow the Yellow Brick Road

  1. Daseditor
    It is about time that proper questions were asked about this so called ‘strategy’.
    At a time when the Dunedin City Council is strapped for cash and has been widely castigated for its financial profligacy we see this sort of proposal being pushed by an administration that has plainly not even begun to do its homework. It is all very well to provide us with the platitudinous ‘cycling improves the quality of our natural environment ‘statement but in this context this is meaningless babble talk. If the examples already provided of the intent of this project at Vauxhall and Glenfalloch are any indication of what is proposed in the future all I can say is they had better think again. Safety for cyclists is one thing but to create a highway of these dimensions in this location, to this standard and at this cost for what is largely an unproven demand and need is quite another. Good questions need to be asked and pretty soon too.

    Mick

  2. Daseditor
    Further to my earlier comment….

    And not to put too fine a point on it, it is worth noting that the ODT reported the following in its editorial earlier this week. –
    ‘Sustainability – and accountability Sat, 6 Apr 2013 Editorial
    ….
    quoting Lyn Provost (Auditor-general)
    Local authorities will be in the public eye even more in 2013 than usual, with elections scheduled for later this year And from the 2013 financial year, local authorities have new statutory disclosure requirements and there will be a new financial reporting framework. ….this will mean more useful accountability information and more straightforward reporting requirements.……

    and concluded thus….
    …. ‘Living within financial constraints affects everyone. Having rates increases above the rate of inflation is becoming untenable for many. While capital expenditure is always needed, councils need to be aware of the burdens they sometimes place on their ratepayers by taking on more than they can fund within a given budget.’

    It seems to me that this whole project and I mean ALL of it, has been pushed through without due diligence. Due diligence includes making sure that the people who end up footing the bill are well and properly informed of all the implications of the proposal. Where are the analyses for this? In this case I would anticipate that it includes the environmental effects on both the harbour and the land as well as the cost benefits. The cost benefits must include the ability of the ratepayers to foot the bill at any given time.

    So I think that the advice from the Auditor-general’s office as reported in the ODT is both timely and cogent.

    Mick

  3. I share many of the environmental concerns that this article raises. However, it is wrong to portray the project as a frivolous concession to pedestrians and cyclists, as if there were something selfish and greedy in wanting to walk or cycle along a public road without fear of harassment and injury. The article makes no mention of the increasing motor vehicle traffic and congestion that are the real forces behind the push for road widening.

    The road would be more than adequate to meet the needs of people on foot and on bicycles–if there weren’t so many cars.

    If a greater number of the car drivers on the Peninsula were willing to modify their habits–cycling, walking, carpooling, and taking the bus–and to extend simple courtesy to other users (observing the speed limit, waiting to pass safely, and not honking, yelling, or threatening others), we could perhaps achieve that goal–and enjoy a cleaner and more tranquil harbour into the bargain.

    However, given the apparent lack of community and political will to effect such changes, we need infrastructure that will do the job of protecting and encouraging active transport users–including commuters, dog walkers, and schoolchildren. Safe walking and cycling routes are not a frill: they are integral (and cost-effective) components of transport in the 21st century

    The Amenities Society has a long history of helping to keep Dunedin beautiful. It would be great to see that experience applied in a positive way to this project, both encouraging quiet, nonpolluting use of the shoreline road and working with the council to achieve an environmentally and aesthetically sensitive road and path design.

    • As a regular cyclist who commutes on the Portobello road I agree that there are issues with the attitudes of drivers and vehicle users. There needs to be a change in the road culture of New Zealand and Dunedin road use that encompasses the community’s needs. However, that cultural change needs to brought about by good sustainable design that complements the landscape and biodiversity rather than the imposition of a cut and paste approach. The point of the article is to show that the political and design methodologies used in the planning of this project are muddled and contradictory. The Society has for 125 years supported and assisted in many recreational developments, but always with a strong concern for the sustainable management of the environment. This project has not undertaken the necessary diligence to meet the sustainable criteria, nor has it understood the needs of the Peninsula and Harbour landscape. The Society will always work for the protection of the City and if we can add to a productive and sensible debate over this issue that ensures those values and the needs of its citizens are met we will continue to do so.

    • Erica
      I fail to see that the article portrays the project as ‘a frivolous concession to pedestrians and cyclists’ and that those users are being portrayed as being selfish and greedy– these are your words. What has been clearly stated in the article is that safety is one thing but as it states, there needs to be due consideration given to the wider environment effects.

      It is also clear that there is insufficient data provided to justify the expenditure for this development at this time. For example a 2011 Council report the Otago Peninsula route did not even rank within the top ten in terms of safety, accident history, population, topography and demand. Where is the data on demand, economic benefits and the ability for the city to afford this just now with its current debt burden.

      By pointing out the issues as outlined in this article, I would suggest that the society is in fact applying its experience in a positive way. It is asking for good pertinent data on all the issues connected with this proposal to be made available for everyone to examine.

      Mick

  4. Dear Daseditor
    I have read your article with great interest. I have to admit that I have never given much thought to the effects which a widening of the road would have on the ecosystem.
    You state “Well that’s probably quite reasonable, providing you don’t destroy almost all of the intertidal shoreline habitat from Vauxhall to Taiaroa Head”
    While any loss of habitat or negative impact on an ecosystem is regrettable and to be avoided where possible, I struggle to believe that a strip of 5-8 metres does represent almost all of the intertidal shoreline habitat. I frequently travel to Portobello and to me the mudflats and rocky shoreline appear to extend significantly further than 5-8 metres.
    To that extent it would be helpful for the reader to form an informed opinion if you could supply some figure of true size of the affected ecosystem and what percentage will be lost or affected.
    I also believe that there are substantial areas of the ecosystems in question on the other side of the harbour.
    Again, I agree that no loss would be preferable.
    Perhaps I can suggest an alternative – reduce the speedlimit to 30 km/h from Bayfield to Portobello and ensure the speedlimit through measures like speedbumps. This would make cycling a lot safer.
    I can hear people say – Why should I have to drive this slow when there is not even a cyclist about?
    Well I agree – you shouldn’t. But the problem are the drivers who put cyclists at risk by passing them dangerously close. And the problem are the drivers who witness the car in front of them passing a cyclist dangerously close and NOT reporting them to the police so that the driver can be spoken to and start changing his/hers behaviour.
    Have you ever reported a driver who has passed a cyclist too close?
    Would you be prepared to accept an increase in your travel time to save the affected parts of the ecosystem?
    How close do most people pass a cyclist? Who knows the SAFE distance to pass a cyclist? It is 1.5 metres which puts you sqarely in the other lane along most of Portobello Road when passing a cyclist. Who does always wait until he/she can pull out onto the other side of the road?
    I have another alternative which would work really well to save the ecosystem AND save tens of millions of dollars in exchange for an increase in travel times:
    Turn Portobello and Highcliff Road into a one way system and give the lane thats freed up to cyclists.
    At present there is a signifant portion of the population which considers it too dangerous to bike Portobello Road and this is simply not acceptable.
    Any cyclist has at least – if not more – right to SAFELY travel our city as any motorist. Yet until now cyclists have been ignored, marginalised and put at risk.
    The ecological footprint which a cyclist leaves compared to a motor vehicle is negligible. Furthermore the bodily harm a cyclist can cause to other humans is also negligible compared to a motor vehicle.
    So – we either have to accept some – however regrettable – impact on the ecosystem – to honour the right cyclists have to safe travel around our city – or that our current driving will be substantially inconvenienced.
    I am quite willing to spend a bit more time when driving to make cycling safe and to safe ecosystems – who else is?
    So the best way to protect ecosystems being lost to cycling infrastructure is to lobby for curtailing the space and rights motor vehicles have

    • Dear Lars
      What impresses me about your comments is that it looks at the issues of design and how to find a solution that is sustainable for the environment and the user. This is exactly my point with the Council’s proposal, because design sensitivity is at the crux of this issue, and the end result is not sustainable for the environment or the user. The reclamation figures I quote come directly from the Council’s proposed plans and uses the average width of 5 metres for the reclamation. I have also counted and measured all bus and parking areas on the plans where the reclamation will 8 be metres. However, if you look at the detail of the plans you’ll see a line marked as the “proposed extent of reclamation” which is significantly wider than 5 or 8 metres in places. This would mean that the reclamation may be extended and a conservative estimate would bring the level of reclamation to 15-16 hectares. All of the Portobello and Harrington Point Roads adjacent to the harbour will be reclaimed as part of this project from Burns Point to Taiaroa Heads. You’re quite right that there are areas where the sand flats extend further than the reclamation width of 5-8 metres, but if you take into account the tidal prism, reclamation will push the existing habitat further out towards deeper water. That changes the nature of the habitat and the biological functionality and in some cases reduces its viability for some species. The other pertinent point is that reclamation dramatically affects the landscape and removes the traditional cultural landscape features of the Peninsula and the harbour.

      I cycle regularly to and from Portobello and the city, and over the years I have run, walked, pushed a pram and walked my dog (still do) on the road. Like any roads there are good and bad users. One of my pet gripes when on a bike is the judder lines on corners, the cats eye reflectors, the terrible potholes caused by the drainage covers and the waste of available space that could be utilised more effectively. These design elements make cycling uncomfortable. The other design issues include the lethal turning areas at Vauxhall to get onto the shared pathway, I was roundly abused by a motorist there the other day. Speed on the Portobello Road is an issue, particularly around Broad Bay, Portobello and Otakou, so why can’t it be 30 kmph, in the townships at least? You’re right about the ecological footprint of cycling, but is that footprint as compelling in the face of reclamation, and habitat loss, I’m not so sure? What I do know is that this project needs very careful planning to ensure that the best landscape, ecological and recreational outcomes are achieved and the City Council have a long way to go before they can do that. The paucity of information that has been supplied to date and the poor level of consultation has not helped anyone’s cause either. Thanks for your intelligent comment.

      Daseditor

  5. I wonder whether the DAS was opposed to the original reclamation work that was involved during the initial construction of the road? Daseditor says “reclamation dramatically affects the landscape and removes the traditional cultural landscape features of the Peninsula and the harbour.” Is this meant as a general statement or is it meant to mean “reclamation will dramatically affect the traditional and cultural landscape that we created about a 100 years ago.” The existing road is a relatively recent change to the historical landscape; motor vehicles were not allowed to travel the length of Portobello Road until 1913, and ferry service continued until 1954. If DAS is truly sincere about ecological impacts and preserving the landscape then perhaps it should be advocating for restoration of the tidal flats through removal of the road altogether and a resurrection of regular harbour ferry service. I rather expect that 50 years from now people will be embracing the widened road with cycling and walking facilities as an integral part of their cultural heritage and something to showcase to the world – proud of how progressive Dunedin was back in the early part of the century. Is it really ecologically motivated opposition, or is DAS just broadly opposed to change?

    I would consider myself an environmentalist, which plays a big part in my decision to go by bicycle as much as possible, so I agree that we should strive for minimal impact. So how about this: We re-institute the ban on motor vehicles, build a tram or monorail on one part of the existing road, and leave the other portion of the road for cyclists and pedestrians? Or as I suggested before, remove the road and go back to ferry service.

    The problem is not that it will ‘become a highway’ but that it is already a ‘highway’ in the sense that you have fast moving traffic on a road that is either unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists or at least perceived to be unsafe. As someone who lives off Portobello Road but not in Mac Bay or Portobello, there is nowhere I can just go for a walk from my house. If my partner and I want to go for a walk we have to drive somewhere first. As Erika points out, traffic volumes have increased (almost certainly exceeding traffic expectations when the road was constructed), and arguably this is what gives it the feel of a highway – not the width. Motorists travel at highway speeds already, but the lane width will not change and no additional traffic lanes will be added.

    There has also been a lot of talk about behavior change and getting people to be more respectful of fellow road users and getting drivers to slow down. These Utopian ideals are laudable but are likely to remain Utopian despite anyone’s best efforts. Speed limit reductions might be successfully achieved through population centres like Macandrew Bay and Portobello but will fail through stretches like Burns Point to The Cove.

    Where we CAN make a difference is by providing proper infrastructure that can handle the traffic modes and volumes seen on the Peninsula. Daspres’ claim that there is no demand for such infrastructure is blatantly false. One only need to go to Macandrew Bay to see how heavily used the new cycle lanes and footpaths are. Or go to the shared path along Portsmouth Drive, or the shared path from the stadium to St. Leonards. One might just as well argue that there were no cars driving Portobello Road before it was built – a clear lack of demand, so why was it ever built?

    I could write a whole post about the expense. Obviously there is capital expenditure involved but there are also myriad economic benefits that can either directly or indirectly offset the costs. There are well-documented indirect economic benefits to providing access to active transport, such as decreased medical and sick leave costs resulting from more active lifestyles. There are also direct economic benefits such as a reduction in transportation fuel costs. Furthermore, if we create a round-the-harbour cycleway, Dunedin would benefit from cycle tourism. The Central Otago Rail Trail contributes roughly $12 million annually to the economy of Central. The Otago Peninsula has been rated as one of the top 10 cycling routes in the world by Lonely Planet. If a Harbour cycleway were done right and generated comparable economic returns, it would pay for itself in 7 years. That’s a hell of a lot better than the stadium. And unlike the stadium, it’s something that could also be used by any average Dunedinite 24 hours a day.

    • Robert
      The article was written so that people would actually consider the landscape, ecological and cultural heritage issues associated with the proposed design. The present configuration does not protect or enhance those values and lacks a truly sustainable rationale. The point too is that the Council has clear evidence that in terms of safety the Peninsula does not rank in the top ten, but ignores its own research. The Society doesn’t doubt that accessibility through the development of infrastructure would be a positive for users, but it does have issues with the logic used in the design and decision-making process being undertaken here. That’s a fair criticism, based on the available evidence. As to tourism, the Lonely Planet article took in the High Road and still found the Peninsula a good cycling area without the cycleway. The reality of our tourism industry is that people have a half day on the Peninsula, are they going to use that half day just getting to the main attractions at Taiaroa Head, I don’t think so. There is of course the possibility it may generate a rail trail industry, but given the short season of our tourism industry (October-April) the opportunities for financial return are quite short. These assertions are without any in depth analysis from the City Council and need much greater clarification before it and the NZTA invest nearly $90 million. Your suggestion that the Society is opposed to change fails to understand that the Society has been arguing that Dunedin should be promoting itself as a tourism and commercial community for the last 125 years. Our very foundation was based on that premise. If the Society was opposed to change why would we continue to invest our capital in the city to advance its amenities and environment for the benefit of business and the community? Change needs rational, logical arguments, based on evidence and an appropriate level of financial and sustainable thinking so that can ensure that the positive brand of places like the Peninsula and the Harbour is not diminished. That’s about design sensitivity and utilising the assets of the harbour rather than imposing a simplistic cut and paste approach. Let’s see some real innovation that creates a sustainable recreational opportunity for the community based on 21st century thinking rather than reverting to a 19th century mentality.

    • Robert
      You incorrectly quote my comment by stating “Daspres’ claims that there is no demand for such infrastructure is blatantly false.” What I said was ‘but to create a highway of these dimensions in this location, to this standard and at this cost for what is largely an unproven demand’. There is a great deal of difference.

      This was in the context of suggesting that proper questions be asked regarding the cost of the proposals and the environment effects it will have. I was also asking for ‘due diligence’. The “build it and the people will come” mentality has clearly not worked in Dunedin. You say ‘One only need to go to MacAndrew Bay to see how heavily used the new cycle lanes and footpaths are’. I see the level of use these get but you quote MacAndrew Bay, Portsmouth Drive and the shared path from the Stadium ? to St. Leonards. How do these examples compare with Portobello? Especially the West Harbour route which plainly takes this traffic off SH88 – apples and oranges?

      Mick

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