The right to walk from A to B

I’ve found it interesting reading about the events in Auckland over the last few days, during which several thousand protesters broke through police barriers to walk and cycle over the Auckland Harbour Bridge. This was against the wishes of the New Zealand Transport Agency, which operates the bridge for vehicles only and had told the group they couldn’t walk over the bridge on its 50th anniversary. The protest was arranged by the GetAcross campaign, although the organisers claim they never asked people to break police barriers.

I’ve never lived in Auckland and it’s not a place I know much about, but I was very surprised to discover that it’s not actually legal to walk over the Auckland Harbour Bridge. After all, if it’s illegal to cross the bridge without a vehicle then it seems like a very long way to walk between St Mary’s Bay and Northcote Point. Google Maps tells me that it turns a 7.1 km walk straight over the bridge into an estimated 12.5 hour 60.8 km walk, complete with warnings from Google Maps about possibly not having adequate footpaths along the way! Perhaps someone with a better knowledge of Auckland could confirm if this is accurate? It seems very strange, though. Several other bridges that come to my mind all have free walking routes — these being the Sydney Harbour Bridge (in Sydney), the Brooklyn Bridge (in New York), and the Manhatten Bridge (also in New York). Not having something similar for an iconic bridge in a place such as Auckland seems to be a confounding oversight!

The whole thing reminds me of a few years ago. The day after I finished writing up my Masters’ Thesis I had nothing else to do at university except turn up to my office and stare blankly at the wall for 16 hours, but instead I decided to just start walking towards the Hutt Valley for as long as I could before either getting bored or exhausted. This went well until I neared Petone, walking along the cycle lane that’s embedded in a thin strip between State Highway 2 and the railway line, and therefore I think many Wellington cyclists would be familiar with this area. After about 6 km of straight walking between Ngauranga towards Petone, the barrier between the cycle way and the road disappeared and final 400 metres of this cycle-way was fully open to high speed traffic, and not at all well conditioned for walking on.

View Ngauranga to Korokoro in a larger map

I suppose cyclists are used to this kind of thing, but I certainly wasn’t and standing on the edge of a crash barrier with nowhere to run if a high speed vehicle gets too close is very unnerving. I certainly wasn’t going to turn around and walk all the way back to Wellington, though. I managed to cross the barrier in the middle of State Highway 2 and caught an old lady turning out of Horokiwi Road, who neglected to ask me what I was doing but happily offered to give me a ride to wherever I was going. She didn’t seem to understand the concept of me only wanting to get a ride for the 400 metres which I couldn’t comfortably walk, so I just told her I was on my way to Petone.

Straight after that incident, the whole thing just felt wrong to me. There shouldn’t be places where it’s possible to drive but not safely walk. The only feasible way I can think of to walk to Petone without walking along that road would be to head out towards Johnsonville or Newlands and somehow get through Belmont Regional Park, which is ridiculous when there’s such a direct route. It’s a double tragedy that the stretch of coast between Ngauranga and Petone would make a truly awesome walkway if it were able to be developed as such. It’d be one of those walkways that’s fantastically sunny in good weather and would get fantastically thrashed by exciting waves in bad weather. Presently, however, it’s nothing more than a metropolitan railway line and commuter highway to shunt workers between Lower Hutt and Central Wellington.

Another area in Wellington which I think could be vastly improved for walking is the coast-line along-side Pauatahanui Inlet.

I grew up near here, and every so often I end up in the area. A couple of years ago I came out of Belmont Regional Park on provincial SH58, walked around to Pauatahanui, spent half an hour browsing through the Wildlife Reserve, then began to make my way back towards Paremata to hop on a train home as it got dark. The problem, which I hadn’t expected, was that the coastal road around Pauatahanui Inlet is nothing more than a road, and there’s virtually zero space for walking between the open road and a steep drop-off into the harbour. Despite having a reasonable torch, I spent more than an hour crawling along the edge of the road, hugging the crash barrier and often clinging to the harbour side of it for protection every time a car sped around a corner. As soon as I found an opportunity, I ducked into Whitby and walked triple the distance simply to get away from such an awful un-walkable road. It’s a shame, because this could be an awesome walk around a beautifully scenic part of Porirua Harbour. As it is, it’s an uneasy potential death-trap for anyone who chooses not to shield themselves in a vehicle.

I generally think of the Wellington region as being extremely walkable and for that I’m proud of it, especially compared with some of the alternatives in New Zealand and around the world. It still has its share of places that could be improved, however. As for people who like walking and cycling in Auckland, well if the situation is as it seems then I hope they eventually get their access route over the harbour bridge. Being required to own and use a car simply to access the most obvious and shortest-by-an-order-of-magnitude route from A to B is really sucky.

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