Episode 9 - Walking and footpaths: a dumping ground

Roger Boulter’s recent book draft (on www.boulter.co.nz) won a 2020 WSP Golden Foot Award. This post outlines some issues covered in the eleventh of twelve chapters.

Walking and footpaths: a dumping ground

Walking, although central to city prosperity, has always suffered compared to the attention given to the car, public transport and (in more recent years) cycling. Except for Reena Kokotailo’s now-forgotten early 2000s work, walking has never been actively planned for in New Zealand in the way these other forms of transport have been.

Developments since 2015 have added to the problem, including a funding injection for cycling and a stress on off-road cycleways, leading on a focus on ‘shared paths’ or calls for some or all footpath cycling to be legalised. ‘Shared paths’, a relatively recent focus, have typically been proposed with cyclists’ needs in mind, not walkers’. Even at full standard 3m width, some user groups (notably those older or with disabilities) may feel intimidated, especially since the more ‘regimented’ behaviour expectations on ‘shared paths’ (e.g. keep left, don’t linger or chat in groups) negate the crucial freedom of movement which is the source of walking’s attractiveness.

When a ‘separated’ cycleway is accommodated in an existing road reserve, practical politics often determines that it is the footpath, rather than traffic lanes, on-street car parking or the cycleway itself, which has its width compromised, sometimes dramatically. The resulting footpath may then be practically unusable, especially for people with some types of disability.

Building on a 2016 petition for child footpath cycling legalisation, the Government’s 2020 ‘Accessible Streets’ package of transport rule changes included a proposal to legalise all footpath cycling. Transport Agency reports supporting both these were seriously flawed in more ways than there is room to recount here. NZTA’s cost-benefit analysis supporting the latter misrepresented some of the background literature. Neither report took account of (or even mentioned) the economic, health, social or other effects of people being deterred from walking through feeling unsafe.

The relatively rapid advent of ‘low-powered vehicles’ (e.g. e-scooters) has added to pressure on footpath users. Although legally allowed to use roadways or footpaths, official guidance on their use may tacitly assume or imply they will (or should) use footpaths. Living Streets Aotearoa and other bodies comprising the ‘Footpath for Feet’ coalition have even taken legal action over the Transport Agency’s processes on legalising their use of footpaths.

Apart from the issue of more and more non-walking footpath users, footpaths have historically been funded by local authorities, with no central government subsidy on the basis that footpaths are an ‘amenity’ and walking is not ‘transport’. Although some government footpath subsidy is now available, this legacy means footpath infrastructure may be very inadequate even for people on foot, let alone for the non-walking categories some officials now expect to use them. Official reports seeking to justify these extra users failed to cover the question of adequacy or otherwise of the footpath infrastructure asset.

Some stakeholder liaison has seemed to assume non-walking footpath use, such as a Road Controlling Authorities’ Forum ‘Shared Footpaths’ Working Party, the title of which speaks for itself.

Freedom to walk has been eroded in other ways, such as legal ‘driveways’ designed to look like roads (where, contrary to what the design might imply, exiting and entering vehicles are legally required to give way to footpath users; e.g. some supermarket car park accesses); signals to warn pedestrians of approaching cars despite the pedestrians legally having right-of-way (rather than, for example, infrared detection of pedestrians and warnings for exiting cars to give way to them; e.g. some parking building exits); and some cases of Police (overseas) or coroners censuring parents for letting children walk unaccompanied (rather than calling for action to ensure that it is safe to do so).

The Government’s 2020 ‘Innovating Streets’ initiative is one positive development with potential to address walking and footpath needs more pro-actively; although dwarfed by the issues outlined above.