The wheel deal

Originally published February 13, 2013 in Capital Times. 

I dodged a car door swinging toward me while biking to work along Evans Bay Parade. A few metres later the meagre cycle lane I was riding disappeared. Why are Wellington’s cycle lanes so few, so narrow, and so disconnected? Has riding a bike around the capital got any better since Mayor Celia Wade-Brown, a cyclist, was elected? Amanda Witherell questions the state of cycling in Wellington on Go By Bike Day.

Jen Boyd recently purchased the first bicycle she’s ever owned. It’s a cruiser with a handlebar basket and a sturdy frame that’s a bit of a struggle to get up the hill to her Roseneath house, but she does it because she’s fallen in love with riding a bike.

“I’m doing 10 kilometres a day without even thinking about it, just going to and from work,” she says. “I get really moody now when I can’t ride.”

Boyd has discovered what a growing number of locals already know – biking is free, increases fitness and decreases pollution. For a city concerned about costs, it lessens traffic and doesn’t require billion dollar infrastructure. Cyclists say Wellington City Council isn’t keeping up with demand. No new cycle lanes, little signage, and not much planning for future growth.

“As far as commuting goes there haven’t been huge gains. Wellington is quite backwards compared to other major cities, ” says Jonathan Kennett, an avid cyclist and publisher of cycling guides. “It’s a bit of a shame to say that Auckland has streaked ahead of Wellington in the last 10 years.”

In the 2011 Wellington Resident Satisfaction Survey, four percent of people commute by bicycle. More telling is that 12 percent wish they were travelling by bicycle, but for various reasons, including lack of bike lanes and safety, they aren’t.

“There’s been this massive boom in cycling. It’s doubled since 2006, but council efforts haven’t kept pace,” says Patrick Morgan of Cycle Aware Wellington.

Instead of responding to the increase in riders, the city’s cycling policy, written in 2008, focuses on making it safer first with this cryptic statement: “Making cycling safer and more convenient is expected to increase its popularity. If successful, future plans will then be able to set targets for increasing cycling numbers.”

Safety shouldn’t wait: the numbers are here and rising. Morgan says council is missing out on low cost opportunities that could make a big difference. He cites the Newtown intersection of John and Wakefield Streets, which were recently ripped up during the construction of the new Countdown Supermarket. “If you do it when you’re redesigning the intersection, it costs nothing.”

Instead, nothing changed. The intersection is in the heart of the Island Bay to CBD route, winner of the “Most Room for Improvement” category in Cycle Aware Network’s 2012 Roll On Awards. They noted: “these streets are easily wide enough to provide dedicated cycle lanes –but where are they?”

Wade-Brown, who didn’t learn to ride a bike until she was 12, now cycles daily from Island Bay to Council Chambers and agrees there’s room for improvement on that route.

“I think there are real possibilities for making some junctions safer,” she says.

Council listed it as one of three “Strategic Cycleways” for the city; another is the 67 km Great Harbour Way, however Tawa Stream Path is the one that got financial legs. The $4 million project officially opened in October 2012 and was funded by New Zealand Transport Authority and WCC kicked in matching money.

Councillor Andy Foster, cyclist and Transport portfolio leader, says they should have advanced two big infrastructure improvements at once.

“We probably made a mistake in going with that one and seeing it through,” he says. “The bulk of the money is going to
something 95 percent of cyclists in the city can’t see. It’s a good project, but for most people it’s out of sight and out of mind, but it’s difficult getting NZTA funding and we had to get it while we could.”

That should be happening more often, says Kennett. “The Great Harbour Way, why didn’t that happen years ago? It’s a no-brainer.”

“It’s political will at council level and NZTA level,” he says, adding that Auckland has been far more effective at netting big dollars for cycling. “Quite often these cycle paths happen because there are people in positions of power who are able to make good decisions when opportunities arise.”

The Great Harbour Way’s day in the sun may be coming. The government’s $1.25 billion National Land Transport programme for 2012-2015 includes money to improve the troublesome Ngauranga to Petone route. As with the Tawa Stream Path, it’s an opportunity to optimise funding and a green light on the project would be a feather in Wade-Brown’s bike helmet.

She calls it “the capital’s equivalent of the Otago Rail Trail,” and though it would be used for commuting and local recreation, it could be a boon for tourism.

The mayor conceded that most cycling improvements have been discreet, such as reduced speed limits on some roads, cycle-friendly storm grates, and a clearway on Thorndon Quay during peak morning traffic. And there have been issues: she wanted bike stencils in the bus lanes, which cyclists are permitted to use, but NZTA changed the rules for marking roads, holding up council’s plans.

When pushed to identify some goals she wished she’d achieved by now, Wade-Brown was vague. “We are making progress, but it’s not as fast as I would have liked,” she says. “I wish we’d fixed the gap between Petone and Ngauranga, but it’s better to do a good job than a dangerous job.”

Wade-Brown points out to critics that council preserved cycling’s sliver of cash, which officers cut from the Draft Long Term Plan.

Council voted 15-0 to restore $1.3 million over the next three years. More recently, officers have been instructed to consult on the Island Bay route, as well as what to do with the narrow road between Owhiro Bay and Lyall Bay. “Councillors are behind cycling improvements,” she says.

If more people are riding, then more money should be set aside to accommodate them, counters Patrick Morgan.

“When you start to get four to five percent of the population riding, you want to see the budget matching. I’d like to see a jump from $1 million to $5 million next year. That would be nothing in the context of transport projects and huge in the context of cycling,” he said.

Foster thinks Wellington could be more cycle-friendly within the next decade, with more cycle lanes and amenities. “I’d like to see a cycle centre where you can bring your bike, where there’s a shop for repairs, where you could have a coffee and a shower. I’ve talked to the waterfront company about the possibility for the centre as a ground floor tenant. In the right location it would be, I hope, very popular.”

Not only would a cycling centre provide a unique public space, it would serve to cement cycling into Wellington’s culture and economy.

“More cycle lanes, cycle paths, a bit more cycle parking, a continuing shift in driving culture” are all things Simon Kennett, Jonathan’s brother and fellow cyclist, would like to see, and were echoed by the many cyclists we interviewed.

“There are certain political realities. Putting in cycle lanes isn’t that expensive, but it often requires removing car parking. Businesses adjacent to the route feel they have a lot at stake,” says Kennett.

Perhaps the potential benefits should be discussed. When New York City recently removed car parks to install a protected bike lane, small businesses discovered that it resulted in a sharp increase in sales. Cyclists weren’t buying as much as drivers, but they were buying more often and more overall.

Protected cycle lanes seem a long way off for Wellington, but if council is concerned about safety they could look to a recent Christchurch study by University of Canterbury students. “We found there’s an average of 23 percent fewer crashes after cycling lanes are installed,” says Glen Koorey, transportation engineering lecturer. “That’s definitely telling us that if we do them right there can be safety advantages.” The study also trialled low-cost roading options to create protected lanes, which would probably field test well on Evans Bay Parade.

Meanwhile, there are other options for that 12 percent or more of people who want to be riding but aren’t.

“In the absence of infrastructural change it’s working with what you have. Skills,” says Marilyn Northcotte, who teaches road skills to kids and adults through Greater Wellington Regional Council’s Pedal Ready programme. She’s been riding Wellington for years and says there are definitely more people on bikes. “A telling situation for me is that new cyclists may be wary or somewhat worried and anxious, but they still do it. It doesn’t stop them.”

It didn’t stop Boyd, who says she’d like to see more cycle lanes, but not having them shouldn’t stop you in your tracks. “I’d say to anyone who’s thinking about doing it, just go for it.”

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