As I get older one of life’s disappointments is how society and governments continually fail us in many different ways. It is especially galling when there is a body of knowledge about how to do things right, cheaply, and sustainably, and yet that body of knowledge keeps on getting ignored and ignored.
Yep, I am talking about the lack of cycling infrastructure in New Zealand.
There is currently an all party parliamentary inquiry in the UK that is addressing what it can do to lift cycling rates in Britain. The Guardian’s coverage of what should be said and what was said at the inquiry make for interesting reading. The report comes out in April, but we can see what it is likely to say.
I’ll write a big sentence here : What is needed is government support from all parties recognising that cycling is a legitimate form of transport and showing long-term and committed leadership at the very highest level to strategic, non-partisan planning as seen on other major transport infrastructure projects where the commitment that is needed should be like that made in countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands several decades ago.
I’ll translate – What is needed is separated, safe cycle infrastructure. A whole parallel network of safe bike paths that are simply not lines painted on roads.
What works for the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, would work for the UK and it would work for New Zealand too.
Every politician in New Zealand should understand what a commitment to cycling as transport means, and they and their parties should make that commitment. We should have a target, say 40% of all journeys made by biking or walking by 2020.
Now let’s see what all this means. That body of knowledge of what constitutes good bicycle infrastructure is available on the internet. Start here, and go here. Of course there is more than just those two sites, but start there. The current synthesis of knowledge based on the northern European experience is what I call Bicycle 2.0. New Zealand needs to embrace Bicycle 2.0.
Here is a quick distillation of what cyclists want:
Separated cycle paths – Cyclists shouldn’t get just a painted line, which offers very little space and very little protection from passing vehicles, and as roads are signposted faster than 30 km/hr this rule has to hold more and more. On busy roads separated cycle paths are just safer. Separate them with nature strips, or kerbs or with planters. Yes there are a faction of cyclists (who I point out have not yet been killed on their bikes) who want to mix it up with traffic and hate using cycle paths, but they are generally young, fit and male. With that kind of attitude children, women, the old and the less confident are excluded and cycling rates are never going to be more than a few percent. Separated cycle paths mean less noise, less pollution, and less chance to get hit by a car, a truck or a bus. If the only room to make a separated cycle path means that on-street parking has to be restricted then that is what should be done. Parked cars are often a waste of space, and it is of more economic value to have that space used for quality cycle infrastructure. Separated cycle paths mean that at intersections extra signalling for the cycle paths if required should be provided. Underpasses and overpasses as used in the Netherlands should also be considered.
A coherent network without gaps – One look at a map of the cycling paths in Auckland or Wellington will show that there is no linked up system of paths. There is no point providing quality safe paths for 90% of a cyclists journey if for the other 10% of the journey they have to share the road with trucks and cars going 80km/hr just over their shoulders as that is going to put most people off. The network needs to be extensive, coherent, well signposted and well mapped on paper, and nowadays electronically. The network shouldn’t have gaps. It doesn’t have to parallel the road network entirely, and it can go into places the road network just doesn’t go, like parks and along the seafront. For particularly horrible sections of road then a parallel route on side streets if it doesn’t affect directness could be used.
An extensive network – Every possible journey should be possible only using safe infrastructure, which means a density of routes roughly equivalent to the arterial road network.
Use direct routes – There are places where recreational routes go where it isn’t the most direct route, such as along the coast, but urban routes should be reasonably direct like the road network is.
On backstreets slow the traffic down – on backstreets where it is necessary to share the road with local traffic make the maximum speed limit 30 km/hr. It makes the places safer for everybody; kids playing, the elderly on their mobility scooters, pedestrians and cyclists.
Don’t have to share bus lanes – Cyclists shouldn’t be forced into bus lanes, as bus lanes are for buses and buses are bigger than bikes and generally squash them.
More than a minimum width – Minimum widths need to be worked out. For unidirectional paths it needs to be the width for 2 riders to ride abreast (because cycling can be a social activity), with room for a 3rd one to pass. This also allows for tricycles, wheelchairs, and velomobiles. Bidirectional paths need only be a little wider than that.
Minimum giveways – When a private driveway has to cross a cycle path the pedestrians and cycle path on that path should get priority. i.e. cars have to stop for all traffic when crossing a cycle path. It is important to keep up the momentum of cyclists as much as possible and they have to be able to assume and get priority. When a cycle path has to cross a side street then having a marked cycle path on the road where the side road traffic then has to stop for cyclists is a great idea. Like this one on the Pioneer Highway in Palmerston North.
No bollards, or gates – Not only does this slow cyclists down, but an old man on a ped-elec tricycle, or a kid in a wheelchair has every right to use the bike path, but if there is some artificial choke point designed to keep motorbikes or cars off a bike path then it excludes legitimate users. Noise activated cameras, and active policing, can be used to catch illegal motorcycles and 2-stroke scooters (and then their machines should be turned into artificial reefs). A particular bugbear of mine is having to lift my bike over a gate.
No door zones. Cyclists should never be put in door zones, where an opening driver or passenger car door is opened in front of a bike. Door zones are fatalities waiting to happen.
Quality Surface – Skinny tyres are a legitimate choice. It’s all very well being chic and riding sit-ups and being stylish on balloon tyres, or riding a fat-tyred mountain bike, but road bikes, even with those awful drop handlebars, are also legitimate. Skinny tyres need good surfaces, and a good surface helps fat tyres too. Both types of tyres go faster on an asphalted surface, and skinny tyres just go faster. Loose gravel, or fine gravel may be ok on a recreational route, but for a piece of transport infrastructure the surfaces needs to be asphalt or concrete. I’ve had arguments before about a potential route through Queen Elizabeth Park in Kapiti or what passes for a cycle path on the side of the Waikanae River. Upgrade them to a standard road bikes can ride them, then it is a cycle path.
Swept of debris – One chief complaint, used by cyclists still on the road when there is a parallel bike lane or path they are not using is that it is full of debris. This is really true for the cycle path south of Petone on the SH2. Debris, glass and puddles make paths less desirable to use. Roads get swept. Footpaths in the CBDs get swept. Cycle paths should get swept. Every council should have one or more small, ride-on, electric powered street sweepers that can sweep the width of a bike path. Please no diesel powered ones, as diesel fumes irritate the lungs, especially when you’re riding hard and breathing deeply.
Bikes integrated into public transport with parking facilities – Everything possible to make it possible to mix public transport and bikes should be done. We need extensive secure parking for bikes at train stations, and at some bus stops that doesn’t require prebooking. It doesn’t have to be free (and neither does the car-parking) but it should be easy to use and widely available.
Bikes integrated into public transport by having provisions for carrying bikes –The average bike is 1.8 metres long, and Wellington’s Matangi carriages have an internal width of 2.53 metres, yet presently a Matangi train can carry a maximum of 3 bikes and then only not in peak hour. Every train should have one carriage which is for bikes, including in peak hour, and it should be able to take 20 or 30 bikes and their riders. It really is too far to ride from Waikanae Beach to Newtown, but it should be possible to do it by train and bike. Of all transport projects the one that consistently has the most return on investment is bike carriers on buses. All buses should have bike racks for 2 or preferably 3 bikes. Where trams are built they should do what they do in Stuttgart and have bike trailers.
Clean air is best to cycle in – Having bad air to breathe when exercising is a huge turnoff. It’s not only vehicular traffic which pollutes, but a bigger problem is woodsmoke. Wood smoke is toxic. We need to take what the scientists are saying about woodsmoke seriously and ban the bloody stuff. Could you ride in the shit that passes for air in midwinter in Masterton?
Don’t forget other forms of human powered transport – skateboards, kick scooters, roller blades, roller skates are all great ways to get around and should consider the safe cycle network their own. Wheelchair users, whether human powered or battery assisted, hand cranked cycles, recumbent bikes, and trikes and velomobiles are also welcome to use the system. For disabled people a safe separated system could be liberating for them to get around town, especially if they have trouble getting on buses and trains.
Reject all internal combustion engines – the noise and pollution from petrol and diesel engines, and especially 2-strokes is something that as a cyclist should never have to put up with. Petrol-assisted bikes and scooters should be banned. Mopeds should not be allowed on any part of the cycle network. Those stupid things belong on the road.
Don’t forget e-bikes – e-bikes are a great way to get more people riding. People like them because they are old, unfit, injured or it makes their journey quicker or more enjoyable. They’re not necessarily quicker than a normal bike (if you want quick, get thin tyres or a recumbent). I like mine, and I am only a little old and a little unfit. They use as much energy to make them the equivalent to 1000 mpg.
Don’t forget the elderly – Old people, who have trouble lifting their legs can get a bike with a step through frame, and some electric assist and keep on riding long after they thought they would have to give it up. There should be pilot projects to get people in retirement homes onto electric assist step through bikes and tricycles to give them mobility to go shopping and get about town, and they can ride safely long after they have to give up driving. Of course they need safe places to ride, but that is what all the points I’ve been making are all about. Being active old people are going to live longer and have improved lives.
Don’t forget the school children – One of the great failings of modern New Zealand is that kids don’t ride their bikes to school anymore, and with the traffic on the roads estimated to be 30% school runs really this is one area where we have to go back to like it was in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Firstly build the safe routes for them to get to school. Then, do as they do in Japan, and ban parking and dropping of the kids near school entrances. There are too many fatty boombahs in New Zealand and we need to get them on bikes. Most kids these days can’t even ride bikes. It is a generation of little scooter riders. They need to get on their bikes, and get riding, or it will be a lost generation.
Don’t forget the smaller cities and towns – it isn’t just Auckland and Wellington and Christchurch this applies to. It applies to everywhere, and it isn’t just in town either, but between towns too. There should be routes as safe as between Motueka and Nelson as what there should be between Pt Chevalier and Ponsonby. This is the great, as yet unfulfilled, promise of the National Cycleway. The National Cycleway should embrace cycling as transport, and not just think of it as recreational riding.
Cycling and walking attract trivial amounts of funding for infrastructure improvements and what little money there is is usually scraped from the bottom of the local council’s rates barrel. There is very little central government support for the active transport modes, which is quite surprising because compared to roads, or even public transport funding, it costs so little and has positive economic dividends well above what is spent.
If more people cycled there would be less air pollution, less noise pollution, less obesity, less traffic congestion and less fuel to import. If the central government does not understand this, and does not actively encourage investment into cycling infrastructure it is failing the people of New Zealand. You might get some dumb arguments about there being no demand for it. They are wrong. There is huge pent up demand for it. Have a look at the Wellington waterfront on a sunny evening where cyclists are free to ride. In an hour hundreds and hundreds of cyclists, and dozens of skateboarders, and now a few kick scooters will pass you. And there are those kinds of numbers with connections to the north and south being largely crap.
Local government should be given money by central government to build local infrastructure. It should initially be hundreds of millions of dollars to kickstart the network into coherence, and then settle down to sustainable levels of funding. The money should be diverted away from the costly and egomaniacal RoNS projecst. It doesn’t matter if the money originally came from fuel taxes or whatever. Transport money should be spent on all transport projects that stack up. There are better ways to cure congestion than building and widening motorways. The best way to cure congestion is to cut down on the number of cars, and the best way to do that is to build a safe cycle network.
These glamour cycle projects should be amongst the first to get funded:
- The Great Harbour Way from Wellington to the Hutt (and Adelaide Road)
- The Auckland Harbour Bridge (Stuff the tolls up a motorist’s arse too. It should be free to cyclists. Toll the bridge for motorists instead.)
- The Caversham Tunnels and the rest of the Port Chalmers to Mosgiel route in Dunedin.
- And be an integral part of the Christchurch rebuild.
On yer bike New Zealand.