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Opinion: Why we need more than just cycle lanes in Wellington

Opinion: Why we need more than just cycle lanes in Wellington

By Gregor Thompson

I am what people outside of the cycling community would consider a cyclist. I cycle to work, I cycle to my friends’ houses, I reluctantly cycle up The Terrace to Victoria University, I’ve cycled both of the Major New Zealand Islands and I’ve cycled the circumference of Taiwan. For me it’s a convenience, one that is good for the environment and one that keeps me relatively fit.

I’m personally not fond of your typical cycling buff all that much – I find they over-prioritise the sport. The buffs who work in the industry are the worst. They have tendency of condescending people as if they were born with the information and know-how they currently possess, as if when they were born with the ability to disassemble and assemble bicycles. This condition is common to all staff that work with specialised goods but seems to be acutely severe among bike salespeople. Not everyone who drives a car is a mechanic. I’m sorry I didn’t oil my chain; no I haven’t changed by break-pads recently and no I don’t care that the bike seat is actually called the “saddle” but the post that holds it up is the “seat post”.

Despite the customer service deficit, the spandex-zealots appear to be getting their way. Wellington is currently partway through the long and very-hip-right-now process of becoming more cycle friendly. This is a great thing and will in theory help Wellingtonians reduce their carbon footprints. As the coastal cycle route edges further round Evan’s Bay, I expect it to entice some keen eastern suburbanites. I do however remain apprehensive about whether many people are prepared to hang up the engine and whether or not it’s realistic to expect cycling infrastructure to bring emissions down and ease congestion. Even if we can manage to navigate our way past the patronising custodians of the eco-friendly commute.

Reason one is that Wellington is a meteorologically and geographically your average cyclist’s worst nightmare.

Wellington has a horrendously volatile weather system – the windiest in the world on numerous metrics in fact. In no other city does anyone ever talk about the direction of the wind, not even just as much, genuinely at all. The terms “norreasterly” and “sowwesterly” are as unique to Wellington as ordering coffee whilst talking on a cellphone is to Auckland. Anyone who’s ever ridden a bike before knows that cycling into a headwind is considerably worse than cycling with a tailwind is good. There’s no zero-sum-game here, wind always equals bad.

Then there’s the hills. I’m a 25-years-old, I’m supposedly in my prime and I cannot get to Kelburn Parade without giving my classmates the impression I’ve just committed a bank robbery.

The proposed cycle lane up Brooklyn Hill is a much needed and excellent safety precaution for those already cycling but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that it’ll make folk salivate at the idea of blowing their knees out every evening after work. As much as I love cycling, I do not, for the life of me accept it as a solution to get motorists off the road in a city that’s cross section looks more like that of a dirty pile of washing than the flat, symmetric, neglected and sodden Persian rug underneath it.

Cycling cities – Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris, Utrecht et cetera – are all flat, 17 out of 20 of the most cycle friendly cities are either situated around rivers or river mouths, or in the case of the low countries, on reclaimed land, not dissimilar to The Hutt or Christchurch. The other three are still flat. Wellington is not flat; neither is Lisbon or San Francisco. Ordinary Alfacinhas and San Franciscans don’t cycle either.

European cities are more cycle friendly.

Less than 30% of Copenhagen’s households own a vehicle, Wellington’s car ownership is closer to 80% with 42.5% of households having access to 2 or more cars. It has risen 18.2% since 2013 despite the new cycling infrastructure. In the south, Christchurch introduced 13 new cycle ways in 2015 resulting in a nominal increase in cyclists, the negligible rise in bikes has been largely attributed to expensive to buy and expensive to maintain single-seat E-bikes; an excellent option for champagne socialists but not realistic for car-pooling families or lower-income earners without a generous subsidy program. It appears the cycle lanes have had little effect besides producing an all-out asymmetric civil war between Toyota Hilux drivers and fist-shaking cyclists, stoking the fears of any prospective transport experimentalists. In fact, the worst place in the country for car ownership is the garden city. If cycle ways don’t encourage Cantabrians in the flat and mild cyclist’s wonderland how on earth will they work in Wellington.

There’s an explanation for this. Barring cycling freak with suspiciously European named Sarah Ulmer, New Zealanders just aren’t cycling people and never really have been. There is no Tour de la South Island. Asides from the city dwelling walkers among us, we’re wake up, get into garage, drive out of garage, park car, get into work and complain about the weather kind of people.

Wellingtonians also need cars for other reasons than going to work, this could include visiting someone or something that isn’t in Wellington on the weekend for instance. The city slicking Europeans - largely attributable to population density - have excellent, affordable and regular regional public transport networks. This permits them to take excursions without the need of a vehicle. Our lack of such infrastructure and proud admiration for the outdoors results in us keeping our cars handy. I don’t expect anyone in their right mind to choose weathering Evans Bay in a winter southerly over the Toyota Camry in their carport.

The countless surveys that claim something along the lines of “30% of people want to cycle to work but only 7% do” do not, to my mind, substantiate anything. Of course, everyone wants to cycle to work, everyone wants to do everything. We do not blame the lack of gyms for people’s irregular visits to them despite their weekly commitment of $20 a week.

It is not just physical and mental barriers that worry me, there is also a pretty significant and interesting criminal aspect to this.

Bike theft in Wellington is rife. It appears that as demand for bikes goes up so does bike theft, who knew! My uncle who didn’t want his name shared (his name is Sven) has had his bike stolen two times in the last six-months and four times in the last three years. The poor guy is so pissed off he’s actively going out and telling people not to buy bikes.

Asides from excellent familial anecdotal information there are some other concerning signs. The Wellington Stolen Bikes Facebook group has just shy of 2,000 members, the Wellington Polyamory and Open Relationships group has only 433. By my calculations, that means bike thefts outnumber orgy enthusiasts by 4-to-1.

This isn’t helped by a supply problem. Other cycling cities have theft issues, a French friend of mine once told me that bicycles are a circular economy Paris, “You take the bicycle off someone else and another someone else will take your bicycle, it is not a problem mon ami.” This system is not ideal but is not the be-all-and-end-all in France because of the millions of excess bikes circulating through the economy. Europe manufactured the better part of the world’s bike supply for the entire 20th century.

On the 12th of December there were over 230,000 second-hand bikes for sale on the French equivalent of TradeMe, On TradeMe there were 3,284, many of which were new and being sold by listed vendors. Leboncoin doesn’t let commercial enterprise on their website. After adjusting for population difference France roughly has a domestic second-hand bike supply that is four times the size of ours, as a result quality bikes are significantly cheaper. This is consistent throughout the European single market.

The lion’s share of European commuter bikes are old, they’ve all been stolen once or twice and are not suited at all to Wellington hills even if they did exist here. The theft and difficulty of replacing bicycles easily and affordably in Wellington genuinely is a problem, even after we overcome our fear, our physiques and mindsets.

The Police suggest people take time to prevent their bikes from being stolen and recommend “a solid D-lock for securing your bike, as some smaller bike locks are easily cut through.” and to “store your bike in a secure area off the street.”

Tell that to my uncle who just had his D-locked up bike stolen from the third floor of a private carpark building and the numerous livid cyclists on Wellington Stolen Bikes who’ve had their bikes stolen despite, on occasion, using 2 separate locks.

My cynicism leads me to believe we need far more intervention than simply facilitating bike journeys – our environment, our habits and our market require considerably more attention than your typical biking city. The Pedal Ready program helping children get cycle safe is an excellent example. To dent emissions, we need to take big steps. I suggest making EV’s affordable faster, make the school zoning system less elitist to shave off commutes and fast-tracking light-rail. Although since the decision makers of this city have a propensity to fence-sit, maybe I’d settle for a generous E-bike subsidy scheme, bowling Te Aro toilets and replacing it with a secure 24/7 bike park with a custodian and general tougher policing on bike snatchers.

Maybe my pessimism is unwarranted, go ahead and prove me wrong Wellington.


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