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Is there a vision for cycling in Wellington? If so, it’s time to get something done

by Regan Dooley
At an extraordinary council meeting next Tuesday, the Wellington City Council will discuss a notice of motion that could delay the start of work on Stage 1 of the Island Bay to CBD cycleway indefinitely and maybe even put the entire project at risk of being canned.

The notice of motion requires that all final decisions on cycleways be made by the full council, rather than the Transport and Urban Development Committee, and that a masterplan for citywide cycle routes be prepared for council to approve as part of the 2015-25 Long Term Plan. It all seems rather innocuous, maybe even sensible, until you take a closer look.

The main issue with requiring a cycling masterplan to be part of the Long Term Plan is that the LTP doesn’t get approved by council until June. If councillors make further progress on the Island Bay to CBD cycleway conditional on the LTP being in place first, then work can’t start until July at the earliest, and there’s no guarantee of that at all.

The other key date looming large on the horizon is the next council elections in October 2016. Given the perception of controversy around cycleways, it’s fair to assume that no councillor will be keen to see major work on a new cycleway start in the 6 months immediately prior to the elections. In fact, some councillors may prefer that any cycleway implementation is finished at least 6 months before the elections. This could mean that a date near the end of this year is actually the latest date by which work on the cycleway can start.

There’s an obvious problem with this. It’s quite possible that we are already in a position where work on the Island Bay section of the cycleway has to start in a narrow window between July and November. In that period there are only 4 full council meetings scheduled. It’s taken almost a year just to get to this point. So it’s not hard to see how councillors who don’t really want the Island Bay to CBD cycleway to proceed at all could filibuster their way through that short period of time. After the council elections all bets are off – who knows what will happen?

One likely mayoral candidate, Councillor Nicola Young, was very clear this week that her Lambton Ward should get priority over the suburbs for the allocation of cycling money. Not only does she want to stop Stage 1 in Island Bay, she appears to have put Berhampore and Newtown in the “too hard” basket. This is despite the fact that no serious planning or consultation on cycleways in the CBD has been done yet and probably won’t be until issues like the Basin Reserve flyover and routes for Bus Rapid Transit are sorted out.

By focusing exclusively on the CBD, Councillor Young is also assuming that commuters are the only cyclists who matter and is placing no value at all on the kind of local community cycling that the Island Bay cycleway will enable. It seems that in Councillor Young’s world unless children live in the CBD they will need to take their chances in the traffic or continue to ride on the pavement. Even in the CBD they may have to wait years before they see any cycling infrastructure actually being built. Of course, the irony in all this is that, as the council elections get closer, some of the councillors supporting the notice of motion will likely start using the lack of progress on cycleways as a point of attack and evidence that change around the council table is required.

The Government’s $100m urban cycling fund is also in the mix. Some councillors will no doubt argue that’s exactly why a master plan is required before doing anything – so that NZTA can see the entire cycling network planned out. There may be some truth in that and it’s understood that a draft master plan will be available soon anyway.

More importantly, just having a plan isn’t enough. NZTA will also want to see vision, commitment and the ability to deliver from councils, and that is what is completely missing in Wellington at the moment. Whether you think Island Bay is the best place to start or not, if Stage 1 doesn’t go ahead now it will expose a lack of political commitment to cycling in Wellington that could seriously damage our chances of getting future NZTA funding support for any city cycling project.

Looking at the notice of motion itself, it’s understandable that some councillors have concerns about the consultation process up to this point. Everybody agrees the consultation could have been better. But most people also agree that it improved significantly in the latter half of 2014. The question that really matters is whether the Island Bay cycleway remains a good project, will bring benefit to the community and provides the council with an opportunity to implement a protected cycleway in a low-risk environment. Stage 1 is also ready to go right now, not years from now. If councillors genuinely believe that removing the decision-making power on cycleways from the Transport & Urban Development Committee mitigates the risk of poor consultation happening in future then so be it, that may be a compromise that cycleway supporters just have to accept. If we can take them at their word that they all support cycling, then we have nothing to fear anyway.

It’s also obvious that a masterplan for cycleways around the rest of the city is a good idea, despite the fact that it is not necessary in regard to Stage 1. The cycleway network will include Island Bay and the connection point to the rest of the network will be at Wakefield Park where Stage 1 ends. These are facts and no amount of additional planning or discussion is going to change that.

The big problem is that the notice of motion is silent on the fate of Stage 1 and the baby could be about to get thrown out with the consultation bath-water. Hopefully the councillors who are genuine in their commitment to cycling will address this risk – by either voting against the notice of motion in its entirety or, perhaps more likely, by introducing an amendment so that Stage 1 is excluded from its scope and work in Island Bay is able to begin. That would seem a good compromise – one that looks to correct some of the mistakes made in the past but without cutting off the nose to spite the face.

By getting Stage 1 in Island Bay started immediately, moving decision-making on cycleways to the full council (where there is at least the side-benefit of being able to hold all councillors accountable) and then putting a master plan in place for the rest of the network, we suddenly have something that looks like actual progress. This is all achievable over the next few weeks if councillors are willing.

It’s time for councillors to move forward and re-embrace the bold vision for cycling in Wellington that they showed when they tripled the cycling budget this time last year. They have only spent a fraction of that budget so far and without approving the Island Bay cycleway they are unlikely to spend much more in this financial year or the next. It’s time to get something done.

Regan Dooley lives in Island Bay and is a supporter of the cycleway.

Read also:
Just when you thought you’d be riding on a real cycleway
Not enough for cycling
and
New cycleway over Wainui Hill Road to be completed by 2017