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Taking it seriously: the Island Bay cycleway

by Regan Dooley
Feedback on the Wellington City Council’s long-term plan, plus record numbers of people commuting by bike, suggest that some councillors will need to start taking cycling a lot more seriously if they are going to deliver on public expectations.

The council’s 10 year plan consultation website is a great resource and provides an insight into the issues that Wellingtonians seem to care about. At the time of writing the two most discussed ideas are a cycling network and a longer airport runway. But in terms of how people feel about them, they couldn’t present a more stark contrast.

The feedback on the runway extension is clearly a divisive topic with responses pretty evenly split between for and against.

Feedback on the cycling network presents a very different picture. It currently has 90% support with 79% of responses saying it should be given a high priority. The comments are almost universally positive and many of them are well-informed, highlighting the health, economic, environmental and social benefits of increasing cycling numbers.

It’s clear that Wellingtonians really do want a better, safer cycling network and it seems inconceivable that a cycling network won’t appear in the long-term plan with a very high priority. In fact, work on a master plan for the cycling network is underway and a draft is due to be presented to the full council meeting on April 30. If councillors agree to the framework, it will then go out for public consultation.

Also expected to be discussed at the April 30 council meeting are the traffic resolutions for the Island Bay cycleway. Approving these resolutions is the final formality before work on the cycleway can begin. The resolutions were due to be discussed at the council meeting on February 25 but were delayed. The Mayor said this was “to allow for a decision-making process where councillors can make judgments according to the cycling master plan”.

Councillors should be able to do that on April 30. It’s understood that they have had a couple of workshops on the master plan over the last few weeks and the feedback on the long term plan should give them more confidence than ever about going ahead.

Let’s not forget that it is now nearly a year since they voted unanimously to triple the annual cycling budget to $4.3m and promised to spend $45m over 10 years on improving cycling in Wellington. That was before the Government swung in behind urban cycling with an additional $100m fund of their own.

But while Auckland and Christchurch are both racing ahead with cycleways, Wellington seems to be stuck in “paralysis by analysis”. It’s likely that the $4.3m cycling budget for 2014/15 will be significantly underspent. The problem in Wellington isn’t how much we’re planning to spend, but whether we will actually spend what we planned.

Wellington is already in a rapidly diminishing window of opportunity to start work on any cycleways that can reasonably be finished before the next council elections. Even if the cycling master plan is approved within the next couple of months, every single project in it will have to go through its own planning and consultation process. Based on experience in Island Bay, this could take up to a year in each case.

It’s possible that a few councillors aren’t actually concerned about that because they would prefer to engineer a situation where a lack of progress on cycleways can be used as a point of attack on the mayor. Others may be just starting to get uncomfortable, however, that too cautious an approach could mean they are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being an anti-cycling “do-nothing” council when the next elections come around.

The only major cycling infrastructure project that is ready to go right now is in Island Bay.

The Island Bay cycleway has had a long and chequered history. A small but noisy group of opponents have done a great job of creating fear, uncertainty and doubt around many aspects of the project, despite the fact that most of their concerns are without any real substance or have subsequently been resolved. Under the circumstances, it would come as no surprise if some councillors again try to delay a decision on the Island Bay cycleway, or simply vote against it, using the excuse that “we need to wait for consultation on the master plan to be finished”.

While that might seem reasonable at face value, it would also be the fourth consultation process that the Island Bay cycleway has been subject to over the past year. The first three consultations generated well over 1,000 responses in total. It’s hard to see what would be achieved by making progress in Island Bay dependent on a fourth round of public feedback.

It’s widely accepted that Island Bay will be an important part of the Wellington cycling network. According to the 2013 census, Island Bay is one of Wellington’s biggest bike-to-work suburbs, in absolute numbers and mode share. A cycleway through Island Bay will go via Wakefield Park and connect to the rest of the network from there. No amount of additional planning, analysis and consultation is going to change that fact.

Critics have claimed that the Island Bay cycleway risks becoming an “orphan” because the next stage through Berhampore and Newtown will be more difficult to build. This ignores the fact that Island Bay is not an “orphan” now – hundreds of commuter cyclists use the Island Bay-Berhampore-Newtown route to get to the CBD in the morning. The proposed cycleway is about improving the route, not creating one from scratch, with the intention of getting more people to commute by bike.

When Councillor Nicola Young recently described Island Bay as being the “end of the line” in commuting terms, she got it the wrong way round. Places like Island Bay, Miramar and Karori are the “start of the line”. The vast majority of people going to work by bike start their journey in the suburbs and travel into the CBD. You won’t get more people commuting by bike if you only improve the infrastructure in the CBD, which is the mid-point of their daily round-trip. At the very least, there needs to be a sensible balance between projects focused on the routes coming in from the suburbs and projects in the CBD.

A discussion about prioritising cycleways is also not just about commuter cyclists. Suburban cycleways make it safer and easier for children, the elderly and other residents who are not comfortable riding on the road to get around their local area. There are over 1,000 children under the age of 10 living in Island Bay, so calling the Island Bay cycleway a “cycleway to nowhere” dismisses their needs and safety as being irrelevant. The biggest beneficiaries of protected cycleways are often the people who don’t feature in cycling datasets because they don’t cycle at all or don’t get counted when they do.

The argument that The Parade doesn’t need separated bike lanes because it is already “safe” is disingenuous. The Parade is an arterial road with a 50kmph speed limit along most of its length. It is also one of the busiest suburban bus routes in Wellington. It’s a golden rule of traffic safety that vehicles of significantly different size and mass should be separated wherever possible.

David Hembrow, an influential English cycling advocate based in the Netherlands, argues that bike lanes painted on the road are not the best way to keep cyclists safe and won’t increase uptake:

If on-road lanes are a preferred option in your part of the world, then your planners are aiming for something rather lower than the best standard possible. Aiming for a lower standard of infrastructure means aiming for a cycling modal share which is lower than the highest possible given your demography and geography. You set a ceiling on what is possible by building inadequate infrastructure.

Enrique Peñalosa, the former Mayor of Bogota and current President of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, puts it more succinctly:

A bicycle way that is not suitable for an eight year old is not a bicycle way

Island Bay is one of the best places in Wellington to try protected cycle lanes for the first time. Because The Parade is wide, flat and straight, the implementation is low risk and relatively low cost. When Island Bay is completed, it will then inform and improve the detailed planning of the rest of the network, while also reducing the risks. Allowing Wellingtonians to see a protected cycleway working in practice will also help make future consultations a much more informed and positive process. Island Bay will be the show home of the Wellington cycling network.

While it’s true that work on a cycling network could be started somewhere else, that would imply that starting in Island Bay is such a serious mistake that we should walk away from a project that’s not only ready to go but also has already had considerable time and money spent on it. It’s too late to go back. If the council blinks in Island Bay they will set a dangerous precedent and empower cycleway opponents all over the city. Protected cycleways won’t be possible on some parts of Wellington’s cycling network anyway. If we don’t have the will to put them in places like Island Bay where they can easily be accommodated, will we ever implement them anywhere? Retaining the status quo in Island Bay will immediately lower expectations about what can be achieved elsewhere.

Feedback on the long-term plan shows that Wellingtonians want a better, safer cycling network. Yes, there will be tough decisions to be made along the way, and even the most community-minded of us might bristle at the thought of losing a car park in front of our house or business. But that’s when we need councillors who will guide us through those difficult conversations. We need councillors who are proactive about explaining the wider benefits of cycleways rather than simply reacting to concerns. We need councillors who understand that “bikelash” is inevitable but needs to be kept in proportion. We need councillors with the positive attitude of the Mayor of Pittsburgh Bill Peduto who said:

The old argument in Pittsburgh is you can’t have bike lanes because we have hills, we have bridges, we have narrow streets. We have all of the detriments to building a bike system that people could argue. But we’re still doing it. And we’re going to beat every other city

It’s time for Wellington’s city councillors to stop viewing decent cycling infrastructure as the exception to the rule and embrace it as a vital part of a modern, multi-modal transport network. On April 30 they can make their ambitions for cycling in Wellington clear by approving the draft master plan for cycling and finally committing to start work on the Island Bay cycleway.

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