A cyclist on the hazardous streets. Photo: Getty Images.

Wellington’s most dangerous pastime: riding a bike

Felix Marwick recalls near misses, close calls, sweary moments and other daily adventures in cycling in Wellington.

It’s entirely possible there’s no worse city for safe and easy biking in New Zealand than Wellington. The roads are narrow, the hills are steep, and the local drivers just seem to have this habit of absolutely, positively, not giving way when they come to a choke point on any one of the city’s twisty hill roads. I’m almost convinced Dr Seuss  got his idea for the South-Going and North-Going Zax from Wellington drivers on a morning school run.

Riding in Wellington involves grinding ascents, high-speed descents, and on-the-fly geometry as you try to estimate gaps in traffic, your space on the road, and whether or not that car at the next intersection is going to try and brutally murder you.

There’s a saying amongst cyclists, at least those that regularly commute; “Ride like every driver you see is drunk and is trying to kill you”. Sometimes riding in rush hour in Wellington feels exactly like this.

I’ve been commuting in Wellington since I moved here almost 13 years ago. Most of my friends (and I think also my wife) question my sanity. To put it bluntly, they think I’m nuts. This attitude only got stronger six years ago after I got smashed by a van that failed to give way while I was heading to work.

I have a plate, several screws, and a long scar on my wrist as a permanent reminder of that incident.

Yet, I still choose to ride.

Why?

The former journo in me shakes his head frequently over this. Mainly because over the last seven years I’ve been recording my rides on video and I have over 230 clips of close calls and near misses that I’ve had on my way to and from work. Some of them are run-of-the-mill close passes, there are quite a few failures to give way, and then there are the truly stupid ones – the side-swipes, being passed in a narrow tunnel, and deliberate intimidation by some drivers that have several screws loose and shouldn’t allowed out in public, let alone be behind the wheel of a car.

But I like to ride. I enjoy missing the rush hour and being jammed in the heinous traffic jam that inches through Karori in rush hour and I like being able to get to work on time without being a slave to the bustastrophe that’s currently afflicting Wellington’s public transport network. It’s a great way to clear the head first thing in the morning and it’s even better stress release on the way home at the end of the day. It’s actually a lot of fun.

But back to the videos. I don’t take them because I want to. I take them because I have to. So that on the occasion where something dreadful happens, I have a visual record of exactly what happened. I’m only half joking when I tell friends, “It’s so they’ll have footage of the bastard that killed me”.

You see, if you don’t have footage, any accident where the police become involved will rest on your story against the driver’s and hang on whether or not you can find an eyewitness to back up your story.

If it’s your word against the driver’s, police are unlikely to take it very far. If you have a video, then you’ve got a case.

But only sometimes.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that when I’ve submitted a formal complaint (and I only do this for the very worst drivers) the police response is variable. This despite them getting all the evidence handed to them on a plate. There is absolutely no consistency in the way complaints are handled. Some will see an infringement notice issued. Others, that seem just as bad, or if not worse, will see the driver let off with a warning.

It’s all a bit confusing so on a recent complaint that got knocked back I decided to follow it up a little bit further with police to see if I could work out their reasoning and see if the decision would be revisited.

An OIA of the case file saw only information I provided returned to me. It also revealed Wellington Police prepared no proposals/strategies/enforcement plans for promoting cyclist safety over the last three years. My request for a review of the decision was turned down with no reasons given for why the officer reached the decision he did.

So, where does this leave us?

Ministry of Transport data shows that between 1990 and 2016 over 300 cyclists were killed on the country’s roads in police-reported crashes. Over 21,000 were injured.

In Wellington enforcement of traffic offenses against cyclists appears inconsistent and any plan or strategy to do more to protect them and other vulnerable road users seem non-existent.

At a time of a rising road toll and an increase in cyclists on our roads, shouldn’t we be doing more to keep people safe?


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