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Wellington’s cycleways budget is set to take a big cut.
Wellington’s cycleways budget is set to take a big cut.

OPINIONSocietyMay 27, 2021

The guerilla bike lane of Wellington was born out of the betrayal of cyclists

Wellington’s cycleways budget is set to take a big cut.
Wellington’s cycleways budget is set to take a big cut.

Pop-up cycle lanes in the capital city reflect a desperation in the face of failure to properly provide for cyclists, writes Axel Downard-Wilke.

A duel is being fought in our capital city. At stake is the small matter of people’s personal safety. Wellingtonians who choose to ride a bike are often left feeling like the meat in a sandwich. Lines of parked cars on one side, heavy vehicles rattling past on the other. Cycling in Wellington is, on most streets, a hair-raising affair and not for the fainthearted. And that’s even before you consider the argument that enabling people to ride a bike gives tangible meaning to the ecological and climate emergency declaration of two years ago.

The official response has been dismally slow. Describing the pace with which officials are addressing the situation as “glacial” is an offence to actual glaciers. So at the start of the week, some activists started putting in separated cycling infrastructure themselves. Take a lane on Adelaide Road that’s usually occupied by parked cars, put planter boxes and flexiposts along the outside, and voilà, you have some space for cycling that looks and feels safe. It’s not too different from what many central government-supported Innovating Streets projects look like. It’s just a lot cheaper than what everyone else does.

Understandably, a road controlling authority has problems with others making changes to their road without permission. Fair enough. But what really gets me is the rationale that staff put forward: what’s been put there is “unsafe”.

Wellington City Council’s spokesperson went into a bit more detail in an interview given to Radio New Zealand: “We watched some school kids riding in the traffic on the outside of the cycle lane because they clearly thought that it was some sort of roadworks or an area where they weren’t supposed to be riding,” said Richard MacLean.

The irony with that statement is that every other day of the week the space that is currently a pop-up cycleway is usually a row of parked cars. And therefore, the school kids must ride in traffic, which both MacLean and I believe is unsafe. Yet the way the city council has laid out the road, that is what the pupils are forced to do.

I’ve been planning cycle networks and designing cycling infrastructure since the late 1990s. I’ve been training my peers how to do this since 2003. Given the nationwide scope of my work, I think I have a good understanding of what is going on around the country. In my view Wellington City Council is the poor cousin of the other city councils; things just aren’t happening in the capital city. With its mostly narrow roads (unlike Christchurch, say), there isn’t much room for safe cycling unless it’s specifically created, which they don’t do much of in Wellington. The city is one of the places that feels most unsafe to ride a bike in.

These issues won’t get fixed overnight. But it’s troubling that, in general, the officials I have dealt with don’t seem particularly open to improving the situation. For those community members who would like to see some action from the city council, it’s all very frustrating, which MacLean acknowledges. “The council has been working with the group for years on the cycle lanes. We can obviously spot that they are frustrated at the speed at which we’re moving,” he said.

Support for community action comes from Auckland City councillor Chris Darby, who chairs Auckland’s planning committee and thus leads the city’s physical development. Darby is more progressive than many of his fellow elected members and he appears to anticipate similar actions in his city. It could be that the Harbour Bridge becomes Auckland’s cycling battlefield.

Christchurch is the place that “gets” cycling infrastructure on the ground; it is the clear national leader. When that city’s elected members speak at consultation meetings, their message is that the decision to build a cycleway has already been made, and the only thing that’s up for discussion is the how. Elected members in Wellington take heed. Given the declared climate emergency, the time for dithering is over.

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