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WellingtonNovember 23, 2023

Wellington’s massive cycling upgrade is ambitious, fast, and surprisingly cheap


The capital city is attempting the most extensive rapid rollout of a cycling network ever seen in New Zealand. So far, it’s coming in under budget and ahead of schedule. 

Three years ago, I swore I would never bike to work in Wellington again. Not because a big crash scared me off, but because it was stressing me out too much. Riding on a busy, multi-lane arterial road without dedicated space for bikes takes constant awareness, eyes darting back and forth, hands gripping the bar with dread. That level of tension is just not a nice way to start a morning. 

I’ve since abandoned that pledge, and it’s all thanks to the new Newtown-to-city cycleway. It has turned my experience from paranoia to delight. Cycling to work is easy and stress-free when you are physically separated from cars. The other riders I pass in the mornings are relaxed, chit-chatting about the weather at the traffic lights. 

The Newtown cycleway isn’t perfect. You have to awkwardly cross the road at the Basin Reserve, and there’s a diagonal crossing at one set of traffic lights. It doesn’t matter though, because it works. Already, stats show there are twice as many cyclists on the road compared to this time last year.

The Newtown-to-city cycleway on Cambridge Terrace. (Photo: Joel MacManus)

As recently as 2021, Wellington had just 23km of cycleways, mostly along coastlines. In the past year, Wellington has debuted four new bike lanes. Another six bike lanes are currently underway, which will bring will bring the cycle network to 73km. 

Within a decade, the council wants to have 166km of connected cycleways criss-crossing the capital city.

Incredibly, so far the Wellington cycle network is coming in under budget and ahead of schedule. That’s almost unheard of for a transport project in New Zealand. The first two bike lanes cost $750,000 per kilometre, well below the national average of $1.6m per km, and were completed in less than half the typical time. 

That’s not to say it hasn’t been controversial. Media coverage has featured the usual rash of angry residents’ associations and business owners with their arms crossed. Foodstuffs have threatened legal action to stop a cycleway going past their Thorndon store. But when you look past the yelling, there’s something bigger going on.

Wellington has completely reimagined how it builds cycleways. It’s a case study in the speed at which New Zealand cities can change their transport priorities – if they have the political will and the right strategies in place. 

The key in this case has been Wellington City Council’s full-throated endorsement of tactical urbanism, a technique that throws out old and arduous processes in favour of quick, low cost, and adaptable methods that let people try things out in real-time. 

In 2015, the council launched its cycling master plan. It looked like a subway map, with big coloured lines indicating where they would like cycleways to go. It didn’t have any specific designs or budgets. No one expected the entire thing to be built, but it set a direction for a few projects that could be chipped away at over the years. 

A partial map of Wellington’s planned cycleway network.

That all changed when councillor Tamatha Paul, now the MP for Wellington Central, pushed through an amendment in mayor Andy Foster’s 2021 long term plan to build the entire network with a budget line of $226m.

For council staff, it meant a huge idea that had previously only existed on paper suddenly needed to become reality. 

“It was incredibly daunting,” says Vida Christeller, the council’s city design manager. “We had to rethink our processes. We had to rethink our setup, our resourcing models, and how we worked with the different groups in the community. We basically redesigned the whole way that we deliver it.”

Wellington didn’t exactly have a stellar record with cycleways. The most recent attempt, the Island Bay cycleway, had been a disaster, resulting in years of controversy and court cases. The Island Bay path was expensive and over-engineered. Worst of all, it wasn’t particularly effective at getting people on bikes, because it didn’t connect to anything. Where it ends at the edge of the suburb, it spits cyclists back onto a narrow arterial road, still several kilometres from the city centre. 

The process wasn’t working. There was no way the city could build 166km by repeating the Island Bay experience. 

Enter Claire Pascoe. She had spent years trying to solve this exact problem at Waka Kotahi, where she helped to create Innovating Streets for People, a programme that supports and funds councils to use tactical urbanism techniques to make faster changes. The council hired her to lead the transitional programme for installing new bike and bus lanes, giving her the chance to make those ideas a reality.

“It was basically impossible to do this stuff,” Pascoe says. With the cost-per-kilometre of projects like Island Bay, a fully connected network would have taken “something like 300 years and many, many billions of dollars to build”. 

Claire Pascoe, left, and Vida Christeller, right. (Photos: Supplied)

The city Pascoe looked to for inspiration wasn’t a cycling behemoth like Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Instead, she alighted on Seville, a mid-sized city in Spain. In just a few years, Seville had seen cycling jump from 0.5% of trips to 7%. It was a huge change but also one that felt realistic and achievable for Wellington. 

“Seville went quickly and they went for connectivity. They put 80 kilometres of cycleways down within a few years. It wasn’t perfect, but they didn’t try and make it perfect,” Pascoe says. The size of its scope was key. “When you do little sections, you can get some targeted gain, but it’s not until you have connectivity that you see the exponential shift.” What changed the game in Seville was a network plan that gave people an idea of how each segment would connect. “That’s what we’re doing now [in Wellington], primarily going from the city centre outward.”

Bike lanes in Seville, Spain.

Putting in a new cycleway is typically a long, staged process, with multiple rounds of design and engagement before you make any physical changes to the street. It’s slow and frustrating work, but when you’re doing expensive things like moving kerbs and drains, it’s important to get it right. With tactical urbanism, teams can put plastic hit sticks and barrier arms up cheaply, and trial as they go. 

Wellington got its build time down from between three and 10 years to an average of 18 months per cycleway by running the design and engagement processes at the same time, with two teams working at once. 

“We imagine it as two parallel lines with a zig-zag in between, so constant feedback loops are happening between the engagement and design processes,” Christeller says. “I think it’s been really meaningful engagement because people are seeing in real time how feedback has turned into a change.”

Flexibility is fundamental to tactical urbanism. The cycleway plan has gone through dozens of small changes – adding miniature speed bumps outside the central fire station to make it easier for fire trucks to pull out, putting in a new loading zone for a car dealership on Cambridge Terrace, removing protective barriers outside a bus depot which made it hard for drivers to turn. 

Speed bumps outside the Wellington Central Fire Station (Photo: Joel MacManus)

While I spoke with Christeller and Pascoe in the council offices, a public hearing was going on two rooms over for the Berhampore Connections project, which includes a new bike lane that will finally connect the Island Bay cycleway to the rest of the city via Newtown. 

It was a long meeting. Councillors sat patiently as residents trotted up to the table, one after the other. Many were supportive of the plan, but others were frustrated about the changes, especially for car parking access. It did feel like there had been a small shift in attitude, though. A few years ago, people opposed to a new cycleway would have fought to shut the whole thing down. In this meeting, people asked for more specific changes, like retaining certain business car parks or moving bus stop locations. Rather than debating if a cycleway should go in, people were discussing how it should be done.

There are still major challenges to overcome. Mayor Tory Whanau’s proposed long term plan earlier this month slashed $80 million from the cycleways budget, from $191m to $110m over the next decade, as part of a raft of cuts across the board. She insisted she still wanted to build the entire network. 

Proposed bike lanes on Lambton Quay, part of the Golden Mile changes.

As council staff, Pascoe and Christeller aren’t in a position to criticise the councillors’ decision even if they wanted to, but both insist they’re confident they can work with the new budget. 

“We have three years of experience now where we’ve done quite a lot of design and spent a lot of time in the communities, and experienced most of the different road typologies in Wellington. So now, we think we can do it once and we do it a bit better, so we don’t have to do such a long, expensive process. We’ll get 80% right and then the other 20% we can come back and change,” Christeller says. 

The team has completed two centre-city cycleways, from Newtown and the Botanical Gardens, and two residential lanes in Aro Valley and Ngaio. Up next are Kilbirnie, Thorndon, Berhampore, Karori, Wadestown and Brooklyn.

There are some sections where they plan to stick with cheap, adaptable solutions. In other parts, where they’re more confident they’ll get it right first try, they’re using more aesthetically pleasing and permanent materials, like concrete dividers and tree planters. 

It would have been hard to imagine even just a couple of years ago, but Wellington could soon be the kind of city where it is possible to travel between any two neighbourhoods entirely via a protected bike lane. With the rapid adoption of e-bikes, it’ll often be the fastest way of getting around. 

It’s a dramatic change, but cities have always changed. Ancient Rome constantly adjusted rules about which streets could have horses and which were pedestrian-only. In more modern times, urban transport systems have shifted between canals, trains, and motorways. Wellington once rapidly built a tramway network and removed it just as quickly a few decades later. 

It’s that attitude of flexibility that Christeller and Pascoe want to see more cities embrace.  “Some people think there is a ‘final street’ but that isn’t true. It is never final, it’s always changing,” Pascoe says. Christeller agrees: “Cities are organisms, they’re constantly evolving. There is no such thing as a finished state.”

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