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On yer bike: How the Island Bay cycleway split a community

Wellington’s controversial Island Bay cycleway runs mostly between the footpath and parked cars.

A simple cycleway in Wellington has descended into controversy, divided a community and threatens to bring down the capital’s mayor. But more than anything, it’s shone a light on the tension between cyclists and motorists. Last year Mike White looked at why we love to hate cyclists, and why cycle lanes get us so wound up.

Nobody saw this one coming. Nobody truly predicted that a cycleway in south Wellington would turn into a shitfight that’s gone all the way up from local residents, to city councillors, through government agencies, and now the Minister of Transport.

Nobody imagined it would come to this, because this is Island Bay, home to Wellington’s Italian community, wooden fishing boats, Patrisha’s Original Pie Shop and nuns from the Home of Compassion.

It’s middle class and liberal – its two councillors are Green and Labour, and it’s had a Labour MP forever. But somehow the wide, pohutukawa-fringed boulevard at its heart, The Parade, has become a community fracture-line and political frontline.

Now, concerns about what’s happened in this pretty suburb have caused a review of all Wellington’s cycling plans, with implications for the rest of the country. Moreover, it’s become a central focus for this year’s local body elections, with council contenders at each other’s throats over it. Climate change, destitutes on the street, keeping the capital’s economy pumping, creating a supercity? Nope, it’s the seemingly trivial issue of cycleways that’s preoccupying campaigning and making headlines.

But how has an idea with so many potential benefits caused so much opposition? And why does this keep happening all around the country?

A sign at the entrance to Island Bay, calling for the cycleway to be removed.

Essentially, this is what happened: Wellington City Council, wanting to get more people on their bikes, came up with a plan for cycleways throughout the city. It decided its first major inner-city cycleway would be a 1.7km, $1.7 million section through Island Bay. The idea was that the cycleway would soon extend all the way to the CBD, a further 5km away, but this first stage was seen as a quick win – a very visible stake in the ground, with few difficulties because the road was accommodatingly wide.

Statistics from the 2013 Census showed only 261 people cycled to work from Island Bay and nearby Owhiro Bay (not all via The Parade). Moreover, there was already a cycle lane along much of The Parade. However, the council felt more people could be encouraged to cycle if they felt safer, so plumped for a new design (despite a council survey suggesting it was unpopular) that required major road changes.

Parked cars were moved towards the centre of the road and the new cycleway was routed between these cars and the footpath, though sometimes it runs up on the pavement behind bus stops, and sometimes cyclists are funnelled back into the general traffic flow. The road has become a cacophony of signs and road markings in six colours – “a graffiti artist’s dream”, according to one councillor – with cars now negotiating a much narrower slice of the road pocked with bollards and road humps. Parked cars now sort of “float” in the road and, for many, the whole layout is decidedly non-intuitive.

Critics quickly labelled it a shambles, claiming it was more dangerous for everyone. Supporters claimed it was an improvement and people would get used to it. A Facebook page supporting the cycleway was established (1500 likes). A rival “Get Rid of the Island Bay Cycle-way” page was created (2060 likes). Each side accused the other of deceit and dirty tactics – the latest shot being fired in late April, when cycleway users accused someone of spreading nails along the route. The council made tweaks, including removing 50m of new cycleway because of safety concerns, but rejected increasing calls for it all to be ripped up.

In March, a survey commissioned by the Island Bay Residents’ Association found of 1800 voters who responded, 87 per cent opposed the design of the cycleway. Overwhelming, cried the cycleway critics – put our old road back. Rigged, shouted the cycleway supporters – the methodology was worse than a North Korean election.

Complicating matters is that Wellington’s mayor, Celia Wade-Brown, lives in Island Bay. Wade-Brown is internationally known for her support of cycling, and famously biked to Wellington Airport to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. So naturally, opponents voiced the easy slander that bike-friendly Wade-Brown had procured a cycleway for her own patch.

Other mayoral candidates rounded on her, visiting the Minister of Transport to raise the alarm, and publicly disparaging money wasted on cycleways. In April, in an exceptional move, the New Zealand Transport Agency was forced to step in and commission an independent review of all Wellington’s cycle plans.

Meanwhile, down in Island Bay, where mums gather mid-morning at cafes, a dairy dots most corners, a 90-year-old runs a stationery shop, and the Baptist Church overflows every time there’s a meeting about the cycleway, there has been no ribbon-cutting opening for the project, which was completed in March. No ceremony, no celebration, no beaming mayor posing for flashing cameras. Just accusation, acrimony, and now an audit of how the hell it came to this.

Andy Foster, who heads the council’s transport committee, admits they decided on the cycleway design too early and didn’t deal enough with local residents and businesses. Foster, a regular cyclist, insists they’ve learnt a lesson.

In Vicki Greco’s dining room, iridescent fish float in an aquarium as the Island Bay Residents’ Association president gets a cup of tea. It’s a touch of serenity unmatched by what’s gone on 50m from her front gate, on The Parade.

“If they’d put in a good design, nobody would have cared. But this design is what they decided on, and come hell or high water, it was happening.”

Greco says she’s cycled all her life and used to commute to work by bike. But this year, for the first time, her bike has stayed in the garage, because the new cycleway is too dangerous, she insists.

It’s virtually impossible for motorists turning into driveways to see cyclists behind the parked cars; coming out of side streets or driveways, motorists have to go right across the cycleway to see oncoming traffic; cyclists are at risk of being taken out by passengers exiting parked cars; fast cyclists can’t overtake slower riders, so revert to the road; motorists are now squeezed into a much narrower and confused section of the road; and what was once a lovely route to and from the coast has become a disaster for all users.

Greco is at pains to stress she supports a cycleway, but this design was wrong, and the council ignored their concerns. “There’s good change and there’s bad change and there’s change for the sake of change. And we want change that’s well thought through and has benefits for all the community.”

Local councillor Paul Eagle says if he can get enough colleagues to support him, he wants three new design options taken back to the community. Eagle reckons he’s got a good feel for his constituents’ views, having door-knocked nearly every house in the area during his six years on the council. In all that time, nobody ever mentioned needing a flash cycleway in Island Bay.

“But there was a need for the mayor to leave a political legacy. This should have been sorted out when the first survey came back saying they didn’t want it – there would’ve been no need to put everyone through some sort of social experiment. I mean, the whole process has been cruel – it’s so sad how many people are upset.”

One of the worst things was that the latest survey showed nearly half of respondents didn’t want any cycleway in Island Bay now. “This has taken the cycling cause back years. If anyone thinks they’ve won, go down to Island Bay and ask around. But there’s still hope. My father was a Methodist minister for 49 years – he always encouraged me to have hope.”

Patrick Morgan teaching cycle skills at Berhampore Primary School.

Not far up the road in neighbouring Berhampore, Patrick Morgan leads a snake of children on bikes around their school’s playground. The eight-year-olds sport helmets of all colours and ride bikes of all dimensions as they practise skills that will help them on the road.

“Okay, how about we have a slow race?” Morgan suggests.

“Slow race?” a blond tearaway repeats. “Then we have a fast race.”

Morgan splits his time between teaching Pedal Ready classes like this and working for the Cycling Advocates’ Network, a lobby group for cyclists.

Back in the 1970s, 80 per cent of New Zealand kids biked to school. Now, that figure is only two to three per cent, because we’ve become so safety-conscious, there’s more traffic, kids attend schools out of zone, and they’ve often got after-school activities that parents ferry them to by car.

“I think that’s scandalous in a country like New Zealand,” says Morgan. “And the thing is, it can be fixed.”

Sometimes he’ll meet 10-year-olds who can’t bike, and says improved cycle lanes, like the one in Island Bay, are a way to encourage more kids onto bikes.

The conflict over Island Bay’s cycleway – or “bikelash”, as cyclists have dubbed it – can be explained by people resisting change; councillors whipping up anger for their own ends; media dishing up click-bait; a unique community that’s resisted other projects; and poor consultation from the council, according to Morgan.

“I’m pissed off the Wellington [City Council] team has really under-delivered on this. They’re not that smart with community engagement. But for some people it doesn’t matter how much consultation is done, it’s never enough if you don’t get the result you want.”

Even Wade-Brown acknowledges things could have been done better, but insists the cycleway wasn’t rammed through. However, there’s little hope opposition will subside while it’s a hot election issue. “Oh, and I should think it will continue to the next one as well,” admits the mayor. “I expect people to still be talking about Wade-Brown and the Island Bay cycleway in 2019.”

And that’s the bigger worry for everyone – that the experience in Island Bay will make it so much harder to get community buy-in for cycleways in other suburbs. Already, opposition is gathering against the $9 million plan to enhance cycling on Hutt Rd, with the issue hitting the Dominion Post’s front page. “Well, that just means we’re not having any great disasters and murders to put on the front page,” Wade-Brown counters.

Andy Foster, who heads the council’s transport committee, says they’ve learnt from Island Bay, and have improved consultation for Hutt Rd and a $6 million cycleway from the eastern suburbs of Seatoun and Miramar. He’s flinty about the enduring criticism but admits that, in hindsight, they decided on the design too early and didn’t deal enough with local residents and businesses. But he’s convinced cycling is necessary to reduce the capital’s traffic woes. Wellington had 150,000 people in 1991, now has more than 200,000, and Foster predicts there’ll be at least another 50,000 in 30 years. “If we don’t make some changes, if we keep on doing the 1960s, 70s, 80s approach to things, the city will grind to a halt.”

A councillor for 24 years, Foster regularly cycles from his Karori home to work downtown. He’s had thankfully few accidents, surviving being knocked from his bike by someone opening their car door only because he was flung into the side of the bus, not under it. And he doesn’t truly understand why cyclists and cycling issues are so contentious, given the benefits involved.

“Sometimes, for my sins, I look at blog sites when these issues come up and the comments are Neanderthal. In fact, I’m being unfair to the Neanderthals. It’s appalling. And most of it is the anti-cycling, as opposed to the pro-cycling, people.”

Wellington Mayor  Celia Wade-Brown exposes her hidden pair of cycling shorts.

So what is it that gets so many people irate? What is it that turns reasonable adults into Lycra-loathers, seething at cyclists, seeing them as a scourge, a danger, or as an Australian broadcaster labelled them, “cockroaches on wheels”? 

And similarly, why do some cyclists see cars as an irredeemable planetary evil, and righteously consider themselves free to ride as they wish?

Everyone knows the common complaints: cyclists ignore red lights, rip down footpaths, and block traffic by riding several abreast; and cars cut them off, zoom by too close, and hurl abuse and missiles at them. But beyond this ritual rhetoric, there are a couple of fundamental things underlying the tension.

Firstly, in the past 50 years, the number of people cycling has dropped dramatically. Population growth, cheaper cars and easier travelling have all led to vehicles becoming increasingly dominant on our roads, and cyclists being seen by many as a marginal rump of environmentalists or enthusiasts. As writer and road cyclist Brian Turner puts it, it’s all a bit Animal Farm-ish: “Four wheels good, two wheels bad.”

And secondly, the roads we’ve built are generally constructed with only cars in mind. Hence, putting unprotected cyclists alongside a tonne of metal travelling at speed in a limited channel is a recipe for altercation or worse. But there are, perhaps, other things also at play.

Patrick Morgan says the whole concept of motoring, promoted through advertising, equates driving with freedom, going where you want, when you want. “People have been sold a dream. And the reality is quite different – a lot of the time, you’re just waiting in traffic.”

So, suggests Morgan, when cyclists zip past, motorists think, hey, why is that person getting ahead of me? Maybe they’re doing something wrong?

Simon Douglas, the Automobile Association’s national manager for planning and research, says the reality is there’s a limited amount of space. “And trying to put businesses, car parks, pedestrians, buses, cyclists and cars all down a road that’s got fixed parameters means we end up with people rubbing up against each other, and they don’t like it. But the thing that’s been highlighted in our surveys is the first reaction most motorists have when they see a cyclist is not one of anger, it’s one of concern and worry that they don’t want to hit them.”

Professor Alistair Woodward, Auckland University’s head of epidemiology and biostatistics, stresses that driving in places like Auckland and Wellington can be a very stressful experience, because of congestion. And stressed motorists can see cyclists as not being real road users, playing in Lycra at the road’s edge, not needing to be there.

He points out that the road is actually common space and changes to the status quo mean concessions being made, usually by motorists. “It doesn’t belong to anyone in particular, but we all feel we’ve got a claim on it.”

Those involved in the debate try to downplay the idea of our roads being a battleground, suggesting any antagonism is only at the extremes and in comments sections of news articles. But it’s more entrenched and widespread than that. Two books recently released about the issue were both titled Street Fight, and beyond any publishers’ hyperbole, it’s spin and smoothing to suggest this isn’t a polarising issue. Rightly or wrongly, it’s often bitter and tribal, with tinges of zealotry.

While drivers don’t usually stoop to comments such as those of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, who claimed cyclists killed in accidents brought it on themselves, it’s clear New Zealand motorists are frequently unwilling to brook cyclists’ rights to share the road, or countenance any delay to their journeys. But, arguably, sometimes cycling advocates appear their own worst enemy, buttressing the divide with equally fixed views on drivers, and disparagement of opponents.

When Patrick Morgan asked Cycle Aware Wellington members why the Island Bay project had been so contentious, responses included blaming “moronic irrational bicycle hatred with grandstanding politicians pouring petrol”; “media manipulation”; “bogus surveys”; and the involvement of a “PR mastermind”.

As reaction crept further towards stereotype and conspiracy theory, awareness that some residents’ concerns may be genuine seemed to be lost.

Morgan himself sees cyclists as an oppressed minority, an out-group and victims of hate. “In polite company these days, one can’t talk about disabled people or queer people or people of different races in that way. But apparently it’s open season on cyclists. And some commentators feed that narrative – the Mike Hoskings of the world. It’s just lazy journalism to say, ‘Man, those fucking cyclists, what are they doing now? I once saw one run a red light, therefore we should license them or [they should] pay some road tax.’”

Like a road with people speeding in opposite directions, the debate about bikes and cars seems clearly demarcated, yet thinly protected from collision.

A commuter navigating around parked cars on the Island Bay cycleway.

If it’s any consolation, this debate isn’t exclusive to New Zealand. Nor is opposition to cycleways something only we are experiencing – it’s gone on for years and is still going on around the world.

People point to cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where more than 40 per cent of residents commute by bike. But what’s often forgotten is that it’s taken decades, and deliberate decisions by officials, to increase cycling to these levels. New York is lauded for its cycling infrastructure, but there were many fraught battles along the way. London, with cycling enthusiast Boris Johnson as mayor, is being transformed with cycleways – but it’s not been bloodless, and opposition currently occurring a few miles north in Enfield shows how concerns remain and resurface.

As Johnson’s cycling commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, put it: “There’s something about cycling… which seems to destroy people’s sense of proportion.”

Generally, opposition dissipates. Like other social issues – gay marriage, smoking in pubs – people get used to it and eventually wonder what the fuss was about. And it’s likely this will occur in New Zealand, not least because more cycleways are coming, like them or not. Already, the government, the National Land Transport Fund and local councils have earmarked $333 million to be spent on the Urban Cycleways Programme over the next three years.

And the rationale is obvious. If more people ride bikes, it will lead to fewer cars on the roads and less congestion. It also means reduced air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Encouraging exercise is one way to fight New Zealand’s plague of obesity. Having safer cycling routes will hopefully reduce cyclist deaths (which have averaged around 12 a year since 1990) and the cost that comes with that.

In December 2014, the Cycling Safety Panel, which was established after coroners’ concerns about cycling deaths, stated the number- one priority should be creating good urban cycle networks. And surveys regularly show at least a third of New Zealanders say they’d cycle if there were better cycleways. To that end, the New Zealand Transport Agency is aiming for a 30 per cent increase in cycling trips over the next four years – that’s 10 million more bike trips.

The rise of electric bikes could well have a major effect on this. As proponents say, they make wind irrelevant and flatten hills, with people also prepared to cycle much further. (Currently the cost of an ebike begins at around $2000.)

The combination of all these factors will inevitably mean more people cycling on our roads. Patrick Morgan accepts we won’t reach Danish or Dutch levels of 40 per cent biking to school or work, but an increase to eight or 12 per cent is realistic and would have significant benefits.

However, perhaps the greatest improvement, he says, would be that once you get to this critical mass, where cyclists are seen as “normal” road users rather than fringe impositions, the overall culture on our roads will change for the better.

Wellington’s controversial Island Bay cycleway runs mostly between the footpath and parked cars.

But if you’re going to achieve this you’ve got to be smart, you’ve got to explain why you’re doing it, you’ve got to take the community with you.

Opposition to cycleways has happened frequently in New Zealand – from South Dunedin to Auckland’s North Shore, rowdy public protest has threatened and halted projects. Then again, Auckland’s Nelson St cycleway with the lustrous pink Lightpath as its centrepiece – while expensive at $18 million – has proved popular for both commuters and weekend family cruisers, and was a canny project to gain public support for cycling initiatives.

However, back in Island Bay, it’s clear there’s still significant dissatisfaction and disquiet about what’s happened. Try telling the dairy owner who lost the two carparks outside his shop that cycleways benefit everyone. Business has dropped 40 per cent and now he has to take on more taxi shifts to make ends meet. At the other end of the cycleway, another dairy owner says his takings are down 30 per cent. Even some cyclists express reservations, telling North & South they don’t really feel safer and the design has clear faults.

It’s hard not to see the cycleway as at best a lost opportunity, at worst a bureaucratic bungle. While Wellington’s council considered this southern route from Island Bay to the CBD a priority, the New Zealand Transport Agency disagreed. It cited central-city improvements and cycleways from the city’s east and north as of much greater value and importance, and has given funding for these – but rejected funding to help complete the remaining 5km of cycleway from Island Bay to the city.

So while other cycleways are implemented over the next three years, even Mayor Celia Wade-Brown admits the Island Bay cycleway will remain unconnected, effectively a cycleway to nowhere, for years to come. That’s not how it was pitched. That’s not what cyclists hoped for. That’s exactly what international experts stress should be avoided. And as long as it stays isolated, it will be highlighted as a totem of council blundering and high-handedness – a potential millstone for any other cycleway proposed for Wellington.

But if anything is to be gained, it’s lessons about how all councils can do better in the future. In a document on Wellington City Council’s own cycling website, an American cycle lobby group outlines how cities should implement cycleways. It’s an unashamed PR strategy, a blueprint for harnessing public support. In pushing ahead with Island Bay, Wellington’s council has arguably ignored most of the group’s recommendations for building a first project. Things like picking a route everyone agrees needs improvement; carrying out extensive communication; and running a trial of any new design.

Auckland’s lustrous pink Lightpath in the central city, which cost $18 million, has  proved popular for both commuters and families out for a weekend cruise.

In New York, when the first protected cycle lane like Island Bay’s was introduced, on Manhattan’s Ninth Ave, officials established a trial over 500m to show people what the effect would be and to get feedback. If a pilot didn’t work in New York, officials ripped it up and started again. No trial was done in Island Bay – the entire $1.7 million lane was built in one assertive go.

Of course, sometimes councils have to be bold and lead. And of course it’s easy to criticise in hindsight. But then again, they were warned.

Christine McCarthy is president of the Architectural Centre, a society of professionals and others that for 70 years has promoted good design. It has provided detailed input into numerous city planning and transport matters, and in three submissions in 2014, as well as other advice, urged Wellington’s council not to proceed with the Island Bay cycleway, but look elsewhere, where there was much greater need.

McCarthy says data showed this wasn’t a dangerous stretch of road for cyclists – between 2000 and 2014, only three cycling accidents had been reported on The Parade, resulting in one minor injury. Further along the route, on Adelaide Rd, there’d been 59 accidents in this period: 10 serious, 48 with minor injuries and one where the rider was left unscathed. (Already there has been one accident on the new cycleway, with a cyclist dislocating his shoulder after being hit by a car.)

Moreover, the council’s own research suggested putting a cycleway in Island Bay wouldn’t increase the number of cyclists.

McCarthy says it was as if the council was determined to fly the flag for cycling, despite Island Bay being probably the lowest-priority area for cycling improvement in Wellington. But if it wanted visibility for cycling, why put the first major project on the city’s edge?

Starting in the furthest suburb, rather than the CBD where there were the greatest numbers of cyclists and most need for increasing safety, was a “completely fundamental” error, she says. In addition, a design where parked cars are used to protect cyclists is more typically found in urban areas with high traffic – not residential zones with low flows like Island Bay.

McCarthy says the group now considers the road more dangerous than before the cycleway. “If you can’t get it right with such a big generous space, where you’re compromising cyclists and pedestrians, then how on earth are you going to get it right in most of Wellington, which is actually far more complex in terms of space?”

While modifications could be made to improve the design, the other possibility, McCarthy suggests, “is to say, maybe, just get rid of it”.

You could dismiss all this if it came from a group known for anti-bike or anti-development views. But the Architectural Centre has always been an extremely strong proponent of cycleways, and advocated for very bold improvements in the past. “It was a tough submission,” says McCarthy, “because this is the first submission we’ve done which we’ve said no to cycling infrastructure.”

In its October 2014 submission, it called on the council to make sure this first major city cycleway was “exemplary”.

“To have a compromised design within the voluptuous widths of Island Bay’s Parade would be a travesty,” it warned.

Now, McCarthy doesn’t term what’s happened a travesty, she calls it a tragedy. She says the only possible positive is that voter turnout, and engagement in council issues, may increase.

And quite possibly, the local body elections on October 8 will provide the ultimate judgment of what’s happened in Island Bay.

Brendon Bonner

Off yer bikes?

One of the aims of any cycleway is to increase cycling. Prior to Island Bay’s new strip, Census figures suggested around 200 people commuted from Island Bay, along The Parade. Wellington City Council hasn’t released any figures about current cycleway use, although Mayor Celia Wade-Brown says that, anecdotally, she believes there has been “a modest increase”.

Island Bay resident Brendon Bonner (above) has, however, done traffic counts on the cycleway. Over a series of mornings since February, in peak commuter time between 7.30 and 8.30, he’s counted all vehicles and bikes heading towards town.

Cyclist numbers in that time have ranged from 39 to 61, with an average of 49 using the cycleway – about three to four per cent of all commuters. While this obviously doesn’t include cyclists travelling before or after his survey, Bonner questions whether as many as a couple of hundred people really do commute by bike from the suburb, even with the new cycleway. He also suggests numbers may be even lower in winter.

Bonner’s interest in the issue grew from a sense that the council hadn’t listened to the community and hadn’t provided facts or statistics to justify spending $1.7 million building the new cycleway. His answer has been not only to collect some statistics – but also to run for the council at this year’s elections.

This was published in the June 2016 issue of North & South.