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“It can’t be bad if Council keeps building it!”

TalkWellington guest poster and nervous cyclist Barb picks up on a really interesting question in the judicial review hearing over Wellington city council’s decision to implement a parking-protected cycleway on a suburban main street.

RNZ reports Con Anastasiou, lawyer for the judicial-review applicants the Island Bay Residents’ Association, thus:

Mr Anastasiou said the City Council’s traffic engineer suggested there were safety issues with roadside cycleways, but there were plenty of them around the capital.

He said that demonstrated that there was no inherent safety issue with them, because if there were, the Council would be exposing itself to some criticism in permitting and installing so many of them elsewhere in Wellington.”

Anastasiou is totally right. Paint-only cycle lanes are everywhere in Wellington.

They impinge the least on your and my consciousness when we’re driving, so they’re the most popular option for councils nervous about irritating “The Motorists”. They also do the least to protect anyone on a bike. So they do SFA to encourage anyone to cycle who’s less than courageous, committed, and enjoys a bit of on-road adrenalin as part of their daily As to Bs.

NZTA is unequivocal about their effectiveness, defining “cycle lane” in their Cycle Network and Route Planning Guidance thus:

Cycle lanes are painted lanes within the carriageway that are suitable for enthused and confident cyclists but, apart from low volume streets, do not offer sufficient protection for the majority of interested but concerned cyclists

A very typical road-side cycle lane. (Photo: Jeanette Ward)

So given that people who cycle are a small subset of voters to imperil and make angry, versus “The Motorists” (who we hear about a lot), councils who are a bit limp-wristed about sustainability (and other good things) have been slapping paint-only cycle lanes in since ages ago.

(Very typical example here – claiming the town has an “extensive network of cycle lanes and shared pathways”, talking up how “the lanes give cyclists an additional measure of safety on their commute by ensuring all road users, particularly in high traffic areas, are given the visual reinforcement of the lanes, aiding fellow road users’ awareness of cyclists.” [emphasis ours]
In other words, having some paint vs nothing might slightly improve the odds of drivers knowing you’re there at all. Good luck, biking people.

Wellington, like all other NZ towns, has been dominated by the old-school “roads are for driving” attitude since the 1960s. So paint-on cycle lanes (and the optimistic sharrows) have been the go-to to say “we’re doing something for cycling”.

But evidence has been mounting of how it takes either significantly slower speeds (30km) or protected space to work for people who’d like to cycle but are currently too scared.

Yet since ever the Basin Flyover was a twinkle in NZTA’s eye, Wellington’s inner-city streets have stayed largely just hair-raising as before if you’re biking, scooting, e-scooting and so on. Have you noticed? No cycling improvements (beyond some green-painted bits that mysteriously stop and start, dumping you back in the traffic). By that token, no widened footpaths. No bus priority. Laneways – lovely; a bit of bike parking – thanks, it’s nice to not have to park on the footpath. 30km on Willis and the Golden Mile is good. But nothing that makes it easier for ordinary folk – not your road warriors, not gimlet-eyed, determined greenies, just ordinary peeps – to use the world’s single most efficient, effective and enjoyable way to get around for those short cross-city centre trips. And there are loads more of us than of Actual Cyclists!

So why so long in the delay?

“The Basin Flyover will be changing all this area, so very much, that there’s no point doing anything in the meantime”. “Let’s Get Wellington Moving will be changing all this area, so very much, that there’s no point doing anything in the meantime”. (Including, apparently, something temporary or interim.) And as the flyover / LGWM has been appealed, gone down, re-considered, delayed, and delayed, the city centre has remained a place where short-trip cycling is still the exclusive preserve of the fit and the fearless.

“It’s coming, it’s coming… just wait some more, it’s coming…”

Despite the efforts of groups like Frocks On Bikes to boost the appeal of everyday biking, despite Cycle Wellington’s lobbying for protected cycle infrastructure, despite the wave of Onzos… If you’re anything other than a confident cyclist (or you’re happy to get lots of grief for riding the footpath), you are only safe on the waterfront. Anything else means you’re highly likely to be served a large dollop of existential terror when you’re just trying to get to a cafe, or to work, or to do your errands, or just eat your lunch by the sea.

So Con Anastasiou’s point is a damn good one – and, ironically, great ammunition for Wellingtonians who want to cycle and demand safer streets!

The profusion of paint-only cycle lanes as our dominant type of “safe cycling” infrastructure is a shameful indictment of a council too afraid of noisy bikelash to do what’s right.

So as Let’s Get Wellington Moving begins to lumber forwards, with a 10-year-plus timeline for significant change in the streets, and the local body elections looming, let’s be quite clear in our calls:

  • 30km zone for the whole central city now (and properly enforced, please, unlike, you know, stop lights).
  • Separated rori iti on big routes like Taranaki Street and the Quays. (Put them in with bolt-down flexi-posts and tweak them as we learn the precise positioning of this or that post at each spot.)
  • No more cramming fast e-scooters and bikes onto footpaths and calling it “shared paths”.

Yes, there’ll be space converted from parking. Yes there’ll be howls of protest. And it’s got to be done. It’s the right thing to do, and the city will immediately start enjoying the results.