It's been a really interesting few days as negative feedback about the yet-to-be-finished Island Bay cycleway on Facebook culminated in this front page story in today's Dominion Post. The reality of the cycleway actually being implemented seems to have inspired some long-standing critics to have another go and also brought a lot of new critics out of the woodwork.
Before we go any further let's be absolutely clear about one thing - people are entitled to their opinions and The Dominion Post is right, there are a lot of confused and angry people in Island Bay at the moment. But I've also had a lot of conversations over the last few days with people who are not confused or angry (at least not about the cycleway) and who have had some interesting observations to make about what's going on here. So here's a slightly random crowd-sourced list of thoughts on the current situation. Some of these are my own, some have come from conversations and some from comments on social media.
Opening the cycleway as a work-in-progress definitely has pros and cons. The council were originally going to paint the new parking bays in one go right at the end of the project but then changed their minds. Their thinking was that it would be easier, and less disruptive, to paint the bays a section at a time rather than have to clear all cars off The Parade for two days at the project's end. The other reason was that it would be a kind of "soft launch" and give people a chance to get used to how the new cycleway would work before it officially opens. That's all fair and reasonable but the downside has been that the cycleway has been unofficially opened as a work-in-progress and there's no doubt that has negatively affected many people's perceptions of it.
Confusion and anger are perfectly natural human emotions but they will dissipate over time as people get used to the new layout. It has been quite remarkable, however, how many people are prepared to pass judgement on the success or failure of the cycleway when it isn't even finished. One friend said "I can't wait for the follow-up article on the half-completed seawall pointing out how dangerous it is for kids to play on and how it is doing a crap job of keeping the sea back". The reality is that it will take at least a year to properly assess whether the cycleway is successful. The Island Bay Cycleway Working Party recommended that a full evaluation be held 12 months after it officially opens.
There are some constructive and informed criticisms on Facebook but they are few and far between. A lot of the negative feedback is just the same old anti-cycling vitriol that can safely be ignored. The scale of the feedback seems scary at first until you remember that we only have about 5% mode share for cycling in Wellington so of course there will be a disproportionate amount of negativity. In a sense this just reinforces the size and scale of the problem that needs to be tackled. This isn't a war on motorists (I am also a motorist) but we simply can't manage any more cars and roads in Wellington.
A significant chunk of the rest of the feedback focuses on perceived issues with the cycleway itself but largely lacks any context or appreciation of the bigger picture, as per the Wellington Cycling Master Plan & Framework. There are some legitimate concerns about aspects of the implementation but very little acknowledgement that any re-allocation of space for transportation necessarily involves trades-offs. If you're only focused on what's happening at the end of your driveway then of course you only see downside. But there is also an upside and just because you don't value it doesn't mean that nobody else does. The most important question is whether there's a net benefit for the community overall. Luckily, in a representative democracy we don't make important policy decisions, especially those involving transport and safety, by popular vote.
There are some very legitimate, but relatively minor, concerns about things like the mobility parking outside the medical centre and the visibility backing out of some driveways. I agree that the mobility parks are a bit of a stuff up. The paint job suggests that the driver needs to get out straight into traffic and if you've got mobility issues that's obviously a problem. The council clarified that users can actually park anywhere in that zone that they like, so they can leave themselves more space on the right if needed. The council should re-do the paint job to make that clear however. I don't think it would be a big problem for people on bikes if cars actually parked pretty much right up against the cycleway as long as passengers are careful getting out.
And has anybody actually asked the Medical Centre why they can't make more parking available for their customers around the back? Here's a thought - if the Medical Centre and whoever owns the building next door (where Brew'd and South End Motors are) were to remove the fence between them and operate a single shared driveway they could create significant extra parking on either side of it for those businesses.
Residents who have visibility issues coming out of driveways should talk to the council and see if anything can be done, but let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. If extra care needs to be taken then so be it.
This isn't just some minor suburban stoush over parking. The Island Bay cycleway is part of a $54m network to be rolled out in Wellington over the next 10 years with significant funding coming from central government. Attitudes to cycling are rapidly changing at the highest levels. Earlier this year while announcing a $333m package of urban cycleways in cities across New Zealand the Chief Executive of NZTA said "Put simply, cycling is good for our cities, it’s good for the environment and it’s good for our health." More recently, while announcing that NZTA now has authority status under the Resource Management Act to apply to local authorities to set aside land specifically for cycleways Environment Minister Nick Smith said "cycleways, just like motorways, railways or transmissions lines and telecommunications cables are critical modern infrastructure in the 21st century.”
One of the major themes in the feedback is that The Parade is now "too narrow" for cars and "dangerous". There's no doubt that The Parade is now narrower for moving cars than it was but the lanes are still a completely standard 3.0m wide. That's consistent with the vast majority of roads around Wellington. In fact, compared to a lot of Wellington roads it's generous. You can't even drive to Island Bay without using roads that are at least as narrow and in some cases narrower. Also, the lanes for cars were actually always this width. What's now missing is the "bike lane" to the left and the median strip to the right. There seems to be a tacit admission in complaints about the "narrowing" of the lanes that drivers have always considered these spaces to be theirs to enjoy as they please. That's an interesting point of view and one that actually feeds into the justification for a separated cycleway. At the end of the day the new car lanes on The Parade are not narrow at all, they are just different and people just need time to adjust to that.
Here's a novel idea. If The Parade's new layout really is too narrow then maybe it's parked cars that are the problem? After all, roads are for mobility right? Only a small amount of on-street parking was removed from The Parade to make way for the cycleway (around 10%) so maybe that needs to be revisited. Removing parking from one side of the road would create a lot more space. Just about every residential property on The Parade already has off-street parking and on the western side the residents also have a 3.0m strip of road reserve between their boundaries and the pavement which many of them use for parking. It's fair to ask just how much parking a house actually needs and the extent to which rate-payers should subsidise that with the free storage of private property on public land, especially when that land is an important arterial transport route. The solution to the perceived narrowness of The Parade could be in the hands of the residents themselves.
It's already evident that the new traffic calming measures on The Parade are having a positive impact. The perceived narrowness of the road contributes to that and forces people to drive at a sensible speed. There's been claims that two buses can't pass each other but I haven't witnessed that and I suspect that's more down to the drivers themselves getting used to the new layout. Buses are certainly forced to slow down a bit, but that's actually a good thing (not that most of our bus drivers aren't already great). There's more traffic calming to come too with the addition of four new pedestrian crossings.
A lot of people are also concerned that the new bike lanes themselves are dangerous. The main concern seems to be either a person on a bike getting "doored" or a passenger getting out of a car and getting hit by a someone on a bike. I wonder how many of the people expressing these concerns have already tried riding the new lanes? They are great. You immediately feel safer and more protected than out on the road. I would never have let my 7 and 9 year old boys ride along The Parade next to moving cars, trucks and buses before but I will happily let them ride these new lanes. It's really nice to hear how concerned some opponents are about my kids health though (we have an obesity epidemic in this country by the way. You'd be doing more good picketing shops selling fizzy drinks).
The lanes are wide enough to completely avoid getting "doored" but even if it did somehow happen I would rather it was on the kerbside than on the road. I also don't believe that passengers are in any danger at all. Most people on bikes won't be going that fast and a little courtesy and common-sense should avoid any problems. If someone on a bike is being a dick they will get sorted out, probably via shaming by their fellow cyclists.
Another theme in the feedback has been to highlight the lack of cycling related accidents on The Parade before now. This completely misses the point of urban cycleways which is primarily to get more people riding bikes than currently do. Making people who already ride bikes safer is great of course but that's only a secondary aim. This is all explained in the Wellington Cycling Master Plan & Framework . If you're really keen check out the Near Miss Project. Researchers at The University of Westminster found that it's actually the far more frequent 'near miss' that puts people of cycling, rather than actual accidents. Creating physical separation between bikes and moving traffic is a crucial part of altering people's perceptions of how safe cycling is and enabling more uptake, which in turn unlocks the full range of health, environmental and social benefits. When you only have 5% mode share for cycling of course accident stats are low. The vast majority of people are not even prepared to take the risk.
A few other tired old myths also reared their heads this week such as "cyclists don't pay for the roads". It's not true, as explained in this article.
Something else that isn't true is the rumour that the reason the cycleway now stops at Dee Street is because the council has "blown the budget". This is crap. The reason it now stops at Dee Street is because of the retention of the Dee Street roundabout, which wasn't originally the plan but was a recommendation of the Island Bay Cycleway Working Party. Retaining the roundabout means that people on bikes would have to merge back into traffic approaching the roundabout then go back onto the cycleway after the roundabout and then merge back into traffic about 50m down the road. The council consulted both island Bay Cycle Way and Cycle Aware Wellington on this and everybody agreed that finishing Stage 1 of the cycleway at Dee Street made more sense because one merge is better than two. Simple. Kids travelling on bikes to Wakefield Park will probably need to dismount and cross Dee Street on foot just like they always have. A minor inconvenience but much safer.
So what should the council do now? They should definitely listen to individual residents with specific concerns and see if they can resolve them. They should also roll out some more education and communications to coincide with the official opening and make sure everybody is clear on the best etiquette for using the cycleway and interacting with it on foot or in a car. Most importantly, however, they need to keep going, not just in Island Bay but across Wellington. They need to finish the Island Bay Cycleway to the highest standard possible and then use all these lessons elsewhere. They need to recognise that there will always be backlash against decent cycling infrastructure and if you don't get backlash then your infrastructure probably isn't good enough. If they back down now on any element of the cycleway then the Wellington Cycling Master Plan & Framework becomes unimplementable. Not only will they not be following their own policy they will enable every NIMBY in Wellington and create a precedent that if you just make enough noise you can overturn years of policy development, due process and decisions made by democratically elected representatives. They will also create a major point of friction with central government and put Wellington even further behind Auckland and Christchurch than we already are in implementing an important component of a becoming a modern, smart, liveable city.
That's it from Island Bay Cycle Way for the year, apart from maybe the odd retweet. We'll see you all again in the New Year and look forward to watching the cycleway slowly settle into its surroundings. This cycleway under the beautiful pohutukawa has the potential to be a real taonga for our suburb.
Happy holidays everyone.