Vancouver based urban mobility advocates Modacity recently published a great article outlining the 6 biggest roadblocks to building complete streets in our communities. It's well worth reading the full article yourself but I thought they raised so many good points that it would be interesting to look at some of them from a local perspective (let's call it the remix version). Just about all the roadblocks are relevant to Island Bay to a greater or lesser degree, and you can bet they will also be relevant as cycleways get rolled out around the rest of Wellington. So here are six paradigm shifts needed to build more livable and equitable streets in our cities:
An unintended, but counterproductive focus on the commute to work
"We agree that getting more people out of their cars and riding a bike to work is great. However, what about the dozens of other trips a person makes in a day? When we switch from a mindset of commuting, to one that places import on cycling as a means of transportation for other daily errands, it quickly becomes apparent that we are falling behind in encouraging the average person to ride to the nearest market or restaurant. Once we realize that, it becomes very easy to make the case for bike lanes on high streets – the places people actually go outside of office hours."
A tendency to frame the discussion around those people who already cycle
“Don’t design streets that make the 5% already cycling marginally safer. Build them to entice the other 95% onto their bikes. If a city provides comfortable places for its citizens to ride, then the types of people using them will change dramatically. What was once the domain of fearless bike couriers and Lycra-clad road warriors is now a space shared by people of all ages and abilities – especially families with young children."
Everybody says they support cycling, which is great, but that's not what matters. What matters is whether you support growth in cycling. Another pair of contradictory criticisms constantly being made of the Island Bay cycleway are that "The Parade has always been perfectly safe for cycling" but that "the cycleway is just for a minority". If The Parade is so safe for cycling then why do only a minority in Island Bay ride a bike? Yes, its true that in recent years there have been no serious or fatal accidents involving bikes on The Parade but that's partly because the number of people riding bikes is so low. And it's not accidents that are the real problem, it's the unreported near misses (for more information on how near misses have a massive impact on the uptake of cycling check out the University of Westminster's Near Miss Project). The fact is that lots of people simply aren't comfortable riding among cars, trucks and buses travelling at 50 kph and would certainly never dream of allowing their young children to do so. That's the demographic the cycleway is really aimed at, rather than existing cyclists (although any safety improvements for them are also most welcome). The argument that "the cycleway is just for a minority" only reinforces the size of the problem that needs to be overcome and is central to the business case for cycleways i.e. the payoff from even a modest increase in the numbers of people riding a bike could be huge. Also, when cycling numbers are as low as they are you won't change the status quo by simply asking the status quo if it wants to change.
The belief that streets should act as thoroughfares, not destinations, and the conviction that bikes belong on side streets, not on main streets
"When behind the wheel of a car, travelling upwards of 50 km/hr, people see the world through a windshield, and therefore don’t focus on the shops they are racing past. By returning to a pre-1950’s mindset, high streets can become destinations where neighbours connect, and spending at local markets and shops increase. Relationships are built, and the idea of a well-knit community becomes a greater reality."
"Relegating bikes to backstreets only reinforces the idea that they are built for commuting and recreation, and not transportation."
The Parade is an arterial route, with a 50 kph speed limit along most of its length and one of the most frequent bus services in Wellington. It is very clearly dominated by motorised traffic, both moving and stationary. In fact, the dominance is so great that we all seem to have developed a mass case of "Stockholm syndrome" where we blindly accept that the car is king even if it is not always in our best interests. This is not a war on cars (and most cyclists are motorists too) but it's fair to ask whether the dominance of the car has come about simply because of a lack of other options. It's also completely legitimate to question whether that dominance is a sustainable situation.
In a classic example of this "Stockholm syndrome", some cyclists have complained that the new cycleway is not for them because it doesn't allow them to travel at the kinds of speeds that they are used to. That's fair enough, but they also need to realise that's a type of cycling that excludes a significant number of people from riding a bike. It is reasonable to ask commuter cyclists to change their behaviour slightly in order to get more people on bikes? I think so. In my own case I only ride fast and "take the lane" because it is the safest way to ride in traffic. I am forced to ride as if I am a car. I have quickly discovered that as soon as I get on the cycleway, however, I naturally want to slow down a bit, relax, and enjoy a hassle free ride. I've even started stopping occasionally to say hi to people I know, something I wouldn't have done when racing past at 30 kph trying to keep up with the traffic. The difference between riding the 1.5 km length of The Parade at 15 kph and 30 kph is actually only a few minutes and I certainly don't mind sacrificing a few minutes of my commute for the greater good.
The perception gap around how customers actually arrive at a business
"We’ve seen this recurring theme in cities around the world, which may be the biggest mental block for businesses opposing better transit and bike infrastructure. The simple fact is this: every person has a wallet, but not everyone owns a car. Businesses continually underestimate how many of their customers arrive by foot, bicycle, or public transit"
This is very much related to the previous point. The perception gap among retailers about how customers arrive at their businesses is also true of New Zealand and has actually been confirmed in research by the New Zealand Transport Agency. NZTA research report 530 found that sustainable transport users account for 40% of the total spend in shopping areas and account for 37% of all shoppers. The data indicates that pedestrians and cyclists contribute a higher economic spend proportionately to the modal share and are important to the economic viability of local shopping areas. The study also identified that retailers generally overestimate the importance of on-street parking outside shops. Shoppers value high-quality pedestrian and urban design features in shopping areas more than they value parking and those who drive are willing to walk to the shopping precinct from other locally available parking areas. There's a whole lot more local and overseas evidence to support this point here.
It seems bizarre to me that local retailers don't embrace more walking and cycling as a great strategy for keeping local people shopping locally. Cars are actually a threat to local retailers because they allow people to take their business anywhere they like in the city. I don't have any problem with people exercising free choice but it seems strange that local businesses would be so wedded to competing for the attention of people in cars rather than positioning themselves as the attractive, local destination for people walking and cycling. This doesn't have to be to the exclusion of cars but it's just a fact that the more people who decide to make shopping trips by foot or by bike the better it will be for local business.
A failure to recognize the (rather lucrative) potential for tourism spending
"Imagine the tourism dollars that could spread from downtown and out to our many treasured locally owned businesses if we made their trip as safe and pleasant as riding along the downtown bikeways."
It would be easy to dismiss this point as being not that relevant to Island Bay but that just shows a lack of imagination. The south coast has plenty to offer to tourists and is part of The Great Harbour Way walking and cycling route. Companies such as Switched On Bikes are already offering eBike tours of Wellington so why couldn't a bike tour of the south coast end with a cruise up the cycleway for a coffee or lunch at one of our great cafes and a look around the shops?