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Choose Cycling
18 Oct, 2009 - BikeNZ - NZ Listener

Each Christmas, Transport Minister Steven Joyce pumps up his bike tyres, rides down the country road from his Albany home and reminds himself he really ought to do this more often. For the sake of relations between cyclists and drivers, it would be a good thing if he did. The sight of the country's transport leader biking to and from Parliament could be just the thing to transform New Zealand's cycling culture.

 

John Key might think about getting on his bike, too, if he wants to make his national cycleway project a success. Because until political leadership reminds motorists that cyclists are entitled to be on the roads, and deserve as much respect as cars, we don't have a hope of making New Zealand a successful international cycle-touring destination. In fact, word is already out that New Zealand is a dodgy place for cyclists: prominent UK author Josie Dew cycle-toured here and wrote a book about it, telling the world about New Zealand's terrible drivers.

 

In the bike v cars controversy following the recent Tamaki Drive crash in Auckland, cyclists have been berated for running red lights and not following the road rules. The suggestion seems to be that such offences obviate the need for better cycle safety - it's a bit like arguing that because some car drivers exceed the speed limit and drink-drive, motorists don't deserve road-safety measures.

 

It's no defence, but cyclists go through red lights for a variety of reasons: traffic lights are not synchronised to their speed and their bikes don't trigger the signals; and they're keen to get away from intersections ahead of the cars so they don't hold up the traffic and get honked by impatient drivers.

 

Still, in the interests of goodwill between cyclists (who are usually also drivers) and motorists, cyclists should obey the law. It wouldn't make the roads any safer, but it would remove a distraction from the public debate around cycling, and increase the likelihood that the real issues will be dealt with.

 

And those issues are significant. Commuter cycling numbers nationwide are shamefully low compared with European cities. Particularly worrying is the dwindling number of children biking to school. In the past 20 years, the proportion of primary school children being driven to school has gone from 31% to 56%. The number biking is down by two-thirds, and the number walking has almost halved. Among secondary school children, the number of walkers is the same as 20 years ago, but biking is barely a quarter of its 1989 level, and the number being driven is up from 20% to 35%.

 

This has obvious implications for New Zealand's future health budget, which is already weighed down by an obesity epidemic (it's probably no coincidence that the Dutch, with high rates of cycling, have an obesity rate less than half ours). But these trends also bode ill for the future of cycling as a mode of transport. Kids who don't bike will grow up to become young drivers who don't know what it's like to be on a bike, and therefore have no empathy for the cyclists with whom they share the road.

 

It's a chicken and egg problem: parents often want their kids to bike but perceive it to be too dangerous because of driver behaviour and the lack of lanes, safe crossing points and cycle-friendly road rules. Meanwhile, politicians seem to think that because most people drive cars, there are few brownie points to be won by making the kind of investment in cycling that could encourage more children - and their parents - to get back on their bikes.

 

The Tamaki Drive accident and its vitriolic aftermath shows that cycling in New Zealand is at a tipping point. We can choose either a vicious cycle downwards - clogged roads where bad-mannered drivers foam at the mouth when they have to slow down for a few seconds for a cyclist and where fewer people feel safe to bike to work or school; or a virtuous cycle, with improved infrastructure, clear rules such as the suggested 1.5m minimum clearance for cycles, and more tolerant drivers, leading to an increase in commuter cycling.

 

New Zealand has every reason to choose the latter. Whichever way you look at it - health, environmental, economic - cycling is a silver bullet. About the only negative thing about it is helmet hair - and if we make cycling as safe as the Europeans have, we could dispense with that, too.

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