Episode 4 - New Zealand planning for walking and cycling – historical outline

Roger Boulter’s recent book draft (on www.boulter.co.nz) won a 2020 WSP Golden Foot Award. This post outlines matters covered in chapters 5 and 6, which give a historical background.

New Zealand planning for walking and cycling – until about 2008

New Zealand’s first planning for cycling was at local authority level. Christchurch was notable for City Engineer Mike Gadd using the 1977 Geelong Bike Plan as the basis for his own 1986 Cycling Strategy network of ‘back street routes’ throughout the city, and for trialling (with central government support) New Zealand’s first cycling facilities.

Interest built up through the 1990s, fuelled by cycling conferences and, in 1996, the founding of the Cycling Advocates’ Network (now Cycling Action Network). But central government remained uninvolved, except for road safety messages based on the onus for cyclists to ‘take care’, and a few cycling facility trial designs. The late 1990s saw significant innovation at local authority level (especially Christchurch).

In 1999-2000 small-grant funded projects outside government, Roger Boulter’s NZ Cycling Strategy Foundation Project and Reena Kokotailo’s National Pedestrian Project laid a foundation for the National Walking and Cycling Strategy which Reena Kokotailo went on to write after her move to the Ministry of Transport. After these projects started, a 1999 change of government, and its 2002 revamp of transport policy, signalled a new, positive approach to planning for walking and cycling. The national strategy was formally launched in 2005, followed by its 2006 Implementation Plan and then its flagship Model Communities project (based on Hastings and New Plymouth).

From the early 2000s professional training courses, more cycling conferences, foundation of walking advocacy body Living Streets Aotearoa and walking conferences, broadened specialist knowledge away from just advocates, to now involve some mainstream professionals and government officials. Official guides on cycle network planning and pedestrian planning followed in 2004.

The two very different constituencies of infrastructure engineers and road safety educators were brought together. Peace also broke out between the conflicting official messages of road safety’s “cycling is dangerous!” and health professionals’ “cycling is the best way to safeguard your health” through SASTA (the Safe and Sustainable Transport Association).

Then a 2008 change of government put planning for walking and cycling on the policy back-burner for a while (except for the 2009 NZ Cycle Trail initiative). When it re-emerged nearly 10 years later, it was very different.

New Zealand planning for walking and cycling – from about 2008 onwards

The 2008 NZ Cycle Trail initiative, to create jobs through (especially international) tourism broke a mould. Previously, ‘leisure’ or ‘recreational’ cycling was considered ineligible for transport funding as ‘not transport’ and of no public benefit. Now it was seen as a jobs-booster.

With the 2005 National Walking and Cycling Strategy now having been actively disregarded by government for some years, the injection in 2015 of $100M funding for major ‘cycleway projects’ – more money than had ever been devoted to cycling previously – and creation of a National Cycling Team at NZTA, lost valuable lessons from the past. Even basic principles, such as the Geelong Bike Plan ‘four E’s’ lesson that infrastructure and non-infrastructure elements needed to proceed together, were seemingly forgotten.

With the emphasis on infrastructure projects (and big ones at that) the 1996 lesson from the Netherlands was also lost that reducing and slowing traffic must be central to any initiative to help cycling (this was happening at the same time as ‘Roads of National Significance’).

Worse, some official and cycling advocacy voices were saying that cyclists must be taken out of the traffic flow and that if ‘cycleways’ could not be provided for this (as, in most cases, they practically can’t be), then cyclists should be allowed to legally ride on footpaths. Concerns raised by Living Streets Aotearoa, and seniors and disability bodies, were dismissed by citing worse crash data for cyclists on-road than for walkers on-footpath.

Apart from ignoring (as Jan Gehl has shown) that people need to feel comfortable for walking to thrive (no official data in this debate so far has related to potential for people to be deterred from walking through feeling unsafe), this also loses the very important past lesson that the needs of walking are very different from those of cycling and must not be conflated with them.

Reena Kokotailo, while preparing her 2000 National Pedestrian Project, had warned strongly against what she called “the joined at the hip problem”. If ‘walking and cycling’ were bracketed together in public policy, cycling as more iconic would inevitably dominate, she warned. This has always been the case in National Land Transport Fund ‘Walking and Cycling Activity Class’ funding since 2002. Now this problem was reinforced with the 2015 National Cycling Fund.

In the last few years this problem has taken the form of proposals to legalise footpath cycling, and an implied (not always officially explicit) assumption that the increasing numbers of ‘low-powered vehicles’ (e.g. e-scooters) will use footpaths and not roadways (although legally they can often use either). Answering concerns by citing crash, injury and hospital data ignores the wider adverse effects to society, in a whole range of areas, if people are put off walking because they feel unsafe.

Many positive achievements can be cited from this period, such as advancement of cycling facility designs in Christchurch, and Paul McArdle’s Bikes in Schools initiative. But the marginalisation of needs of walking from wider transport planning – less iconic but arguably much more important than cycling – seems as big a problem as it has ever been.