I was lucky enough to be one of the almost 50 New Zealanders to attend the international cycling conference Velo-City 2014, this year held in Adelaide. It was a big conference, with 170 presenters I had to be choosy, and other participants will have absorbed different perspectives. Here are some of the themes that took my fancy:
- E-Bikes: becoming known in Europe as “Pedlec”, generally with a power up to 300 watts (a fit adult can generate up to around 150 watts for an hour or so). These are seen as providing access to cycling for less fit people, and those who don’t wish to “sweat” their ride. E-bikes can feel safer, since there’s a reserve of power to accelerate out of tricky situations. However there are practical and policy issues about allowing E-Bikes on, for example, shared paths. E-Bikes can have a higher accident rate, since users may not be used to the power and weight of the bike. Training may be needed for E-Bike users. A newer class of E-bike, the Pedelec-S, with power ratings over 300 watt, is gaining popularity, but is closer to a motorbike in performance and role in the transport system. The Dutch are looking at solar powered “charge as you ride” systems for E-Bikes.
- Frome Street Bikeway: this had to overcome local objections (a la Island Bay) but seems to be working well. One section has well implemented parking protected cycle lanes, with generous buffer zones for passengers to exit parked cars, and space for cars to cross the cycle lane and enter the traffic lane as separate maneuvers.
- Bike facilities help, rather than hinder, business. The ubiquitous Mikael Colville-Anderson recounted how his Copenhagen based children were puzzled about cities that didn’t have bike lanes “how can you go shopping if you can’t go on a bike lane?”
- Cycle Superhighways: I was blown away by the ambition of the Europeans, who are creating real Cycle Superhighways (under various names, Radschnellweg in German), designed for biking at average speeds of 23km/hr and commute distances of 20km. Construction costs are in the order of €1 million/km, but cost benefit ratios can be as high as 1:4. An indication of European priorities was a Dutch project which involved putting the superhighway in a tunnel under a motorway. The motorway was closed for a week while this was done!
- Selling cycling in the media. We had a practical demonstration of this after the “Big Bike Ride Brekky” (Adelaide’s Go By Bike Day breakfast) when there were claims in the normally bike-friendly Adelaide Advertiser that the event and the ride to the conference venue had created traffic jams of up to an hour – which seemed unlikely given that the ride lasted less than half an hour! Phil Latz advocated setting the media agenda through language: not “cyclists” but “people who cycle”, or “active travelers”. Patrick Morgan espoused the value of bike baskets (or “man crates”) in humanizing bicycles, in contrast to the Eddy Merckx “cannibal” image of cyclists. Julian Ferguson introduced his presentation with a brisk ukelele solo, then gave us some hints on what the media needs in a story: novelty, proximity (talk about your local bikeway, not Copenhagen), human interest, timeliness, and conflict (which needs care: a good example was a story of a truck driver and a cyclist both blaming the roading authorities for the accident they were involved in).
- Backing up our claims with data. Janette Sadik-Khan, the transport czar who changed New York to a cycling and walking paradise, was of course inspirational. But one of her quotes resonated through the conference: “In God we trust, all others bring data.” [she ascribed this to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but apparently it originated with W. Edwards Deming]
- Signage for cycle networks. Signing is important not just for existing cyclists, but to encourage new cyclists. Warren Salomen highlighted a useful set of guidelines created for Queensland Dept of Transport and Main Roads.
- Cycling on footpaths: we’re often asked why we don’t just let cyclists use the footpath, as they do in Japan. The answer was in a presentation by Hirotaka Koike, who explained that Japan only started allowing cyclists to use footpaths in the 1970s as a temporary measure, and that they are are now working to get cyclists off the footpaths and onto dedicated cycle facilities, because of the increasing accident rate.
- Promoting active lifestyles: one speaker mentioned a Brazilian doctor who prescribes Agitol to his heart patients, a miracle wafer that prevents heart attacks and is vital for cardiac recovery. However Agitol is only effective if taken in conjunction with a 30 minute walk or bike ride…
I had my own bike, but attendees could borrow robust public rental bikes from the conference venue. Social events included the “Moving Images Bike Tour”, a night time tour of Adelaide with illuminated art works generated by a bike mounted projector, and a tour of the urban trails in the suburb of Mitcham – a “mainly downhill” ride on a mixture of single track, fire trails and urban commuting routes. This was a great way to finish the conference.
So what are the lessons for Wellington?
- It’s worth doing cycle facilities properly, even if it takes time. The standard way for Europeans to raise a laugh was to show a slide of one of London’s “Cycle Superhighways” – usually a blue strip of paint wrapped around a telephone pole with a mini parked in the cyclists path.
- Don’t assume that the rest of community sees cycling as the elixir that we do. Selling cycling isn’t easy, and we need to stress the benefits to the whole community, and avoid the perception that we’re disrupting neighborhoods for our our selfish pleasure. Be prepared to back up our claims with data.
- Think about how we’re going to handle E-Bikes – for example should they be allowed on share paths such as the Wellington Waterfront?
PS: Adelaide isn’t a bad base for cycle touring. If you’d like to check out the biking I did after the conference: