Dear Sarah (and Chris)…An open letter from a person who bikes

Get on with it Rally
Back in 2015 people who bike demanded that WCC “lift its act” – will the new Council up its game?

An open letter to Sarah Free (WCC councillor, Public Transport, Cycling and Walking) and (Chris Calvi-Freeman (WCC councillor, Transport strategy and operations) from a person who bikes.

Dear Sarah and Chris

Congratulations on your new roles. Here’s three things to think about as we work to make Wellington a livable city: transport strategy criteria, parking, and trial projects.

Three criteria for Transport strategy

We need to recognise the elephant on the roadway: the imminent threat of climate change. 56% of Wellington’s carbon emissions are from transport. While Wellington has a policy of becoming a “low carbon capital” we seem to have trouble in translating this into transport strategy. The UN is appealing for countries to “invest at least 20 per cent of their transport budgets in walking and cycling infrastructure to save lives, reverse pollution and reduce carbon emissions”

Other important pachyderms on the transport network include congestion (we’ve reached the limit of cars that can comfortably accommodated in the CBD), and healthy lifestyles (the obesity epidemic is partly due to reduced use of active and public transport).

When evaluating transport projects, three key criteria should be

  • will this reduce carbon emissions?
  • will this reduce overall congestion in the city?
  • will this promote healthy lifestyles?
Basin reserve congestion, 1910

In the past, we’ve tended to think about “transport” as moving cars, not people. An example is that the Basin Reserve “problem”, which seems to affect any transport planning in central Wellington, is often framed in terms of getting cars through, when the issue is really “How do we get people from the eastern and southern suburbs to and from the CBD, while reducing carbon emissions, congestion, and encouraging healthy lifestyles”. Framed like that, the answer is clearly frequent and efficient public transport, and making active transport, particularly biking, attractive. We don’t need tunnels and flyovers. We just need good bus lanes (eventually light rail) and cycle lanes through the Basin Reserve. Certainly there will continue to be a need for trips through the Basin Reserve to be made by motor vehicle, but what passes for “congestion” there would easily be solved by replacing even 30% of car trips by public and active transport.

Recognise the high cost of free parking

We need to recognise that provision of on-street parking comes at a high cost. Donald Shoup’s influential book The High Cost of Free Parking points out that like free lunches, there is no such thing as free parking. Apart from the cost of maintaining the road space used by on-street parking, from a cycling point of view free or cheap on-street parking uses space that could be used for bike lanes – there’s a high opportunity cost in providing on-street parking.

Retailers worry that removal of parking will hurt business, but in practice this doesn’t happen. A study of shoppers on Tory St found that only 6% used parking on the street.

People on bikes “holding up traffic”, Aro Street

Many Wellington streets are on hills, where people in cars perceive “cyclists holding up traffic” as they go slowly uphill. However in this picture:

  • The bike riders are reducing overall congestion by choosing to leave their cars at home.
  • If the uphill side of the road wasn’t occupied by parked cars, there would be room for a bike lane, making biking more attractive, and reducing the frustration of car drivers.
  • While residents may object to removal of parking, 70% of households on this stretch of road have off-street parking, meaning that resident parking could be accommodated by allowing parking on the downhill side where bikes can “take the lane” without impeding traffic.

In many cases, provision of free on-street parking encourages the purchase of second or third cars, or the use of garages for storage of possessions other than cars (a survey of one Wellington area showed that 80% of garages did not have cars in them).

Provision of free on-street parking on arterial routes fails our transport strategy criteria, encouraging the use of fossil fueled cars, congestion, and reducing exercise.

Wellington should phase out on-street parking on the uphill side of arterial routes, replacing it with bike lanes. To help people decide whether they really require this parking, we could introduce “arterial parking permits”, which if priced correctly would reduce parking demand to a level where parking would only be required on the downhill side.

Trial bicycle projects on a temporary basis

New York city has achieved a major shift in converting car dominated road space into a pedestrian and bike friendly environment. Janette Sadik-Khan, the responsible Transport Commissioner, describes how this was achieved in Street Fight: handbook for an urban revolution. One of the key tools was to put in facilities such as bike lanes on a temporary basis, using relatively cheap materials, and removing or modifying them if they didn’t work. The advantages are:

  • People can see what is proposed, rather than having to find out about and visualise from consultation documents.
  • A concept can be tested before attitudes have hardened, as has happened with the Island Bay cycleway (which incidentally was favoured by 60% of residents submissions in the initial consultation).

An example of a trial project might be a cycle lane on Jervois and Waterloo Quays to provide an alternative to the waterfront for fast bike commuters. Waterloo Quay has lost a lane temporarily as part of the construction of the PWC building at Kumutoto, without major disruption. So a trial cycle lane between Whitmore and Taranaki streets should be practical.

Quay Street cycleway
Auckland’s Quay St Cycleway – implemented quickly with relatively cheap planter boxes etc. A few hours after opening the counter read 336, 3 months later it had passed 50 000.

I look forward to your responses. Proposals that Wellington could be the Copenhagen of the South Pacific tend to be met with skepticism, but maybe we could emulate Almetyevsk, a city of a similar size to Wellington, which has built 50km of protected cycle routes in the first year of their bike programme.


Alastair Smith

Cycling in Wellington posts reflect the views of the author, unless otherwise stated.