Is the cycleway a winner?

BY NICK CHURCHOUSE
Last updated 05:00 21/03/2009
Annette Turnbull-Dew
ON TO A WINNER?: Is Prime Minister John Key's national cycleway New Zealand's Yellow Brick Road, promising thousands of jobs and packs of pedalling tourists?

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It might seem strange that the idea for a national cycleway came from a luxury real estate agent who has not ridden a bike for 40 years.

Graham Wall is the man behind the idea, in that he ''wrote it down on a bit of paper and happened to put it in the Prime Minister's hand'' but admits he is not an active cyclist. ''The last time I had a bike was 1969, it was a Raleigh Sport.''

That piece of paper has become a national fascination; one that will take a lot of wrangling before it can pass muster with the countless parties pushing their own pedals in the discussion. 

The cycleway concept took hold at the recent Job Summit, a last minute proposal raised by Prime Minister John Key, described as creating thousands of jobs, millions in tourist revenue and building a national recreational asset.  

Now Ministry of Tourism chief executive Ray Salter is the go-to man, heading up the feasibility study for Mr Key's pet project. 

The amount of interest it has generated seems both a blessing and a curse for Mr Salter, charged with bringing the near-unfathomable project to fruition.

Several things are clear from the outset, no matter who you talk to. 

A 2000 kilometre concrete cycle lane from Cape Reinga to Bluff is of no interest to anyone, least of all tourists who typically want a few scenic days in the saddle and a coffee stop every couple of hours.  

The $50 million ''back of an envelope'' budget is not enough for a national cycleway. The initial $30 million estimate has already been forgotten.

And creating 3700 jobs, the Prime Minister's estimate, is possible but will take years.

The Ministry of Tourism is looking at a five-year outlook for its feasibility report, Mr Salter says. The rest of the details are up in the air.  

Connecting with a few cycling aficionados for some concrete ideas to give to Mr Key, Mr Wall was astounded by the enthusiasm he encountered stemming from initiatives and brainstorming underway around the country.   

He said the co-operative energy and open-minded generosity of ideas for the idea in the cycling community was encouraging and inclusive.  

One of the people he spoke to was Bike NZ cycling development manager John Wilmer, who is busy allocating resources within the two-wheeled organisation to the project which is potentially a dream come true for the cycling community.   

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Mr Wilmer is eager it does not become sidetracked.  

''The last thing the Government or the public wants is a white elephant. We can't afford that. There is very little investment into cycling infrastructure in New Zealand, so the last thing we want to do is pour money into something that isn't successful.''

The feeling Mr Wall picked up on is real. There are already many cycling projects gaining momentum around the country.  

The growing success of the Central Otago Rail Trail, a 150-kilometre ride from Middlemarch to Clyde, has spawned copycat ideas in Southland and nearby Roxburgh. The Gisborne-Napier railway route is being openly discussed as another pedallers' highway.  

Mr Wilmer points out that the national idea will not be starting from scratch, with the ideal concept being to link established cycle routes to develop a network.

''I think what we are saying is north to south yes, but it is most likely to be a zig zag, picking up the iconic areas that will attract cycle tourists.''   

 Even Mr Key, not a renowned cycle tourer, admits rolling out a cycle lane from Cape Reinga south along State Highway 1 would ''not be particularly pleasurable''.   

Geoff Gabites is a renowned cycle tourer and guide, having run cycle tours locally and in Australia, Vietnam and Japan since 1992 with his company Adventure South.

He applauds the energy the concept has stimulated but says the solution is a long way off.  

''The idea of the north cape to Bluff is a headline grabber; the important thing is to see what outcomes are actually being sought.''   

The Central Otago Rail Trail has become a household name in the past few years.  Mr Gabites says the evolution of the trail has been astounding since being opened as a backpacker activity in 1999.  

''You could see it changing. Suddenly the dormitory rooms were being divided into doubles with bathrooms, and now we have Kokonga Lodge, $250 a night in the middle of the rail trail. As it has become more comfortable you have broadened the market.''

The market is huge. 

The cycling community in Australian state Victoria has boomed to about 40,000 registered members in a few years and other states are not far behind. 

Boosted by the explosion in pedal-powered tourism Australian tour company Kirratours has been selling trips to the Central Otago Rail Trail since 2007, and more recently focused on bike events around Taupo.  

Spokeswoman Tracey Green says New Zealand is becoming known as a cycling destination and the rail trail tours are selling as far away as Britain.  

''Cycling has become a lot more popular in Australia in the past few years, it's been promoted more, there's a lot more presence in the market.'' 

Mr Wilmer says that is worth listening to, as New Zealand has not even started selling cycling.  

''There's been very little international marketing of any cycling product in New Zealand. Given that proximity, if we have the products here, there's no doubt the Australians will come and ride them. When you start talking about Europe, there's large numbers of population that are very in tune with cycling.''   

New Zealand's marketing boss, Tourism New Zealand chief executive George Hickton, is holding his professional opinion until the concept takes some shape.  

But he agrees a national network of ''iconic rides'' has huge potential. 

''Cycling is a growing sport; it is the new golf in one sense.''  

Touring cyclists were no longer backpackers who could not afford a car, but in many cases were healthy wealthy tourists with plenty of money to spend.  That sits well with Tourism New Zealand's ideal tourist and cycling fits the country's image. 

''It certainly sits within the 100% PURE thing very well. It is consistent with the sort of experience we give people.  

''We need to say here are five great rides in New Zealand that you must do, and they may well be part of a national cycleway but they have to be iconic things, the cycling equivalent of the Milford Track and Tongariro Crossing.

''If we have a network of great rides, it becomes a reason for coming to New Zealand and that is what we would need,'' Mr Hickton says.

The benefits could be wider than tourism, even discounting the jobs and industry from building tracks and infrastructure.  

Adjacent towns could benefit from integrating their own transport networks into the cycleway, Bike NZ's John Wilmer says   

''A branded national cycle trail comes with expectations about what they should experience.'' 

Local councils already had cycle strategies, but most were at the bottom of the funding lists.  ''There's the opportunity to pick up the planning that has been done and give it a push along.''  

Otago University recreation and tourism lecturer Anna Thompson goes one further, saying any national cycleway will require a national wakeup.  

''New Zealand is behind the eight ball by a couple of decades in terms of cycle services for commuting, or the ability to go on extended cycle tours.''

She says experienced cycle tourists are used to destinations like Germany and the Netherlands and expect the infrastructure to support a cycle route. 

''All the villages and towns are accessible by cycle, and their trains and their buses are set up to take cycles if people don't want to cycle all the way.'' 

Dr Thompson said in places you could directly translate what was happening in Europe to New Zealand.  

''Tourists are astute, and when it comes to our clean green image they can be offended if those options aren't there and they are restricted in the types on transport they can use.'' 

The Central Otago Rail Trail has had its own teething troubles Mr Gabites says, with complaints cyclists could not get a soy latte. 

 ''Now there is probably 25 kilometres between coffee stops. That's symptomatic of meeting the demands of people that want to go cycling.''

The example highlights the challenge in the multiple objectives Mr Salter has to include in his assessment, something he is very aware of. 

''All those ingredients have to go into the mix, we just have not organised them yet. It will end up a pick and mix arrangement, but we want to work on the 'what' first, before we jump to the 'how'. We could very easily get distracted and end up with a solution which is not what you want.''

Putting budget blowouts, tourist expectations, regional aspirations, and myriad stakeholder groups, what you want is the sort of national concept that might get Mr Wall back on his bike. Which is just what he will do if the idea he scrawled on a piece of paper ends up spread across the country.  

''What if you could [go cycling] without cars? Imagine doing it from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the south; my mind was racing, I fell more and more in love with it.''    

 

- © Fairfax NZ News

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