How Wellington's Island Bay cycleway ended up dividing a community
How has the creation of a 1.7km cycleway ended up in suburban warfare? Michael Forbes reports.
Island Bay is a suburb at war.
The battle lines have been drawn, quite literally, in green and white paint through the heart of the community where a new cycleway has touched a nerve like never before in Wellington.
Local politicians and members of the press need only stand on The Parade for a minute or two before the locals stride over to offer their two cents.
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"It's turned our beautiful, wide road into a shambles," one man grumps. "It's too much of a headache to park here now," yells another.
A lycra-clad chap bikes past and praises how safe the new cycle lane is, but laments the grief he gets from locals while using it.
"There's so much anger. It's almost not worth using it for all the drama," he says.
The Island Bay cycleway, which spans a 1.7km stretch of The Parade from Wakefield Park to Shorland Park, is Wellington City's Council's bold attempt at protecting cyclists by placing them between the kerb and parked cars.
It is a common concept in other countries but not ours, and some people in Island Bay have not appreciated their suburb being used as a test bed.
The cycleway has been a mildly- controversial topic since first mooted back in 2013. But it exploded like a powder keg in September, not long after construction began.
The appearance of cars parked a metre or so towards the centre of the road was unsettling for some, and the ensuing backlash - or 'bikelash' as many call it - reverberated all the way to Wakefield St where councillors were at each other's throats.
Wellington's cycling mayor Celia Wade-Brown has copped plenty of heat over her support of the cycleway. Her presence at the Island Bay Festival earlier this month was met with boos and hisses.
"One of the wonderful things about Island Bay is that nobody is shy about sharing their opinions... which is pretty healthy, really," she says.
"Some people are actually quite happy about [the cycleway] and there's a generation of youngsters who are going to grow up using thier bikes a lot more than anyone else has in the past 20 years."
On the other side of the debate, southern ward councillor Paul Eagle - a long-time opponent of the cycleway's design - says he can't go grocery shopping anymore without someone bailing him up for opposing the cycleway.
"I've been in politics for five years and I've never seen anything like this... the personal attacks on my wife and myself have been appalling," he says.
"If you live in Island Bay and have a concern, you're not labelled an inquiring ratepayer, you're labelled 'anti-cycling'. Then there's this new term - you're not only anti-cycling, but you're also part of the 'bikelash'."
So where did all this bikelash come from then?
The Island Bay cycleway first appeared on planners' clipboards in 2013 when city council staff were looking for some "quick wins" to get the ball rolling on Wellington's proposed city-wide cycle lane network.
Councillors decided that year to prioritise an Island Bay to city route over other parts of the city. The route was then divided into four sections between Shorland Park on the south coast and Waitangi Park in the CBD.
Paul Barker, the council's safe and sustainable transport manager, says a decision was made to start at the southern end because the other sections were going to be more expensive and would likely be held up by other transport projects, such as planning over how to solve the Basin Reserve's transport woes.
The decision to place the Island Bay cycleway between the kerb and parked cars, rather than between parked cars and the road, was made in mid-2014 and council staff took that idea to the public for their view.
"I guess, back when we first started in Island Bay, many of the councillors may have expected we would do a traditional-style cycleway, with parking on the kerbside… because at that stage, no-one in New Zealand was talking about separated cycleways," he says.
"Whereas, when you look around the world at many of the big cycling nations who have gone through this development, they've gone from having shared space to some allocated space [for cyclists], through to fully-protected space.
"So we had an opportunity with this project to jump straight to the top of the class."
MUCH ADO ABOUT CYCLING
It was around this point that things started to go sour.
Island Bay resident Vicki Greco, who now heads the local residents association, does not have fond memories of council staff showing up in her suburb with their cycleway plans.
"They forgot about democracy and came to Island Bay with a win-at-all-costs attitude. They decided they wanted a cycleway and didn't give a damn about what anyone thought."
To begin with, only those people living on The Parade were consulted with, and the wider Island Bay community did not pick up on what was happening, Greco says.
Surveys were done to test the public's mood, but Greco says the questions like 'do you support having better facilities for cyclists' were a bit too vague.
"No-one is going to say no to that. But saying you want better facilities for cyclists is not the same as saying you want this cycleway."
By October 2014, 7291 people had offered their thoughts on the cycleway. About 87 of respondents living on The Parade, 57 per cent living in Island Bay and 45 per cent across Wellington did not support the proposed kerbside design.
Eagle says that if any other council project had generated numbers like that, staff would have "run a mile" from it.
But the council did not run, and instead formed a working group with members of the public on both sides of the debate. It lasted four meetings before the two members opposed to the cycleway resigned because they felt they weren't being listened to.
"The alarm bells were ringing then," Eagle says. "My colleagues dismissed what the locals were saying, and we started hearing, 'they'll get used to it, it'll be fine'.
"That's the height of arrogance because if the outcome of the project was going to be 'you'll get used to it' then all the consultation document needed to say was 'a cycleway is coming to Island Bay, good luck and Merry Christmas'."
Council staff are adamant they did everything possible to consult with the public both in person and through the Annual Plan process.
Barker points out the cycleway plans went through many different iterations. A set of traffic lights at Dee St were removed and the amount of lost parking spaces was pegged back to appease the locals.
"Every time we went out [to consult the public], we'd receive feedback and we would end up altering the plans. The final design that's been built is nothing like what we went out [to the public] with."
The adequacy of the council's consultation was the subject of an Ombudsman's complaint in 2015. The subsequent investigation found the council had not acted unreasonably but was not necessarily beyond reproach.
Eagle's view on the matter is more clear-cut. If council staff had done a proper job of listening to the public then there would be no cycleway at all.
"Staff should be neutral on the cycleway, but the feeling is that they were told to go to Island Bay and sell it," he says.
"The mayor has driven this because she wants a legacy to leave in Wellington. I've told her I think there will come a day when she gets her win and goes down in history, but she should let go of the Island Bay cycleway because the local people don't want it."
BOON FOR CYCLISTS OR DEATH TRAP?
A point that often gets lost in all the shouting is that those opposed to the cycleway are not all "anti-cycling", they are just against this particular kerbside design, Greco says.
While the idea may work elsewhere, she says believes it is not a great fit for Island Bay because the curvature of The Parade places vehicles at the highest point on the road and cyclists at the lowest, making them harder to see for motorists turning into the cycleway to access their driveways.
It also has the obvious effect of reducing the road space available to cars. A common site on The Parade these days is buses struggling to pass each other, and large lines of vehicles forming behind slow-moving rubbish trucks.
"We have traffic jams in Island Bay now. We never had traffic jams before."
Another bone of contention is whether or not The Parade was sufficiently unsafe in the first place to warrant protecting cyclists to this degree. Greco says it was not.
"It's always been safe place to cycle," she says. "I used to cycle to and from work [in the city] all the time and whenever I got back to Island Bay I'd think 'whew, I'm safe again'."
Barker acknowledges the number of cycle crashes reported in the five years prior to planning the Island Bay cycleway was zero.
But there weren't many cyclists using the road back then either, he says.
"There wasn't much of a cycleway [in Island Bay] prior to all of this, so you had to be pretty committed to the cause if you were out there on a bike."
The Island Bay cycleway was not created to cater to the existing "hardcore" cyclists, but to provide a facility that would encourage those afraid of cycling on Wellington's streets to jump on a bike.
Council surveys during development of the cycleway found that 76 per cent of Wellingtonians would cycle more if it was safer for them to do so.
Wade-Brown says that anyone who thought the disjointed sections of cycleway that used to exist on The Parade were good enough had probably never been on a bike before.
"I'm not afraid to cycle on almost any [Wellington] road... but a lot of people are," she says. "There's plenty of international evidence that says protected cycleways are needed to make a real differnce."
"That's why we've only got about five or six per cent of people cycling to work in Wellington, not 12 or 20 per cent."
Another reason why the cycleway is misunderstood at the moment is because the other parts of Wellington's proposed $101m cycle lane network have not yet been built around it.
The original plan was to have the next section, between Wakefield Park and John St, planned and ready to go by now. But planning for the rest of the route by the New Zealand Transport Agency's failed attempt to build a Basin Reserve flyover, which has put a hold on many other transport projects across the city.
Despite this, both Wade-Brown and Barker are confident the people of Island Bay will eventually warm to the cycleway if it is given enough time to bed in.
The council says its safety will be reviewed after the final licks of the green paint are applied in March, and has not ruled out switching back to a roadside cycleway some day if the people demand it.
Because, at the end of the day, all this fuss is over a couple of painted lines.
THE PRO-CYCLEWAY PEOPLE SAY
* It will boost cyclist numbers by making cycling safer thanks to the barrier of parked cars between them and the road.
* The Island Bay section will eventually connect to the CBD and a wider city network of cycle lanes.
* The new raised pedestrian crossings have made traffic respect The Parade's 30kmh speed limit.
* More people cycling to and from Island Bay will boost economic activity
THE ANTI-CYCLEWAY PEOPLE SAY
* The layout has made The Parade more dangerous by limiting motorists' visibility and reducing their road space.
* The new cycleway is pointless because The Parade was never unsafe for cyclists in the first place.
* It has been imposed on the people of Island Bay against their wishes.
* Kerbside cycleways may be a good fit for cities like Copenhagen or Portland, but not for Wellington
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- The Dominion Post