Leg power to the fore
"It's part of our role as a model community to do new things."MATT RILKOFF
From a standing start, New Plymouth's role as New Zealand's walking and cycling guinea pig is now an increasingly confident $6.5 million two-year-old.
The city's walking tracks have been widened and upgraded, its roads chequered with prominent green cycle lanes, and three streets have either undergone or are halfway through a personality change to make them as amenable to people as to cars.
Overall, and not counting the coastal walkway, it's not much to look at right now, but it's enough for the government to commit a further $7m to the New Plymouth District Council to continue and consolidate the transformation for another three years.
And though it won't be finished even then, it is hoped New Plymouth's physical and social experiment developing its walking and cycling infrastructure puts it on a path the rest of the country can follow.
"It's part of our role as a model community to do new things that promote active transport, and showcase to our community and visitors some new ways of looking at streets," says the fast-talking Carl Whittleston of the council's Let's Go Walk, Ride, Bus programme.
"We are looking to even the balance so that walking, riding and driving are . . . equally . . . attractive. It's no small task.”
With a shortage of comprehensive hard evidence that his work is making an appreciable difference at this early stage, Mr Whittleston knows the project is a long-term game of faith. Which is why much of the effort is spent on social infrastructure, the type of thing you can't immediately see, like programmes to get kids walking and biking to school over being dropped off by mum or dad.
‘These are our future high school kids, these are our future drivers, our adults starting to make decisions about how they will get to work, how they will travel around their city," he says.
Travelling around the coastal city under self-generated steam is not for everyone. Imposing hills make up part of almost any journey, cycle lanes are just painted lines on busy roads, and wet, windy days can sometimes seem to outnumber their opposites.
The answer to one of those problems could come in the form of electric bikes, and the answer to another has been found in Hastings, also experimenting with ways to get their community biking.
"Prior to 2009 cyclists were rare; perhaps they felt like they didn't belong," says Hastings District Council sustainable transport engineer Owen Mata.
"Now they are increasingly visible on the streets, and campaigns to make drivers more courteous and accepting appear to be working. The more cyclists there are on the road the safer it is."
The United States city of Portland has experienced the same phenomenon. Reported bicycle accidents have stayed at a near-constant 2500 a year despite the number of cyclists on the roads increasing five-fold in the past 20 years.
Two decades ahead of where New Plymouth is now, Portland is frequently held up as a positive example of how a city can change its transportation behaviour and the benefits it can bring.
In simple money terms the 15,000 journeys some of its 537,000 residents take on bikes each day is estimated to save them a cumulative $1.6 billion a year in cash not spent on cars and associated costs.
Walking and cycling can save money in other ways too, with reduced hospital costs following on from an increase in physical fitness, says Taranaki medical officer of health Greg Simmons.
"Any changes we see in terms of healthcare use are well into the future, so we have to be philosophical about that.
"But people participating in activity of the sort we are talking about - 30 minutes a day - should see themselves having more energy, lower stress levels, improvements in positional balance, better posture, stronger muscles."
The initiatives beginning now could also help secure New Plymouth's future. A July report into the district's economic development stressed the importance of "urban form and place shaping" as a "means to attract and retain innovative and productive people".
One of the criteria to attract these people was "connectedness", arguably exactly what Let's Go facilitates both physically and socially as it gets people out of the isolation of their cars and into their community.
"You cannot put a value on it in terms of money," says English immigrant Stuart Heighway of his five-minute coastal walkway commute.
"Being able to do that frees up so much of your time. It doesn't feel like the whole day is taken up working."
A crushing hour-long commute back home was part of the reason the project manager chose New Plymouth as a place to live when he moved to New Zealand three months ago. Getting around is easier, he says. You can walk most places.
Now, and if you are prepared to wait, you can bus most places too, with the Taranaki Regional Council launching an improved service about the same time as Let's Go got going.
Buses remain relatively empty outside the morning and afternoon school-week rush, but non-student passenger numbers are growing. Last year, of the 535,866 bus rides taken, 33,924 were by mature passengers, a 39 per cent increase on the year before.
As with the buses, Robert Coe, of New Plymouth's Cycle Inn, is also seeing his mature-cyclist base grow along with the Let's Go programme.
What he doesn't see is a reversal of a worrying trend among high school students to ditch their bikes as a means of getting to school.
"Thousands of kids used to bike to school here. Now it's in the hundreds," he says.
The issue, as he sees it, is safety and car drivers who are less than generous to the pedalling population, which is the perception and attitude Let's Go programmes have a long-term goal of changing.
"The problem hardly exists in other countries in the world," he says. "Here if you are knocked down they say you shouldn't be on the road. I have had people say that."
It's no secret district councillor Lance Girling-Butcher is a champion of the programmes, but he knows safety concerns are one of the biggest challenges facing any initiative to get people on bikes.
Improvements are made as problems are identified he says, but work on the district's Te Henui, Huatoki, Mangaotuku, Waiwhakaiho and Mangati pathways to improve their surface and make them wider already provide cycling and walking options safer than any road. And more pleasant.
"It's just added so much to this green city for me and the ability of people to enjoy the outdoors [yet] hardly leaving their house," he says.
"It's sort of an intangible thing but it's going to make such a difference."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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