Moving on from the almighty car: A change up for Christchurch's transport mix

STACY SQUIRES/STUFF

Charlotte Bebbington and Ken Ching have opened a shop in Christchurches CBD selling urban commuter bikes and electric bikes

In car-centric Christchurch, it still feels a brave call. Charlotte Bebbington​ and Ken Ching have opened a shop in the central city selling chic urban commuter bikes.

Bebbington is a young graphic designer returned after eight years in Shanghai. Ching is a Singaporean whose family developed the eZee Kinetic electric-bike range.

And their store – Action Bicycle Club – is certainly something different.

The usual Christchurch cycle shop is a shrine to sweat and testosterone. All fluro go-faster gear and grunty mountain bikes or spindly road racers.

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Action Bicycles sells step-throughs with full fenders, chain guards, bike stands and sturdy carrier racks.

Bebbington says not only are these traditional push-bikes practical, they are meant to spell out that life is not a perpetual race with cars. It is OK to pedal the roads at a gentle pace in the clothes you want to be wearing wherever it is you are going, a real psychological shift for Christchurch cycling.

Bebbington shows off the fashion-forward range of helmets for women. You can have a lid in fake crocodile skin or faux leopard pelt. There are special handbags with hidden clips that click on the back rack.

For rain, you want these simple ponchos, she says. Again wrong for speed, but right for urban cycling.

"The customers are young professional women in their 30s. They've seen the fashion ads of a girl on a step-through with a wicker basket, riding down to her local cafe," Bebbington says.

Ching shows off the more functional looking e-bike range. Battery assisted, this is another way of getting around in ordinary work clothes without a sense of battle and sweat.

Practical pedalling: Ken Ching says the time is ripe for a shop focused on urban commuter bikes.
STACY SQUIRES/STUFF

Practical pedalling: Ken Ching says the time is ripe for a shop focused on urban commuter bikes.

He admits the cost of an electric-powered bicycle is still an issue at $3000 to $4000 for a decent machine. But Christchurch is now building its network of 13 dedicated cycle paths. Anyone could start stacking up the kilometres with a machine that is doing most of the work.

So perhaps it looks a risk opening a specialist commuter cycling shop in Christchurch. But nationally, e-bike sales are soaring.

The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) says sales have shot up from 2,300 a year in 2014 to 14,000 in 2016. At this rate of growth, it could be 65,000 e-bikes a year within a decade.

The appearance of a shop dedicated to simple everyday cycling may be just a sign that even Christchurch is finally gearing up to challenge the overwhelming dominance of the almighty car.

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Change is knocking at the door. The general public quietly realises it says Dr Glen Koorey, a former Canterbury University engineering lecturer now working for Christchurch transport consultant ViaStrada.

Christchurch is of course a city where a car is just so damn convenient. There is parking everywhere and the sprawling design of its suburbs seems to demand private vehicle ownership.

Yet Koorey says people understand they could be only an economic crisis and oil price shock away from this car dependence being a big problem.

Christchurch's traffic congestion is also growing. For such a flat and open city, it is getting rather choked on its main routes.

And he says it is notable that when Christchurch residents were asked what they wanted during the council's post-quake Share an Idea consultation exercise, they called for a compact city with greener transport options.

Mobility as a service: ViaStrada's Glen Koorey says Airbnb-style schemes to rent out your car already exist.
JOHN MCCRONE/STUFF

Mobility as a service: ViaStrada's Glen Koorey says Airbnb-style schemes to rent out your car already exist.

Just before the earthquakes, the council had brought in Danish urban designer Jan Gehl to come up with European-style plans for Christchurch – cycle paths, light rail, street calming.

"At the time, a lot of those recommendations seemed pretty radical. The report was politely parked. But then the earthquakes came along and it has been a game-changer. People have said, yeah, we actually want those things."

So there is a general mandate for change. The only problem now is to figure out how to deliver – especially with post-quake Christchurch having become even more spread out with people shifting to Halswell and Belfast, Rolleston and Rangiora.

Taking out the crystal ball, what could be the future for transport in Christchurch?

In the past, transport planning for the city has suffered because the responsibility was divided between several authorities.

Environment Canterbury (ECan), the regional council, was responsible for running the city's Metro bus service for instance. That never sat well with Christchurch City Council (CCC). Much bickering resulted.

But since the earthquakes and the obvious need to work together, a Greater Christchurch Public Transport Joint Committee has been set up. Waimakariri and Selwyn district councils are included too.

Finally everyone is around the same table, ready to put money into an integrated plan that can balance all the different transport modes.

CCC head of strategic planning Richard Osborne says a first step – one the council could take on its own – is already underway with the building of a new city network of cycle paths.

After some to and fro when recovery budgets were being discussed, the council decided to press ahead with a network of 13 cross-town routes to be built over seven years at a cost of $156 million.

Accessorised to the max: Leather look helmets and smart handbags at Action Bicycle Club.
STACY SQUIRES/STUFF

Accessorised to the max: Leather look helmets and smart handbags at Action Bicycle Club.

The first four are being completed now. So that will be revolutionary for Christchurch.

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The other big question – what to do about public transport – is what the new joint committee picked up last year. Business cases for the various options are being developed at the moment, Osborne says.

A report to the transport committee in March certainly highlighted why Christchurch's current Metro system is failing to offer an attractive alternative to cars.

Having to share the same congested rush-hour roads, buses really are the "loser cruisers", travelling at an average speed of 14 kilometres per hour compared to the 28kph of a car.

The report said a trip from Belfast into the CBD takes 37 minutes by Metro, 12 minutes by car. From New Brighton, it is 34 minutes by Metro, 11 minutes by car.

So while the city has invested in a flash new central bus station and suburban bus lounges, Metro usage is in fact on the decline again. There was a slight recovery in passengers in 2014 and 2015, but the trend line is pointing downwards once more.

A big rethink is needed. And Osborne says the joint committee is going into it with a completely open mind.

He says many of the options will be familiar having been canvassed in the past. Commuter rail, suburban trams, a rapid bus network with its own dedicated road corridors. But nothing is yet fixed.

"If we're going to move to a more rapid form of public transport, what does that potentially look like and what will it cost? We might decide that what we've got at the moment just needs small tweaks, or it might be something quite significant."

And more to the point, Osborne says any Christchurch investment in publicly-funded alternatives has to recognise that transport technology has now entered another era of rapid change.

There are electric bikes and electric cars. Autonomous or self-driving vehicles are coming – Christchurch Airport is already running New Zealand's first trial with a robot shuttle bus.

Promoting bike share: Mayor Lianne Dalziel (centre) on one of the new Spark bikes at their 2015 launch.
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/STUFF

Promoting bike share: Mayor Lianne Dalziel (centre) on one of the new Spark bikes at their 2015 launch.

And then technology in the form of smartphone apps is going to revolutionise the possibilities when it comes to ride-sharing and other forms of "mobility as a service".

Osborne says before the earthquakes, it might have seemed obvious the council needed to build clearways or fully separated bus lanes down the middle of major routes like Riccarton and Papanui Rd.

This would have allowed buses to cut through the traffic, creating a true rapid bus system. Then having reserved a physical corridor in the centre of these roads, later they could be upgraded to a full tram-line as the public transport demand grew.

Those plans had been sketched out. But now, as with the boulevarding of Manchester St, much can be achieved more simply, Osborne says.

"If you look at the design for Manchester St, that has bus priority measures in it. But not quite as people envisaged in the past. A lot of it's done through optimisation of traffic signals these days rather than having a clearway."

So the future is fluid. And Osborne adds that the watchword for the public is options. He says what Christchurch needs is a healthy mix of ways to get about so people can make their own decisions.

"It's not about forcing people into a particular mode of travel. It's about providing people with good choices for using them."

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So what has changed? ECan public transport manager Stewart Gibbon says a big difference is the way payment technology is allowing transport options to be glued together – this notion of mobility as a service.

In Christchurch, bicycles and buses – the car's two principal rivals – are starting to be partnered in ways that may help tip the balance.

Gibbon says what often puts people off public transport is doing "the last mile". Either to get to a bus or tram stop, or to complete their journey in the city, there is still a fair walk. So Christchurch has been trialling a public bike-share scheme.

All aboard?: Metro bus use has begun to decline again after small post-quake recovery.
JOSEPH JOHNSON/STUFF

All aboard?: Metro bus use has begun to decline again after small post-quake recovery.

This began in 2012 as a private venture using imported German Nextbikes. Then through crowd-funding and backing from telco Spark, it has been rolled out as six bike ranks spread around the central city.

Gibbon says in May, Transport Minister Simon Bridges unveiled an upgrade where users can tap a Metro card to pay and unlock a bicycle.

It is a small beginning. But making it easy to switch modes will help commuters form new habits. They can get door to door without having to worry about the cost of central city parking.

Gibbon says overseas the next step is already dockless bikes – public bicycles that can be hired and left anywhere, not need to be returned to a rack. GPS and immobilisers help take care of the security.

This kind of on demand rental technology is going to keep on improving and so the solution for Christchurch – if it wants to move away from cars – is to be at the forefront as an adopter, Gibbon says.

ViaStrada's Koorey says mobility as a service is going to be a basic shift in mindset. It could change many people's relationship to transport.

The old model felt like a binary choice. It was privately-owned versus publicly-shared. Once you had a car, it was not only a thing of personal pride, it also represented a sunk cost. Having bought it, taxed it, insured it and serviced it, you had to use it.

But Koorey says the young are already thinking differently about car ownership. There is not the same rush as there used to be.

If their parents aren't at the end of the phone to provide a taxi service, they can text friends to share rides or combine to pay for an Uber. Technology is being used to knit together solutions informally.

Now this same loosening of the ties to ownership could become widespread in society as smartphone-based mobility services begin to grow.

Koorey says Airbnb-style start-ups exist which allow people to rent out their cars when they are not using them. New Zealand has several already. "My Car Your Rental, YourDrive and RoamRide are three I'm aware of."

A share of the road: Cycle paths are a $156 million investment for the city.
ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

A share of the road: Cycle paths are a $156 million investment for the city.

You can imagine leaving your car at the airport for the day and renting it out to someone else flying in the other way. "While you're away, your car could be working for you, earning some money."

Koorey says it sounds scary but the risks will be managed by the technology. "Like Airbnb, you'd have to be a subscriber to the services. So they'd know all about you. They'd know how to hook into your credit card."

Another innovation is car sharing clubs. If you only need a ute or 4WD occasionally, then it can be rented from a local network of private owners.

Again, says Koorey, it still means cars are being used. But it weakens the attachment to personal ownership. For many in a city like Christchurch, it could make an e-bike a better investment than a second car. Or even persuade them to give up having a car entirely.

"You'd think so long as this is reliable enough that I can get one when I need one, I'll be able to save an awful lot of money not owning a car."

CCC's Osborne agrees that viewing transport as a service could really change the landscape. For Christchurch with its dispersed geography, it opens up a lot of creative possibilities when considering its future transport mix.

But Osborne also points out the future is hard to predict. Take driver-less cars, he says.

Some are speculating that rather than investing a fortune on light rail with its fixed tracks, Christchurch might be better off waiting for when the answer to public transport is a fleet of autonomous pods.

Small electric-powered self-driving vehicles could be circling the streets, diverting to pick-ups at the click of a smartphone.

A nice idea. But the same technology might change Christchurch's transport habits in quite another way, Osborne says. "It may become attractive for people to commute long distances if they can sit in their car, not have to drive, and do their work in the car itself."

Being able to email and browse for an hour could spark a boom in people living far out in the country as the long trip would no longer be wasted time.

Osborne says think also of what self-driving cars might mean for Christchurch rapidly growing elderly population. Again, it could result in there being many more private vehicles on the roads rather than less.

So Christchurch now has its head up after the earthquakes. Osborne says it is considering its transport future. But you can see what a challenge it is as there are so many directions the technology could still go.

★★★

For the moment, cycleways in Christchurch are the focus.

Koorey says he still wishes CCC was being bolder about creating dedicated bus corridors on congested routes like Riccarton Rd. That would give buses a fighting chance and allow for the future retro-fitting of light rail.

"We had the emergency earthquake powers. And that would've been a great thing to use them for."

But building a network of safe cycle paths is probably going to have a bigger impact than people expect, Koorey says.

It might be one reason bus commuter numbers have fallen. As soon as Fendalton's Matai St became a cycle route, cycle traffic jumped from 200 to 800 people a day, he says.

"We've hardly built anything yet really. But the pathway through Hagley Park is up to 1500 a day according to the counts."

Koorey says these figures are important because there will be the inevitable pushback from car drivers who don't like losing part of the road, or shop-keepers and home-owners who resist the loss of kerb-side parking.

"Even with completing the last lot of the current 13 cycle paths, having the first few over the line and showing good results will help the council stay strong and say no, we are going to do this."

So Bebbington and Ching could have their timing exactly right. It is not as if the car is on the way out. But pedal power is becoming a more credible option.

And with the rise of the possibility to share rather than own, and eventually some major investment decisions on the city's public transport options, real choices are coming.

Something other than two cars on every Christchurch driveway will seem the familiar thing to do.

 - Stuff

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