Where did all the bikes go and what's it going to take to get them back on the road?
OPINION: Everyday at 4.30pm for the last two weeks, I've spent five minutes tracking the activity on the corner of Tuam and Madras streets from my office window. There were eight bikes on Tuesday, nine on Wednesday and now 10 at the start of this week. Although increasing, the number of bikes is still notably lower than the influx of cars which I lose count of each day.
A recent RNZ piece reported that only 2 per cent of primary school students nationwide journey to school by bike. Cycling has officially become uncool and that's a tragedy. We've each lost a bit of our childhood in that statistic. An activity we once associated with youthfulness and freedom has become a daunting task.
Decades of subtle changes – cars becoming cheaper, imports increasing, and cyclists being required to wear helmets – have contributed to a decrease in cyclists on our roads. The nation's narrative has exclaimed "cycling isn't safe for anyone anymore!" and we've gone along for the ride.
Then there are stories that make me smile and give me hope. Every day around 8.30am I see a woman ride with her kids to school along Linwood Avenue. She totes a few kids in a cargo bike while other children ride alongside her. She and the kids line up in train formation and pedal to school, rain or shine. They are covered in bright green fluoro tops and helmets. The cars whizzing past don't seem to faze them: for them this is the norm.
This family likely falls into the "Enthused and Confident" category, one of four groups (Strong and Fearless, Enthused and Confident, Interested but Concerned, No Way No How) local researchers at the University of Canterbury used to understand how we can move the needle and make cycling part of regular transport again.
"Interested but Concerned" is by far the biggest category, and it's this group that we need to cater for if cycling is to become normal again. This is where improved cycling infrastructure comes in. Proximity to motor vehicles is a major influence on why someone chooses whether or not to cycle and this is despite the health and well-being benefits of cycling – we need to make the "Interested but Concerned" feel safe.
I'm encouraged by the mix of pro-cycling activities happening in Christchurch and how they are contributing to greater discussion about how we can make cycling more accessible and safe, and how Christchurch could be a leader in this conversation nationally and even internationally. The increase in cycling infrastructure funding ($150 million in Christchurch, $350m nationwide over three years) means we have a real opportunity to get Christchurch back on track towards being a cyclist's haven.
Local government bodies are setting a great example in terms of normalising cycling within the workplace. I was recently invited to check out ECan's indoor cycle parking facility and was excited to see nearly all 125 spots in use. Separated cycleways are also being built and the new speed limit reduction in the inner-CBD has been a big win – but we need to keep this conversation going.
I've travelled all over the world to live, work and play in cities like New York, Portland, and Melbourne. In all of these places cycling is a well-integrated mode of travel and it's possible that Christchurch could catch up and become a world class, modern city in terms of cycling and transportation.
To do this we need to continue these conversations. I set up the cycleCHCH Facebook page as a social platform for people who simply enjoy riding their bike to connect. I presented a brief history of cycling in Christchurch at Pecha Kucha last year to show people this city was once teeming with bikes. It's fantastic to reminisce about those days!
I think we're well on our way to making Christchurch a great place for cyclists once more but we do need to keep up the momentum and practice tolerance towards one another – motorist, cyclist, pedestrian and bus user alike.
What if we collectively made it a goal for 20 per cent of schoolchildren to bike to school? Or if business owners understood that cyclists spend money too (more money in fact according to numerous studies) and that adding cycleways isn't going to put their business in jeopardy? Or if we dreamt big and built a highway just for cyclists, as has recently happened in Germany?
Perhaps we could reinvent this city we love and care about as one where the majority of people – the "Interested but Concerned" – are able to cycle happily and safely as they would like to be able to do.
Catarina Gutierrez is a cycling enthusiast and volunteer bike mechanic at RAD Bikes where she hosts Wheel Womyn Wednesdays once a month. She also hosts meet-ups and bike rides through her Facebook group cycleCHCH.