Editorial: Riding the ratepayer
When the Christchurch City Council conducted its Have a Say consultation process last year, inviting suggestions from Christchurch people on what amenities they wanted in a rebuilt city, more and better cycleways was one of the most popular ideas.
The process created, it is true, something of an open-ended wishlist because nothing came with a price tag, but there is little doubt that it reflected the desire of a large, and growing, number of people.
Until the second half of last century, Christchurch, whose flat terrain is ideal for riding, teemed with bicycle riders. Probably because cars were for many families too expensive - certainly two-car families were a rarity - almost all children walked or cycled to school and many adults went to work on a bicycle. That density of bicycle riding will never return, but in the last decade or so many more have taken it up again, mostly for recreational purposes.
The benefits of cycling, both public and private, are obvious. At the individual level, as an impact-free and safe form of exercise easily indulged by all except the very young and very old, it is hard to beat. Cyclists are fitter and generally healthier than those who do not cycle, and probably suffer less from stress, although that probably depends on where you ride. As a way of getting around for more serious purposes, cycling has its drawbacks, but more people cycling when they could would have a plain public benefit in fewer cars on the road and lower emissions of pollutants in the city.
All this means that the city council's proposal to build $70 million worth of new cycleways around the city is, on the face of it, an idea that many will welcome. Making the city more cycle-friendly, and particularly getting cyclists out of the main traffic flow with dedicated cycleways, has much to commend it. As the mayor said in putting forward the idea as an addition to the city council's proposed budget, if the council was committed to promoting active travel in the city - by which he presumably meant cycling and walking - then it had to put its money where its mouth was.
And that is where the hitch arises, for ultimately, any money the council spends is money it has got out of ratepayers. The council has proposed a $20 a year levy on all ratepayers. Already, many are objecting that that is not a fair and equitable way to pay for the scheme. That would be in addition to proposed rates rises of 6.7 per cent a year for at least the next three years to pay for the costs of the rebuild, and only the most hopelessly optimistic could believe that rates will not continue to rise steeply after that.
Because of the earthquakes, living in Christchurch has become more expensive. Many people are having to travel further to work, to school, to the supermarket. The costs of moving house while repairs are done and all the fuss that involves are imposing extra burdens. These are particularly felt in some of the poorer, hard-hit eastern suburbs. For them the phrase "$20 levy", which can be tossed glibly around the council table without too much thought, is a real imposition. It must be remembered, too, that cyclists are still only a small minority. The many who do not cycle are likely to resent having to pay for others to indulge in their preferred recreation.
Cycleways are a good idea. The council may, however, need to rethink how it is going to pay for them. It would be a pity to see the proposal sunk by an inequitable flat levy.