Whakatāne locals petition for safer streets

3:41 pm on 1 May 2020

More families have been exploring their Whakatāne neighbourhoods than before the lockdown and a petition wants to keep it that way.

Kara (6) and Kayla (8) Jones are some of many who have enjoyed cycling through Whakatane's safer streets during the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.

Kara (6) and Kayla (8) Jones are some of many who have enjoyed cycling through Whakatane's safer streets during the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown. Photo: Supplied / LDR

Within a week, a petition started by the Bike Whakatāne Trust to ensure people can continue to enjoy their neighbourhoods by bike after cars return to the road has attracted over 500 signatures.

"People from all walks of life and backgrounds have used the lockdown to get out bikes that have sat gathering dust in the shed, to get kids who have not been active in their local neighbourhoods out walking, scooting and biking and enjoying the range of benefits this bring such as connection to neighbours and community, improved fitness, improved mental health, and reduced emissions," trust spokesman Richard Hamer said.

"This is because we can. Before lockdown, it felt too unsafe for all but the hardiest and most risk-tolerant to use our busy roads in anything other than a car."

The bike trust is asking Whakatāne District Council to ensure families continue to feel safe on the town's roads.

The petition urges the council to look into creating pedestrian areas, reduced speed zones, stream margins and a safe and connected network across Whakatāne.

Hamer said pre-lockdown he had encountered problems teaching children how to ride on Whakatāne's streets as part of his Bike Ready programme as the Blue Light Whakatāne coordinator.

He said he had drivers pull the fingers at his group of 10 children and some had tried to overtake them dangerously on roundabouts.

Incidents like this were the reason children and adults felt unsafe when cycling on the road.

However, with the absence of cars on the streets during lockdown people had felt more empowered to explore their neighbourhoods.

"During the lockdown, we've seen many of our vulnerable people such as young children, elderly people and people with disabilities out using our streets in huge numbers because the streets feel safe to use," Hamer said.

"This gives us a unique insight into how our town could look, feel and be used if we take action to make it more people-friendly."

Hamer said the trust was aware that the council had undertaken significant work through its Active Whakatāne programme but little on the ground had changed for people until the lockdown.

The trust is worried work it is doing now to map out Whakatāne and changes it wants to see maybe "wasted" if the council had already completed something similar.

"Unfortunately, we are finding it hard to get the council to engage with us on this and nobody has seen what they are proposing," he said.

A parent of a keen cyclist has submitted an Official Information Act request to the council to try and find out what it is planning.

"We want the council to listen to our community and use what we have learned from this experience to make our town's streets safer, healthy and nicer to use, for everyone."

'Great not to feel threatened' while cycling - resident

Comments on the trust's petition echo Hamer's sentiments.

One woman said her whānau had loved being able to use the streets during lockdown in ways they hadn't been able to before. Another said her family would hardly ever use their bikes before lockdown but now they "absolutely love it" and would like to continue safely.

"It has been wonderful and freeing to walk and bike the streets safely over lockdown," said another.

"Wouldn't it be great not to feel threatened every time I jump on my bike," said another.

Others said encouraging cycling would build a more resilient community both health-wise and in the face of climate change.

Whakatāne Mayor Judy Turner said the council's work around more active modes of transport was a work in progress and the town's aged streets were not designed for shared use between cars, cyclists, pedestrians and those on mobility scooters

"In the past cars have dominated our mindsets and it is time to start thinking about more active modes of transport," she said.

"The government funding we are hoping to get is for cycleways based on tourism but in my mind cycleways to get children to school are a higher priority."

Turner said for shared spaces to work, all users needed to be aware of others. This included those on bikes, scooters and mobility scooters to watch their speed and be careful when passing pedestrians.

"I really welcome the talk on this. This petition is not widely off track with what council was already aiming to do."

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