4 Jul 2023

Watch: Ōtautahi Christchurch returns to its cycling roots

6:30 pm on 4 July 2023

By Sally Blundell for Frank Film

"Build it and they will come" is a cycleways mantra, Ministry of Transport chief science advisor Simon Kingham says.

And that has been shown in Christchurch, where they are transforming the city, he says. Over halfway through a planned 101-kilometre cycleway network, Ōtautahi Christchurch can now reclaim its former title of "Cyclopolis", the cycling city.

Despite a dip during Covid-19 lockdowns, the city has seen a 30 percent increase in cycling over the last five years - measured across designated cycleways, the figure reaches 40 percent.

A recent Waka Kotahi study of the country's six largest cities found Christchurch had the highest level of cycling.

"It's a real success story," Kingham tells Frank Film.

It is also an old story.

In 1915, bicycles made up 77 percent of Christchurch traffic - for a dozen years it even boasted its own Bicycle Band, with pedalling trombonists, trumpeters and drummers - so earning the city the "Cyclopolis" tag.

Cars at this time accounted for just 3 percent of road traffic. By the 1950s, bikes and cars shared the road equally. By the 2000s, the car was king.

In 2018, just over three-quarters of people in Christchurch commuted by car. Only 5 percent went to work by bike.

Now, despite the recent furore over a temporary, car-lane narrowing cycleway opposite Hagley Park, cyclists numbers are moving up again.

John Lieswyn, director of transportation consultancy Viastrada, was not surprised. When the Christchurch City Council ran its hugely popular public engagement programme Share an Idea after the 2011 earthquake, he said, bicycle-friendly streets and more cycleways were the second highest ranked item requested by respondents.

Since then, an increase in designated cycleways had seen not only more people taking to pedal power, but also a wider range of cyclists across age and gender. "When you have few people cycling, the portion of women is much lower," Kingham said. "The more people you get cycling, you get more women. That is partly about the perception of danger and the fear of cycling."

Outside peak travel times, a growing number of recreational cyclists are now taking to the designated cycleways.

Diana and Emily, 84, who is a regular cyclist.

Diana and Emily out on their bikes in Christchurch. Photo: Frank Film / screenshot

At 84, Emily is a regular cyclist. "If I want to go north or south, I can get on a cycleway and feel safe. It keeps you active, you're out in the fresh air, you are enjoying nature - what more could you want?"

The proportion of e-bikes on the road has also increased - from 4 percent of all bikes in 2017 to 25 percent today.

This year Toha Kai, a Christchurch community organisation delivering locally produced organic food to low income households, replaced its delivery van with two cargo e-trikes. Co-founder Michael Reynolds said it was a win for the environment and a boon for efficiency.

Even with 21 boxes of fresh vegetables on board, "I can get up to 20 k's an hour in less than a second. And that was on the lower setting - I haven't dared go up to setting five yet," he said.

Lieswyn too was upgrading his wheels. He has just replaced his 10-year-old Danish electric cargo bike with a new Riese & Müller e-bike - dual battery, belt-drive, full suspension, even a rain cover for Indi the dog.

Not only did we have a climate change emergency, he said, "but countries that have a higher mode-share of biking are happier countries".

This comment was backed up by a 2019 study by researchers from the University of Minnesota and Northwest University in China - for commuters, they concluded, cycling was "the happiest mode of transport".

Kingham agreed.

To get to work, he cycled nine and a half kilometres across town to the university in Ilam - riding along designated cycleways, through Hagley Park and across Deans Bush for a 25-minute commute.

"I honestly believe my mental health has improved by cycling," he said. "I've driven a couple of times to work recently and I felt quite stressed. I cycle and I feel great - it really enhances my wellbeing, I've no doubt about it.

"I haven't missed a (traffic) light yet but it's going to come because of so many cyclists. What a wonderful problem to have."

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