Hawke’s Bay’s new network of rural recreational cycle tracks is a roaring success, but for everyday cyclists, dangerous roads are still the reality. Kathy Webb takes a look at the imbalance of pedal power in the Bay.

It’s a turf war, playing out as a game of life-and-death dodgems. The battle formations are basic. Cyclists put on a plastic helmet and head out into the traffic to mingle with vehicles travelling at anything between 50km/h and 150km/h. In between them, for safety, is a line painted on the road.

In just one year, the casualties mounted to 10 dead and 895 injured, 186 of them seriously. This was back in 2008, and these cyclists were killed or injured when they were hit by cars. The Ministry of Transport says the “social cost” of those cycle-vehicle clashes was $224 million.

All up, 22 cyclists died in 2491 crashes with vehicles on New Zealand roads between 2005-10. Another 1932 suffered injuries ranging from minor to serious.

Once upon a time it was safe as houses to cycle on the roads, but during the past 30-40 years vehicles have taken over, and the people driving them seem to have become ever-more impatient, fractious and readily-offended when their “rights” are transgressed. Road rage is a fact of modern life, and there are plenty of drivers always keen to knock another ten seconds off their journey times; whose speed is held in check only by the sight of a police car.

Understandably, cycling has been in retreat, but now the world is changing again.

Concerns are mounting around the world about unhealthy, unfit populations sitting in cars for hours a day; about fuel-polluted environments, the cost of building more and more roads as oil prices rise inexorably. There are campaigns to get people walking and cycling again as part of their daily lives. It’s called “active transport”.

Is everybody happy?

And there’s no doubt, cycling is coming back. But not everyone is happy about that.

Cyclists, bloody cyclists. The last thing we need careering around the roads, demanding their own space. Well, they needn’t think it’s going to be that easy. They’re going to have to tussle for their tarseal.

Cyclists call it “cycle hate”. Motorists call it “cyclist fault”.

It’s not unique to Hawke’s Bay; it happens everywhere motorists are being asked to give up some of their road space and look out for others. They complain of cyclists all over the road, appearing out of nowhere, getting in their way and holding them up. Their pent-up rage spills out.

“Don’t pay for roads, but expect to use them maybe they shd be chgd, ” texts Angry Taxpaying Driver.

“Y is cl giving road space 2 bikes,” says Get Out Of My Way.

“No wun uses them, dumb idea,” curses Subaru Supremo.

In turn, cyclists all over the country tell horror stories of screaming abuse, accidental near-misses, and non-accidental near-misses. They say it’s getting worse.

Small wonder, then, that the 180km of safe, off-road trails that have sprung up around Hawke’s Bay have proven to be such a hit, not just with locals getting out for a spin at the weekend, but tourists.

Safe cycling has become a novelty, a tourist attraction. It’s bringing in a lot of visitors, some serious cash, nurturing a string of businesses and sparking new ones.

National and international media are writing glowing pieces about the network, now officially named the Hawke’s Bay Trails.

It’s taken 15 years, but in its own disparate way the Bay has pulled together for success. The challenge now is whether it can capitalise on that and extend the trails concept to the next stage — safe urban commuter cycling.

Ambitious projects are unfolding in Europe, Canada and North America to build routes that promote cycling as a viable, alternative form of commuter transport, while capturing the multitude of social, health, financial and environmental benefits that come with it. Velo-City Global in Vancouver is one example.

www.velo-city2012.com

The Ministry of Transport has a theory that there is safety in numbers, so if more people took to the roads on their bikes they would have less chance of being killed or injured. Another school of thought says that might reduce statistical rates of death or injury, but actual numbers would inevitably increase.

Nicholas Jones, medical officer of health for the Hawke’s Bay District health Board, says the cost of inactivity among Kiwis is about $300m a year. That’s in health terms alone. Making it easier for people to walk or cycle to work or school has a range of flow-on benefits. It keeps them fitter and healthier and gives them a sense of wellbeing. It brings them into more social contact with others, and for a low income family, the financial benefits of not having to keep a car on the road could be far-reaching. They could eat better food instead. “It puts money into family pockets for other expenses.”

Research indicates that the health benefits to individuals and the national health budget is $1.30 for every kilometre we cycle, and $2.60 for every kilometre we walk, he says. “It’s a virtuous cycle.”

Hastings District Council is one of two cities to have been given $4.5 million by the Government as part of a scheme called Model Communities. Part of this is to encourage walking and cycling. Most of the $4.5m has been going into a safety campaign and painting cycle lanes on Hastings roads. The glamour piece will be a $1m boardwalk-style cycle path between Hastings and Havelock North, built over the top of deep drains, and separated from the road by a 3m planted strip.

“This is groundbreaking for us. It will be magnificent,” says deputy mayor Cynthia Bowers. Work is about to begin.

A recent survey by the council revealed that only 35% of cyclists feel safe in their designated road lanes. That’s an improvement on the 28% who felt that way in 2008, but still not good. Conversely, the 48% who felt cycling on the road was very dangerous in 2008 had reduced to 36% this year.

Cycling champions

Businessman Paul McArdle, returning to the Bay after 10 years in the Netherlands, was struck by the absence of bikes on our roads. He and his wife established the Bike On NZ trust, with the goal of building cycle paths within school grounds and setting them up with a supply of bikes and helmets for pupils to use. So far, four schools in Napier and Hastings – St Mary’s, Riverslea, Peterhead and Maraenui — have them.

The results have been astounding, says McArdle. Learning to ride a bike is a milestone. It brings confidence and self-esteem, which is flowing through into classroom work, he says. “It makes school an attractive place to be. We’ve haven’t found a kid who doesn’t want to learn to ride a bike.”

Don Kennedy, a Havelock North lawyer who has biked to work in Hastings daily for decades, also loves bike racing and Formula 1 car racing. He holds F1A accreditation to attend races. “I could be labelled a pedalling petrol head,” he says.

Kennedy says he could fill a newspaper page each day with complaints about the behaviour of motorists who “still struggle” with the concept of sharing the road with cyclists, and often, simply do not notice them.

He cites drivers opening their doors without first checking for cyclists; passing a cyclist then turning left directly in front; racing a cyclist into a roundabout and crowding them out; or pulling over into cycle lanes for a chat on their cellphones.

“You have to concentrate the whole time,” he says. “The potential hazards are everywhere.”

Cyclists pay their share and have an equal right to use the roads, he says. “I pay tax, rates, ACC and own two cars. I would guess that 98% of cyclists also drive vehicles,” he says.

On May 30, 1997, Kennedy wrote to the Hastings District Council, noting that its roading plans made no reference whatsoever to cyclists, and that “the current attitude seems to be that the motor vehicle is king and all other forms of road use are secondary”.

In that same letter, he suggested a novel idea — a network of pathways separated from the roads for use by walkers and cyclists. Simple and inspirational, it was immediately condemned to languish in the dungeons of long-term council planning. It was not until 2001 that Kennedy achieved his first “success”,
when the council implemented a “Cycling Strategy” and put $500,000 in the budget for it.

“Of course, it never happened,” he says. “Each year the CEO happily slashed the budget by taking out the $500,000, and eventually took it out of the annual plan completely. Council used surplus funds from its minor roading to put in the odd cycle lane.

“We did get to spend about $10,000 on cycling education back in 2004, I recall, but no direct funding until council secured $4.5 million in the Model Community Initiative (the iWay project).”

Despite the iWay programme, Kennedy remains sceptical about the council’s long-term commitment to cycling. The test will come when the iWay money runs out, he says. “Then we will know how serious the council is about making Hastings the cycling capital of NZ.”

Will momentum continue?

Bowers – also a keen cyclist and member of the council’s cycling strategy group — admits the record makes sad reading. “It was really, really hard work because there was no recognition by the council of the benefits of cycling and active transport,” she says. “We absolutely battled to make anything happen.”

However, she is confident the council will not lapse. The iWay project brought not just cash, but a turnaround in attitude. There is momentum now, she says. “It’s about getting the building blocks in place, then when you’re doing roadworks, you can incorporate cycleways as best suits the street.”

She believes Hastings has options for the creation of urban cycle commuting. One would be to narrow some residential streets, and use the space gained to take cyclists right away from busy roads. Those narrowed roads would also slow down any traffic — “so residents get an immediate benefit” — and create more green space, which brings social change. “It gives you a street completely different in character. It gives children a space to play out front, and starts a change in the whole nature of a community.”

Such communities would be likely to attract young families, says Bowers. “The main benefit of cycling is an economic one, and the housing stock around central Hastings is in the more affordable price bracket. That’s an attraction for young families if you can co-ordinate that with safer streets for cycling and walking. You bring back more of the community elements that I think we’ve lost.”

Nevertheless, Bowers is encouraged by the council survey showing most cyclists don’t feel safe in their roadway cycle lanes. It’s the trend that counts, she says.

“I’m pleased with the trend. That’s what the whole iWays programme is about, encouraging people to share the road.”

Robert Oliver, veteran cyclist and owner of The Hub cycle shop in Hastings, says painted cycle lanes on the roads are better than nothing – “if they save even one child’s life then they’re worthwhile” – but cyclists are not going to venture out on the roads in much greater numbers until it becomes a whole lot safer.

Even when they’re wearing high-viz clothing and sticking to 2m-wide cycle lanes on the shoulder of the road, they have no guarantee of safety, he says. “Roundabouts are lethal. You get halfway through, it’s so narrow and tight, and cars try to pass me. Motorists need educating. Nobody’s got any patience these days.”

Hawke’s Bay Trails

In complete contrast, the off-road Hawke’s Bay Trails have revolutionised recreational cycling in Hawke’s Bay, particularly among the over-60s, Oliver says. “It’s huge.”

“My generation are getting back on their bikes. That’s where the market is. All our generation rode bikes, and now they’ve got the pathways and they’re getting back on their bikes.” They’re also introducing their grandchildren to safe, distance riding – something they would never have been able to experience without the safety offered by off-road paths, says Oliver.

The obvious success of the first off-road paths in Napier prompted Hastings to follow suit. The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council allowed paths to be laid out along stopbanks, and more recently has given cash for another trail, connecting wineries in the Gimblett Gravels and Ngatarawa areas west of Hastings. The taxpayer-funded New Zealand Cycleway has also linked in.

Most of the paths are off-road, along beachfronts, riversides and more latterly, an estuary. So far, they’ve cost about $5.5 million, and it seems we’re not finished there.

The light has officially gone on, and everyone is now agreed we’re on to something.

Chairman Fenton Wilson announced enthusiastically in October that “we can see how the trails lead to other opportunities, with potential to the north and south of the region. On the one hand there are public open spaces at Waitangi, Pakowhai and Pekapeka Wetland and possible pathway linkages in Central Hawke’s Bay. On the other hand there are potential pathways leading to Tutira, north of Napier. And we can’t discount the idea of trail network connections into and out of Hawke’s Bay.”

Tourism Hawke’s Bay and the regional council are now charged with promoting the Trails locally, nationally and internationally. Annie Dundas, general manager of HB Tourism, says the trails are “becoming a major part of our tourism puzzle. It has given us a wonderful new opportunity to market Hawke’s Bay. They’re fabulous”. About 130 media representatives – domestic and international – have tried the trails during the past three months and gone away enthused, she says.

Otago Rail Trail model

Of course, they already know about this sort of thing in Central Otago, where a dead railway line has been transformed into an international success story.

Work began on the Otago Rail Trail, covering 150km between Middlemarch and Clyde, when the line was closed to trains in 1990. A Rail Trail Trust was formed, and worked with the Department of Conservation to convert the railway into a cycling, walking and horse riding trail. It opened in 2000.

It’s now getting more than 14,000 users each year, mostly attracted by word of mouth. Nearly half travel from the upper North Island, and 22% come from overseas. The rail trail has created a string of new businesses and more than 120 full-time jobs. It’s injecting $18m a year into the local economy and reversed a population slide in the Maniapoto area. The direct business beneficiaries are those offering accommodation, food, luggage-transport, guided tours and bike hire, but wineries and tourist attractions such as the historic Otago gold fields also get spin-off.

At Bay View, north of Napier, Takaro Trails is based in stylish headquarters. Founder Jenny Ryan established the business in 2009 and was a finalist in this year’s Hawke’s Bay Business Awards. Ryan and her team are now renting out 82 art deco bikes to corporate, conference or family groups, and business is good, says Ryan.

Her clients get to sample Hawke’s Bay scenery, wineries and restaurants, chocolates, olives, fruit, honey, arts, pickles and gannets. She and her staff transport the luggage for three-day and five-day cyclists, and collect the purchases they make along the way. “We’ve picked up sculptures, handbags, paintings, dresses – they spend a lot,” says Ryan.

Brian Fisher, owner of FishBike on Napier’s Marine Parade, says just over half his bike-hire customers are from overseas, and most of the rest are from Auckland and Wellington, then Manawatu and Waikato. Clients tend to be fit, active and middle-aged, and “think nothing of biking 50km-plus”.

However, we’re still not as good as the Otago Rail Trail, which is long-distance and point-to-point, offering changing vistas along the way. “Ours are all loop tracks. I would like to see a track from here to Gisborne. That would be greater than the Otago Rail Trail.” Even Napier to Tutira “would be wonderful”, he says.

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