Thursday, 16 July 2015

Notes on a City. How problems which could be seen 40 years ago have not been solved and how an obvious solution was overlooked

In this blog post I highlight problems in Wellington, New Zealand. Please don't turn away just because you don't live in Wellington because many cities across the world have exactly the same struggles to cope with the volumes of traffic. You may well recognise the problems that Wellington faced and is facing as being similar to those of your own city.

A few days ago I came across a very interesting 44 year old film about the problems caused by mass motoring. Participants in the film talked about planning to avoid future problems. The film was made in Wellington, New Zealand so this blog post is in large part about Wellington. But actually, the film could have been made almost anywhere because the problems which it presents and the suggested solutions are common to almost anywhere. This film could even have been made in a Dutch city at that time as Dutch cities faced very similar problems.

First of all, if you really need to see it, here's a link to a video of horrific traffic around Wellington. It's what many cities around the world look like now.

Now lets look at the 44 year old film which prompted this blog post. This video shows what many cities in the world looked like in the early 1970s and includes a discussion of what was going to be done about it. I recommend watching it all eventually, but it is quite long. Perhaps watch the first minute now and then return after reading the blog post:

Wellington New Zealand - 1971. 42 minutes of film in which no-one talks about bicycles as a transport mode

Traffic jam in 1971. What's changed ?
One of the comments under the original posting of that youtube video said "40 plus years on we still have the same unresolved problems...", and of course that is the result of following a path which won't create change and lack of progress is a problem common to many cities across the world.

Planner trying to work out how to
resolve traffic problems between
Wellington, Hutt Valley and Porirua
What makes the film particularly interesting to me is that it doesn't only show the problems, but that expert and sensible people have thought about the problems and make suggestions of ways to try to resolve some of them. However what absolutely no-one in the video ever does is suggest that non-motorized transport in the form of bicycles could be any part at all of the solution.

I suspect that many Wellingtonians believe, just like people all across the world, that their city is not one in which bicycles could be practical. There will be people who think that Wellington's hills, wind and rain make cycling impractical. These are common myths. However cycling in Wellington most certainly is possible for average people for at least some of their journeys and the film provides evidence that this is true: While no-one ever talks about bicycles in this film, and the focus of the film is certainly not to demonstrate that cycling is possible in Wellington, the film-makers couldn't help but include bicycles ridden by Wellingtonians in their film.

People rode practical everyday bicycles in Wellington in 1971. An upright position, three speed hub gearing, mudguards, carrier... This is almost identical to the type of bicycle which is now ridden for most journeys in the Netherlands. It was suitable for Wellington in the early 1970s and it would be just as suitable now, if only there were safe places to cycle.
The people who we see cycling in Wellington in 1971 are not sport cyclists. They are going about their everyday life using a bicycle as a practical way of getting about. These bicycles are suitable for socializing, for shopping trips, for going to work, for going to school, for carrying children.

Some politicians in New Zealand may not remember that cycling was once relatively normal, but I do.
This shot of a supermarket showed cyclists, pedestrians and drivers as visiting for their shopping. Of course, if you plan only for motor vehicles, motor vehicles are what you will end up with.
When the camera showed busy roads like this, hostile to cycling, no bicycles were caught on film. Most people were already excluded by design because this is far too hostile an environment to encourage people to cycle. The same story has been repeated across the world: As roads become busier, most people will cycle less or stop cycling altogether.
An aspirational picture of a new suburb includes a bicycle, but it is not spoken about.
In a real suburb of Wellington there is no comfortable cycling infrastructure. This leads to cyclists being under pressure. Cycling on the pavement is a symptom of that pressure.
Pedestrianization: Streets which once accommodated all traffic are transformed so that they don't accommodate any. This can result in making good conditions for people who visit by motor vehicle and use the supplied car parking, at the expense of making the destination awkward to use for those who cycle. Pedestrianized areas can be designed to allow and encourage cycling.
New Zealand's cycling decline may have started before
that of the UK but there will have been a time when New-
Zealanders too cycled more than the Dutch do now.
In the photos above you'll see evidence that into the 1970s, New Zealanders still used the same practical everyday bicycles as are seen in the Netherlands these days. You'll also see some of the factors which were already putting pressure on cycling and which eventually would lead to it being something which only hardened "cyclists" would be involved with.

Cycling was once a popular means of transport in New Zealand: "Cycling became a popular mode of transport in many parts of New Zealand for half a century," but "in the 1950s and 60s government transport funding and policies favouring motor vehicles as the transport of the future". The same decline was seen worldwide, including here in the Netherlands. It is only by similar government action to that which made cycling decline that cycling can be made attractive once again.

Unfortunately, cycling was not valued sufficiently in 1971 even to be mentioned by planners in the film.

Making choices
There is an interesting quote at the beginning of the film: "It is an indication of the influence of the motor vehicle, that it makes us take stock of things, even to the extent of asking what sort of lives we want to lead." A choice needed to be made. The film-maker realised that many futures could be planned depending on how people wanted to live.

While the problems caused by mass motoring were already highly visible 44 years ago, a choice was made in most places to continue to favour the motor vehicle. That has not changed over the last four decades, and the problems caused by making that choice are still evident. Keep planning for more cars and more cars is what you will get.

In the 1970s, the same policies were being followed everywhere. The Netherlands is no exception. The photos below from Assen in the Netherlands in the 1970s are very similar to the photos of Wellington. But the photos of Assen now look different because a different decision was made a little later and the damage was turned around. The result is that the city centre has been transformed so that even small children can ride their bicycles in from the suburbs and enjoy a great degree of freedom when they arrive.

A supermarket in the Dutch city of Assen in the 1970s. The car-park is more than full, conditions for cycling were not particularly pleasant.
The new supermarket on the same site as above provides excellent access by bike. This shopping centre has cycle-paths at one end and other well designed infrastructure at the other end providing safe routes to both doors. Bicycles can be taken inside and parked right next to the shops. Car parking is free of charge for shoppers but cycling is the most popular way of visiting the supermarket. Read more about this location's transformation.
Dutch city centre street in the 1970s. No space was allocated for comfortable cycling and pedestrians had little space.
The same location in 2014. We don't need traffic lights any more because cars are no longer driven through here. Note how there is ample space for cyclists on a "road" for bikes separate from a wide pedestrian path, and that the pedestrian path has plenty of space on both sides for a textured surface for blind pedestrians. More about this street and others.
1970s Assen street. Cyclist in the middle of the road waiting for a second transport revolution.
Nowadays, the same junction looks like this. It's busy with bikes, not so many cars. The result of deliberate policy to improve city centres. Note the empty car parking bays. There aren't many provided but they're rarely full. Read more about this street and watch a video about the transformation.

Assen early 1970s: This tunnel still exists and I use it every day. An aspiration was shown even as early as this to encourage bikes and in the picture shows the result in this location. This cyclist is entering what was then a newly built suburb using a tunnel which avoids cyclists having to use a large traffic light junction. It still exists and is very useful today. Note how this cyclist looks just like those in the old film from Wellington, riding the same kind of practical everyday bike. In the Netherlands, those bikes never went away and normal people who didn't identify as "cyclists" continued riding them because when the error was realised, cars were not allowed to totally dominate. But there's one important difference. This new suburb, built between 1970 and 1975 and very much part of the solution to the problem, was planned like most Dutch suburbs. i.e. pleasant to live in, low-rise and very spread out with a lot of green spaces when compared with the high density type of housing under consideration by participants in the Wellington film.
Facts and questions
Routes followed by commuters in Wellington now
are exactly as discussed in the 1971 film

(source, licence: wikipedia) Wikipedia has a good page about Wellington. The city has a population of just under 400000 people. Property market speculation pushed up prices so that city centre living is expensive, the result being that "The typical central city apartment dweller was a New Zealand native aged 24 to 35 with a professional job in the downtown area, with household income higher than surrounding areas. Three quarters (73%) walked to work or university, 13% travelled by car, 6% by bus, 2% bicycled (although 31% own bicycles), and did not travel very far since 73% worked or studied in the central city". Note that even in the very centre of the city, and even with a demographic group which is the very easiest to attract to cycling, people are more likely to drive or to take public transport than to ride a bike.

Wellington has a mild climate. Neither summers nor winters reach the temperature extremes of Dutch cities. So we can't blame the weather for the low rate of cycling

Hills are also not an issue in for city centre cyclists. Indeed, the route out to the Hutt Valley is also quite flat, and where there were hills on the way to Porirua a reasonably flat route has been hewn out of rock for the motorway.

Some of the suburbs of Wellington are hilly - comparable with those of Trondheim, where of course the weather is genuinely a challenge in winter yet the aim is to achieve 15% of journeys by bike by 2025.
Read: population density and cycling

The population density of urban Wellington is slightly higher than that of Assen (890 vs. 780 people per square kilometre) while the metropolitan area density is very much higher than that of Trondheim (290 vs. 37 people per square kilometre).

None of these popular justifications for a low cycling modal share would appear to apply to Wellington (nor to many other places) so what is real reason why so few people cycle in the city these days ?

You get what you plan for
Here's my hypothesis about why it is that cycling is still so unpopular in and around Wellington: The city and the surrounding area are treating cycling no more seriously now than they were in 1971.

The same could of course be applied to very many cities around the world. Here are some examples of Wellington cycling infrastructure. The absolute minimum has been done. Would you enjoy cycling in these locations ? Would you encourage your children or your partner, your parents or anyone else that you cared about to cycle in these conditions ?

Near the city centre. Hills are not a problem, but look at the road. It's five lanes wide road with a three lane wide advanced stop box. Only the bravest of cyclists will be able to make use of this to turn right.
On a commuting route: Five lanes for cars and trucks + a pavement for walking on, which you can also cycle on, but watch out for the parked (and parking) cars and the lamp-posts. Not an attractive environment for cycling. The distance from Lower Hutt to Wellington is less than 17 km. It's not at all unusual for Dutch school children to cycle up to 20 km to get to school. Would you want your children to cycle this route ? See it on Google Maps.
Another commuting route: On the right, a cyclist. Fantastic brave human-being riding between a six lane motorway and rock face on a narrow strip of bumpy asphalt. Bigger view here.
Another view, another brave person. Note that the path is not only narrow but it has posts on it which cyclists have to swerve around. This does not make for pleasant or safe cycling.
Many people have uploaded videos of traffic jams in Wellington to Youtube. No-one likes being stuck in a traffic jam, but when planners have concentrated only on driving and provided no real alternative for most people, it doesn't really matter how terrible the experience of driving becomes, people will still find driving to be their least terrible option and so they will still drive.

Still from a video of a 13 km long commute by bike in Wellington. This is a shorter distance than many Dutch children cycle to get to school, but the video maker describes it as "intimidating even for confident bicyclists A 100 km/h multi-lane road with a painted stripe for cycling on the wrong side of the crash barrier is not nearly good enough to enable mass cycling. Please do watch this video and compare it with the conditions faced by drivers. By car it's slow and annoying, but it clearly doesn't feel so dangerous as cycling.
Google Maps suggestions for a similar journey, Wellington to Lower Hutt.
By car: Start now, takes 19 minutes                          
By bus: One bus every 60 minutes, takes 35 minutes
Without a good alternative, people will continue to drive. I like cycling, but like the 29% of people who live in the centre of Wellington who own bikes but don't cycle, if I lived and worked in Wellington or a city like Wellington, then I might well drive instead of cycling. The infrastructure could not be better designed to make this happen.

This blog post has concentrated on Wellington in New Zealand, but because the problems faced by Wellington are exactly the same as those faced by many other cities, the same applies to almost Anytown in almost Anycountry. Policy's just the same.

Until a genuine choice is made to favour something other than the automobile, more and more dependency on motor vehicles is the only likely outcome. Cycling is a very fragile mode of transport. Cyclists are very obviously exposed to danger when they ride on busy roads or on inadequate paths next to roads, and this is why cycling is extremely sensitive to subjective safety issues. It's not realistic to expect that people will take to cycling in any appreciable numbers when the experience of cycling is akin to that of taking part in an extreme sport.

Cycling was once popular in almost every country. Motor vehicle use rose not only due to cars being attractive in and of themselves, but also due to motoring being subsidized by government. This pushed cyclists aside both in plans and literally on the streets leaving those who still cycled in an increasingly precarious position. It took billions in investment and a lot of time for cycling to decline to the point it has reached now. For cycling to recover will also require considerable investment from government as well as time. There is no easily reached "tipping point" beyond which cycling will automatically increase. If such a thing existed then cycling would never have decreased past that point.

In recent years, the Netherlands has led the world in cycling investment. Even here, the government has never spent more than a fraction of the amount on cycling that they spend on roads for cars, but this has been adequate to stem the flow of people away from cycling and to lead to a modest increase, In the Netherlands, the majority of trips and the vast majority of kilometres travelled are by motor vehicle. It would take a lot more than the Dutch have done to change that. However, at least in the Netherlands cycling has been made both accessible to everyone and very safe. No helmets required.

Cycle-helmet zealotry in New Zealand has no doubt done harm to cycling by making an already unpopular activity even less attractive. Much of the damage had already been done, in that cycling was already at a low ebb. However, helmets will make it more difficult even to grow cycling again and for that reason I oppose the mandatory wearing of helmets. In any case, any emphasis on helmets is in the wrong place. Successful campaigns to improve safety, especially of children, do not rely on secondary devices such as helmets to mitigate the results of crashes, but remove the source of danger so that crashes do not occur.
A grid of high quality go-everywhere cycle-paths is what keeps these children safe, not helmets. If New Zealand had done the same thing then Aaron Oaten's crash and resultant injury would almost certainly never have happened. Preventing collisions is far more effective than allowing them to occur and trying to prevent the worst injuries with safety equipment.
Compare the following two graphs showing the effect of both New Zealand's bicycle helmet law and the effect of Dutch cycle infrastructure:

Effect of New Zealand bicycle helmet law. ""Of particular concern are children and adolescents who have experienced the greatest increase in the risk of cycling injuries despite a substantial decline in the amount of cycling over the past two decades"

Effect of Dutch policy to make roads safer and build cycle-paths, especially concentrating on child safety. Between 1972 and 2013, fatalities on the roads dropped dramatically. Child road fatalities dropped by 98%.
The successful road safety policy removed the danger from where vulnerable people were. This led to a huge reduction in the number of people either injured or killed. The absolute number of child fatalities dropped by 98% over a period of time when the population size and the proportion of trips made by bicycle both rose significantly.


Titus said...

Thank you continuing to make great posts like these.

David W said...

Hi David,

I live in central Wellington and bicycle whenever I can. Today the weather was lovely so I rode from home to the weekend waterfront produce market. In only 3.8kms of riding I had two close calls! If that illustrates the danger of cycling in Wellington, it's a wonder the number of active cyclists in Wellington continues to grow.

The first incident happened when I was riding a narrow two-way city street. I had positioned myself in the centre of my lane, because between the parked cars and centreline there is no room on this street for a car to safely pass. However, a driver behind me saw a green light ahead, and tried to pass me. By the time he was halfway around (and fully occupying the oncoming lane of traffic) I believe he realised his error, and he began to slow. I gave his fender a good whack - since it was within easy arm's reach - we locked eyes for a second - and he retreated. I'm certain it was almost as much a shock for him as for me. A regrettable way to start an otherwise pleasant day.

For my return, I chose a bicycle path along a very busy motorway access road (Karo Drive, for you locals). I love this bicycle path because there is almost no interaction with vehicles for a few minutes, providing a rare opportunity to take my mind off vehicle traffic and ride at my own pace. However this path has been inadequately designed, like most bicycling infrastructure in Wellington. One of its major faults is that at one point, cyclists must stop, dismount, walk the bike across a short pedestrian crossing (or as we call it here, a zebra crossing), then re-mount and continue. It's so inconvenient that most people I have seen just continue cycling over the pedestrian crossing, though this is technically a violation of the rode code. Anyhow, as I slowly nosed out over the pedestrian crossing, a car whizzed past, missing my front wheel by only 20cm.

I came home, checked my blog reader as per daily practice, and lo and behold here is your perspective on Wellington's cycling woes. How appropriate.

Just three weeks ago, the New Zealand Transport Agency announced it was allocating the largest amount in NZ history, around $300 million, to developing cycling networks around New Zealand. This is absolutely fantastic news. I hope we end up with good design, and don't end up reinventing the wheel (to borrow the expression). Wouldn't it be awesome if we could send NZTA officials on your next Cycling Study Tour?

H. vdG said...

By way of contrast: on fryday the 10th of july I made a trip of 157 km across the Netherlands, for a family visit.
It was completely uneventfull: in that sense that nothing happened to my during that 8 hour trip that could be remotely called a close call.
It was just the opposite: it was a calm ride, alongside canals, trough a nature reserve, a large city and smaller villages, trough open countryside etc.
Thankt to this site and that of Mark Wagenbuur I now realize how Lucky we are in the Netherlands.

H. vdG said...

Addition: I used a tracking bike, with 1 pannier, no helmet (of course), no hi-viz, and yes, I was able to maintain a high speed (20,5 kph) during this ride. Thanks to the wind but of course also the perfect conditions of the roads and cycle paths taken.
By the way: on the entire route I had to pass 8 or 9 crossings with traffic lights.

David W said...

H. vdG: That sounds idyllic.

To make a trip of that length from where I live, would require 80% cycling on the shoulder of an arterial road with 80-100kmh traffic, and 20% cycling on intermittent cycle paths, footpaths, or less direct side-roads.

It's not going to happen. It's not worth the stress.

H. vdG said...

David W.: To bad, for you and your fellow citizens. The air quality would be so much better if more people would be able to cycle. And the traffic jams must be a stress factor of some concern.

Rob King said...

With regard to the photos of cycling up to Johnsonville, the reality is those photos are a the good parts of that section. The real horror is when you crest the hill and drop down into Johnsonvile and hit this intersection:,174.807321,3a,75y,328.01h,72.88t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sKiMEjIkxFTRv1qXodxQOHg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

That's a main road with two side roads and everyone wants to go a different direction. If you are lucky, you can get a break in the offramp traffic and hop onto the road. If not, you have to ride down the footpath, cross the first road on the left, then re-merge with traffic *if* a gap appears.

Thankfully, the powers that be have recognised this debacle and are installing another lane and traffic lights. Hopefully some sanity will be restored.

Koen said...

Driving in other European countries I'm always baffled to see that many cities have given up their prime waterfront space to a great big motorway, that very effectively blocks all access to the water, be it either beach or river. How much more pleasant could the city be without it! I've since come to know it's like that all over the world. Probably because it's the flattest and quickest connection. It seems Wellington is no exception. Too bad. There seems to be a trend coming up hesitantly to shut some of these roads down, however. I'm very curious to know how long it will take before we wisen up completely...

David W said...

Hi David H,

An article just appeared on the news here in New Zealand: a trial of a supposedly Dutch cycling-friendly design has gone badly. I wonder if you have any thoughts to offer about this? Is this "Fietsttrook" shared road layout very common in the Netherlands? I had never heard of it until today. It doesn't seem like a very good idea to me - except maybe in a very slow speed zone in the centre of a city perhaps. Link:

Best regards-

David Hembrow said...

David W: Whoever came up with that and whoever named it a "fietsstrook" is a fool. They've completely misunderstood not only what you actually find in the Netherlands but also the language used to describe it.

A fietsstrook is simply an on-road cycle-lane. i.e. the same type of on-road cycle-lane infrastructure as causes any number of problems for cyclists worldwide.

What they appear to have tried to do is to make a bicycle road, but to do so without removing all the through traffic. That won't really work in any country, including in the Netherlands. Bicycle Roads can only work where there is no through traffic and where the number of bicycles is overwhelming compared with the number of cars.

A few months back I saw exactly the same idea (with exactly the same incorrect use of Dutch) proposed for a road in Scotland. It won't work their either because the same problems will remain.

V King said...


Thanks so much for this excellent post. I just spent the last eight years living and cycling in Wellington. Your hypothesis is absolutely correct, the majority of Wellingtonians perceive cycling as they did in the 70's, a marginal activity, practiced by eccentrics. It seems really hard for people to change their perceptions and see it as a legit transport option. There is major pushback to any increase in funding or attempt to improve infrastructure.

I will take issue with your note on Wellington's climate. The climate may look mild on paper but it is subject to often violent storms, wind gusts often in excess of 80kms per hour and ocasionally well over 120kms. It also highly changable, what looks like a great day for cycling can turn into a windy, side-ways pelting rain nightmare in about 60mins. The climate is a major factor stopping average people from cycling in Wellington.

Thanks again for your writing.

RIch C

David Hembrow said...

Rich: Thanks very much for your comment. Believe me, though, everyone thinks their climate is somehow bad for cycling. From California to the UK to New Zealand, people think it's either too hot or too cold or too wet or too dry. None of this actually makes sense. Each year, the temperatures in the city where I live in the Netherlands reaches higher than is ever reached at the Northern tip of New Zealand's North Island in the summer and also colder than temperatures which are ever reached at the Southern tip of the South Island in the winter. People cycle through it all.

As for wind - my reference for this is also the Netherlands. We have few hills, so nothing stops the wind. Headwinds can be truly awesome to cycle against, and side-winds can be very very difficult to deal with. As an example, I refer you to a video showing someone who actually can't hold onto his bike well enough to stop it blowing away so he can sit on the saddle (47 seconds in). A car has to pull alongside as a wind-break to enable him to cycle away...

Bob Gordon said...

I didn't read the entire article. You are wordy man. But I had to stop and read the "mandatory helmets rule hurting cycling" bit. This would make a very solid BLOG post in and of itself. Especially if there are measurable data showing helmets, accidents, etc. I think a LOT of people hesitate to take up cycling because of all the gear. So they just jump into a car. I blog as well. Keep up the writing.

David W said...

Hi David H,

It seems your blog entry about my hometown of Wellington was very timely. Two days ago the City Council took what could be its boldest step forward for cycling to date. They agreed to spend NZ$100 million on developing cycleways in the city over the next decade. For context on the scale of this, up to this point a $2 million cycleway which is soon to begin construction has been considered a large and revolutionary project, hotly debated in the local newspapers.

The Master Plan is still in draft stages, with details of routes and infrastructure to be worked out, but clearly there is the will - not only in the council but in the general public. These quotes from the Master Plan demonstrate this.

"In 2014 the Council carried out a cycling survey which found that 76 percent of Wellingtonians over the age of 18 would consider cycling if improvements were made to provide safe, separate cycling infrastructure...

"The survey revealed that while over 42% of the respondents drove [to work], there was a strong preference for other modes, particularly cycling. There is a notable gap between the preferred and actual travel modes used by Wellingtonians to commute to work. The gap for the cyclist group was the largest and indicates that 22% of people across the sample would like to cycle but are not able to. Additionally, 15% of the sample drives to work when they would prefer to use other modes of transport.

"In summary, more people are driving than want to, and fewer people are cycling than want to. This indicates that there could be as much as a three-fold increase in cycling [from the current 4+%] once a safe connected cycleways network is in place."

If you are interested in browsing the 20-page Master Plan I could email it to you. I would be interested in your thoughts.

David Hembrow said...

David W: It'll be great if Wellington does make the changes required. Please do send the Master Plan to me. I have to warn though that promises come and go (Britain is my benchmark for this, but other places, such as Los Angeles, are good at talking too). So don't believe anything until it's real. It's rather sad that Christchurch set such a low bar with their cycle infrastructure standard.