The growth in housing demand around Greater Christchurch has seen a lot of new subdivisions spring up, particularly on the periphery of the city. Areas that were farmland not too long ago are suddenly just another part of suburbia. We’ve seen how residential development has been done in places like Germany; so how do things compare in Christchurch? Are we creating new places that are cycle-friendly?
I recently took a look at some new subdivisions in Halswell and Wigram to see how they are providing for cycling. Specifically, I checked out the latest areas being built in Longhurst, Knights Stream Park, Broken Run, and Wigram Skies.
The first step to encouraging cycling is land use – it’s no good for example having lots of lovely cycleways around your housing area if you still have to travel miles to get to the shops, school, work and so on. A lot of earlier stand-alone subdivisions were essentially just “dormitory” suburbs full of houses and nothing else.
Fortunately more of the recent developments have tried to incorporate a bit more mixed-use planning, by including neighbourhood centres with shops, cafés and maybe even some offices; there might also be a school site planned for the future or a local childcare centre.
The challenge with all of these facilities is the need to have a “critical mass” of residents before they will often become viable. So, unless the developer subsidises things in the early days, it may be difficult to see these mixed use features in there from day one. It’s one thing to say that they will be built later on when the population grows (same with providing bus services to the neighbourhood) but, in the meantime, the early residents might get into the habit of just driving further afield to do what they need to do.
I’ve also yet to see a community central area in Chch that doesn’t let you drive all the way through the middle of it. Unlike virtually every town I encountered in Europe, we seem to lack the courage to create community hubs that you can only walk or bike through, with car parking on the periphery.
Destinations also need convenient bike parking. This is something that seems to be improving (possibly due to City Plan requirements), with facilities like shops and parks increasingly having some bike parking on hand. Some of it still seem a tad impractical for securing your trusty treadly, but in the main it’s getting better (another piece of advice: a ramp from the road to the bike parking area is helpful!).
Busier streets in some subdivisions have painted cycle lanes along them. I’ve yet to come across many (any?) going even further and providing Dutch-style separated cycleways, although the traffic volumes arguably don’t warrant them.
Single-lane roundabouts are a popular treatment along these routes, and the standard provisions for cycling appear to be either to (a) have the cycle facilities disappear on each approach or (b) steer riders onto the adjacent footpath and have them use that to get across the intersection. Hmm… The former can work well enough if the roundabout is geometrically constrained so that no-one can drive through faster than biking speed – not always the case. Off-road pathways probably won’t appeal to more confident riders because they have to cede priority when crossing each roadway.
Indented parking bays are a nice way to provide on-street car parking without leaving the street too wide and encouraging faster driving. Well, that’s the theory, but it does rather rely on keeping the remaining carriageway reasonably narrow, and also not letting cars still park along these sections (typically right where you want to cycle…).
Many developers will claim that their subdivision has a great network of off-road pathways for cycling on. I would believe that a bit more if (a) the pathways were actually wider than a standard footpath, and (b) at each end, the pathways had kerb ramps that allowed you to access the street (rather than having to use the nearest available driveway).
A key incentive for cycling is also where those pathway connections provide handy shortcuts between streets while drivers have to go the long way around; generally I’ve found a mixture of those that do this well and those where there is little advantage to be gained (hint: winding indirect pathways through reserves are not a convenient way to get quickly from A to B!).
Away from specific cycle facilities (which you would really only expect on busier streets), speed management is critical for the comfort and safety of cyclists (and pedestrians). To that end, it’s interesting that I’ve never seen a new subdivision where the local streets had a 30-40km/h speed limit on them from day one.
As for the streets themselves, it’s a bit of a mixed bag; some have useful traffic calming features but many are still just big wide straight carriageways with little incentive to slow down. Is it seen as a potential turn-off if residents can’t drive completely unimpeded to their houses?
In summary, it feels like the report card should read “must try harder”. While there are nods here and there to providing more cycle-friendly environments, some of them do feel like lip-service only (i.e. the Council said we had to do something…) rather than a concerted effort to encourage more residents out of their cars.
Part of that is understanding that a network of cycle lanes and pathways is only half the battle; tools like compact mixed land-use and speed management are also very important.
Ultimately the true test is in how many people I actually saw biking around the four subdivisions I visited on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late July – I could count them on one hand…
Are new subdivisions getting better at providing for cycling?