Flashback Friday – Guest Post: Impressions from a “tourist”

Seven years ago when I was still working at university, we were fortunate to be visited by a colleague and cycling expert from the UK, Prof John Parkin (I was very pleased to be able to return the favour when I undertook a European sabbatical in 2015 that included John’s base at Bristol). At the time, Christchurch was of course still grappling with plans for the post-quake rebuild, so John certainly took a keen eye on what was proposed for cycling. He kindly offered a guest post about his thoughts on this, originally first published in Aug 2013. It’s interesting to think what points John made then are still valid today, and what he might find much improved…

Kia ora.

Large and small gems: that will be mine, and my wife’s, abiding memory of Christchurch for five weeks while visiting the University of Canterbury as an Erskine Fellow, hosted by Dr Glen Koorey. In between trips away at the weekend to Abel Tasman National Park, the West Coast, and Banks Peninsula, we have been able to get to know Christchurch a little better than when we were last here in 2007. The large gems are the vast spaces and vistas, the small gems are Riccarton Bush and other oases of, at least to English eyes, tropical paradise.

It has taken some time for me to realise the enormity of the scale of the reconstruction task after the earthquakes, and I can understand the frustrations and traumas this has caused, and continues to cause. We have been surprised at the substantial work that still needs to be done, but this merely reflects our lack of prior understanding about the scale of the devastation.

So far as transport is concerned we have been fortunate to have been lent bicycles, in my case by NextBike, which I am very pleased to learn is piloting a bike sharing scheme with council staff before a public launch perhaps in 2014. Thank you, Rob Henderson.

John Parkin and his borrowed NextBike outside Canterbury University

I have been teaching undergraduate and postgraduate transport students over the five weeks of my stay and I have been impressed by the state of the art in terms of research in relation to, for example, local area traffic management. I have a special interest in cycling and have had the opportunity to teach in this area, and lead a couple of seminars, and give a talk to the IPENZ (Institution of Professional Engineers) Transportation Group. I particularly valued the opportunity to sit with key figures from Christchurch City Council (CCC) to understand the ambitious future plans for cycling, and transport more generally.

It is particularly encouraging that recently there has been published a new set of design guidelines for cycling. During my time here, I have been able to study the state-of-the-art in relation to cycling, particularly in terms of what is being planned, and this has fed in to a benchmarking project I am working on for Transport for London (TfL).

An area of common ground between Christchurch and London, at least in current planning terms, is an understanding that streets are places not only for movement, but also for living. I am encouraged that both TfL and CCC recognise this in their developing approach to design and transport provision. Christchurch is certainly ahead of London in recognising that good routes for cycle traffic are not likely to be coincident with significant public transport corridors, but then London is heavily dominated by bus use, with ridership having risen dramatically in the last decade or so. It is difficult to avoid bus routes in London.

The UK is seeing some interesting trends in relation to transport. There has been a decline amongst 17-20 year olds in learning to drive and this trend will feed into the car use in future years. Pre-dating the economic crash of 2008, there is evidence that rising car ownership has stalled. The London Borough of Hackney now has more than 15% of residents cycling to work, and if the trend over the last decade in this borough is replicated in a number of other boroughs which have also seen their cycle-commuting numbers increase, then London will become a leading world city in terms of cycle use.

So, are there lessons I have learned from my stay in Christchurch? What little and large gems will I be taking back to the UK, which generally speaking is still no utopia for cycling? I like the detection regime on the approach to signals, such as those on the exit from Hagley Park into Kilmarnock Street, and on the Railway Path north of the city. Cyclists are aware that they have been detected by virtue of the automatically illuminated red light and, at least on the Railway Path, the hurry call to change the signals to green for cycle users. The cycle training road simulation in Westburn Park is another little gem. The recently installed scheme at Ilam Road offers a high level of urban realm improvement as part of the traffic management changes that have been made.

Generally speaking, and you will not need me to tell you this, it is clear, that Christchurch is a city dominated by wide streets given over to motor traffic. While on the one hand it is quite possible to develop a range of technical ‘solutions’ to the problems of interaction between cycle users and motor traffic, on the other hand the resolution of the issues around ‘contested space’, as my social sciences colleagues would call it, is entirely a political one. And of course politicians go only as far as they think they have a mandate.

Perhaps the most encouraging things I have learned while over here is the significant response to the ‘Share an Idea’ exercise, which demonstrated that people want a liveable city where it is much easier to walk and to cycle. The difficult question to answer is not what the shape of the infrastructure should look like (there are plenty of good examples of this which we can learn from), but how we might move the population on from an aspirational desire for something better, to action on their part through choices in their daily lives which will bring that about. It is never easy to keep public opinion, political imperative, and professional planning completely aligned, particularly when recognising the, sometimes considerable, time-scales needed to bring infrastructure plans to fruition.

Yes, there remain contentions in provision for cycle traffic, and there are many of them: helmets or not; degree of separation; the Dutch or Danish approach and so on and so forth. The important task though is to continue to talk constantly about cycling as a legitimate, rational, efficient and convenient means of transport.

Hei konā mai.

John Parkin


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