In the Spotlight: Don Babe, advocating for Canterbury cyclists

Don Babe is a busy man. He works as an accountant, helps his wife run their Prebbleton blueberry farm, is long-time chair of Spokes Canterbury, and takes every opportunity to contribute to planning processes to create a better environment for everyday cycling. Until recently, he was also chair of the Little River Rail Trail Trust. I talked to Don about his cycle advocacy, and his own cycling, ahead of him stepping down from his Spokes Canterbury role.

Don the advocate

Don first got involved in cycle advocacy around the time of the Canterbury earthquakes. He was working for a property developer at the time, who wanted to put a cycleway through a large site they were developing. Don got in touch with Spokes Canterbury to see what they thought about the idea, but Spokes was only interested in providing comment after the cycleway was built. That’s when Don decided he should get involved.

Within a few years of his first Spokes meeting, Don took on the role of chair, presenting his first annual report for the advocacy group in 2014. He says he’s been fortunate to have led the group through a period that coincided with the Christchurch City Council’s major cycleway programme and the availability of central government funding. Spokes now has much better relationships with the council and knows people “in the right places”.

Don and Spokes also work with other councils in greater Christchurch and Canterbury. The group has relationships with Selwyn and Waimakariri district councils, and he says they were able to influence Ashburton’s walking and cycling strategy a few years ago. He presented to the Ashburton District Council via Zoom, which he found very frustrating because he had no sense of how his points were being received by councillors. So, he was pleasantly surprised to find that, when the strategy was released, it included all the things that Spokes had asked for.

Don has represented Spokes on various advisory groups and forums. He enjoyed being part of the Christchurch City Council’s Central City Transport Liaison Group after the earthquakes, working alongside other community groups and business leaders. He’s currently a member of Environment Canterbury’s Public Transport Advisory Group, and he recently participated in a workshop on the spatial plan for Greater Christchurch. Nationally, he’s been involved with the Cycling Action Network.

After ten years as chair, Don will be stepping down at Spoke’s annual general meeting at the end of the month. He says he has enjoyed the role and is only giving it up because he and his wife are planning to live on the road for five years. From April 2025 (after the next blueberry harvest), they’ll be travelling the country with a caravan.

Don is keen to see a new generation of cycle advocates come through and carry on the good work. He says the role of chair is a good position to have if you’re passionate about cycling and want to get some more leverage to change things. He’s found there is respect for the position, and being chair lends credence when advocating and talking with others. The group values knowledge and education so there’s an opportunity to attend conferences and training too.

Don says, being a voluntary role, chairing Spokes is what you make it. He estimates he spends about five hours a week on the role. He chairs the group’s monthly meetings, making sure the group keeps to the agenda and that everyone gets heard. He’s also the media spokesperson for Spokes – he says he doesn’t get contacted much because he’s not inclined to “express outrage”, but someone new in the role might take a different approach.

Don often presents submissions on behalf of Spokes, but he points out the chair doesn’t have to do this and other Spokes members present submissions too. Don also spends time talking to councillors behind the scenes and says it’s important to be talking with the adversaries of cycling and cycle infrastructure, as well as the supporters.

(If you want to find out more about the role, or get involved with Spokes in some other way, you can contact Don at The Spokes annual general meeting is on Tuesday 28 May 2024, 6pm at the St Martins Community Centre.)

As well as being chair of Spokes, Don chaired the Little River Rail Trail Trust for many years until the trust handed over guardianship of the Little River Rail Trail to the Rod Donald Trust in late 2023. Don says the trust was initially formed to manage development of the trail, and continued to provide overarching oversight for a while, but the intent was always to transfer ongoing management of the trail back to local authorities.

Don’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2017, he received a Kiwibank Local Hero award, and in 2021, Christchurch City Council recognised his contribution to cycle advocacy with a Civic Award. Because he’s not a Christchurch city resident (he lives in Selwyn), the council had to make special provision to give him the award.

Don intends to stay involved in cycle advocacy while on the road. He’ll keep making individual submissions and expects to shift his attention to what central government is (or should be) doing.

He finds the shift in the political environment frustrating, especially given the new government’s stated commitment to evidence-based policy, but says the fight will go on. In his view, a change in approach is needed by cycle advocates, with a greater emphasis on the health and wellbeing outcomes associated with cycling.

Ultimately, Don would love to see cycling in Christchurch evolve to be more like Amsterdam, with most journeys that are less than ten to fifteen kilometres being undertaken by bike.

Don the cyclist

For many years Don worked in Merivale and used to drive to and from Prebbleton every day. But after he’d done some papers for his Masters degree in Transport Policy, he began to look at things differently. He started getting dropped off part-way along his route with his bike, or catching the bus, and then riding the rest of the way. One day, the bike rack on the bus was already full so he had to ride the whole way to work. And when it happened again in the same week, he gave up the bus altogether.

Don rode his bike to and from work every day – 18 kilometres there and 18 kilometres back – for five years. He’d travel by bike to meetings during the day too, and to any after-work commitments, and invested in good gear to keep himself dry in all weather. He says he lost six or seven kilograms of weight during this period.

He still bikes everywhere – turning up by bike to our meeting in St Albans – and is now enjoying biking with his grandchildren. When we talked, he had recently returned from a trip to Dunedin, staying at Portobello and riding the 32-kilometre harbour loop with three of them – Max (aged nine) and Seb (seven) biking themselves and five-year old Ariana riding shotgun with Don.

Don with Felix, age five (photo supplied by Don Babe)

Don has cycled most of the South Island cycle trails (other than the Queen Charlotte Track and the Paparoa Track). He particularly admires the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, which he thinks is well-organised, nice to ride, and provides a great model for others. His favourite section is the climb up the hill after leaving Lake Ōhau Lodge.

Don owns a commuter bike, a mountain bike, a tandem bike, and another “old bike” that he’s planning to give away. But when he goes on the road, he’ll only be taking one bike and is looking forward to doing some more mountain biking. He’s heard there are good tracks around Reefton and Nelson and will explore the tracks near the Kapiti Expressway. But there’s no fixed agenda – after all, he’s got five years to have a good look around.

Don’s advice for new cycle commuters

If you’re thinking about starting a regular commute by bike, Don’s advice is:

  • Find a buddy if you can – they will be able to help you with working out the best route and provide advice on changing facilities and where you can park your bike.
  • Set yourself a small goal for a start – just aim to bike once or twice a week initially, and when you’re comfortable, you can do more. Hopefully you will enjoy it so much you’ll want to do more.

Don says he’s found biking a great time for thinking and solving problems. It also makes travel time very predictable because you’re unlikely to get caught up in a traffic jam. Even if it’s windy, it won’t make much difference to your trip.

1 thought on “In the Spotlight: Don Babe, advocating for Canterbury cyclists”

  1. Great to see that you give these local cycling heroes a well deserved spot under the limelight!

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