How Christchurch Returned The City To Its Cycling Roots

After the 2011 disaster, residents were asked what they wanted from the city once known as ‘Cyclopolis’. They demanded a greener, more people-focused Christchurch – and investment in new cycleways means it is starting to happen.

An artist’s impression of the Promenade, a cycle-friendly Christchurch redevelopment project. Photograph: Christchurch Central Development Unit

There has been a slight change in Glen Koorey’s daily 20-minute bicycle ride to work over the last four years. In the weeks following Christchurch’s devastating earthquake in 2011, in which 185 people were killed and large portions of the CBD were levelled, there was no way to drive through the city. Buildings lay crumbled. Roads were cracked and split. Basic infrastructure was torn apart.

For months stretching into years, it remained nearly impossible to navigate the city without having to divert into myriad detours before eventually arriving at your destination. Cycling, says Koorey, became a simpler means of transport.

“At work if there was an aftershock and you were told to go home, it was a lot easier to go on a bike than drive.”

Slowly, Koorey has watched Christchurch recover – the roads repaired, the buildings rebuilt and the infrastructure reengineered. But he has also seen a change in attitude for a city that had long neglected its two-wheeled commuters.

Koorey is a transport engineer by trade and teaches at the local University of Canterbury. But before all that he was, and always has been, a cyclist. In the aftermath of the earthquake, he became a voice for cycling advocates. He presented to the local council on how the city could build back better – this time with cycling in mind.

Christchurch back when it was known as ‘cyclopolis’. Photograph: Christchurch City Libraries
“In 1924, the council estimated there were 40,000 cyclists in the city – half the population at the time.”

The city had an opportunity for change and asked its citizens what it wanted of the new Christchurch. One of the resounding calls from the public was that it wanted a greener and more people-focused city – and one of the more obvious ways to achieve this was to invest in cycling infrastructure.

“The key thing is that council asked the question and that often doesn’t happen,” Koorey says. “You shouldn’t have to have an earthquake for this to happen.”

The model to transform was based on those northern European countries that are famed for their cycling infrastructure – particularly the Netherlands and Denmark. Koorey was interested in how they did what they did. After all, 40 years ago Amsterdam, the bastion of cycle-friendly cities, was heading down the same path as Christchurch. It had not invested in infrastructure, and the proliferation of low-cost cars and cheap petrol saw its streets bulging with vehicles. But then Amsterdam had its own earthquake of sorts, says Koorey: a terrible record of children being killed by motorists. It took that self-reflection to turn the city around. Now, 32% of Amsterdam traffic is made up of bicycles.

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Pop-up bike workshops such as RAD have been built by community-minded citizens. Photograph: Cycling in Christchurch

New Zealand has a way to go. Cycling here accounts for 1.4% of trips, and 3% of all all commutes. In Christchurch this rises to 7% – making it the country’s unofficial cycling capital. But that number used to be much higher. In fact, Christchurch was once known as “Cyclopolis” and as the “Copenhagen of the south”.

You can still find old black-and-white films of commuters clogging the city’s streets. But in these films there are not traffic lights, roundabouts and intersections; instead, there are hundreds of cyclists all merging, all organically going about their day. In 1924, the council estimated there were 40,000 cyclists in the city – half the population at the time.

Koorey believes that, one day, Christchurch can become more than “just” the Copenhagen of the south. He thinks it can become one of the best cycling cities in the world.

“I’ve had the chance to see a lot of good places for cycling,” he says, “but really they are not too far ahead of what Christchurch is now doing” (that is, investment and thinking smarter about how to promote cycling). Almost NZ$160m (£67m) has been promised from government to build 13 new cycleways planned for the city.

A map of Christchurch’s proposed new cycleways
“The key thing is that council asked the question … You shouldn’t have to have an earthquake for this to happen. Glen Koorey”

Creating good cycling infrastructure starts with doing the basics right, such as having well-designed intersections and creating “quiet streets”, where few cars are allowed and only at 30kmh. Along with installing separated cycle lanes, there are means by which to change perceptions of how city transport should function.

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According to Koorey, when you include the associated health benefits, there is an eight-to-one benefit-to-cost ratio that comes with cycling investment. “What’s good for cycling is good for people generally,” he says.

This philosophy has shone through in other projects throughout Christchurch. Groups such as Frocks on Bikes encourage women to take up cycling. Bike events have seen the city closed to cars to show residents what Christchurch could look like in the future. Pop-up central city bike workshops such as RAD have been built by young community-minded citizens wanting to get involved in the rebuild – a hallmark of the Christchurch recovery. A cycle share project, Spark Bikes, also started in August on a two-year pilot programme that saw 40 bikes installed in five different locations around the central city.

“There is a renaissance of cycling all around the place,” Koorey says. “We need all that in addition to the infrastructure to make it fun.”

One of the biggest barriers to cycling being fully embraced here is the perception of safety. Koorey says the local media has made much of cycling deaths over the past several years – 12 since 2009. He says by virtue of having more cyclists that any other city in the country they have more accidents, but per capita the numbers are actually quite good. Even in the Netherlands, because of the sheer volume of cyclists, they still have 180 deaths a year.

Then there are the oft-cited road rage incidents between cyclists and motorists. One 51-year-old cyclist was even fined by the police for impeding traffic on a narrow and winding hill road on the outskirts of the central city. Koorey says out of that confusion good discussions can be had, and will need to be had if the city is to fully embrace a cycling future.

It will take about five years before the city’s major cycleways are off the ground. By then, Koorey anticipates that Christchurch’s cycling commuters will have doubled. Then give it a few more years, he says, and his vision of a world-class cycling city that rivals the Northern Europeans may actually take shape: “I don’t see why not.”


This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.


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