Cycling is a convenient, fun, affordable and healthy way to travel around Dunedin”

“Cycling is a convenient, fun, affordable and healthy way to travel around Dunedin, whether to get you to work or school, for recreation, or to experience Dunedin’s scenery.” Dunedin City Council website.

Oh if only it was so. It is true of the first cycle path to be built in modern times in Otago (of which Dunedin is the main city) but this is a tourist oriented cycle trail from Middlemarch to Clyde, through Central Otago, a distance of about 150 kilometres (the Central Otago Rail Trail) and it starts about 80km away from Dunedin. It was built on the carcass of the railway that had been there from as early as 1877 until 1990 when it was pulled up by the neo-liberal government of the time (there were several) who had taken this toxic ideology very much to heart. So there is some regret involved. Today you can only see the former history of this railway at a local museum in the small town of Ranfurly which was previously the halfway stop on the train ride between Dunedin & Clyde. The current cycle trail that replaced it is very much targeted at tourists and due to its success it has stimulated similar cycle trails in other parts of New Zealand. It is nevertheless not that well used compared to cycle paths elsewhere. Estimates, before the worldwide lockdowns of the last few months, were about 10-14,000 people annually.

How cycling trails developed in Central Otago is also the Dunedin experience, the main spend on cycle paths has been to those parts of Dunedin that the tourists like to visit such as the Otago Peninsula. Through areas that the council is trying to promote to developers (the Harbourfront) or past the extremely expensive stadium where there is a rather nice but very much under utilised cycle bridge nearby. This 48km (when it’s finished) cycle path is rather disjointed in places and still not complete but when it is it will be a nice enough ride and a quite scenic one.

Dunedin harbour with the current and proposed cycle path from Port Chalmers to Point Harrington Dunedin harbour with the current and proposed cycle path (in red) from Port Chalmers (top LHS) to Point Harrington (top RHS). Photo credit: David Wall/Alamy Stock Photo

“When a balcony was at least six feet deep it tended to be used: children played there, people took time with their coffee or had lunch on a small table, basked in the sunshine, and enjoyed their connection to the street, watching the world go by. On the other hand, a balcony under six feet in depth would not be used, collected junk, and mostly became little more than a place where laundry was hung to dry.” Brömmelstroet et al, “Towards a pattern language for cycling environments: merging variables and narratives, Applied Mobilities” 2018.

Just as with the balcony in this quote the cycling infrastructure for getting to school, to work or to visit friends in the urban areas of Dunedin is almost non-existent and, where it does exist, is not fit for purpose and largely unused. It is single lane in most places, always on the side of a very busy road, often hemmed in by large concrete barriers, badly signposted and sometimes finishes on one side of the road and then starts on the other side of the road. An enjoyable experience it is certainly not. One could also suspect that it was designed to fail, maybe as a result of compromise, something possibly evidenced by a (successful) candidate for Dunedin Council, Jules Radich, who in the last local election campaign suggested that cyclists should “use it or lose it”.

This was the same election that elected the Greens candidate Aaron Hawkins as Mayor who hardly mentioned cycling in any part of his own election campaign. He did though make a big deal of hitchhiking from his home in Port Chalmers and although, if stories are to be believed, one could be a little skeptical of this Aaron should still keep in mind that there is indeed, as mentioned earlier, a very good cycle trail almost all the way from Dunedin to Port Chalmers, where Mayor Hawkins lives. So an electric cycle could conceivably help him to make the trip to the Council offices even faster than it would take him to hitchhike.

“Riding side by side, friends can catch up, couples can share moments, parent and child can learn together, and colleagues can work out difficult decisions.” Brömmelstroet et al, “Towards a pattern language for cycling environments: merging variables and narratives, Applied Mobilities” 2018.

Dutch girls cycling to school Dutch girls cycling to school. Credit: G, Hulster., A. Gielen, J. Dirks, M. te Brömmelstroet, (2020) Why We Cycle.

I’m guessing most of us could complain about our own city’s cycling infrastructure all day long. But the key takeaway should be that if you’re going to succeed in changing the focus of your city from cars to cycling then first of all you have to make it enjoyable for the citizens of your city. Although Dunedin is quite hilly in parts there is also a fair bit of flat ground in the city all the way from the University area to the beach at St Clair. These areas of Dunedin also have a slight majority of the population of the city. So it’s my view that there are some relatively small changes that could get quite a lot of people in Dunedin onto cycles and more importantly enjoying it into the bargain.

“For the most part people travel not just for the sake of it, but in order to participate in spatially disjointed activities (for example, living, working, shopping, visiting in different places)” Luca Bertolini and Frank le Clercq, Urban development without more mobility by car? Lessons from Amsterdam, a multimodal urban region

Young Dutch Men out on the town. Young Dutch Men out on the town. G, Hulster., A. Gielen, J. Dirks, M. te Brömmelstroet, (2020) Why We Cycle.

There is a large green belt that follows the northerly half of this flat area right around to South Dunedin (albeit there would be a small climb to it initially). At South Dunedin a cycle path that kept to the side of this Green Belt could join up with the main street of South Dunedin right through to Victoria Street at the beach. Intersecting this main street we also have Hillside road which has adequate room for two generous cycle paths on either side of it while still keeping the current two lanes for motor vehicles. Macandrew and Bay View Roads could be turned into one way roads (respectively away from Harbour and towards Harbour) with the remaining part of each of these roads turned over to bi-directional cycle paths. Bay View Road can then join up with the rather good cycle path along Portobello Road and both streets can join up with the cycle path that runs along Portsmouth drive to the city (joining Port Chalmers and Harington Point). We would also need some feeder cycle paths in the city and University areas to the two main cycle paths at the Harbour and at the Green Belt. A cycle path along Forbury Road/David Street from Caversham to St Clair and another from the St Clair esplanade to join up with the current cycle path on Queens Drive would complete this cycle path plan.

There are a dozen or more Secondary Schools and numerous primary schools that are close by these suggested bicycle paths and the appeal for these students of cycling to school cannot be understated. But it could also be noted that girls school uniforms in Dunedin might discourage girls from riding bikes to school, Dutch students ride to their schools in every day clothes.

The Dunedin Council circa 2013 had similar plans, albeit mostly with shared roads rather than cycle paths. I also think that shared roads can work but you need to reduce the speeds to 30kmh on such roads and cars would need to know that they were ‘guests’ on the same. This has worked in the Netherlands, for example, but it is not really suitable for the suggested cycle path plan as outlined here.

My suggested cycle paths for Dunedin My suggested cycle paths for Dunedin, Credit: Apple Maps/Richard Seager

Thus we have cycle paths on both sides of the University, one via the harbour and one via the Green Belt to South Dunedin where there are multiple elementary and high schools several of which would be very well served by these suggested cycle paths. Students of both schools and the University would then hopefully be the impetus for further development of cycle paths in Dunedin proper, which I would hope would include a completely car-free University precinct. And I am certain that you could think of something similar for your own town or city.

Dunedin could trial such changes as these mentioned in this article using funding made available for temporary cycleways from the New Zealand government in a policy announced by the Associate Minister of Transport Julie Anne Genter on 12th April.

Richard Seager recently successfully completed a short course with the University of Amsterdam via coursera.org titled “Unraveling the Cycling City”. He also stood unsuccessfully for Council and Mayor for Dunedin Council in 2019, his first attempted foray into local politics, on a very cycling focused platform. He has a post graduate diploma with a focus on climate science and cycles in Dunedin on a daily basis.