The Prime Minister's promotion of a national cycleway is exciting a lot of interest - including comments from Herald correspondents and columnists. On Wednesday, Brian Rudman recounted the quirky tale of how John Key was entranced by the idea, and lamented that the cycling is not suited to our climate or topography. Columnist Garth George has declared his love for his warm, dry, powerful car and rejects any suggestion that he will be beguiled by cycling. He told us of the backseat opportunities he gained as a young man, when he could borrow his father's car for parking up with his girlfriend.
Both columnists regard the idea of a national cycleway as folly. They question who will use it and suggest it is an outdated, Depression-era project which will not benefit employment or the tourist industry. Letters published on the same subject share these bleak outlooks and dismiss the value of a national cycleway. Our windy weather, steep topography and ageing population are all held up as negative factors for cycling.
The Prime Minister seems to be looking for creative ways to use our natural assets to overcome the current recession. He may have been inspired by reports from the Central Otago Rail Trail, which has changed the economic fortunes of small, depressed rural towns in the province. The 2008 economic impact survey for the walking and cycling trail records it has attracted up to 1000 full-time, part-time and seasonal jobs into the region, and new businesses
and business owners are continuing to invest along the trail. Most users are in the 30-50 age group, and more Australians are coming to walk and cycle the route.
The trail has also been a major boost to community pride, local facilities and improved services. It isn't hard to see that these benefits could be rolled out to other provincial areas through national walking and cycling routes.
John Key's interest in cycling is in tune with the recreational interests of many New Zealanders. We own 1.2 million cycles, and anecdotal evidence from this summer shows that more of us are using them to get around to the local library and shops. It's true that we've had the sun to bring us out, but let's remember that windy, chilly and hilly Wellington has one of the highest rates of commuter cyclists in the country (5.4 per cent compared with 1 per cent in Auckland).
Last month's Bikewise Breakfast at North Shore City was attended by a significant number of new cyclists aged over 60, and even one gentleman aged 81. These people are invigorated by their new freedom to get around the city in a low-cost, healthy way. I'm not sure how they'll cope with the issue of parking up that Garth George described, but my bet is that they will have the energy and sense of fun to solve it somehow.