Claude Lewenz: Smart roads will get city moving

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Forget rego plates and e-bikes - clever street design can save lives and money, writes Claude Lewenz.

Many big cities around the world have been able to set out their roads so they are safe for cyclists. Photo / AP
Many big cities around the world have been able to set out their roads so they are safe for cyclists. Photo / AP

The death of another cyclist in Auckland fires up the blame game, with the lamest blame spouted by Auckland Tramways Union president Gary Froggatt, suggesting the crisis will be solved by affixing rego plates to bicycles socyclists can be identified if they commit traffic infringements.

Perhaps we should also require all city pedestrians to have a rego plate affixed to their backs to stop jaywalking. This belief that a law can solve what is in effect an engineering and design failure is pathetic, inanely foolish, except when the Herald awards it full-story coverage that diverts attention from the real problem.

Since it has been asserted, it demands refutation. Plates don't stop infringements. New Zealand has 2.8 million registered motor vehicles and police issue over one million citations each year for moving violations; most for speeding. And these were only the violations that were caught. Plates don't save lives, safe roads do.

Demonising bicyclists for being crushed on roads is pusillanimous; the sort of diversion bureaucracies toss up rather than taking responsibility for a problem of their making. It enables them to avoid one of the smartest, cheapest ways to solve a multi-billion traffic congestion problem that unfortunately is outside their comfort zone. Road congestion promises to throttle the productivity of the nation's largest city if not solved smartly, affordably and soon. One answer is obvious, but Herald reporters need to shift their spotlight from bus-driver union bosses to Dr Lester Levy, chair of Auckland Transport and his fellow directors.

But before examining the smartest and cheapest solution to congestion and road-deaths, the public needs to be told there has been a silent technological revolution over the past two years that is a game changer in local transport. E-bikes have been around for decades with heavy batteries, huge motors and poor performance. However, about a year ago, new technology finally reached the market - affordable, reliable, easy-to-install, bolt-on e-bike kits. Existing bicycles can have their pedal cranks upgraded with a small electric motor that adds power to the chain, in effect, flattening the hills. At the same time, the latest technology batteries are now half the size, half the price and twice the power. For people living in Auckland, this means the bicycle as a primary means of local transport is feasible, cheaper and in many cases the fastest way to get around. I allow 45 minutes to take Mr Froggatt's Link bus from Ponsonby to catch the Waiheke ferry, or 10 minutes on my e-bike.

Auckland's climate is one of the best bike-riding climates in the world; far better than Europe, where one in five ride a bicycle for daily transport. Auckland should be one of the top places in the world to ride a city bike, especially now that e-bike kits flatten the hills.

According to a study done by Infrastructure Auckland in 2000, if one in five car drivers shifted to riding bicycles, the congestion problem would be cut in half. Those numbers make it seem like a no-brainer. Indeed, it would be cheaper to give one million e-bikes free to every Auckland citizen than fund the $60-billion infrastructure budget Auckland Transport has proposed.

Safe cycling is the obvious, cheap and doable solution, but we have to stop this silly talk about the answer being licensing or asking police to ticket riders who don't wear helmets. One hundred million bike riders in Europe are not inconvenienced by bicycle licences or helmet laws, because bicycle riding is safe, just as walking city streets on footpaths is safe. Those who are dangerous are the bus and truck drivers piloting 20 tonnes of fast-moving steel and inattentive car drivers.

The answer is not more laws, but smarter road design. It's not a problem for police; the full responsibility falls solidly on one agency: Auckland Transport. It must make bicycle-safe transport its top priority as a major transport solution, not a minority hobby.

Perhaps the smartest investment taxpayers could make is to pay the transport policymakers to take a one-week tour to Amsterdam, Berlin or Copenhagen where they will buy some city bikes and ride the city with digital camera in hand. Look, ride and experience how motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians are separated. They don't use paper (laws) or tin (plates), they use concrete infrastructure: bike lanes and paths that physically and safely separate bicycles from drivers and walkers.

Then have our policymakers bring their bikes home (free as checked luggage on Emirates and Air New Zealand) and ask them to ride the Auckland streets. Again, use a digital camera with GPS to spot the worst street designs. So they keep riding, put motors on the cranks to get them up the hills. Once policymakers experience the joy and practicality of urban cycling in Europe, they will get it, and will demand change from their engineers, not pathetic paper change from lawmakers.

Yes, it will take time and cost money, but the smartest way to make a road "bigger" is to make the vehicles smaller.

Claude Lewenz is director of Renaissance Aotearoa Foundation, a charitable trust that sponsors slowcycles.com, a NZ initiative to get more people on bicycles.

Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

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