Whanganui's district council wants to get people out of their cars and onto their bikes or feet. ZARYD WILSON looks at the council's new, long-term active transport vision.


More people on bikes, scooters or on foot are travelling between the suburbs and the city via a network of shared pathways.

The council's new Active Transport Strategy is a kind of blueprint for fewer cars on the road, and fitter and healthier residents.

"Essentially we're in the business of changing behaviour," the Whanganui District Council's active transport facilitator, Norman Gruebsch, says.

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"Behaviour change is a 30-year concept. It won't happen over the next week or two years.

"What we're doing now is putting in the infrastructure, putting those behaviour change programmes in place, getting school and families on board and setting incentives."

To do that the district is investing in cycling and walking infrastructure with education to match. It's a two-pronged attack.

Last year the council began the Let's Go Whanganui programme, a concept borrowed from the New Plymouth District Council, which has developed it over a number of years.

It's a bike skills training programme aimed first at primary school children and then older children as it moves through grades.

Let's Go is the first investment in trying to change cycling culture in the future, Mr Gruebsch says. "It's an easy target. They're keen, they're happy, they love cycling."

The Whanganui Multisport Club is contracted by the council to run the skills training while many other community organisations, including the police, are involved.

Thirteen primary schools have taken part in the first year of the programme with 1300 children getting scooter and cycling skills training.

"You want to grab all of those kids. Times have changed, a lot of kids slip through the cracks, if you wish, and they're going to secondary school having never been on a bike," Mr Gruebsch says. "It's not like the 1980s or 1970s. Kids are getting driven to school."

Gonville School and Keith Street School have also received funding to implement the Bikes in Schools initiative which gives them a shell rock cycle trail on the school ground and a fleet of bikes.

"It's a really safe in-school environment. We've got a few schools now we're working on more."

Mr Gruebsch says New Zealand's car culture is responsible for the decline in cycling and walking in recent decades, perhaps down to "the speed of life, the perception of safety and that sort of thing".

"It's only now New Zealand is waking up in the last few years with a big push from the centres," he says.

"It's not so apparent in Whanganui but if you look at Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch - they're choking with congestion and also with the global (climate) goals. That's sort of trickling down to local communities.

"This is what we can do here to work in the behaviour-change space. It's not going to happen overnight but we're hoping in sort of 10 years at least we'll see some change."

Getting children cycling or walking is one thing, but keeping them on a bike once they leave school is another. Getting adults onto bikes is even harder.

"You've got to create a continuous flow from when kids are really young to when they're adults so they have opportunities to learn how to cycle and to use that skill (all the way through)," Mr Gruebsch says.

Part of that is talking to businesses about travel planning and the benefits of encouraging cycling among staff. He says there are a lot of things employers could consider like buying a fleet of bikes or having appropriate changing facilities.

"But that's a much harder area to break in."

Complimenting the council's work around education is cycling and walking infrastructure. "You remove walking and cycling from the road and make it safer," Mr Gruebsch says.

By June next year the city to north mole shared pathway will be complete as will Te Tuaiwi (the spine) shared pathway which will link that with London St, running mainly along St Hill St.

Those two tracks form the foundation of what is hoped to be an extensive network of cycling and walking tracks connecting Whanganui's suburbs over the coming decades.
Council senior roading engineer Rui Leitao says those two routes were the obvious place to start.

"The river was a no brainer because it's such as focus for the whole community," he says.

"All the roads come to the river. We just thought it was a natural thing to line up with the mountain to sea cycleway. And then with Te Tuaiwi there's a whole lot of schools we collect."

The plan is to focus future shared pathways around schools and parks and activity centres and link them with existing walkways.

The early evidence shows a surge in use of the city to north mole cycleway in its first year even with only two stages of it complete.

The council has a measuring device along the Taupo Quay section and in June this year it counted 8296 users compared 3812 in the same month last year.

Mr Gruebsch says there's plenty of evidence from overseas about what cycling infrastructure can do for a city.

"There's less traffic, more cycling, more connection, there's more liveability. People are happy, they buy more, there's health outcomes," he says.

"We don't really have the needs of Auckland in terms of congestion. For us here when we are measuring outcomes it's more around health."

A large chunk of all this work is funded by the New Zealand Transport Agency with council receiving about $3 government investment for every dollar it puts in.

"This is sort of a big push from the Government and fortunately they give us a lot if incentives and money to roll it out," Mr Gruebsch says.

Of the total $3.25million to build the two foundation pathways $810,000 while the remainder is funded by government programmes.

Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall says any outside funding is hard to turn down "but equally it's appropriate council lead when it comes to transport options".

He hopes all of this work will get more people off the road and moving, back to how it used to be.

"People have forgotten the joy of that," he says. "When I look at the history of Whanganui, I recall stories of traffic jams across the Dublin St bridge because of the number of bicycles going across it. Everyone was cycling to the railway workshops."

Other cycling-related projects seemed to be popping up around Whanganui also .

There's the community-led Springvale Bike Park which is currently under construction next to the Splash Centre and the push to put a roof on the velodrome has put the spotlight on the potential for competitive cycling in the city.

"It's all part of the bigger picture," Mr Gruebsch says. "It's these little mushrooms that are popping up that not straight away we see are related but with more momentum will be."

Mr Leitao says there's potential for businesses to benefit out of it or even for new cycling related or tourism businesses to take advantage of council's work.

"There's huge potential for businesses around cycling to actually get an advantage out of this because it certainly is one of our goals," he says. "We're just trying to enable everyone to try to get something out of it."

And if all this works as intended the way Whanganui people move around the city will be a lot different in 20 or 30 years.

"It's really that next generation where perhaps the perceptions of getting around town change," Mr Gruebsch says.

"Do we really need a car or can we use a bike or e-bike or scooter or walk?

"We want to create and it won't happen on day one but we've got goals."