A look at the barriers and opportunities in our transport system
Following the death of 28 year old Hamiltonian Jessica Moser while riding her bike, Louise Hutt, chairperson Go Eco (Waikato Environment Centre), wrote a powerful piece on her Substack newsletter, Say Cheese Louise. With her permission, we have re-published the post.
When I saw the headline “Bike ‘in pieces’ at scene of crash with truck in central Hamilton” last week, I felt my heart go cold as I reckoned with the knowledge a person on a bike had almost definitely died in our city.
I got messages asking if I was okay from people hoping it wasn’t my bike that wasn’t “all crunched up around the wheel … [looking] as if the truck dragged the bike” – as described in the Waikato Times. The article, and its subsequent updates confirming the person had died, were shared several times in our local cycling Facebook group – a tight-knit group of over 1,100 people (with a smaller group of very active members). There was relief as different people commented and liked the post, confirming it wasn’t them – all while we waited with bated breath to see who it was. I tagged regular contributor Phil, who had been detailing his many run-ins with trucks in the group, terrified that his luck had run out – but no, it wasn’t him. Helen, who I’ve talked with more times than I could remember in the group and a regular source of wisdom, said:
“It could have been any one of us. An update today said something of a woman on her way to work. We’ve lost a cycling sister and the grief may be hitting each of us in similar and different ways. Please be gentle with one another as we try to comprehend her death.”
I was explaining to my partner about Tim Hope’s death two years ago on Ruakura Road – I never met Tim, but when the news articles talked about a person on a recumbent bike, I knew exactly who it was. My favourite time seeing Tim cycle was down Victoria Street, his flag waving in the wind and a look of joy on his face, as I spotted him while I was having lunch one day. I remember saying “but he was so visible” when I heard he’d been in an accident – it was truly so hard to miss him, and yet someone did and it was fatal. Another post last week in our Facebook group talked about how great Ruakura Road is to cycle now – two years after Tim’s death – with the intersection upgrades that were planned at the time now completed. Mayor Paula Southgate has confirmed that, like Ruakura Road at the time of Tim’s death, the Tristram-London Street intersection (where the tragedy happened) was tagged for upgrading but had been on hold waiting for notification of Waka Kotahi funding.
Portland cycling coordinator Ross Geller categorises people’s attitudes to cycling in four ways:
- Strong and fearless: less than one percent of all people;
- Enthused and confident: around 7% of all people;
- Interested but concerned: up to 60% of all people; and
- No-way, no-how: around 33% of all people1
I was reflecting on where I sit in this matrix – and where many of our current bike users in Hamilton sit – by what I had reassured people when they had asked if it was me who had been in the accident. I bike a 20km round-trip for my commute to the Waikato DHB (now Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand) offices, and three-quarters of that trip is on a shared path (mostly the glorious Te Awa River Ride). I pop out at Victoria on the River, take the lane for a block to get to Alexandra Street, and I’m there – with a beautiful swipe-card bike shed, showers, lockers, and even a drying room for the wet days. For the 5km of the trip that is on the road – between our house and the shared path – the worst of it (about 1km) has an on-road bike path2, and the rest is quiet, neighbourhood streets where I’m mostly unbothered by cars, trucks, or buses.
I would say I fit into the second category: I’m an enthused and confident rider – mostly because of my proximity to separated cycling paths3. When we lived in Frankton, we lived one house back from the Western Rail Trail on Killarney Road – which was the infrastructure that made me think “actually I could get away with not replacing my car” when it was written off. And this feeling isn’t unique to me – it’s no wonder increased separated cycling infrastructure has been named in research about improving cycling in Hamilton again and again:
- “I would cycle much more frequently, and probably commute to work if it was safer. If there were bike paths separate from traffic then I am sure many more people would use them.” – Highlighted response in the Hamilton City Cycling Survey 2014
- There were 38,412 Western Rail Trail users in the 3 months since it opened in 2017 – Bike to the Future Awards 2017
- People in Hamilton are more likely to consider improved routes as reasons for cycling – Highlighted statistic in the Waka Kotahi Attitudes towards Walking and Cycling 2018
- If infrastructure was improved, 63% of non-cyclists were open to start cycling in Hamilton, and 56% of cyclists were open to cycling more – Waka Kotahi Attitudes towards Walking and Cycling 2019
Now, let’s take a look at what cycling means in the big picture of Hamilton’s transport system:
🚗 The majority of Hamilton’s carbon emissions are from transport (and as a region, 97.9% of the transport emissions are from on-road petrol and diesel use). Hamilton has the highest rate of car-dominance in New Zealand – with 86% of all trips being by car – but we also have the highest support for cycling in the country at 78%.
👍 Lots of Hamilton’s car-trips are potentially bike and walk friendly – 60% of all car trips in Hamilton are under 5km long (equal to a 20-minute bike ride) and just over a third are under 2km (10 minutes by bike).
🚲 After cycling for fitness, the most common reason to use a bike in Hamilton is that it’s cheaper/saves money (people in Hamilton cited this reason more than in the other main centres) and people living in areas of higher deprivation in Hamilton were more likely to cycle to work than people who lived in areas of low deprivation.
💸 In 2019, transport nationally averaged $216 per week per household and was the third-largest cost in household budgets (behind housing and food). This year, BP NZ reported a $230 million after-tax profit for 2021, Mobil a $183m profit and Z Energy a $92m profit for the six months to the end of September. This is while petrol prices hit a record high, and the price of fuel is likely to rise again by 29 cents a litre in August due to the fuel-tax break ending.
So we know that cycling is serious climate action (big tick ✅). We’re keen to see people out on their bikes and better infrastructure could move a big chunk of people in our city from ‘interested but concerned’ to ‘enthused and confident’. Safer cycling routes support people living in higher deprivation areas and it saves money in our cost of living crisis (another big tick ✅). Plus, fewer cars on the road helps ease congestion for people who need to drive, and fewer cars on the road reduce the road toll too (tick, tick, tick ✅). If you’re looking at it strategically, investing in cycling infrastructure becomes an obvious choice – not just for people who bike but for our transport system as a whole. I would love to know what we can do to get in front of the deaths we’ve had – so it doesn’t take losing someone from our cycling community to get improvements in place.
The “low cost, low risk” programme, which Tristram-London Street is sitting in, basically means Hamilton City Council can make some changes without needing to do a full business case, provided it falls under the Waka Kotahi funding threshold of $2m4. Business cases take time, so this is an opportunity for easy wins, quick little upgrades that can still make some significant improvements without costing an arm and a leg. Painting in an advanced green stop box (allowing bike users to wait at lights in front of vehicles), as suggested by Bike Waikato’s Richard Porter, could have potentially made a difference last week – an example of a quick win you could make via low cost, low risk.
So, if council was waiting on Waka Kotahi funding, where do they sit on needing to fund these changes? Their own research consistently highlights improving safety via infrastructure:
“Safety continues to be a key barrier to cycling … Even the most basic cycling infrastructure helps people feel a lot safer. Only 56% feel safe overall, however, if cycling on a shared path or road with cycle lanes, safety perceptions increase significantly” – Waka Kotahi Attitudes towards Walking and Cycling 2021
“For walking and cycling [in Hamilton], its perceived and real safety concerns, particularly around sharing road space, is impeding the shift” – Waka Kotahi Hamilton-Waikato Metro Area Mode Shift Plan 2020
And yet, it’s been suggested Waka Kotahi has a bias towards roading projects and away from walking and cycling – in 2020, Waka Kotahi was forecasting to spend nearly half a billion dollars more than the maximum amount of money the government earmarked for state highways and spend tens of millions of dollars less than the government had earmarked for walkways and cycleways. This is frustrating when you weigh it up against the evidence clearly in favour of cycling investment5.
We also don’t know how far down the list this intersection was on council’s low cost, low risk programme – and what more dangerous intersections (which perhaps don’t have a cyclist death, yet) could have been prioritised above it. We have a backlog of car-centric infrastructure to adapt, adjust, and redesign which won’t be solved overnight (or in one financial year or city council term). Meaningful change might not look like changing this one intersection alone and calling it a day, but actually improving the whole of Tristram Street to ensure people have an alternative route to bike safely through the western side of the central city on.
The name of the person killed last week was released to the public – Jessica Moser. I didn’t know her, but at 28, she was one year younger than me. For all my confidence about how safe my regular commute is, I’ll leave you with my thoughts after a particularly bad near-miss in Beerescourt last year. We’ve got a long way to go to limit the harm that mistakes on the road can make, but we can only do it by consistent investment to build a better city. We owe it to Jessica.
Link to Substack: https://saycheeselouise.substack.com/
Link to Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/saycheeselouise
Studies have shown his estimates are broadly correct for the attitudes in the US. For Hamilton, Waka Kotahi’s research doesn’t quite use the same framework, they break it down into:
- 73% currently not riding | 5% recreational | 11% occasional | 6% regular rider | 5% committed commuter, and
- 78% supportive of cycling | 12% neutral | 9% unsupportive | 2% don’t know
A.k.a. green paint in the gutter. I will save my complaints about its quality and usefulness for another time 🙄.
Although I have taken a bike skills course too which has also helped.
Borrowed from Neil Payne, who had a good explanation of why “low risk” doesn’t mean the intersection itself is deemed “low risk”: “Waka Kotahi have funding for small transport projects which are relatively cheap (low cost) and simple to deliver successfully (this is the low risk part). Making some minor changes to an intersection such as traffic islands, different road marking, and separator kerbs might qualify for “low cost, low risk”, whereas fully redesigning the intersection with say, a Dutch-style roundabout would not.
I haven’t talked about investment in pedestrian or public transport infrastructure but they are also important aspects of climate action and moving away from a car-centric transport system.