The Rise and Fall of Cycling in Christchurch (aka Cyclopolis)

Sep 01, 2014
The Rise and Fall of Cycling in Christchurch (aka Cyclopolis)


High Street, Christchurch 1950s
High Street, Christchurch 1950s

A bit of a diversion here from Auckland to talk about my home town. I hope you will indulge me. Does anyone know of any similar films or photos showing cycling in Auckland?

As I have said in earlier posts, it seems to be particularly hard for people who grew up in the period before the 1960s, when streets were much more “complete”, to imagine the world now without all street space dedicated to moving cars.

For someone like me, born in the 1970s, it is almost a mythical utopia to imagine a city where pedestrians, trams, cars, buses and bicycles shared the road equally. Nowadays, we need to travel 15,000 kms to the Netherlands or Denmark to see the same environment.

That’s why I was so interested to find the video below from 1952 made by the National Film Unit for the Christchurch City Council which shows a very different Christchurch from the one I grew up in. It is a Christchurch where trams and bicycles dominate the streetscape. Where pedestrians stand in the street and chat. Where intersections lack the complicated controls we take for granted and street users have to use their own judgement to navigate safely through (and it seems to work). The real cycle “action” is from 2′ 15″ to 2′ 50″.

Videos like this always challenge me to think about New Zealand and New Zealanders. Were our parents, grandparents great-grandparents so much tougher than us that they felt able to cycle like this? Was the move to cars just about convenience or did the street environment slowly become so hostile that people felt unable to continue cycling? In a small, flat city (just like Groningen) such as Christchurch which was dominated by cycling for so long, it is amazing how fast cycling was abandoned as an every day means of transport.

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