Where did the bicycles go?
It’s rush hour in Christchurch in the early 20th century. Pedestrians, cyclists, automobiles, and the occasional horse carriage crisscross each other with relative ease.
There are no lines drawn in the concrete to segregate one from the other, yet there is order, even choreography, in this chaos.
Now, picture rush hour in Christchurch today and a very different image of the city crystallises.
The streets are congested with cars and buses. Horns are honking, and brake lights are flashing intermittently.
As Christchurch roads evolved, so too have the roles of those who frequent them.
Horse carriages have long gone, and cars are now the preferred method of transport in the city.
There are fewer pedestrians and more buses in place of streetcars.
It is the figure of the cyclist that is most perplexing.
According to the 2013 Census, about 9000 people in Christchurch reported cycling to work. That is roughly 7 per cent of the population.
Any archivist in Christchurch will confirm, though, that this is quite low compared with other periods in Christchurch history.
In 1924, the city council’s motor inspector estimated that there were 40,000 cyclists in the city, half the population at the time.
In 1936, a traffic census found 11,335 cyclists passing through one corner of Cathedral Square between 8am and 5.30pm, a rate of 19 a minute.
In fact, cycling was once the main mode of transport in Christchurch, a far cry from today’s affairs, which begs the question: when and why did cycling become such a challenge?
Here is where history might intervene to remind us of what Christchurch was like when the road was a little different.
In 1869, 29 years after the Treaty of Waitangi, the first bicycle arrived in New Zealand.
Not only did cycling’s popularity take off at top speed, but the bicycles themselves did as well.
Christchurch’s flat terrain in particular made for ideal riding conditions, making it a popular spot to host races.
The first velocipede race in Christchurch took cyclists from
Latimer Square to the railway station and back.
As much as cycling was a sport, though, it was also a recreational pursuit for every day people in the city.
‘‘Safety bicycles,’’ which resemble the shape of today’s bicycles, were introduced, attracting a diversity of new riders, spanning different age groups and gender distributions.
Cycling clubs also began in the 1870s as a way for cycling enthusiasts to socialise.
One of those was the Atalanta Cycling Club formed in 1892, the country’s first women’s cycling club.
By the 20th century, cycling had become a commonplace mode of transport in Christchurch, so much so that this also meant the number of cycling traffic violations had grown commensurately.
In Ride: The Story of Cycling in
New Zealand, author Jonathan Kenneth notes that when the Christchurch children’s court opened in 1926, ‘‘so numerous were cycling offences that within three months they had bought rubber stamps beating the phrases ‘cycling at night without a light’ and ‘cycling on footpath’ to save writing these in the court calendar by hand’’.
It was in the 1950s that everything changed.
New wealth and prosperity in New Zealand post-World War II led to a boom in automobile purchases.
To accommodate cars, roads widened and buildings spread farther apart, morphing the streetscape into something more familiar to those who live in Christchurch now.
To survive on this brave new road, one needed to keep up. One needed to be fast. Hence, it’s no surprise that when oil shocks temporarily drove up petrol prices in the 1970s and disincentivised driving, 10-speed and BMXbikes took to the streets as alternative modes of transport.
That is what some now recall as the most recent golden age of cycling in Christchurch.
Long-time Christchurch resident and bike commuter Meg Christie remembers: ‘‘At university, you would be lucky to get a bike stand at a preferred central location after 10am. Car ownership of secondary students was unheard of and fairly rare among tertiary students.’’
But when oil prices came back down in the 1980s, Christchurch residents ultimately returned to business as usual in their automobiles.
The increased production of mountain bikes toward the end of the 1980s encouraged more recreational cycling in the city over commuter cycling.
While a small percentage of Christchurch still cycles regularly, numbers are nowhere near how they used to be. Has the age of cycling in Christchurch come and gone, or is there still hope for cycling in the city?
There are many who believe there is.
Not only that, there is hope that cycling might even thrive.
The first order of business is to understand why people choose not to cycle. ‘‘The greatest barrier to cycling is that people feel unsafe,’’ says Meg Christie, who also cocoordinates a Christchurch cycling club called Frocks on Bikes.
Like many other cyclists, she attributes this to a lack of courtesy and understanding of a minority of car drivers.
Likewise, though, motorists report feeling nervous about sharing the road with cyclists, too.
Further, pedestrians report feeling unsafe on footpaths with cyclists whizzing by.
These safety concerns are not unwarranted. In the past six years, 12 cyclists have been killed on the road in Christchurch. The youngest victim was 19, and the oldest was 77.
Most of these accidents were because of a motor vehicle collision, and most were men.
In New Zealand, there have been 123 cyclist deaths since 2007, with 2011 having the highest number of deaths.
These numbers do not even account for the many more cycling-related injuries (non fatal) every year.
Cycling deaths since 2007
Robert Henderson, project manager of Christchurch Bike Share, is confident that a bike sharing system will help change the way people feel about cycling safety.
‘‘Cities that have implemented bike share systems have found they contribute to an overall decrease in the proportion of cycle related accidents,’’ Henderson says.
His first fleet of 40 bikes will be installed the first week of August in five different locations in the central city. This is part of a twoyear pilot.
‘‘The idea is to gather feedback and support for public bike share as part of the city’s future public transport mix,’’ he says.
Community cycling advocacy groups like ICEcycles and RAD Bikes address transportation inequities by fixing older bikes and donate to those with transportation needs.
Catarina Gutierrez, a volunteer at RAD Bikes, spends time doing just that. ‘‘When we give a bike new life, I think about the history it had,’’ she says about the bikes that she’s worked on from the ’60s and ’70s.
‘‘They’ve probably seen a lot of Christchurch we’ll never see.’’
Other groups like Spokes and Frocks on Bikes allow cyclists to meet over their enthusiasm for cycling and prevalent cycling issues in Christchurch, not unlike the city’s earlier cycling clubs in the 19th century.
There are also self-organised cycling events like the Annual Winter Solstice Night Light Bike Ride, which, this year, brought together 400 cyclists in Hagley Park.
So why, given all these community-driven initiatives to get more bikes on the road, aren’t there more cyclists in the city?
Perhaps the other piece of the puzzle is that of infrastructure.
At the time of writing, Christchurch is working on that, too.
Thirteen new cycleways have been planned for Christchurch, with $156 million in initial funding from stakeholders.
These cycleways aim to connect various parts of Christchurch to the Central Business District, making it easier for people to cycle safely in and out of the city.
The first of the cycleways to be prioritised is the UniCycle route, which connects the University of Canterbury and other educational facilities to Christchurch CBD.
‘‘Even with all the budget demand and extra costs from council, it seems like an opportunity to take advantage of,’’ says Michael Ferigo, transport planner with the Christchurch City Council.
‘‘We hope to improve cycling safety within Christchurch.’’
The new cycleways will be like ‘‘a spine through the city,’’ he says, adding that the current council has taken stock of what kind of city Christchurch will be in the future, which is a city that is greener, more pedestrian and cycle-friendly.
Development of new cycling infrastructure has also inspired new initiatives in the tech industry.
SensingCity, a non-profit organisation, is developing a new data collection method to benchmark cycleways demand and assist with benefits analysis.
‘‘Christchurch is embarking on a significant project to support cycling,’’ says Roger Dennis, founder of Sensing City.
‘‘The resulting infrastructure will influence cycling for decades,’’ he says.
With renewed energy toward cycling in the city on a cultural and infrastructural level, there may be more to come yet.
Is it overly optimistic to conceive of Christchurch entering a new cycling golden age?
Perhaps, but it’s certainly not impossible.
One could make a case for cycling as a more sustainable mode of transport, a healthier way to commute, another means of socialising, et al. But that argument has been made elsewhere.
Instead, the aims are to renew an awareness of the city’s own rootedness in cycling history, a history that makes living in Christchurch novel across space and time.
Can Christchurch accommodate more cyclists on the road by making it safer for people t ride? Will different types of commuters be able to more willingly share the road?
These are multi-faceted challenges.
Progress may not happen at the speed of light.
But it can at least take off at the speed of a bicycle.
Has the age of cycling in Christchurch come and gone, or is there still hope for cycling in the city?