Are Cycleways Really that Controversial?

There’s a perception in some circles that the Christchurch cycleways are extremely controversial. Many mainstream media articles that mention them end up attracting screeds of negative comments – examples here and here. But how controversial are the cycleways really?

I keep on seeing data that suggests they are really not that controversial for most people. I present three of these below.

Firstly, the Share an Idea campaign was run in 2011. This was a truly unique insight into the mind of the average Christchurchian. Firstly because it attracted stonkingly big numbers – 106,000 ideas were gathered (compared to typical project consultations where you’re lucky if you get a hundred). And secondly because young people got involved. Traditional forms of consultation are usually dominated by old people, as per this quote from a Council consultation review:

The Council does not currently collect demographic data to enable it to establish a profile of residents who engage in its formal consultation programme on, for  example, the Annual Plan, District Plan Changes, and Bylaws. However anecdotally, it is observed that those currently engaging with the Council tend to be older, 50 plus, often retired, home owners – people who are “civic minded”, and have motivation and the time to attend public meetings, and write submissions.”

In contrast, the demographics were collected for people who contributed to Share an Idea:

  • 0-25 – 10%
  • 25-49 – 53%
  • 50-64 – 28%
  • 65+ – 9%

So far more younger people. The common themes that came through were:

  • People wanted a green city
  • People wanted a strong built identity
  • People wanted vibrant urban life
  • People wanted a market city
  • People wanted real transport choice

One of the most common comments was that people wanted a city that they (and their kids) could safely ride a bike around in. Depending on how you group different comments together, some reports said this was the single most requested thing. I find it quite amazing that this got more requests than other fairly important things like good housing, a successful economy, clean water, a functioning sewerage system, etc. I think it shows just how frustrated people have been that previously they haven’t been able to do something as basic as ride a bike around without fear of being killed. I suspect it also reflects the bumper turnout of the 25-39 demographic, who are more likely to ride bikes themselves, and also of an age where they may well have young children looking to ride to school/footy/music/etc.

Little River Link

Next I’ve compiled a list of the submission summaries for all the cycleways. It’s important to note that using online feedback is not always the best way to make decisions; as demonstrated by the infamous Boaty McBoatface incident, or this facebook poll I saw a while back.


Hopefully public feedback is slightly better quality than these, but you definitely need to take it with a grain of salt. Keeping that in mind, here are the numbers for the cycleways that have been consulted on:

  • South Express had 642 people submit, 72% supported the plan (or supported but with some concerns), 26% did not support, and 1% did not say.
  • Quarrymans Trail had 466 submissions, 91% supported the plan (or supported but with some concerns), while 9% opposed it.
  • Heathcote Express received 170 submissions, 85% supported the plan (or supported but with some concerns), and 15% opposed.
  • Nor’West Arc had 147 submissions, 84% supported the plan (or supported but with some concerns), and 7% did not support the plan.
  • Uni-Cycle (just the 30km/h speed limit) had 47 submissions, 79% supported the plan (or supported but with some concerns), while 21% did not support it.
  • Rapanui Shag-Rock had 86 submissions, 92% supported the plan (or supported but with some concerns), while 8% did not support.

There are others too, but for some reason they don’t all seem to be up on the Council website. Still, it’s clear that the trend is for cycleway projects to receive far more submissions in support than in opposition. This is very different to most projects that get consulted on – submitting requires people to “opt-in”, so typically people are more likely to submit if they are unhappy with a proposal than if they are happy with it.

Quarryman’s Trail

All this is well and good but the proof is really in the pudding. Where we’ve built cycleways – have they resulted in more people choosing to ride bikes? So thirdly, here’s a graph showing cycling numbers at electronically counted sites on the four cycleways that have been in place for longer than a year.

Cycleways Growth

This graph shows that the Uni-Cycle, Papanui Parallel and Rapanui-Shag Rock cycleways are all growing at healthy rates. The Uni-Cycle (linking the university with the city centre) has had 16% growth per annum, The Rapanui-Shag Rock numbers are lower overall, but a higher growth rate of 58% per annum. Papanui Parallel is tracking at 7% growth per annum. Only the Little River Link has not had growth (links the city centre to the western suburbs, eventually meandering its way to Lincoln). I don’t know why this is – I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts if you think you know the reason. [update – apparently the Southern Motorway construction has impacted the cycleway further out to the point where it’s almost unusable, and this is causing the lower numbers]

So to conclude, the Share An Idea campaign revealed that safer cycling infrastructure was at the forefront of Christchurch’s collective mind when thinking about the rebuild of the city. Each individual consultation has had overwhelming majority support in received submissions. And counts show that, by and large, people are voting with their feet by taking to the cycleways in increasing numbers.

What do you make of this information? Do you think the cycleways are really as controversial as some people try to make out?

17 thoughts on “Are Cycleways Really that Controversial?

  1. The people I talk to are mostly or strongly supportive of cycleways. My suspicion is that it is in the local media’s interest to frame cycleways as controversial in order to get more clicks from both supporters and opponents.


    1. Same here, but I’m never sure if that’s just a reflection of the circles I move in. Local media reporting is variable – a lot of it is really good and well-balanced, there’s just the odd article that’s not. Or sometimes it’s just an inflammatory headline that ruins an otherwise fact-based article.


  2. My anecdotal take on it is that it is one of those issues a lot of people support in general, but that support becomes more complicated when it impacts peoples embedded behaviours more intimately.

    For example, most people I talk to support cycleways at a high level. Those I hear complaining about them are usually focused on the route and its proximity/impact on their lives/car. This evolves over time to a more general “those bloody cycleways” kind of rhetoric, and then further evolves to buying into the “war on cars” myth.


  3. What’s interesting is that the year-on-year growth mostly happens in the winter months (most pronounced on the UniCycle, but visible in the other two growing cycleways as well). To me, this would suggest that the cycleways are doing a good job in attracting commuters rather than more recreational cyclists.


  4. I’m all in favour of cycleways.

    However, submissions can be biased (either weighted for or against depending on the cause & how when galvanized a “subgroup” of submitters are).

    The only way to truly gauge opinion is to have a statistically robust independent random sample of say 100 people (or enough to reduce the error margin to an acceptable level) for each project that is to be consulted on.

    This would provide decision makers an unbiased background of opinion (representative of the City as a whole) against which to weigh the actual submissions.


    1. Yep. The original point of inviting submissions was never to gauge public opinion, but it’s evolved into that because that’s how the media report it. It probably is time to completely overhaul the way we do engagement.


      1. Agreed; some people think that all submissions are essentially a vote on “should we do this project?” Sure, some are an indication of that, but many are basically just asking “have we got the design/route right? what have we missed?” In Chch, the Council agreed quite some time ago to build the Major Cycleway programme (and support for funding this is reconfirmed via every Long Term Plan and Annual Plan consultation); perhaps CCC should be clearer in their consultations about what is and isn’t being consulted on.

        St Asaph St 30kmh speed limit is a classic example where the majority of submissions were “against” doing it, but the Council did it anyway. This had a lot to do with the relative quality of the arguments for and against its implementation; indeed, many of the submissions that selected “against” actually said nothing about the speed limit proposal for St Asaph St at all, choosing instead to just use the consultation exercise as an opportunity to rant about the Accessible City programme or Central City 30k speed limit in general (it did not help that the consultation material did not provide much in the way of information to counter the typical concerns expressed).


  5. I think the idea that consultation is some sort of proxy to determine whether the majority support or oppose is flawed. Cycleways are proposed because presumably they reflect agreed policy direction and they’re based on sound evidence? Consultation should be about seeking additional information or insights that could affect the design or seeing if any important considerations have been missed, not to decide whether it happens or not. We elect local govt to lead – they should get on and do just that. Using consultations as a referendum seems lazy and safe. I feel like this is why Auckland’s rollout is so ridiculously slow. They consult and consult and consult. I’m in my 30’s but might be an old man before I can safely bike from Epsom to the central city.


    1. I agree. The Spinoff had a really good article about consultation here:
      But as long as the general public continue to think of submissions as referendum (which they largely do) then their elected leaders are forced to do the same, who in turn exert their influence on Council engineers/planners. And it’s fed by the mainstream media – this article on St Asaph St is an example of a news story framing submissions as though they were votes –
      “A speed limit reduction on Christchurch’s St Asaph St will be recommended to the council, despite public feedback largely opposing the idea. Almost two-thirds of the 737 submissions on the Christchurch City Council plan did not support reducing the speed limit”


      1. Wellington’s Island Bay Cycleway saga is a pretty pertinent demonstration of this issue, and important because the local residents association sought a judicial review on the consultation process. The court found in favour of the WCC, the judge saying ” …the feedback process was not a referendum… provided the preferences expressed by the participants were given due consideration, the council was entitled to have regard to other factors.”

        An interesting piece here:


      2. That island bay stuff is interesting. But I do think the legal standing of consultation is only one part of it. If there’s a significant portion of the public who have a wrong understanding of what consultation is, then that will influence how elected members act and what sort of pressures they put on the engineers/planners etc. I.e. Even though the court ruled in favour of WCC, the whole saga will have left an imprint on local politicians and which will make them pretty wary with any future cycleway proposals.


  6. Absolutely. It does have the potential to give some confidence to councils to have faith in their consultation and decision making processes, but agree that that will have limited effect unless there is a change in public perception of those processes. You only have to compare the media coverage the cycleway opponents got during their campaign versus the final decision to see the uphill battle councils face in this regard.


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