Monday, August 10, 2009

Key's cycleway plan has wheels

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 5.)

Apparently John Key hasn’t ridden a bike since his school days. Metaphorically speaking, that may explain why his cycleway plan looked decidedly wobbly at first.

At the February jobs summit, the national cycleway was touted as just that – a virtually unbroken cycling route stretching from the Far North to Bluff.

It was oversold politically and Key’s shiny new bike, sans trainer wheels, appeared to be weaving unsteadily toward a muddy ditch. Labour waited in gleeful anticipation of a humiliating face-plant.

Perhaps over-eager to show the jobs summit wasn’t just a pointless talkfest, the government greatly overstated the cycleway’s potential to create jobs while conveniently under-estimating the cost.

It quickly became apparent that $50 million, the figure initially bandied about, wouldn’t even begin to cover the planning, land acquisition and construction costs.

Critics ridiculed it as airy-fairy, pie-in-the-sky stuff. For a while it looked as if the national cycleway would become the National-led government’s first seriously embarrassing failure.

But Key regained control of his wayward two-wheeler and last week a greatly scaled-down cycleway plan emerged. It consists of seven cycle tracks, some of them partly in existence already, at an estimated cost of $9 million. About 300 jobs will be created, less than 10 percent of the optimistic figure first mentioned in February.

The plan for a national cycleway running the length of the country hasn’t been shelved; it has simply been broken into manageable, bite-sized chunks that will be tackled as resources permit. The toned-down PR that accompanied last week’s announcement portrayed the project not as a miracle cure for unemployment but more realistically emphasised its potential as a tourism booster and economic stimulant in some our more isolated regions.

What’s interesting is that much of the scorn that greeted the idea following the jobs summit in February seems to have evaporated. This suggests that while people were justifiably sceptical about the over-hyped Mk. 1 version, they see the revised model as achievable.

The reaction from councils in the districts where the first tracks are to be built was positively euphoric. Significantly, the cycleway also got enthusiastic endorsement from the Greens – demonstrating, again, Key’s ability to reach across traditional political divides.

One can almost sense Labour’s despair that the cycleway, which only months ago looked perilously close to being stillborn, could yet become a political winner for Key and National.

It’s not going too far to say it has the potential to become a defining achievement of this government – admittedly not one on a scale to match the first Labour Government’s state housing programme, or the radical deregulation carried out by Roger Douglas in the 1980s. But there is a visionary element to it all the same, and the timing – always crucial in politics – seems right.

Only agriculture rivals tourism for economic importance to New Zealand. People already come from all over the world to enjoy our spectacular, relatively unspoiled scenery. But the cycleway plan has the potential to exploit a powerful new dynamic in tourism: the desire for the feel-good factor that comes with being healthy and environmentally friendly.

If this type of tourism can work anywhere, it should work in New Zealand. Access to some of our most beautiful and remote country is limited because the fractured topography makes it difficult and expensive to build highways. But many back-country areas were opened up in the 19th century for logging and mining, and many of the tracks created then still exist.

In other hard-to-reach parts of the country, access roads were built from the 1930s onwards to allow the construction of electricity transmission lines. Many of these routes are rideable – or could be, with relatively little work.

I know because I’ve ridden some of them myself. My mountain bike has taken me to breathtakingly beautiful, out-of-the-way places that most New Zealanders never see. You could reach them on foot, but walking is too slow (and, dare I say it, too boring) for all but the seriously committed tramper. On a bike, you can cover surprising distances while still rejoicing in the magnificent landscapes and relishing the silence and solitude.

Examples? The 42 Traverse through wild bush country in the Central North Island, so named because it passes through what was once State Forest 42; the spectacular 112 km Rainbow road, which cuts through soaring mountain ranges and lonely tussock high country between North Canterbury and Nelson; the Dunstan Trail, along which gold miners travelled through the Rock and Pillar Range to get to the Central Otago goldfields (in places, you can still see the ruts left by their wagon wheels); and the Maungatapu Track, once the main route from Marlborough to Nelson, now a pylon maintenance road that takes you past Murderers’ Rock, scene of one of New Zealand’s most infamous crimes.

Then there are the routes that cyclists are currently barred from due to opposition from trampers, such as the Heaphy Track, which with relatively little effort could be adapted for dual use.

I could go on. In the central North Island and in the ranges north of Wellington – and doubtless in many other parts of the country too – there are mazes of old forestry tracks, mostly still in good nick. Abandoned railway lines offer potential too, as in the Rimutaka range north of Upper Hutt, where specially designed steam engines once hauled trains up the Rimutaka Incline.

In the South Wairarapa, there’s potential – with co-operation from landowners – to create a spectacular ride along one of New Zealand’s wildest coastlines. The tracks are there.

These are just some of the routes I’m familiar with personally; doubtless there are many more. Even as I’m writing this, I bet local cycling organisations and council planners all over the country are poring over maps and drawing up proposals.

It’s not wildly fanciful to visualise New Zealand as a recreational cyclists’ mecca, with all the economic benefits that conjures up. The hugely successful Central Otago rail trail gives just a hint of the possibilities.

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