Te Araroa, National Cycleways and Recessions

This morning I was reading Michelle’s latest post about the NZ government’s pending plans to help offset the recession by spending $50 million to build a length-of-New-Zealand cycleway. Michelle’s thoughts, which have been similar to mine, reminded me of how weird I thought the idea of a cycleway was when I first heard about it a few weeks ago. It’s not so much aversion to having a cycleway as the suspicion of why its has suddenly emerged now.

If you think this sounds familiar, it might be because you’ve already heard of Te Araroa (The Long Pathway). It’s a project, so far 10 years old, managed by the Te Araroa Trust to create a walkway the length of New Zealand, both by setting aside existing tracks and by building new tracks. Just yesterday in fact, the Te Araroa Trust posted a response to the media hype about the possibility of doubling up the two routes in as many places as possible, re-assuring people that Te Araroa won’t be dumbed down for walkers in order to accommodate the flatter and lower types of terrain more suited to cyclists.

As Michelle noted, a cycleway probably would add to tourism and it’s likely to generate more money from tourism than a walking trail. What makes me suspicious, though, is that New Zealand’s already had many years, during which cycling has been increasing in popularity, to do exactly this. If the numbers overwhelmingly stacked up, we should have seen this idea become popular without a recession 5 years ago. Perhaps nobody had the idea, or (more likely) nobody thought to suggest it to the government?

The primary reason for it to happen right now, which I don’t think many would deny, is to keep people in work and producing something during a time when jobs are scarce. If we’re doing it because it’s a great thing to have then fantastic, but if it’s simply to keep people working then I’m curious to know what other projects (if any) people could be working on that might produce something more immediately beneficial than a cycleway. Perhaps one advantage is that it might create certain types of jobs in areas that traditionally suffer most during recessions, such as smaller towns.

I’m not an economist of course. Doubtless we’ll see some clearer numbers about the whole thing before it properly goes ahead, which will hopefully compare it with alternative proposals, and I’d like to be proved wrong. It still sounds like a cool thing to have, and I feel generally good about anything that reduces reliance on cars for arbitrary and stupid reasons such as not actually having footpaths. Having recently been trapped in a hotel in New Jersey, thanks largely to design around roads, was a reminder of this, but it also occurs in New Zealand on a smaller scale. eg. Walking or cycling from Wellington out to Petone involves a nice, fenced-off cycleway for the first hour of walking before you’re suddenly thrown into a very exposed un-barriered region of State Highway 2 for the final 400 metres! If it isn’t economically justified and simply happens to be politicisation, I suppose at least we’ll get a nice national cycleway out of it.

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