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Minister pulls brakes on cycling and walking initatives

Dec 16, 2023

The new government's Transport Minister has pulled the brakes on dozens of council projects designed to encourage cycling, walking and use of public transport across the country, sparking confusion in local authority ranks and fury amongst cycling advocates.

In a letter to local authorities Simeon Brown said he told the New Zealand Transport Authority (Waka Kotahi) to halt work on cycling and walking initiatives.

"I understand that some local authorities have been developing programmes with NZTA and other stakeholders to reduce vehicle kilometres travelled (VKT) by the light vehicle fleet, using funding from the Climate Emergency Response Fund.

"I have given notice to NZTA to end its work on these programmes, and to not commit any further funding to local authorities (beyond existing contractual obligations) to develop these programmes. Thank you for your understanding as we work through these changes."

VKT programmes are designed to reduce reliance on cars, and support people to walk, cycle and use public transport.

In November, the transport agency unilaterally pressed pause on projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars, until it got a clear direction from the incoming government.

Brown declined an interview with RNZ, but in a statement said the cycling and walking initiatives were a waste of time and money.

"The VKT reduction plans which were under development were typical of the previous government's approach to transport, wasting taxpayers' money on endless reports, rather than investing in the infrastructure we need.

"My priority in transport is to build and maintain the roading network so that we can have a safe, efficient and productive transport network which helps Kiwis get where they need to go, quickly and safely."

Brown said the National-led government's approach to reducing transport emissions did not focus on telling people to drive less.

"This is different to the previous government's approach. These programmes are therefore completely unnecessary."

Cycling Action Network spokesperson Patrick Morgan said he did not believe funding decisions were the minister's to make.

"For many decades, transport funding has been one step removed from Cabinet ministers. For good reason because it prevents ministers playing favourites with projects which don't stack up.

"Waka Kotahi is accountable to a board, which is appointed by the minister and it's the board that makes those decisions, not the minister about which projects to fund.

"So, it's not clear a minister can give orders to Waka Kotahi about what they can and can't fund.

Morgan said the correct way for the minister to implement change was through the development of a Government Policy Statement on Transport which the new government had yet to develop.

Cycling and walking advocates would be horrified at the minister's statement, he said.

"This is gutting for councils who've fought really hard to win community support for their these projects. It's gutting for people who ride bikes and for those who want to and frankly it's embarrassing for a government to put the brakes on what's the best bang for buck investment in transport, investing in cycling."

More than 40 councils have applied for funding from the $350 million Transport Choices initiative, which sits under the CERF umbrella, for safe cycling and walking projects.

New Plymouth mayor Neil Holdom was still trying to work out what the minister's move meant for the proposal for a $14 million cycleway in the city.

"So, we're trying to seek clarity in terms of the minister as he's instructed Waka Kotahi to stop work on those climate initiatives, climate reduction initiatives. What we are trying to determine is whether stop means pause or cancel because it's not very clear.

"If they have cancelled them it would be a disappointing and that would mean the actual protected cycleway that council voted to install after two rounds of public consultation wouldn't go ahead because those funds have not been contracted."

Holdom said pedestrian crossing upgrades would still go ahead.

Opponent of the New Plymouth cycleway, councillor Murray Chong, welcomed the minister's statement.

"This needs to be a hint that we actually need to go back to the people and say 'no' to this project.

"The reality is we are spending $17 million on a project to reduce emissions and there's not one single report showing that it will actually reduce emissions."

The council received more than 1500 submissions on the cycleway proposal and a petition against the idea with 7000 signatures.

Many New Plymouth businesses were upset about the loss of car parking, while other submitters thought the cycleway would cause congestion and even put cyclists at risk.

Cycling and walking advocates and many schools along the proposed route and health professionals backed the cycleway proposal.

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