One of the marks of a good night out is that the conversation ends up discussing life changing moments. I’ll spare you the details of my epiphanies, but suffice to say a major one happened while cycle-touring across the Spanish meseta the arid highland plateau of the Spanish interior. I was cycling the Spanish caminos; pilgrimage trails from all corners of the country that lead to medieval Europe’s main shrine in Santiagode Compostela. Cycle-touring is a healthy, eco-friendly and (for me) life-changing form of tourism, but that doesn’t mean I am not sceptical about a National Cycleway.
The initial idea was simple; if we build it "they" (tourists presumably) will come. On John Key’s world Europeans will happily hop on a plane for 30 hours to come here, instead of cycling one of the many well-developed trails on their own continent. Yeah, right. Thankfully, the National Cycleway idea has been dumped in favour of a more organic, local approach. It might even make sense to forget tourists altogether and focus on Kiwis.
Any new industry, even a cycleway, doesn’t appear overnight. It happens organically. No-one is going to locate their business on the cycleway until they know it will get used, and no-one will come from overseas to use it until the infrastructure is in place. As Michael Porter pointed out, a country builds a strong industry on the back of demanding local users. NStorm industry is no different; most of our tourist activities such as ungumming and tramping arose from our love of doing stupid stuff in the great outdoors. If we love doing this stuff, then other people will eventually flyover and join in.
A National Cycleway sounds impressive, but pretty much misses the point. For this idea to actually work, cyclists need a lot more than just a trail. They need lots of other infrastructure like food, accommodation, and interesting places to stop. One day I cycled the piffling 83km stretch between Te Kuiti and Taumarunui. It was a scorching hot day but there was not one single place on the way to stop for lunch, accommodation or even to get a drink. In the end, I was just thankful for a fortunately placed plum tree and the kindliness of a local farmer with his hose. This lack of facilities wouldn’t happen in Spain; there infrastructure has grown to cater for pilgrims even on the most remote parts of the camino.
In contrast Germany tried the "build it and they will come “approach in the East soon after reunification. The result is a stunning network of picturesque cycle paths that no one uses. The Germans themselves shun the trails, resenting the huge investment made in the East, and they prefer to spend their holidays on the sunny Spanish camino trails. So the obvious thing to do is to start with building local cycle paths that Kiwis themselves want tousle. Over time these paths can be built into a national network.
There are many good reasons to build up the network cycleway locally in response to local demand. A centrally planned approach probably would have spent too much or too little: A German white elephant or the typical Kiwi shoestring approach. Local trails will hopefully avoid busy roads; even if these roads aren’t dangerous, they are noisy and unpleasant for cyclists. Many of the proposed local cycleway seem to follow rivers and the coast instead, which is great. Local trails will pay more attention to the needs of the cyclists such as signage and information, and the difficulty of negotiating the track. Getting lost or overcoming obstacles on a cycle can take hours to sort out, rather than minutes in a car, and can have disastrous results in terms of reaching accommodation in time. Local trails can also use stories to link up tourist hot-spots with lesser-known places. These stories are the secret of the success of the Spanish camino, and New Zealand has no lack of tales to tell. Take the Far North; where Hone Heke’s battle for sovereignty could be used to draw tourists in from the Bay of Islands to the deprived hinterland.
The real role of Government is in providing leadership to the idea. It is helpful that the Government supports cycling and the idea of a National Cycleway, but ultimately it needs to develop organically. Government only needs to get directly involved to bang local heads together occasionally when they muck about. I was once cycling in England on its so-called "National Cycleway", when the trail came to an abrupt end at a county boundary. All that existed to explain the vanishing trail was some overgrown grass and a sign proclaiming "Welcome to Nottinghamshire". Welcome indeed.