Palmerston North cycle lane redesign criticised as brake on businesses

Palmerston North councillors will vote on Wednesday on the future of the controversial Featherston Street cycle lanes project.
Palmerston North councillors will vote on Wednesday on the future of the controversial Featherston Street cycle lanes project. Photo credit: RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

By Jimmy Ellingham of RNZ

A new road design dividing opinion in Palmerston North has caused one business to move. But a regular cyclist says the changes have made the route safer for those on two wheels.

Now, the future of a much-altered 900 metres of tarmac is in the hands of city councillors, who will soon decide where to go from here.

When Tammam Tamim came to New Zealand as a refugee, he set about making a life for himself, opening two barber shops.

Now, one of those shops - positioned on the Manawatū city's busy central city Featherston Street - has to shift because customers have been staying away, he said.

"No one's complained, for example, about the service - a staff member or bad service.

"All of them are complaining about the car parks. It's not safe for them to walk to the shop."

Changes to a section of Featherston Street this year meant a cycleway separate from traffic now ran next to the kerb, there were fewer car parks and those were between the cycleway and traffic lanes, and a median strip had been removed.

City councillors paused construction on the project earlier this month, wanting to see more options for another new feature: bus stops in the traffic lanes.

Those councillors will vote on that and, potentially, the whole project's future this week - too late to stem the flow of lost customers at Tamim's Anchor Barber Shop.

His Featherston Street shop had been going well, he said, until late summer when the changes were made.

"Unfortunately, I've lost two of my staff because I can't bring in enough customers for them...

"As a barber we are on commission pay."

The past few weeks had been tough, with lost income, but Tamim will close his Featherston Street shop this month, ahead of its move to a new location on Ferguson Street, also in the inner city.

That would come at a cost. Tamim said setting up his two current locations cost about $20,000 each. He had also invested time and training in the staff members who had left.

"This is very hard on me as a business owner. I came here as a refugee in 2016 and I started working hard to build a good, established business."

The changes have affected businesses and infuriated some motorists, but people who cycle the route said it was now safer.

Phil Middleton regularly rides the road on his cross-town commute to work, and said the difference between that stretch of road and others with no separated cycleways was like day and night.

"If I'm on a separated cycleway on the left and something happened we're talking about scratches and broken bones.

"If I have an accident and I'm on the right-hand side of the parked cars, the consequence is possibly death."

This was because being knocked off a bike by an opening car door could send a cyclist into following traffic.

Middleton said he was a competitive rider and cycled fast, so while he appreciated the changes others might not.

"I know that people are resistant to change. Featherston Street's been one way for a long time and it's not a particularly wide road, so it was always going to be challenging to incorporate all the different elements into the street."

James Irwin is part of Streets Ahead Palmerston North, which advocates for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users.

The group was supportive of the new layout, but the backlash against it was no surprise, Irwin said.

"I don't think there's been a change on a street around New Zealand that's moved away from motorised-private-vehicle infrastructure towards pedestrianisation or cycling infrastructure, or improving infrastructure for public transport like buses, that hasn't had backlash from people who like the way it is and don't want it to change."

To highlight the divide, an online petition supporting the change has attracted about 300 signatures, while another wanting the road put back the way it was has 3700.

The changes affected motorists as it would probably slow their trip or make it difficult to park outside where they wanted to go, Irwin said.

But there were bigger issues to consider, such as long-term congestion.

"We feel that without change, the number of motorised vehicles in Palmy is going to increase as the population increases, and the situation is going to get worse for motor vehicles and for everybody else."

Irwin has biked the new 900-metre cycleway, which takes in a busy intersection with State Highway 3. He said he felt safer on it, but unsafe again on the parts of the road with no separated cycleway.

The changed section of Featherston Street takes in two busy schools, Central Normal School and Palmerston North Boys' High School. The schools' principals opposed the changes.

And it appeared many motorists or parents on pick-up duty had not taken note - regularly parking in the cycleway on the side of the road that had lost car parks.

City councillor Brent Barrett said he would vote this week to carry on Palmerston North's goal of making roads attractive for all users, although he admitted any option was on the table for this project.

That included a "worst-case scenario" of returning the road to the way it was.

"I just want to make sure we have a city that works for everyone and a transport network that works for everyone.

"Featherston Street was out of balance. It was completely car-dominated and very difficult and dangerous for everybody on a bike."

The in-lane bus stops were in a position "optimal for the public transport network".

"I expect that what we have here is a moment in time where people are struggling with the idea that road space does need to be shared with all road users," Barrett said.

Fellow councillor William Wood said without seeing the options and their costs he could not say how he would vote, but something had to change.

"I can tell you for a fact I have opposed the design on Featherston Street since day one. I don't believe it's safe for motorists, pedestrians or cyclists, frankly, and have called since that initial vote in September last year for us to look at a different design for the layout itself, looking at a non-separated cycleway."

The backlash against the current design was expected, given the feedback to the council last year during consultation, Wood said.

"I'm not saying we don't make it safe for cyclists, but there's a way we can do it, particularly looking at non-separated cycleways, that doesn't have to cause this level of disruption to our community."

The changes cost about $1.3 million, which was mostly funded by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency.

The council debate will be on 5 June.