Cycling and mountain biking are booming. Despite our name the Walking Access Commission Ara Hīkoi Aotearoa helps negotiate public access for trails for cyclists and especially mountain bikers.
Our job is to build a legacy of public access to the outdoors for everyone in New Zealand - walkers, mountain bikers, anglers, horse riders, landholders, trail runners and more.
Many of New Zealand’s mountain biking and cycling groups are very well organised. They do their own thing and do not need any help. But there are four areas where the Commission can offer specific expertise to help bikers with public access to the outdoors.
1. Maps and advice
We can advise where public access currently exists and where it could exist. Our digital mapping system helps people find legal public access such as unformed legal roads and esplanade strips, tracks, trails, and property information.
The maps combine geospatial information from Land Information NZ, local authorities, the Department of Conservation and other organisations. Sometimes groups or individuals use the maps themselves to find the information they need. Other times our regional field advisors develop specific maps for groups and help analyse them. They can provide advice about what legal access already exists and who to approach with ideas to improve that access for biking.
2. Legal support and surveying
The Commission offers trail groups advice and funding for legal and surveying costs, through the Enhanced Access Grant scheme. These grants help people with projects that improve public access to the outdoors.
Since 2010, we have awarded grants to more than 100 projects. For the 2020-2021 funding round, $100,000 is available. Our main priority for funding is obtaining certain and enduring public access to the outdoors.
Examples of this could include negotiating secure access agreements, legal or survey costs or the cost of obtaining Resource Management Act consents. We have also given grants for signs and other information, and for things that improve access, such as gates, stiles and fences.
3. Negotiating access and linking tracks
We work with landowners on the process of having a public access bike path on or next to their land. We also support trail groups to work with landowners.
Often tracks can cover land held by many landholders, public and private. We are the government agency that oversees tracks when they cross different pieces of land. So we have expertise negotiating with several organisations at once.
New cycle trails have been a big public access issue for several years. Increasingly groups want to extend existing tracks into long, connected trails. This is something the Commission is uniquely placed to help with. We don’t have powers to coerce anyone to do anything they don’t want. So our expertise is in negotiating and finding solutions. We always aim to create public access that works for everyone - landholders, local authorities and bikers.
4. Advocating for cycling
The Commission can work with local authorities to advocate for opportunities for cycling. One area that we do this is in submissions to councils as they prepare their walking, cycling and general transport strategies and policies. For example, in our submission to Taupō District Council’s transport strategy we noted that off-road tracks and trails and outdoor public access are a key part of good transport choices. We advocated developing a network of shared paths for cyclists, walkers and other active transport users to help connect communities to shops, schools, recreational areas and other local resources.
Good recreational resources provide health and wellbeing to people. But they also provide a link for people to transition from recreational cycling and walking, to being active transport cyclists and walkers.
The Overseas Investment Office
Many new mountain bike trails exist in the Marlborough and Tasman regions because of work we have done with the Overseas Investment Office. When an overseas investor applies to the Overseas Investment Office to buy sensitive land the OIO will often consult with the Commission. Our role is to consider if there are any access opportunities for New Zealanders that could potentially become part of the conditions of sale. This is relevant for mountain bikers when overseas investors buy forests. We often work with mountain biking clubs to work out if there are potential new access opportunities when a forest is sold to an overseas investor.
Unformed legal roads
Unformed legal roads are parcels of land that have been legally designated as roads but have not been formed. They have the same public access rights as a formed road. There are tens of thousands of kilometres of unformed legal roads in NZ. They can provide great outdoor access for cyclists or mountain bikers if you know where they are.
John Gibbs our Bay of Plenty field advisor says unformed legal roads around Ōpōtiki are the basis for a great cycling trail. He worked with the Motu Trails Trust where an old existing unformed legal road bisected a forest and went to a Department of Conservation reserve. The road is great for cycling because it had been graded for horse and cart transport in the past. But unfortunately it departed from the legal road in some places, so the Commission helped negotiate legal easements to link all these paths. It is now a scenic backcountry trail over rugged land.
Bike tracks are growing in popularity
The popularity of cycling is exploding.
Gibbs says new tracks are often developed by cyclists or mountain bikers at the instigation of cyclists. But they end up benefiting walkers too. Most cycle groups are very well organised and know what they want.
“Cycling is becoming a bigger part of the work. A decade it was starting to develop but it was a small part of our work. Our focus has also shifted, and we are looking more widely for cycling opportunities,” he says.
Gibbs says he also now gets approaches from council-led organisations developing networks of trails for regions or towns. There is a growing focus on connecting existing trails. Previously local groups developed small local trails. Now people are looking at linking up trails across different council areas across a region.
Ange Van der Laan, one of our regional field advisors, agrees. She says the Central Otago region has gone from a collection of local tracks, targeted at tourists in the Wakatipu Basin, to a wider network including commuter trails and links to Cromwell and Arrowtown. Cromwell is linking with Wanaka, Clyde and the Central Otago Rail Trail and that is linking up with the Roxborough Gold, the Lawrence and others.
Sharing with trampers
Van der Laan says the growth in mountain biking has caused tension for some trampers who are adapting to sharing trails. Mountain bikers are often accused of ruining tracks.
The problem with excluding mountain bikers from suitable tramping tracks is that it is prohibitively expensive to build alternative infrastructure for bikers on completely new sites. So the more we can build tracks that provide opportunities for more than one user group, the better. But it won’t always be possible - some tracks are safer if they are exclusively for walkers or for bikers, for instance specific downhill MTB tracks.
“Most MTB trails are usually walkable but walking trails are not always bikeable. People ride their horses and walk their dogs,” she says. “Their multiuser functionality means they often provide public access for more people.”
Public conservation land
Gibbs says an interesting hurdle that mountain bikers often face is getting agreement from the Department of Conservation to create cycle trails on public conservation land. Many of the Department’s conservation management strategies were written before mountain biking was a big outdoor recreation pastime. So they don’t make provision for cycle trails.
Unfortunately for bikers that means they often must wait for a review of the strategy. Or they must specifically seek a partial review for the sites that they want to accommodate cycle trails. This is a lengthy and time-consuming process for many mountain bikers.
There is a perception that e-biking is more dangerous than normal mountain biking. Van der Laan says some easements attempt to exclude e-biking. The Commission’s view is that e-bikers are a valid user group, rapidly increasing in size, that need access to the outdoors like other outdoor recreationists. E-bikes help more people to enjoy biking.
Connecting the dots
Public access for bikes spans an interesting space on the axis between outdoor recreation and commuter travelling. A key part of the Commission’s job is facilitating a network of tracks that meet both those needs.
Bikers should have a safe enjoyable path from their homes to their work, school, shops and communities. They also need rides where they can explore and enjoy the outdoors. Sometimes these can be one and same. Other times our job is to make sure all these trails form a network that connects people and places together.