From the late 1870s cycle clubs sprang up around the country. By 1897 there were 64 registered bicycle clubs in New Zealand. They held training sessions, organised group rides and races, and lobbied for cyclists’ rights.
The first all-women cycling club in Australasia was the Atalanta Cycle Club, started in Christchurch in 1892. Suffrage campaigner Kate Sheppard and dress reformer Alice Burn were members of the club, which organised picnics, day trips and longer tours. Women’s clubs became synonymous with the emancipation they sought.
Stones for cyclists
The women of Christchurch’s Atalanta Cycling Club attracted hostility when they wore ‘bloomers’ or knickerbockers on their outings. People shouted abuse and sometimes threw stones. The first captain, Blanche Lough, sometimes got her brother to accompany the group as a result. In 1893 the club decided to revert to skirts for cycling, but that rule was relaxed as the controversial ‘dress reform’ garments became more acceptable.
The increasing numbers of cyclists on urban streets inevitably came into conflict with pedestrians and other road users. Local authorities responded with legislation, including by-laws against ‘scorching’ – cycling fast on city streets. A 1900 Christchurch by-law said cyclists must have a bell and, for night riding, a light, and must not ride on footpaths, no-handed, or faster than 6 miles (10 kilometres) an hour in the central city.
Car and cycle lobbies
Although accidents with cars were later lethal for cyclists, when automobiles first appeared in the 1900s advocates for both forms of transport often worked together, mapping out routes between towns and lobbying local authorities to improve roads and safety.
Road accidents for cyclists increased alarmingly in the 1920s with the rapid growth in the number of cars. Between 1932 and 1950 motor vehicles killed 449 cyclists. In the 21st century an average of about 10 cyclists are killed, and 770 injured every year.
The rise of motor vehicles and subsequent danger for cyclists meant there were far fewer bicycles on New Zealand roads in the 1950s and 1960s. It was only when motoring became less appealing – such as during the 1970s oil shocks when petrol prices rose – that cycling to work began to come back into favour.
In 1976, 3% of New Zealanders rode to work. By 1986 the figure had risen to 5% – over 10% in Christchurch, Hastings and Whanganui, but still only 1.4% in hilly Wellington.
By the late 1980s the cycle community had begun to decline again as cheap car imports from Japan made cars more affordable. Controversial laws making helmets compulsory in 1994, and increasingly overcrowded city streets were also factors. In 1996 only 3.6% of commuters biked to work, since then the figure has dropped to under 3%.
Bicycle theft was a major problem in the 1920s and 1930s, with about 1,000 reports of stolen cycles a year in Christchurch alone. The amount of police and court time spent on cycle offences, such as riding on pavements or at night without lights, prompted Transport Minister Bob Semple to propose registration for all bikes, like cars, in 1936. But the idea was never acted upon. It was resisted by authorities because of the cost of administration, and by cyclists because they did not want to be charged to register their bikes.
Cycling Advocates Network
In the the 21st century the Cycling Advocates Network (CAN), formed in 1997, spearheads the cycle lobby. It lobbies local councils and transport authorities for cycle-friendly amenities such as cycle lanes and designated cycle paths, and organises ‘bike to work’ days to encourage cycle commuting.