We just need a lane
Sunday column: Auckland's missing link
In a different age and world, we all rode a bike to school, didn’t we? And we all felt safe, didn't we?
You bet we did, because we had the sheer weight of numbers and visibility - even though not one of us had any hi-vis or a helmet - that meant we owned the road.
Everyone understood that if you were the one in the car, you were the one who would give way, like you would going through a mob of sheep, like you would driving across the grass to get a park at the racecourse. You let everyone else go first.
Then it all changed around completely. Woe betide anyone today who dares to presume to cause a three or six or nine second delay to the very important journey of the very important person in the SUV or the double cab ute.
When I write about cycleways and rhapsodise about e-bikes and making things better and different, people say to me well that sounds lovely but have you seen the state of the roads? How can I feel safe amongst those drivers?
I used to have the same apprehension and dread. I wouldn't consider riding anywhere further than our local neighbourhood because have you seen what it's like on Fanshawe St? Imagine trying to take that on, riding a bike. Forget about it.
What can make all the difference is someone who will say, I hear what you’re saying, but listen: come out for a ride with me. I'll show you where you can go and how you can do it.
For me, that person was fellow school Dad and local board member Chris Darby. One Sunday morning we met up, headed out of Devonport, up Lake Road - this was before the cycle lane - towards Akoranga, on through Northcote, up and over Forrest Hill, on into the tilt-slab badlands of Apollo Drive and I followed his lead, throwing worried glances back over my shoulder to the cars behind. But the farther we went, the less I fretted. What a reassuring feeling to discover yes there’s room to do this, yes there's a trail you can take that feels okay, and yes I can see how when you get onto a cycle lane things really are much better, we could do with more of these for sure.
It tripped a switched for me. Could I do this? Why the hell not.
I began to replace short car trips with bike rides: to Takapuna, into the city by ferry, and up to Grey Lynn and Ponsonby, and over to Newmarket, and onto RNZ to be an unstoppable bore on the Panel at every possible opportunity about a better future on bikes.
One day I rode up to Sunnynook, to the Probus club, to give them a talk about whatever you might like to speak about. I told them all about bikes and cycle lanes and how they were just what we needed for a better healthier greener future. They thanked me warmly as they handed me a little envelope of appreciation. What do you say when you open it to find petrol vouchers?
I gradually got noisier about it all, especially, for example, the day I saw someone blithely swing their door open into the path of the cyclist riding right ahead of me.
One Sunday in 2009, on its 50th birthday, we gathered beneath the Auckland harbour bridge, and I used my megaphone to get everyone to sing happy birthday to it and we gave some speeches saying can we please have a lane for bikes, like it was supposed to have from the start, it really would be better for us all if people had the opportunity to switch from a car to a bike, give it a try - you might surprise yourself just like you did when you opened that Northern busway and so many people switched from cars to buses to come across the bridge.
Also we said hey everybody btw please don't go on the bridge, seriously. And we finished the speeches and said thanks for coming.
But the crowd of thousands had other ideas and was not to be denied its full expression of frustration. They made straight for the bridge. We followed them up, and it felt as though we were making our point a lot more forcefully than we’d managed with the speeches.
Cheers to MTAF reader Nat Torkington for sending me this the other day, a photo of Rod Oram and me at the top. This is what it looks like when the authorities will not listen, and mild mannered commentators go off the reservation.
We thought we could change things, we bloody thought we had. The lobbying went on, the ideas turned into drawings, the drawings turned into Skypath, the Skypath turned into election campaign policy - hello MTAF readers Michael and Julie! - and finally we saw the Skypath turn real and then — well, it’s a bit like they say about horse racing: the only certainties are bills and disappointment. Waka Kotahi now say the bridge can’t take the weight so they’re working on something else that may take ten years.
And now we’re saying to Waka Kotahi we can’t take the wait, we’re working on something that will only take ten weeks.
We want to see them liberate a lane on the bridge. They don’t even have to take one away from cars, they could just squeeze things up a bit.
I want to show you why it matters so much and I’m going to do it with a map. But we need to talk about one more thing before we come to that, just to underscore how much more vital this whole question has become.
While that lobbying and drawing and policy-making was happening I kept on riding my bike up to Takapuna and Grey Lynn and Ponsonby and Eden Terrace and Newmarket come sun, wind and rain, because with the right gear nothing can stop you. But also I could get a bit frustrated with the slog up hills like Franklin Road and Grafton Gully. It’s no worries if you're in exercise gear or jandals, but a bit less comfortable if you need to go into an office or meet for coffee.
Where might I be going with this? Might it be an e-bike? You bet it might.
The first I ever heard of these things was chatting one morning to another school Dad outside the supermarket. He said here’s my new E-bike. He said would you like to ride it? I’m thinking your new what, now? but sure I’ll get on this thing I’ve never heard of, now how does it…. oh I see, turn this throttle.
I really had no idea what I was dealing with, had no idea this innovation had happened. But I pushed the pedal and turned the throttle and sweet Jesus what a revelation, what is this beautiful witchcraft I thought. Also: I have seen the future and it is not Bruce Springsteen, it’s one of these things.
It took a long time to happen though. They’re pricey. Whole years can go by before you come around to seeing that you’re not just buying a bike, you’re getting a car substitute. Let me tell you, we love our new cars. I can't tell you how frustrated I am that this surgery has been keeping me off the saddle. But I will be riding again, and with the greatest joy.
I cannot shut up about the e-bikes, and readers have been responding, some of them by going out and getting their own and some by telling me well that sounds lovely but have you seen the state of the roads? How can I feel safe amongst those drivers?
That would be my cue to say I hear your worry but listen come out for a ride with me. I'll show you where I go and how I do it, and it’s become a much better proposition.
Take a look at this map.
What we see here, in pink and green, are long stretches of Auckland that I can now use to get around the city on my e-bike, unmolested by SUVs and double cab utes and angry dudes who hate me for living.
I can get off the ferry and take a cycle lane along Quay St, up Grafton Gully and along the side of the northwestern motorway all the way to Massey. Or I can turn left at Pt Chev and go all the way to Mangere Bridge, if I haven’t detoured off in the meantime to Avondale or Dominion Rd.
Or I can take Quay St down to Tamaki Drive and glide around the back of St Heliers through Pt Erin all the way to Panmure to buy the city’s best priced rice rolls.
I can do all of this without coming anywhere near a car. I love this, and I don’t doubt the car people prefer this too.
Even though AT has been spectacularly modest in its spending, comparatively speaking, what the map shows is a way around Auckland that is very close to changing everything.
Make it safe and unmolested, and the riders on their e-bikes, they will come. And their numbers will grow every day, limited only by how many damn bikes the shops can get hold of. Covid, supply chains etc. Demand is huge, etc.
Make it safe and unmolested, and the riders on their e-bikes, they will come across the harbour bridge in their thousands, because take another look at that map.
The bridge is the missing link that connects this all together, all those cycleways, all the way around Auckland, that can carry those riders completely separate from the city’s roads and its bristling drivers.
Everybody wins. The more those riders take to their bikes, the more the pressure comes off those roads. WE ALL WIN.
Car lovers, you will have us out of your hair and we will be gliding along with the wind in ours. We just need a lane.