I have been a cyclist all my life.
Learning to ride is one of my earliest memories – I remember my Dad holding the back of my bike and running alongside me up and down our street. When I heard him call out ‘You’re doing it – all by yourself! Good girl!’ I panicked and rode straight into the back of our neighbours car! I must have only been about three or four years old.
Since then, biking has been my main mode of transport. I cycled to school most of my young life, I cycled to my friends’ houses and to most of the parties of my teenage years. I’m not suggesting cycling home drunk is the safest thing to do, but at least the person you are most likely to hurt is yourself and not some unsuspecting bystander. Cycling drunk in Germany is also a quite slow thing to do, with few hills in the towns, completely different to Auckland, so just for the record, this is not something I would recommend doing here!
When I came to Auckland as a student 20 years ago the very first thing I did was enroll in my uni degree. The very next thing? I found the (then) only bike shop in the CBD and bought a bike. I wasn’t going to waste money on buses that were slow and never seemed to take you were you wanted to go at the time you wanted to go there. Buying a car didn’t even occur to me, since I had never owned a car and never saw the need for one. Admittedly that changed after my flatmate took me for a drive to Piha a few months later. I experienced the beauty of the West coast beaches for the first time. I was struck with awe and I realised that if I wanted to get to these beautiful places I would have to buy a car – but that’s a whole different story that I might leave for another time.
Falling in love with the wild West coast and eventually buying a car didn’t change my main way of getting around town. Despite many raised eyebrows I continued cycling everywhere and had to reassure my kiwi friends many times that “yes, it is perfectly safe to ride in the dark. My bike has lights!” Twenty years ago I was more or less the only cyclist on the roads. Occasionally a lycra-clad superman would fly past, or challenge me to race up a hill, but generally I was the only commuter on a bike.
How things have changed! Particularly in the last three or four years, as now the number of cyclists I see every day on my way to and from work is a great improvement. At rush hour the cycle path along the North Western motorway is a train of cyclists, one after another in a long, unbroken chain. It’s not quite the numbers in Berlin or Amsterdam, but fantastic to see all the same. Like many other changes I’ve seen in New Zealand, it’s happened very quickly. The willingness of New Zealanders to adapt and adopt new things gives me more hope than anything else in this world.
On my morning commute I ride via Eden Park then down (and up) Bond St. The intersection of Sandringham Rd, New North Rd, and Bond St is where I see the most cyclists in the morning. The neatest thing happened the other day – there were six of us parked on the green strip in front of a line of cars snaking all the way down Sandringham Rd past Eden Park. We were all grinning and high-fiving each other, trying to sort out who was going straight down Bond St and who was turning onto New North Road city-bound. It was such a mood booster on a Monday morning!
Last Wednesday I was on my way to the launch party of the new app ‘Foodprint’, which aims to reduce food waste by connecting cafes such as Bread & Butter Bakery & Café with customers, letting them know if there’s surplus food which is sold at a reduced price. Everyone wins. Reducing food waste is really important to me, and in a future blog I’ll tell you about a few of the other initiatives we’re involved in, and some ways you can help. Going down the pink cycle path on my way to the app launch I bumped into a really good friend of mine who is also a cyclist, and convinced him to come to the party with me. The food at William’s Eatery was fantastic, and we enjoyed a few free drinks and had a great time. If I’d driven there, something as spontaneous as this would never have happened. Even if you drove alongside your friend’s car and even if you realised it was your friend – which you probably wouldn’t – you wouldn’t be able to speak to them. You wouldn’t be able to invite them along and therefore a lovely spontaneous evening of nice food, drinks, and new friends would never have happened. What a shame!
Moments like this might not happen all the time, but I have managed to bump (not literally of course) into my cycling friends a number of times. It’s always so nice to have that little moment of connection. “How is it going?” “Where are you going?” “What’s going in your life today?” And even with people you don’t know, a friendly smile and a wink exchanged with a fellow cyclist, when you’ve ducked and weaved past a long line of cars, is wonderful. It’s a friendly encounter that you simply don’t have when you are in a car.
There are lots of other differences between driving a car and cycling. The main one is that you are NEVER stuck in traffic. You always get to the place you were going within a minute or two of the time you expected. You NEVER have to worry about finding a park – you simply lock your bike to the nearest pole, fence, or bike rack, right in front of your destination. And it NEVER costs any money to park your bike. Did you know that cycling in the city is actually as fast as driving a car? On medium distances of under 10km, you will often be even faster than a car, especially if you are travelling at rush-hour.
If those are not enough reasons to consider cycling, what about these: You get exercise at the same time as going somewhere and you get some fresh air (which could be fresher if there were fewer cars or more electric cars and more bikes). Using a light road bike like mine gets you most hills like Bond Street on the Grey Lynn side, or upper Dominion Road and if you also have a job like me, where you mostly sit in front of a screen, having a 20-minute exercise programme before and after work is not exactly a bad thing, is it? If you’re worried about arriving at work all sweaty, an electric bike gives you all the benefits without the sweat – sweet! You’ll still improve your fitness, as long as the motor power is only used to get up the hills.
Or consider the money: you can buy a very reasonable used road bike on TradeMe for around $300 – 500, then you’ll need to invest another $200 into a good helmet, some good lights and a lock. You’re all set. No costs for parking, no petrol and your bike will probably be covered by your contents insurance. Sure, there may be some service and repair costs, but this shouldn’t add up to more than $200 per year. A bike will last several years – mine was second-hand when I bought it 5 years ago, and it’s still going strong. Some companies might even offer incentives for their staff to use bikes to commute to work. At Bread & Butter, I just started offering an earn-to-own electric bike scheme for my employees. I work with a company called Big Street Bikers. The bike comes with a helmet, lock, lights and two years’ worth of 6-monthly service. Staff are expected to use the electric bike for the majority of their commutes to work, at least three days out of five. So far five have taken me up on the offer and are looking forward to starting their bike commuting and my hope is that once others see, how great this is, they will want a bike too.
Still not convinced? How about some more esoteric reasons, just in case the benefits to your health, time, and money aren’t enough?
Firstly, there are the sights, sounds and smells that you never see from a car – quirky decorations in someone’s front yard, beautiful gardens and funny little shops that you pass by too quickly to notice when you’re in a car.
You discover new shortcuts and get to know your city much better. You find new ways to get places and have a much better mind-map of your city. You know the side streets and connections and discover that sometimes going down the main road isn’t the best way. Side streets, parks and reserves, lovely tree-lined roads with less traffic and cleaner air are much nicer for riding and when you start to consider your commute as exercise, adding an extra five minutes is going to be a bonus, right?
Now consider driving. Maybe I am just a particularly bad-tempered driver, but I think most people feel the same when they’re in a car. Firstly, I get upset if traffic isn’t moving. If someone makes a mistake I yell and call them names – knowing full well that they can’t hear me – and I question other people’s driving skills all the time. You could say ‘what’s the harm, they can’t hear you’, but the harm is mostly to yourself – you feel angry and stressed out.
I think the main reason we get so annoyed with other drivers is that we can’t see them. All we see is a metal box in front of us. Inanimate objects that don’t behave the way we expect elicit a lot more anger in us than people or animals do. Our shared evolution with other human beings means we expect them to be a bit unpredictable but our understanding of inanimate objects like trees, houses and metal boxes doesn’t seem to include random stopping and starting, turning without warning, and suddenly pulling out in front of you. Of course, we know there are people in the metal boxes, but because we don’t connect with them we still expect them to behave in a regular fashion. When they don’t, it enrages us – especially if we were meant to be at work 15 minutes ago!
On a bike you come into direct contact with the others on the road – the ones who aren’t stuck inside metal boxes, at least – and you can see and connect with them. If there is any kind of hold-up of other cyclists or pedestrians, you can see what is going on, you can get involved, and you can take action, so you don’t get angry and frustrated about your lack of control.
Of course cycling in Auckland isn’t always a walk in the park. It can be quite dangerous. The new cycle-ways and barriers are definitely helping, but there are also lots of dangerous narrow roads, with big cars bullying cyclists dangerously close to the curb. Stormwater grates, potholes, wet leaves, rubbish, bits of branches and tarmac cracked from the summer heat are all potential hazards for cyclists.
Many intersections are still without above-mentioned green strip in front of the lights, offering nowhere for cyclists to stop safely. The most dangerous are those where the right turning lane has no green strip, but as a cyclist you just have to affirm your place in front of the cars. I admit this requires a good deal of panache and confidence and might not feel comfortable for the new cyclist.
Then there’s the challenge of Auckland’s geography. You need a certain level of fitness unless you have an electric bike as Auckland’s hills can be killers. I have always exercised and maintained my fitness, but even with a light road bike and cycling the same way every day, getting to the top of Bond Street is tough! It doesn’t matter which side – the Kingsland side, or coming up from Grey Lynn Park – it’s only on very good days that I can manage without having to stand up in my pedals. There are plenty of other hills too and riding a bike is the best way in the world to find out where they all are! It’s almost impossible to go anywhere in Auckland without encountering a hill. Long drawn out ones that you might not even notice in a car can be a tough slog on a bike. Luckily electric bikes flatten the hills out a lot, so no excuses for anyone who used the hills as a ‘get out of cycling’ card.
With uphills come downhills, and when you come flying down a hill you can get up quite a good speed. 50km/h is no problem on a bike, but you really don’t want to hit road debris, have people flinging open the door of their car without looking or feel some reckless driver coming too close. I recommend if you are going the same speed as the cars, use the middle of the road. You’ll avoid car doors being opened and cars won’t try and overtake you. You’ve staked your claim for space on the road. I think it would also be a good idea, if Auckland Transport (AT) would put up ‘Cyclists at speed’ signs around town like they have in certain places on the open road. Those signs would warn pedestrians and motorists alike.
Despite all the benefits of cycling and the increasing number of cycling commuters compared to a few years ago, the percentage of cyclists in Auckland is still very small. So, are you ready to get on your bike? It really is a great way to travel, with benefits to you and the planet, along with being fun and great for your fitness. You’ll save money, get fitter, come home in a better mood, meet new people and get to know your city in a whole new way.
Happy cycling – see you out there!
More info and links:
Outdoor activities and cycling with kids
Some great tips on commuting by bike and how to get ready for it:
Worried about how you’re going to look? Don’t let thoughts of lycra pants put you off – there are all kinds of warm, cool and comfy gear that will keep you safe and seen on the road.
And if you ever want to use the Auckland weather or winter colds as an excuse leave your bike in the garage, check out biking commuters in Copenhagen (BTW 50% of Copenhageners cycle to work! 50%!!!).