This post was featured on the Generation Zero blog on the 22nd of January, 2014.
For as long as I can remember I’ve always been a cyclist. One of my earliest memories is Waihi Beach in the early nineties, on what might well have been Christmas Day. The light is soft and the sand is hard, and my heart beats furiously in my chest. I am balanced on my new BMX, resplendent in racing orange and full of fear and determination. I have already fallen plenty of times and my knees and pride sting from the sand. Dad runs behinds me, holding the seat steady, and the beach stretches off into the distance. Will this be the time? I pedal hard, teeth grit, and his words of encouragement fade into the background. There is a moment of confusion then Dad yells from behind me and I realise: I am doing it!
This is where it all began: that first moment of balance – speed and infinite freedom. It’s a hard thing to explain to someone who doesn’t cycle but it is this sense, this rush, that makes cycling so addictive. It’s been many years since that first ride on the beach in Waihi but still it rises, undeniable once the movement takes over. This is what psychologists call flow: the mental state where your task becomes primary, and all else falls away. Complete absorption, energised focus, engagement: I am the road, and the road is me – or so it feels.
Like anyone with such emotive attachment, I’ll admit to being somewhat close-minded when it comes to understanding why more people don’t cycle. Not only is cycling an easy way to get the daily exercise that is crucial to better health and longevity, but it’s also the quickest way to get anywhere within a 10km radius of the city centre.
Every morning my cycling flatmates and I zip through queues of cars, past scores of commuters slumped at the wheel, waiting for what lies beyond their control. It’s not something I enjoy – but it’s easy to see why they get so aggressive when the lights finally change… For a brief moment the road opens up and their engines roar – speeding past our vulnerable forms, often dangerously close, until they succumb to the inevitable traffic and are forced to witness the indignity of being passed once more. It’s enough to make anyone angry, but as the response to the tragic death of John Tangiia at the bottom of Parnell Rise a few weeks ago showed, cyclists are still seen as part of the problem – rather than the solution.
Switching more commuters to cycling wouldn’t only be a boon for our carbon emissions and public health spending, but it would also help to ease traffic – making it better for everyone, drivers included. As Dr Rhys Jones explains, active transport – cycling and walking – is a win-win: reducing obesity, diabetes, traffic injuries and pollution; and increasing social cohesion, physical activity and mental wellbeing. A study from the University of Auckland demonstrates that shifting just 5% of vehicle kilometers to cycling would reduce vehicle transport by around 223 million kilometers a year (saving 22 million litres of fuel); result in 116 fewer deaths a year (mainly from the health benefits of physical activities); and save the economy $200 million a year.
There are a number of studies demonstrating the benefits of removing just a small percentage of traffic from the road. In Sweden, a congestion charge resulted in a 25% reduction in car traffic, making previously gridlocked streets look empty – demonstrating the marginal cost of extra drivers and how shifting even some commuters can have huge impacts for the very drivers who decry cyclists as slowing them down.
Of course, cycling isn’t all positives. Auckland’s topography and climate makes longer rides a sweaty affair and the capricious weather means you are sure to get wet from time to time. But as anyone who actually cycles will tell you, these are small hurdles, easily overcome with the right preparation.
It wasn’t until I lived in Holland that I realised this. On my first day at university there we were told that the Dutch bike irrespective of the weather, and that we should be prepared to as well. Like the rest of the international students, I laughed when they showed us a picture of the Dutch waterproof get up, sure that no-one would actually bother with such a contraption. And for the most part, I was right. When the rain came no one actually donned North Sea waders and a bulletproof Macintosh… the reason that cycling was so successful in Holland was because it was easy. They had a complete network of separated cycles lanes and dedicated areas to lock your bike, lived in compact cities and rarely had to cycle for longer than 20 minutes.
It all just worked. And the best bit was, it hadn’t always been so. The Dutch had made an active choice to go in this direction, and were now reaping the benefits. Because of the separated nature of the bike lanes, the weather didn’t seem to matter so much. If it rained the bikes had mud guards, and there was no risk of getting sprayed by an unruly bus or skidding into the car that decides to take a left turn at the last minute, oblivious to your own limited stopping power. At the worst you got a little wet, and this was easily addressable. I might have laughed at the suggestion initially, but I now wear my waterproof pants with pride (well – sort of). They sit over whatever I’m wearing and zip off easily once I arrive – leaving me to wear what I normally would, free from the soaked jeans and underwear that once made rainy days such a gamble.
I don’t expect everyone to don such a getup or to be quite as engaged as us existing cyclists are, but the switch to proper cycling infrastructure is sure to encourage many more to join our ranks. As the Dutch example (and the Danish, and every other place that has made this switch before) demonstrates, this isn’t something that will happen on its own: it needs government foresight and investment in infrastructure; and if these are lacking, it needs citizens to demand them.
As Generation Zero reveal in the below infrographic, this is investment that is currently lacking in our biggest city, with Auckland’s per capita spend on cycling infrastructure the lowest of the major centres. It doesn’t stack up – that this would be such a low priority when the need and benefits are both so great – and so Generation Zero has organised a petition calling for David Walburton, CEO of Auckland Transport, to prioritise the construction of separated cycleways.
Why do these matter? Last year I was the victim of a hit and run, knocked off my bike by an oncoming car turning right off Newton Gully. I saw him coming and braked hard – but couldn’t stop, jumping off my bike as the momentum threw me into his rear left window. Whatever flow I was experiencing disintegrated: my knee smashed the glass and I flipped in the air, landing on the pavement with a heavy thud – still not sure how I had got there. Wasn’t I cycling? Adrenaline took hold, I bounced up and hobbled to the sidewalk, fearful of what the next car might do.
With a little less luck, I could be the reason people are now talking about cycle infrastructure – because with the right infrastructure this isn’t something that could happen. Separated cycle lanes are the norm in every city where cycling dominates, and for good reason. They place a barrier between the cyclist, a flesh and bone human, and the metal monsters that make up the rest of our road traffic. This doesn’t just make cycling more visible and help produce a culture where the biggest gives way to the smallest, it also induces more cyclists to join the revolution – to feel the rush that keeps me coming back, and all the other benefits.
It’s funny, finding myself advocating for increased cycle lanes. I love the thrill of cycling on the road, being one with the flow of traffic, competing with the cars – air tight in my lungs and legs burning – but I’d give it all up to know that round the next corner was not possible death, but more cyclists – part of an active city, where all are welcome on the road.
Show your support for separated cycle lanes here, and help make Auckland the livable city it aspires to be. If you’re interested in learning more then Transport Blog has a number of good articles – including this comprehensive number on how other cities around the world are dealing with these same issues. As the Dutch example shows, these changes don’t happen by themselves. Make sure your voice is heard.