A guest post by Christina Bengtson, who grew up in Denmark, now lives in Westmere, and took part with her family in the recent Bike to the Future ride in support of neighbourhood bikeways. Christina explains how bike life in Auckland is steadily evolving to be a wee bit more Scandinavian…
For me, cycling is a bit like knitting, in that I have no conscious memory of learning or of not being able to do it. Being Danish, there’s nothing remarkable about that. I do, however, have very vivid memories of my first times biking in New Zealand in 1990.
I remember being questioned time and again on whether this was a good idea – and me being female was repeatedly mentioned by people as a reason for it NOT being a good idea. I remember that finding somewhere to lock up my bike when trying to do errands was nearly impossible. And I recall how incredibly uncomfortable I felt with just 20 cm each side of my handlebars between me and a parked car to my left and a moving truck on the right.
My husband grew up riding a bike in Wellington, so we shared a bike as we didn’t have money for two. When we left NZ for a stint in Europe, we sold the bike, and it wasn’t immediately replaced when we returned. (This is despite us having two bikes and no car while we lived together in Denmark. I should add that wherever we’ve lived, we have only ever had one car at a time, and we don’t plan on changing that).
I started my tertiary studies in Denmark and although my university was on the outskirts of town, the vast majority of students would bike or use public transport to get there, even in winter, which is significantly colder than the Auckland winter. It’s a cultural thing – a culture that has been developed, nurtured and invested in by local as well as national governments.
Fast forward a couple of decades and here we are, back in New Zealand, long settled in Westmere with our three kids – and trying to bring them up using bikes as their primary means of transport. As their abilities on bikes have grown, my husband and I both acquired bikes again, and I’ve rediscovered my enjoyment of riding.
The school run is crucial, as it’s one of the barriers to everyday riding that particularly affects women. It doesn’t matter which way we look at it, there are generally more mums than dads at school in the morning, and women tend to do more ‘trip-chaining’ of errands. So if the school run isn’t safe for the kids to do, the chance of continuing your day on a bike is a lot lower for women. We now have at least one cargo bike coming to our school though, and a couple of bikes with baby seats on the back. It’s a trickle, but it’s happening!
As well as doing the school run by bike, I aim to do all errands and trips within a 10 km radius on my bike. Because I work from home with my husband, I have a lot of flexibility in terms of when I go – and a great shower at the end of my ‘commute’.
Overall, going by bike saves me time, because I can choose my route carefully and I don’t have to hunt for parking. I also save time because I don’t have to go to the gym as a separate activity – incidental exercise is really great like that (also, I hate gyms).
My errands include trips to the supermarket, local shops, the garden centre and the library. I have panniers as well as a cargo trailer (I did a lot of research and got a Burley Nomad which I absolutely love). The combination of trailer and panniers provides great flexibility for different loads.
With the trailer we also do longer trips, packing spare clothes, a picnic, frisbee, soccer ball, etc (all of which is still much lighter than 50 library books!!) and taking advantage of the fact you can bring a bike for free on ferries and trains. We’ve been to (amongst other places) Devonport, Cornwall Park, Glenn Innes and Half Moon Bay on our bikes, and the next long trip will be Onehunga/Ambury Park or the Henderson trails.
I bike because I love it, it makes me happy. Because it’s the future for for our city and for the planet. Because it gives me a sense of freedom. But I don’t do it as light-heartedly as I would have in Denmark or another northern European country.
Life as a cyclist in Auckland is challenging: you still have to be pretty brave to ride your bike here. So I bike despite the poor attitudes of some drivers, despite the lack of safe infrastructure on many routes, despite my husband asking about what incidents I had today, not whether I had any.
And I celebrate every new metre of cycleway being built, every new report that shows increased numbers of cyclists in Auckland and every new cyclist I become aware of.
People say ‘Aucklanders don’t ride bikes’, but on a recent weekend, my family joined in in the Bike to the Future ride through Westmere and Grey Lynn on Saturday with several hundred people. Then on the Sunday, my son and I did Bike the Bridge together with just over 5000 other people, which was the most amazing experience. The view, and the atmosphere, the bikes – a penny farthing, tandems, a tandem recumbent, several other recumbents, one with a trailer for a handicapped person, and people of all ages, shapes and abilities – all of it was truly amazing.
There is safety in numbers, and I would like it very much if, in the future, those numbers included my children, and their children, and that we all had the freedom to bike safely and happily around Auckland.