The room was buzzing as we settled in last Thursday to hear from AT’s new manager of Walking and Cycling, Kathryn King. She’s a local gal, given a good polish by her decade and a half of experience in biking capitals of the world Tokyo, Amsterdam, and latterly London – where she helped spearhead a cycling renaissance in the city’s richest and most conservative borough.

Does the name Harrods ring a bell? How about Notting Hill? That’s Kensington and Chelsea. You may also know it as the home of Jeremy Clarkson, in the news lately for, among other things, hopping on a bike.

In other words, it’s a posh part of town, with fancy cars galore; and yet, only 40% of its residents actually own private vehicles (a sign both of how dense the city is and how fine London’s other transport options are). When Kathryn started her campaign to boost cycling in the borough in 2011, bicycle mode share was 3%.

We often talk about how men are already out there on wheels, and we assume that means we should immediately focus on getting more women and children on the road. And that makes a certain kind of sense. But here’s the counter-intuitive thing. Kathryn and her team at Bikeminded.org started with EU-funded research into who, in the borough, was most likely to take up biking.

And guess who? Well, Jeremy Clarkson, basically. Or younger versions thereof. Blokes – confident, professional, style-focussed, proud, 25-40, active on social media, deeply identified with their community, and liable to be seduced by dark brooding sexy ads featuring good clothes, the nice life, and a great deal of, well, dark brooding sexy manliness.

Thus began a targeted campaign to win more of that demographic over to the joy of bikes:

  • Big-name celebs as bike heroes, conspicuously pootling about on glamorous machines and talking about it across all media.
  • Cycle tours organised around things these sorts of chaps like: live theatre, architecture, good food.
  • A Style the Cyclist competition in conjunction with Harrods.
  • An annual bike polo tournament.
  • A Tweed Run that drew 1000 people out for tea on bikes.
  • And there’s a Right Royal Ride coming up in April, sort of a garden party on wheels to raise funds for a good cause.

Yes, it’s fun, frivolous, and a little fantastical – not to mention well bourgeois – but the crucial thing is that all this frolicking was backed up by swift, clever infrastructure improvements. A network of one-way back streets was opened to two-way bike traffic. More bike parking was provided, everywhere. Access through parks was improved. And every quick fix delivered on the original Bikeminded promise to those who loved their neighbourhood and everything about it: “the freedom to go where you want, when you want.”

This winning combination of style and substance saw cycling grow to 5% mode share in the borough – and not all of those new cyclists are those manly men. The ripple effect is already happening, because when city biking becomes more visible, it becomes more plausible. And with influential folk in the saddle (company heads, TV personalities, the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister too), the calls for better facilities become all the louder, and harder to ignore.

It seems, now, that London just can’t get enough.

Fair to say, Kathryn’s audience was won over by her presentation – the simultaneous top-down and bottom-up approach; the leveraging of local pride; even the unembarrassed marketing to self-interest. You can lecture people all day long about how biking is a smart choice because it’s good for them and good for society and good for the planet – but turns out you can also sell that message with cake and couture and freedom.

We all sat there dazzled for a while. And then we came back down to earth to think about how Kathryn’s London successes might play out in Auckland, where we’re starting from a 1% mode share, with a recalcitrant (indeed, recidivist) tradition of just-not-good-enough design, a lost generation of confident cyclists, and roads that would strike Londoners as voluptuously wide but where locals still prize parking spots over shared safe passage.

The questions started flying. How, we asked, could Auckland get cracking on quick and effective cycle infra projects while avoiding gold-plated white elephants? Who’s our “yeasty” demographic – in other words, who can best be persuaded to bike here? (Will the school run be our Tweed Run? Would you put your kids on these roads?)

And how to sell the benefits of a more bikeable Auckland, not just to her colleagues at Auckland Transport, but to the ordinary person in a car, drumming their fingers on the steering wheel and counting the lost days of their lives?

Kathryn offered a tantalising glimpse of AT’s bid for $120m of the Urban Cycleways Fund over the next 3 years. If successful – cross your fingers, everyone! – the funding would go towards establishing direct and safe routes inside a 5-7km radius of the central city, in a connected network that “joins the dots”; with additional local projects focussed on public transport hubs beyond that central ring.

It won’t cover the city with Copenhagen lanes, but it would make a big splash. The aim, as with the London project, is to demonstrate that local infrastructure works: and then to show it as part of the bigger picture, a connected vision for the city as a whole.

Like Kathryn, we’re hoping the bid comes through, and we’re eager to share more details of these projects once it does. There’s some pretty exciting stuff in there, to be sure! Watch this space.

One of the ironies of the evening was that the audience, while large, was half what it should have been, as we discovered later. Widespread chaos on the roads on a rainy night made it impossible for even the most dedicated to make it to the venue in Ponsonby. One person took an hour and a half to get as far as Grafton, before giving up and turning back.

Even those of us who had made it there safely found the trip home pretty harrowing, with slick roads, glare, and grumpy drivers driven beyond endurance by earlier delays. Cycle Action stalwart Barb Cuthbert – and you all know how fearless she is! – described the ride back to the Ferry Terminal that night as the scariest of her life.

In a way, the evening was the story of Auckland in a nutshell: a city grinding to a halt in entirely predictable ways, for entirely predictable reasons, and trapping all of us in its machinery — even those determined to repair the machine. But, for those of us lucky enough to be in the room, the evening also offered a glimpse of a more attractive, viable future. Now we’re looking forward to helping Kathryn and her team to make it so.

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Auckland Transport BikeAKL Meetings
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