At Bike Auckland’s recent AGM we farewelled our Chair extraordinaire, indefatigable Chief Enthusiasm Officer and all round awesome human being Barb Cuthbert. Barb led the way with love and vision, powered by the marvelous throng of advocates who’ve blazed the trail for our work.
It was a big job capturing the essence of Barb and all that she has achieved to make Auckland a bikeable city, but committee member Max Robitzsch did such an amazing job at the AGM that we wanted to share his speech far and wide. So from Max’s heart to yours – here is a tribute to Barb.
Barb Cuthbert – a decade of dedication
Actually a bit more than a decade, because Barb joined Bike Auckland – then still called Cycle Action Auckland – nearly 15 years ago. I’ve asked for the honour of speaking about her, because as far as I know I’m the only person on the committee who was there for pretty much all of it, having joined shortly after her in the late 2000s.
So looking back all that way: at that time, bike advocacy often felt like standing on the outside, just trying to get somebody to listen – let alone getting anything changed.
The turning point was one of the first big campaigns, the SkyPath campaign. Not only because it got massive public support – but also because our Chair at the time, Bevan Woodward, soon decided to focus full-time on the Harbour Bridge.
This left us with no chair – so Barbara stepped up! Initially together with Barbara Insull as co-chair, and after some more temporary changes, taking the role on fully.
You talk of people putting their stamp on things – well, Barb certainly did that, with her forceful personality, her big heart, and her can-do spirit.
Three things stand out to me about how Barb worked with us, for us and for Auckland. People, Dedication, and Trust.
Barb is good with people. She loves to talk to people, loves connecting with people, helping people. She’s also a hard person to say “no” to, and for an advocacy organisation trying to get traction, that’s a great strength. She doesn’t get intimidated either – she keeps her cool, answers any questions skillfully – even if they are pretty leading ones. And she digs deeper when politicians and decision-makers waffle.
I can’t do justice to the hundreds of people she’s formed close relationships over the years or the thousands and thousands she’s talked to in our quest to create a better cycling city. But I can say that she’s made a great impression on me, and I’ll share two anecdotes about that.
The first was the Waterview motorway project. As Bike Auckland’s resident transport engineer, I did most of the work on the submissions. But it was Barbara who tag teamed that with her tireless work during the Board of Inquiry process.
One day she suggested I join the expert witness caucussing – to put bikes more into the picture. Now, at the time I was barely more than a graduate; five years of experience.The people on those expert witness panels are your well-paid senior engineers, often with 20 even 30 years of experience.
So I said to Barb. “Nah! I can’t do it – I’m not senior enough!!! I’m just some young volunteer!” Barb went “Hhhhmmmm….” and two days later she calls me and says “Max, I’ve sorted it out with the Board of Inquiry Chair. Next Monday afternoon, turn up and join the expert witnessing. YOU GOT THIS – you know a lot more about bikes than those roading engineers!”
So I did go. I was bloody apprehensive, but it turned out really well. All because Barb believed I could do it, that WE could do it. I also know that when I called her a few weeks later – to say that the Board of Inquiry had ruled in our favour – she woke up a few of her neighbours with her jubilant shouts of delight from her deck!
The second anecdote was at my own wedding. It was a pretty small affair, and on my side of the aisle, I had invited only some 10 people or so – but including Barb. After the ceremony, she was talking to some other guests, and noted how much of a son I was to her… to the slight confusion of the other guests and family nearby, including my actual mother!!! But the fact was – I was quite proud of her saying that she thought of me like that. Because for Bike Auckland, she’s always been a bit of a mother to us. A people person, holding us all together, helping us achieve.
The second big theme of Barb’s legacy has been dedication.
Barb has poured so much of her time and heart into the organisation, at a time of her life when other people of her calibre either hold down well-paid senior positions, or retire to take up their hobbies. She chose Bike Auckland instead.
One of Barb’s great inspirations were the suffragists – and like them, Barb knew that victory wasn’t going to be easy or fast. It took – and it takes – decades. Decades of people putting their shoulder to the wheel, putting their mana out there, standing for a vision of a better future.
As an example, Barb asked me around 2013 what kind of bikeway project might really make a splash in Auckland. I suggested a few – but said that a Nelson Street bikeway would be one of the most visible changes that could be done, and done fast.
I didn’t invent the concept of using the off-ramp as a cycleway. I just fleshed it out in a big, passionate blog post. But the point is, if that blog had been it, that would have been the end of it. It would have sunk without a trace. In fact, it almost did.
It was only Barb’s tireless dedication and willingness to look for contacts that eventually found support for it. In the unlikeliest place – our motorways agency, which at the time really was a motorways agency. That suddenly made it happen.
And together with other people’s contributions – like that marvelous idea to paint it pink – Lightpath, Te Ara I Whiti, became a bicycle flagship that got people keen to do more.
That’s thanks to Barb, thanks to her talking to literally everyone who would listen (and a few who didn’t!) about opportunities for bikes.
The last part I want to talk about is trust.
Bike Auckland, over the last decade and a half, has sometimes been a pretty ad-hoc organisation. Not ad-hoc in the sense of uncoordinated or aimless. But in the sense that we have been constantly active and reactive on dozens of projects at a time, with hardly a moment of rest. Submissions, technical advice, campaigns, events.
For a small volunteer organisation, none of this would have been possible at our speeds without a lot of can-do-spirit, a real flat hierarchy, and a lot of trust. We all trusted each other. Of course there were new people coming in all the time, but we had pretty clearly established what Bike Auckland stood for, and that helped. But if Barb had been a micro-managing person, someone more about control than about trust, it would have all gotten bogged down.
“We work with the willing” was one of Barb’s main sayings. And when it came to Bike Auckland, she very much fostered those that were willing. If she felt you had the heart in the right place, she put you on the job, let you get on with it, and backed you. And so did the rest of us, inspired by that culture she was creating. The spirit of the organisation she helped create is an active and happy one, one that mirrors her passion and allows the passions of others to grow.
And in the last two years, as she has been preparing to leave the post, she’s again worked hard. Worked hard to welcome new people, paid and volunteering both. And I’ve been impressed at how successful she’s been at that transition, even with an eye on the door to retirement.
So I hope we can build on her legacy. I hope we can both evolve it further, and stay true to all the good things she helped instill with her mana.
Thank you Barb. Thank you for your work, for being our chair and for being our friend.
— Max Robitzsch