Bikes in the news: from the margins to the centre

Just us, or… is there a bit of a tone-shift lately in the way bikes are being covered in the news? Matt Heath’s Herald column in praise of Lightpath made us smile on a Monday morning. Admittedly, it’s hard not to break out in a grin when you read a description like this:

Matt Heath biking to work (Artist's impression)
Matt Heath’s ride to work. (Artist’s impression)

I know it had to close down for a re-pinking, but boy is it futuristic.

I ride that Utopian overpass to work every morning. The lights are so bright and blue. The pinks so pink. The convenience so convenient. You feel like you’re on a Tron Light Cycle. Like you’re in a Battlestar Galactica launch tunnel.

Matt’s point is, why quibble about the cost of the recent re-pinking? ‘With this Pink Path I feel like I’m getting value for my money. It’s like it was built just for me. You can’t complain about that.’

And have you noticed how many stories about Auckland traffic increasingly find a way to mention bikes as an option? Take Jack Tame’s op-ed in the Herald on Sunday, with the grim headline ‘Our Roads to Ruin.’

Twice an hour, every hour, from 6am through to 8.30. Twenty-five times a week all up, Hilary Barry and I take turns to read the national traffic report on Breakfast. It doesn’t change much… you can be guaran-damn-teed that almost every day we’ll describe the same congestion on the same motorways.

Jack spells out the cost to Aucklanders of this ‘great shame’: all the congestion is costing time and money, and is ‘a serious quality-of-life thing.’ We need more investment in public transport, he argues – plus another option, cleverly tucked into his throwaway last line:

Who in their right mind would choose an idling first gear crawl over a shorter, smoother, commute to work?

Every morning I read the traffic report and watch our live motorway shots with a mix of sympathy and disdain. Then I leave the studio, wipe off my make-up, get on my bike and ride home.

Our roads to rethink, eh? And after all, this is the man who upon his return to New Zealand from New York wrote a column that began: ‘I moved back to Auckland and bought a bike.’

mike hosking
Be like Mike: take facts at face value. (Photo: Janna Dixon, NZ Herald)

Meanwhile, the other day Mike Hosking interviewed Prof. Alistair Woodward on NewstalkZB about his new research on the perceived risk versus the actual risk of riding a bike.

It’s a quick listen, with a couple of welcome surprises.

You’ll remember that Mike Hosking was an early sceptic about Auckland’s first protected cycleway. But he’s also on record as saying ‘Of course we’d solve all the problems if our roads were wider, there were barriers between bikes and cars, if we had cycleways the length of the country, if the cycleways we did have didn’t double as carparks and bus lanes.’

Talking with Alistair, Mike raises the question of how infrastructure is changing the picture.

Q. There’s an increasing number of cycleways in the country. Presumably these numbers are pre-cycleway, and it’s getting even safer again?

A. Yes, we’re talking about figures that are three or four years old. But as you say, the city’s changing – you’ve got better facilities, better space, more people cycling. All those things are positive.

Still, changing our streets is one thing; changing minds is another:

Q. When presented with irrefutable evidence, do you think people will change their mind and their perception that cycling is dangerous?

A. Not necessarily. Probabilities are not the most powerful thing [when it comes to persuasion] – people still go out and buy Lotto tickets, even though the chances of winning are one in millions. I think to get people feeling more comfortable on their bikes, they need better spaces – and that’s what things like the Pink Path do.

‘I’ve always been fascinated by human nature,’ muses Mike by way of conclusion. ‘The facts are irrefutable – I mean, I’ve been cycling for years, well in excess of a decade, and not only have I never been injured, I’ve never felt in any danger of any sort of injury.’

Of course, it’s fair to say not all Aucklanders are as confident about jumping on a bike as Jack and Mike, even though, as we know, 60% say they’d bike if it were safer. That feeling of being endangered by larger traffic – not to mention the actual risks – won’t disappear overnight in a puff of logic and irrefutable facts. It’s ‘human nature’ to read the environment closely, to protect our kids, and to gravitate towards safe spaces.

Another irrefutable fact is that real and tangible changes to streets have a real and tangible impact on people’s confidence and safety.

Just three recent headlines from the NZ Herald.
Three Herald headlines in three days: time to talk, New Zealand?

As Alistair Woodward points out in a summary of his team’s research, ‘The most powerful way to bring bikes back from the margin is to provide safe spaces for cyclists of all abilities to get to where they want to ride‘ – which means slower vehicle speeds and safer streets, as well as separated cycleways.

The first two may be the bigger challenge. Are we ready to swap a bit of driving speed for quality of life, especially on the streets we live on? After a weekend that included three horrible car vs pedestrian crashes, all of which happened in 50kmh zones near schools, can we at least start to have the discussion about a Vision Zero approach to safety?

Meanwhile, for a sense of how protected and separated cycleways are already changing the city, check out Fairfax reporter Mary Fitzgerald’s reviews of Auckland’s major bike paths.

Mary Fitzgerald (image via
Mary Fitzgerald (image via

So far Mary’s rated Lightpath/ Nelson St (9/10), Quay St (6/10 for recreational family riding and 8/10 for commuter cyclists), Beach Rd (9/10), Northwestern (10/10), the first stage of Te Ara ki Uta ki Tai (10/10), Tamaki Drive (10/10 for views, 4/10 for the path itself), and Grafton Gully (7/10 for recreational riding and 10/10 for cycle commuting), with Onehunga-Mangere and one more route to come.

Bonus: her reviews include videos that give a real sense of what the cycleways are like for anyone who’s not ventured onto them yet, including how they feel when biking with kids.

Mary’s reviews form an excellent resource for the bike-curious, especially when you read them next to colleague Rob Stock’s recent stories about the economics and logistics of e-bikes.

And for more on the question of how e-bikes are boosting demand for better bike infrastructure, see Will Hine’s recent report for 1News on the rise and rise of e-bikes, which are heading towards 20,000 imports a year… the numbers and the enthusiasm are astonishing but not surprising.

It’s great to see such strong and engaging reporting – bringing bikes back from the margins, in public discussion as well as public space, one story at a time. The next big question: when will this shared enthusiasm translate to a fairer share of investment, so we can all enjoy safer places to ride?

That’s up to you! Auckland Council’s budget feedback closes one week today, on Monday 27th March. Have your say while you can! And then let’s talk about election year 🙂

Kids on the Nelson St Cycleway. (Image by Matt Lowrie, Transportblog)

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