Free our streets for bikes! Taking inspiration from London’s FreeCycle

Free our streets for bikes! Taking inspiration from London’s FreeCycle

Bike Auckland

Waitemata Local Board Deputy Chair and bike aficionado Pippa Coom recently accompanied her mum Barbara Grace to London, to support Barbara competing in the 10th World Brompton Championship race. While there, she was inspired by the city’s massive “open streets” FreeCycle event, and is now dreaming of something similar for Auckland…

I hadn’t been back to London in 5 years, so I was looking forward to checking out the explosion of cycling I’d been hearing about. From dispatches I was expecting London to have been transformed into a Copenhagen of the British Isles. The increase in bikes everywhere was really noticeable – but I was also surprised to discover this is despite many central London streets still being very congested and hostile to riding.

Commuter cyclists at Blackfriars
Commuter cyclists at Blackfriars

Even as a confident rider, the few times I ventured out on a public hire “Boris bike” in central London I found to be a scary experience. The bike super-highways currently under construction are going to make a huge difference – however, many historic London roads are narrow, and cycle lanes are unlikely to be an option. I understand this has led to a multi-pronged approach to encourage cycling by calming streets, slowing traffic, safety campaigns and the creation of routes through quieter areas.

Commuter cyclists along the Embankment

It confirmed for me that if London can grow cycling numbers spectacularly with huge transport challenges in a city of 8.6 million people, then in Auckland we really have no excuse. I’ve heard too many times that we don’t have space for cycle lanes and that there are too many barriers to cycling (weather, hills, dangerous roads). We only have to look at London to know most of our arterials are more than wide enough to comfortably accommodate everyone, including people on bikes – we just have to refocus our priorities.

But the real surprise for me on my trip was getting to take part in the Prudential Ride London FreeCycle event, a day of cycling traffic-free around 10 miles of London’s most iconic streetscapes. On a glorious summer’s day, my mum and I joined the estimated 70,000 people on bikes (including many very small children) taking advantage of an “open streets” circuit and festival zones along the way.

Through the parks!
Along leafy streets!
And across the bridges!

Of course it made me wonder when we are going to have Auckland’s first genuine FreeCycle-style event with the roads made available just for people on bikes. We’ve had Playing in the Streets in 2012, Ciclovia in 2014 and Open Streets Auckland earlier this year, which were lots of fun and opened streets for people to enjoy … but just didn’t cater for riding en masse on a dedicated route. Besides FreeCycle, there are lots of other successful examples from around the world – NYC has the Tour de Brooklyn, the Tour de Bronx, and the epic 5 Boro Ride [ed: great photo story, that one!]. So why not Auckland?

The idea of a local event taking advantage of a car-free circuit has been floating around for a while, but may now be gaining momentum with the injection of Urban Cycling Programme Funding starting to have an impact. At last in Auckland with the opening of Grafton Gully and Beach Rd cycleways, Nelson St about to open and Quay St promised by April 2016 we can see a real network taking shape. We will soon be able to “circle the city” by bike. A Freecycle-type event will provide the opportunity to showcase progress in the city centre, give Aucklanders a chance to reclaim their streets and hopefully introduce many new people to cycling.

Urban Planner Lennart Nout has designed a map of a possible circuit. Riders would be able to start at any point and could cycle in either direction on the course, with a little extra loop though the Domain. Festival zones could be included in places like Silo Park, Teal Park in Judges’ Bay, and the Domain.

Proposed route for a Freecycle Auckland event. Map by Lennard Nout.

As the traffic management for the event is likely to be very expensive, it would make sense to give a major sponsor the naming rights (in London the sponsor called the event “FreeCycle” to fit with their brand, but I don’t think this works as a name in Auckland) [Ed: what else could we call it?]

The Waitemata Local Board and Auckland Museum have provided support in principle for an “open streets” mass ride event. Auckland Transport’s walking and cycling team is now wondering if the time is right and whether people will show up.

I am sure that if we make it happen, then the riders – especially novices, children, families – will come!

– Pippa Coom

(Originally published on Pippa’s blog, and shared here with kind permission. All photos by Pippa.)

Freecycle bike jam Trafalgar Square
FreeCycle 2015 bike jam, Trafalgar Square

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