One of the reasons many of us do what we do for bike advocacy is because we recall the feeling of freedom and power our bikes first gave us, when we were young. And we want today’s children to experience that too. Here’s a guest post from Vivian Chandra and her son about helping free-range kids explore their neighbourhoods, and an unexpected challenge they ran into along the way… 

It was 1991, I was ten years old and my house was 3.9 km away from my school. I was heading off to Intermediate school, and I felt all grown up. So my parents got me my first ‘adult’ sized bike.

It was amazing.

I remember the bell I installed myself and the pain I felt when I realised that it was probably not appropriate to put dangly sparkly ribbons on a ‘big girl bike’. The first time I rode to school, I think it took me about half an hour, maybe longer. Today, Google Maps tells me that it should take 13 minutes.

Fast forward to 1992, and I was unstoppable. I rode all the way to my friend’s house in Mt Eden (getting lost in the back streets of Balmoral on the way, and eventually finding my way there and home again!). I attempted to find my way further and further afield, growing in confidence with each successful ride.

I still remember the feeling of freedom as you ride away from your house for the first time. You look back and you see your house getting smaller and smaller, and you think, wow, I’m on my own vehicle, heading out into the world.

It was this feeling I wanted my son to share. He is eleven years old. The other weekend, he headed off from our house in Mangere Bridge towards his grandparents’ house in Onehunga. Google Maps tells us it is a 3.4 km ride and should take him 15 minutes.

He approached the idea with great trepidation. He went through the full gamut of emotions, from nervousness to full-blown scared, to quietly confident. He did this while riding up and down the driveway thinking about whether he wanted to go for a ride.

He then asked us what the ride was like. Both his dad and I have done it ourselves, several times. We showed him elevation maps and admitted that it was a hard slog up Onehunga Mall. We explained that going through the underpass on Mangere Bridge was now safer, because it has security guards who are there to protect you. What happened next surprised us. I’ll let you hear his story yourself…

I was riding my bike through the Mangere Bridge Underpass. I wasn’t riding very fast because the slope is very steep going into the Underpass. One of the security officers stopped me and told me to turn onto the footpath and sit down on a bench.

I got a little bit scared. I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, but they were wearing a uniform and looked like a police officer. I thought I was in trouble.

When I sat down, they asked me a bunch of questions, like where I was going and why I was going there. They then asked for my mum and dad’s phone number, as well as telling me I had to go with an adult.

They did exactly the opposite of what my mom said they were going to do. She had told me that the security officers were put there by our Council to protect people.

I already felt nervous going on that big ride without my parents because I felt like I would get lost. (But then I felt less nervous when I realised I could use Google Maps!). Now I’m not sure I will be brave enough to try such a big ride again, which is a problem because mom and dad say I have to ride to school this year instead of taking the bus!

I like riding my bike because it’s really fun going down really steep bits and letting the wind run past you.

I did eventually make it to grand-dad’s house, and then I called Mom to come pick me up. I thought I’d had quite enough adventures for one day.

The good news update is that Steve Mutton from NZTA (which is overseeing the new old Mangere Bridge works and the security improvements on the underpass) has since given me a call to apologise for what happened. He promised to have a chat with the security guards to ensure that they balance their care for people’s safety with how they make vulnerable members of our society feel. Thanks Steve and team, I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to check up and update me.

On a more personal front, my son and his dad will attempt the ride to school (closer than grand-dad’s, but still over the bridge) a few times over the next few weekends. Now that we’ve dealt with security guards, there is only the wee problem of the gigantic hill to go!

A wannabe free-range kid and his dad, getting ready to go back out there and give it another go.

A Bike AKL coda

Our thanks to Vivian and family and Steve and the Mangere Bridge team for being so open and for working through this experience. It’s a reminder that even with the best of intentions for public safety, and full optimism about our children’s abilities, we can never quite know what might happen to put them off their stride. It’s ironic that while we probably worry most about inattentive drivers, a well-meaning extra-attentive intervention can also give a child the speed wobbles.

We understand the Mangere Bridge security update has on the whole been well received as a net benefit for the community, with 91% of respondents to a December 2018 survey reporting they are happy or very happy with both the upgrades and the sense of safety. In other news, CCTV will be installed by March and security guards will continue to be on duty. Discussions are in progress about artwork for the underpass, and a ‘desire line’ path on the south side that could be formalised is being discussed with Council. Meanwhile, the new old Mangere bridge will begin construction mid-year.

We’re glad to know the Mangere Bridge team is open to conversations about how to continue to make the detour feel welcoming to travellers big and small. And above all, we’re delighted to hear the young adventurer is getting back out there and giving it another go. Because that’s what it’s all about. 

Header image: kids on bikes on the Henderson Creek Path

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