‘Drive-and-ride’: California dreaming and some thoughts about Auckland

Last year during a trip to California, my wife and I satisfied a yearning for a bike ride by heading to the beach in a car. We decided to try a bit of ‘drive-and-ride’ – i.e. driving to somewhere suitable and comparatively safe and interesting for a bike outing. We headed to Balboa Peninsula, Newport Beach, where we joined hundreds of people swanning around on wheels on purpose-built cycling infrastructure and local streets. The ideal mix of house and garden eye-candy, beautiful marina, ice cream on the beach, and bars with live entertainment made for a very pleasant afternoon.

We blended right into the local scene by hiring a couple of smooth, cool beach cruisers.

I say hundreds of people, it could have been thousands; anyway, it was ridiculously popular. It was confirmation that people all over the world want opportunities to get out on a bike – and that our efforts at Bike Auckland are part of a worldwide phenomenon. Build it, and they will come.

“No bicycles on sidewalks…”

Inevitably, I started thinking about comparisons with Auckland, especially given that California’s planning code is not only one of the most autocentric in the world, but also heavily influenced our own sprawling development.

Evidence of attempts to encourage bikes and walking are common throughout Orange County and down into San Diego, and a quick internet surf pulls up familiar stories about community advocacy and local government initiatives. Still, the scale of Californian auto infrastructure is intimidating, and the job of rebalancing the public realm towards active modes in the suburban vastlands is truly daunting.

Paradoxically, this made me optimistic for Auckland. OC was predominantly designed around the car, and they’re now trying to sprinkle bike fairy-dust to soften the impact. Whereas I see Auckland as still having strong bones and a good foundation for walking and cycling – from the historic streetcar suburbs of the central city, to the linked villages of the outer edges. Our bike infrastructure initiatives aren’t cosmetic: the plans that are underway are significant and will eventually be comprehensive, even if not they’re not yet regionally democratic.

In California, quality opportunities for bike riding like Balboa are isolated and are more likely to be “drive to” experiences, which does nothing for the perception that roads are for cars whereas bikes are interlopers – which in turn makes it difficult to evolve the attitudes of people who drive. I do find Californians very courteous behind the wheel; Aucklanders less so. But I’m not sure OC politeness should be confused with a journey to acceptance… and I think Aucklanders have made great progress in accepting bikes on the road, especially the more they see of people of all ages and all shapes and sizes on bikes.

Most of the bike infrastructure was at a proper Californian scale.

Getting back to the question of ‘drive and ride (or should we call it ‘park-and-bike’?) – it’s topical in Auckland, because currently we have a few Northcote and Herne Bay residents appealing the Skypath resource consent before the Environment Court. One of their key concerns is the potential impact on their heritage suburbs of people driving and parking to walk or bike over Skypath. They argue that Skypath, as a ‘commercial enterprise’, should mitigate the effects it may cause along these lines. It’s a fascinating argument with multiple facets, which hopefully we will learn more about after the confidential mediation is complete.

Again, my California experience provided a useful comparison – because much like Herne Bay and Northcote Point, Balboa Peninsula and Balboa Island consistently sit at the top of the national rankings for income and property values, and are extremely house-proud communities.

If anything, boat parking is at even more of a premium on Balboa Island! (Pic via Wikipedia)
If anything, boat parking is at even more of a premium on Balboa Island! (Pic via Wikipedia)

Balboa also has significant parking problems, with on-street parking managed through typical time restrictions. I was interested in a report into the possibility of introducing a Residents-Only Parking Scheme, which noted that the parking problem was bigger than simply the influx of leisure visitors, and concluded:

“…while residential parking permits may be effective in controlling some amount of transient parking on Balboa Island, it is the community’s belief that the cure that residential parking permits offer is worse than the disease of too few parking spaces during peak occupancy periods. That is to say, that while the current system does not act perfectly, given conditions and constraints on Balboa Island, it seems preferable to potentially burdensome permits, meters, or other regulations that were proposed.”

It appears that the Balboa community accepts cycling as a natural and relatively harmless activity, and the bike infrastructure is well used by locals. Yes, people do drive-to-ride in Balboa – they also drive to catch the ferries to Catalina, or to visit friends, beaches, marinas, restaurants and bars, much like people currently drive to visit our beautiful bays along Tamaki Drive.

In Balboa, drive-to-ride is no more or less worthy than driving to Balboa for any other purpose, and trying to control one over another is clearly silly and futile – so the residents manage to live with it. You’d expect it will be the same for our communities in Auckland.

One contrast is that the popularity of riding on the Balboa Peninsula has evolved over time, instead of being the fruit of a one-off significant initiative like Skypath. The effects of more conspicuous transformations – such as the original construction of the Harbour Bridge, or the prospect of Skypath – are more readily seen, and perhaps that’s why they’re likely to provoke anxiety and reaction, at least initially. Whereas some other equally dramatic impacts on our streets – such as the influx of park-and-walk commuters parking for free in residential neighbourhoods, or the normalcy of two-or-more-car households, or the vicious cycle of parents driving kids to school because there’s too much traffic for the kids to walk or bike – are slower to appear, and thus harder for people to identify or react to.

Fortunately, the options for getting to and from Skypath without driving are significantly more attractive than in Balboa. With safer biking connections growing on both sides of the harbour – including Seapath, and the rolling out of the central city network – it will become easier and more natural to simply ride-to-ride. As in Balboa, some people will choose to drive-and-ride, as is their right – but many more will enjoy the crossing as a fun outing via train, bus, ferries and the new cycleways, or as a tourist adventure on rental bikes, or as a practical but exhilarating section of their daily bike commute.

Although Northcote Point and Herne Bay haven’t yet had the opportunity to experience or appreciate the privilege of having great bike infrastructure close at hand, I believe over time their fears and concerns will dissipate, and what once seemed new and uncertain will morph into the new (and better) normal.

Header image via Wikipedia

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