Rounding out our series of guest posts by Middlemore medics who bike to work is Renate Koops, a consultant in General Medicine and Diabetes. Like her colleagues Rob Burrell and Craig Birch, Renate rides because it comes naturally – she’s Dutch! – and because it’s a refreshing and healthy way to travel.
Or rather, it should be. Like Rob and Craig, Renate has more than once felt the unhappy consequences of traveling on roads dominated by cars and designed and used with little thought for people on bikes. Read on for a harrowing account of her run-ins en route to work – and her observations about what needs to change.
A Dutchie riding a bike in Auckland: will this have a happy ending? Time will tell… I’m still alive with only 4 crashes so far.
Being born and raised in the Netherlands, I have been on my bike since age 3. It’s in my genes. I love biking, it makes me happy, it’s the easiest and fastest way of transport in a Dutch city, and it’s safer. (In Auckland, well at least it’s certainly faster than the car). In Holland, cyclists rule the traffic. Driving your car in a big city in Holland is just as scary as riding your bike in Auckland.
In 2009, I emigrated to NZ to live with my amazing Kiwi husband (who also loves to bike). I’d heard how bad the Auckland traffic is, ignored it and starting biking to work. First to Auckland Hospital, then to Middlemore.
Should I have ignored the warnings? Maybe, I wonder, four crashes later, with some minor injuries, but also whiplash and a broken foot which kept me from biking for the six weeks I was in a moonboot. Once the physiological scars had numbed, I was back to biking. I’m nervous but I still so enjoy the waking-up-bit in the morning and the winding-down-bit in the afternoon. Fresh air and exercise are great for daily stress release and health.
Rain or shine, two to three times a week I bike from home in Ellerslie to work in Middlemore. The other days, I work in Botany; I wouldn’t dare to bike on Ti Rakau Drive ever again (once was scary enough), so on these days I drive.
Crash 1 – a car cuts a corner
Leaving home in the morning I bike from a no-exit road crossing a main road. This is where the first collision happened. The driver did not expect anyone to come out of a no-exit road, so they cut the corner short and drove straight into me. I ended up on the bonnet, sliding off onto the road where my foot extended way further than it naturally should, snapping two middle foot bones. The driver was very apologetic – he brought me and my bike home, and I received flowers the day after. He told me his mum is Dutch and bikes everywhere in NZ. I think he learned his lesson.
My ride then takes me to Ellerslie railway station and along Kalmia Street where I cross Great South Road (at the traffic lights) and continue biking on Rockfield Road. This road has a ‘bike lane’ but cars are parked between the footpath and the bike lane leading exactly to the problem that caused my second crash.
Crash 2 – an unexpected U-turn
A lady in a cute red car pulled out to make a U-turn, did not see me, and crossed the cycle lane as I ran into her. I flew over my handle bars and ended up with bruises on my thighs. I had just found out I was pregnant, so I was very worried (all fine, thank goodness – he’s seven now). This driver was also very apologetic saying she ‘didn’t see’ me. I ride with two nasty flashing lights at the front and one at the back, a fluorescent jacket, and lots of reflectors.
Crash 3 – run into by a pedestrian!
Next, I bike into Walls Road where another crash happened. This road is usually quite quiet, which sounds nice, but a pedestrian who was trying to catch a bus ran out from the footpath between two parked cars to cross the road. She ran into me, causing cuts, bruises, and whiplash, for which I’m still having ongoing physiotherapy four years down the track. This lady was still very keen to catch her bus so after a quick ‘sorry’, she ran off. Others were nearby and saw what happened, but no one came to see if I was okay. Sitting on the footpath it took me ten mins until I stopped shaking and I got back on my bike.
Olive Road is next, then I cross the railway tracks onto O’Rourke Road and head across Church Street into a little pedestrian/cycle path (yay!) onto Church Street East. The pathway is great but ends at a carpark with cars blocking the way requiring me to get off my bike and try to squeeze through (see photos).
Industry Road allows me to bypass a section of Great South Road, which I eventually join for a busy couple of kilometres (usually the trucks and busses are really good, leaving enough space when they pass). Leaving Great South Road, I take Saleyards Road to Walmsley Road – which is where I had my fourth crash.
Crash 4 – she just didn’t see me
A car came driving out of Nikau Road carefully looking both ways to see if the road was clear. It was….except for ME, and I ended up on her bonnet! Luckily not too much damage this time.
There is simply no thought or awareness of cyclists amongst too many drivers, and the roads are not designed in a way to either protect me, or lead drivers to expect to see me, or both.
Mangere Road is busy with big busses and cars leaving no space at the traffic lights, then it’s the final leg along Hospital Road which is usually okay.
At the end of my ride, there’s now a great bike shed at Middlemore Hospital, for which you need a swipe card (back then, it took four signatures from four different managers – I hope this is a bit easier now). Before the bike shed, I kept my bike in my office, but I got told off because my bike was too smelly ;-). There are also great facilities to have a shower, change and keep your clothes in a locker. The only thing missing is a place to dry your wet weather gear.
What would make a difference?
Despite the much safer biking environment in Holland, and my experiences here, I’m still biking in New Zealand – I just love it too much. I’m seeing some positive developments, but it’s very slow progress! In an ideal world, things here would be more like the Netherlands. There, cyclists and pedestrians are respected, perhaps because most drivers also ride a bike.
Dutchies bike from age 3 until age 99 (my grandma was on her bike well into her 90s), and only drive from age 18-99 (not my grandma), so they have fifteen years more experience biking before getting behind the wheel of a car! It would be great if LTSA would incorporate ‘learning how to behave around cyclists’ or even fifteen minutes of actual biking in Auckland as part of getting a license. Recently an optional course was offered to trainee bus drivers to increase their empathy for cyclists on the roads. [Editor’s note: this is part of the fantastic Share The Road programme, an initiative of the Cycling Action Network, under contract to NZTA] Great stuff – now make it mandatory for everyone who wants to drive or renew their driver’s license.
Separating cycle lanes from roads is the safest option, but many roads in Auckland weren’t designed for this, although they could of course be redesigned. Drivers tend to slow down on narrower roads, improving safety as they keep a more watchful eye.
I also think there should be a cycle path along every railway line in Auckland (and there are not that many anyway).
Riding a bike is so good for us, both individually and for overall public health. The University of Glasgow published a study in the British Medical Journal in 2017, after following 263,540 participants in the UK over a 5 year period. It found that cycling to work is associated with a 41% lower risk of premature death, compared with a non-active commute to work. People who cycle to work have a 45% lower risk of developing cancer and 46% lower risk of heart disease. Pretty impressive stuff! And yet, for example, NZ Post has taken away this amazing health benefit from their posties and let them drive the Paxsters instead… crazy world.
I realise safety must come first before many more people feel comfortable to get out on a bike. Despite my experiences, I’m feeling optimistic. A few months ago, I was lucky enough to attend a hui with Minister Julie-Anne Genter. She is passionate about making things better for walking and cycling in South Auckland, and she really knows her stuff. Biking to Auckland Hospital to be induced and deliver her baby boy – now that’s what I’m talking about!
— Renate Koops