When he took up bike commuting, Duncan Laidlaw discovered that going by bike doesn’t just have to be a method of transport – it can be a part of your social life, too. Here’s his story:

Children preparing to take part in "Bike for Fun."  Evening Post. Ref: EP/1983/1047/8-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22726529
Children preparing to take part in “Bike for Fun.” Evening Post. Ref: EP/1983/1047/8-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22726529

When I was younger, my brother and I used to meet up with the kids over the road during school holidays. We’d cycle down to the supermarket in Karori for lunch supplies, pack our backpacks, then head off for an adventure. During secondary school, this stopped, for some reason; and the restart in university days was only for the odd trip here and there.

But fast-forward 25 years from those early adventures… I now cycle 5 days a week on average. And not only do I love it, it’s led me to all sorts of new adventures and new friends.

My return to the pedals was the fault of Auckland Transport. Well, in the beginning I blamed them, but now I thank them. Before going by bike, I was a regular bus and ferry user with the Auckland Monthly Discover Pass. Alas, with the introduction of the new HOP card system, this very handy pass was a casualty of progress. Faced with increasing my transport costs by about a third, I wrote to Auckland Transport and pushed for reconsideration but to no avail. And thus my rebellion was started.

Rather than change my commute to suit using a HOP card, I remembered the bike I had in the back of the garage and decided that, with the help of the ferries, it would be my new commuting method. My Scottish side loved this plan, as not only would I not pay an increased fare, but I would actually reduce my monthly transport outlay (or so I thought – bike owners know it’s not so simple!).

The first day was hard work, but rewarding. It was far better than my attempt at the Go By Bike Day a year or two earlier. At that time, we lived down a steep street and an even steeper right of way. Channelling my inner child, I took off up this hill unassisted, like a rocket, and made it to the ferry in a reasonable time – but totally out of breath and trying very hard not to be sick as the ferry crossed the harbour.

#Friding on the ferry (Pic by Duncan, via Twitter)
#Friding on the ferry (Pic by Duncan, via Twitter)

Having learnt my lesson, this time round I left a little more time, paced myself, cruised down to the ferry and crossed the harbour comfortably. My ride along Tamaki Drive was uneventful but fun, and I arrived at work all warmed up and ready for the day ahead. This was great!

As time passed, I got more and more comfortable on my commute, and was able to relax and fully take in my surroundings while riding. That’s when it truly struck me how friendly people on bikes are. Cycling for commuting, you tend to come across the same people at about the same time every day. Unlike travelling in cars, where I had never interacted with another motorist, we cyclists wave, nod, smile and say hello. If we are stopped at intersections, we comment on the weather, our bikes, road improvements, and other such things. We may not know each other’s names, but that doesn’t make us strangers.

The next group of people I got to know well, thanks to my bike commute, were workshop staff. Yes, I am hard on my bike –– but that means I have got to know people at bike shops across my route. They have all been friendly and interested, and most importantly, they all bike too – so they sympathise with some of our struggles, and genuinely want to help keep us on the road.

Then there were my fellow ferry commuters. It is a real joy to travel back and forth from the North Shore with fellow bikers on the back of the ferries. The conversation is always a source of information (tips, tricks, new routes) and makes you feel like you belong – something that can be very important, having often been given the opposite impression along your ride to the ferry.

Then some new events popped up to extend my biking fun at both ends of the day. First came the Bike Rave – both the trial and the first official Bike Rave were just the best things ever. A large, well behaved, friendly crowd, with everyone in the right spirit to just have fun and cruise. The lights were amazing, and the sense of community and belonging was awesome. I found the same camaraderie on Teau’s excellent Bike Matariki rides out south.

Sunrise coffee (pic via Facebook)
Sunrise coffee (pic via Facebook)

Another amazing yet simple and effective meet up is Sunrise Coffee. With a Facebook page and a Meetup.com profile, all that happens is someone mentions a place and a day, and then a random bunch of people turn up on bikes before sunrise. With stoves, water, cups and coffee ready to brew a cup, we mingle, chats and watch the sun come up before riding off to work.

Try it, even if you’re not an early bird. I find it an excellent start to the day: quiet, stress-free (no driving or parking), fun and friendly. It’s also another great way to meet more of the people we share the streets and cycleways with. Sometimes when you have conversations out in general society it can seem like you are the odd one out. For me, the Bike Raves and Sunrise Coffee meet ups have helped reinforce that not only do normal people cycle, but a lot of normal everyday people cycle and they do it here in Auckland.

They’re there for you when you get stuck, too. One of the things that could put a downer on your day is getting a puncture or having some kind of gear failure while out on a ride. What lifts the spirits up is the number of fellow cyclists and pedestrians who will stop and ask if you have what you need and ask if you need any help. The Northwestern cycleway is particularly good for this, but I have had similar responses all over Auckland. To those that offer assistance, thank you! I may not always need the help or gear, but the knowledge that someone noticed and paused to ask makes all the difference.

The other place I have found like-minded folk is the Cycle Action Auckland breakfasts*, which are exactly as advertised – a friendly monthly gathering for people keen to help cycling. These breakfasts provide an opportunity to meet those who are helping make things better for us, as well as a chance to be encouraged by what is happening, and to learn what we can do to help foster our part of the wider Auckland community.

And it really is a community. I went into commuter cycling looking to save a couple of dollars on transport costs… so far, I have gotten far more out of it than I could ever have guessed or hoped for.

– Duncan Laidlaw

* Our bike breakfasts meet at the Auckland Art Gallery Cafe, 7.30 – 9.00am on the first Thursday of every month. Come along and enjoy a coffee with others who are passionate about making Auckland a great city to get around on bike. It’s also a relaxed way to find out what Cycle Action is about, share your ideas for improving life on two wheels, and find out if you can help out on a specific project. Check the Events calendar for the next meeting!

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5 responses to “Serendipity on wheels – when a commute becomes a community

  1. Duncan, I love your story. We’re working all the time with NZTA and AT to be more effective in getting more people on bikes – and are learning more and more about what triggers that first ride. We have so much to learn about what triggers that first ride. I want to know if anyone else in your family or network of friends have been motivated by you to ride a bike for transport – to school, the shops, library, work or for cycle touring some of our wonderful off road NZ Cycle Trails!

    And your story about the community on 2 wheels is so true. Thanks heaps!

    1. Hi Barbara. Thanks for all the work and support you and the group put in for the rest of us. I try very hard not to become an evangelist when talking with friends. Being a big part of my life now we do discuss what I’ve been up to and I know a few ask me questions which would indicate a level of curiosity. I know a couple of people are now cycling or cycling again but I don’t know what if any influence I have had on them. I would guess knowing someone who does it helps people relate to cycle commuting/ recreation particularly since a lot of the public debate circles around lycra clad road warriors rather than average cyclists.

  2. Beautifully described insights into why getting out of your car is a life changer and possibly a life saver. Riding and walking is just more fun and the unexpected moments and contacts make life more enjoyable. I started using a bike for commuting because traffic was just so damn frustrating, an unexpected bonus was discovering what you’ve described. I think it’s vital we all contribute to this spirit by being friendly and sociable.

  3. This is very similar to my own experience. It was the sheer un-reliability of the buses that pushed me to make the switch to the bike. On the bike the time taken to get to work only changes by +- 5 minutes depending on the wind. I now no longer have to worry about the state of traffic. Now 55,000km later it would take a broken leg to stop me cycling. Cycling has changed my life. The biggest change has been to my mental health. After a stressful day at work, I get on the bike, forget about work, arrive home relaxed and ready to enjoy family life. I have taught myself how to repair my bike and even fix bikes for friends.

    1. Awesome distance Wayne, sounds so similar (apart from the broken leg bit).

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