Pick up any copy of Metro magazine, and you’ll find a persuasive, passionate piece (or two) by Simon Wilson, longtime editor and now editor-at-large, who always finds a fresh way to put the spotlight on people and places doing interesting things.
Keep reading, and you’ll find that all those articles – no matter what their ostensible subject – add up to a beguiling vision of Auckland as a city that’s not just ‘liveable’, but potentially truly spectacular. This month, for example, by way of introduction to a restaurant review Simon unleashes a glorious rant about the most Auckland of topics: traffic.
I know, you want to read about the restaurant. But I need to get something off my chest first. It’s this: if I read another piece about Ponsonby – a restaurant review or anything else – that complains about lack of parking, I will start throwing my food.
This is why. The worst thing about Ponsonby is the traffic … But if they provide more parks, it will get even worse than it is now. That’s because more parks will bring more cars. I’m not making it up; this phenomenon has been measured all over the world.
He’s not wrong there – but what’s especially great about this rant is what he’s so right about. Acknowledging that Ponsonby Rd will probably always have cars on it on account of the motorway access at each end, Simon lays down a challenge:
But it could be a lot more pleasant than it is now, as a place to shop, eat and drink, ride a bike or walk the dog. And who doesn’t want that?
The key to making it happen is this: unless you really need to, don’t drive there. Use Uber. Catch a cab. Take the bus! … If people stopped driving up and down Ponsonby Rd looking for a park, it could become a single lane for cars each way with wider pavements, more trees, bike lanes and, most of all, more delightful street life.
Simon does eventually get around to reviewing the restaurant (loves it; wishes it didn’t have to be on ‘such a crappy street’), but his drive-by observation about Ponsonby Rd chimes perfectly with his cover story in the same issue: ‘We [Heart] Auckland (But It’s Complicated)’.
That longer piece opens with a heroic ode to the monumental Waterview/Pt Chev interchange – “an epic poem written in concrete and steel… mighty and beautiful” – before bringing us down to earth:
It’s also a f*cking road.
The best of Auckland, and the worst, are both right there at that interchange. We can build magnificent things, so we do. But we do it in the service of existing behaviours. We’re good at wanting more of what we’ve got; not so good at rethinking how we might live, and therefore what we might want instead. Not so good at grasping the potential for living better kinds of lives.
This is not a rant against roads. The city needs efficient roads; of course it does. But the way to make them more efficient is not to build more of them. It’s to make not using the car the preferred choice for lots of us, lots of the time.
Carry more freight by rail. Get the kids back to waking and cycling to school. Design public transport that’s cheaper, more reliable and more fun to use. Create more cycling and walking routes in and around the city that reconnect us to its beauty and liveliness.
One of the things to love about Simon’s vision of Auckland as a beautiful and lively city is how naturally bikes are part of the picture. That’s no accident, as I discovered when we sat down for a quick chat at Metro’s HQ in the City Works Depot, itself an urban revival landmark and conveniently accessible from the new Nelson St bike path.
I do. My son bought it for me, off TradeMe. It’s a Pete Tansley touring bike. He replaced the tires with road tires, but it still looks cool. It’s a fawn colour, very elegant.
Do you ride to work?
Well, I live in Kingsland, so NZTA and the Council have very considerately built me cycle lanes from home to work. But to be honest I don’t bike to work often. Habitually, I catch the bus; it gives me a chance to catch up on email. Occasionally I drive, but only if I’m going to need the car to go somewhere you really need the car to get to. That said, the new Nelson St path [the subject of a great story by Chris Barton in the November issue] is on my route, so I’m looking forward to using it. The other way for me to ride to work, which I enjoy, is to go down Grafton Gully, around the waterfront, and back up to the office, which is almost all off-road. It takes twice as long but it’s twice as scenic.
Tell me about your first bike.
My first real bike came from the teenage neighbour in Wellington, where I grew up. We lived on a steep hill, and I would watch in awe as he raced down the hill and took the sharp bend at the bottom. When he left home to go to university, I bought the bike off him.
It had drop handlebars, a heavy steel frame, and ten whole gears. This was the era of the ten-speed. I took it apart, I painted it, I learned how to look after it.. and I rode it all over the city. It wasn’t unusual to bike 20km on a weekend; to the beach, to visit friends, out and about. Of course we lived up a hill, so it was uphill all the way home. But I did it. And I mastered the trick of going down the hill and taking that bend at speed. I loved that bike.
Did you bike to school?
Yes, it was the perfect distance. Or else I walked. Nobody was driven to school in those days. It just didn’t happen. It wasn’t part of the culture.
Having mastered the art of biking Wellington’s hills, you eventually moved to Auckland…
We moved up here at the beginning of 2004, so I’ve been here 12 years now. The other day someone introduced me at an event as ‘a Wellingtonian at heart’, and I thought to myself… in my bones, I probably am still a Wellingtonian. But in my heart, I’m an Aucklander now.
You’re a huge champion of Auckland. Where do bikes fit into that vision?
The tipping point theory is relevant. There will be a point where you have so many bikes, the demand will be there to transform roads down to one vehicle lane each way to make more space for bikes and pedestrians. We’re not there yet. Not remotely close, but we’ll get there if we have the courage to keep it going.
I suspect electric bikes may be the key to more adults biking on an ordinary basis. There are hills in Auckland, and you don’t want to arrive where you’re going in a terrible sweat.
Getting kids back into walking and biking to school will be a huge part of it, too. It’s the strategic key, not just because of the inherent value of children walking and cycling, but also because it would take so many damn cars off the road! We’re in a vicious circle, in that parents drive kids to school because there are so many cars on the road that it’s not safe for kids to walk or bike to school. It needs regulation as well as encouragement; you can’t ban people from driving, but you can lower speed limits, make rules about where cars can go around schools, and so on.
How do we cultivate ‘the courage to keep it going’?
Political leadership, definitely. Bringing people along on the big ideas. A mayor on a bike, both literally and as a metaphor. We need political leaders who demonstrate the pleasure of living in a new city.
Also, it might sound unfashionable, but I think marketing people should have more power. We’ve got all these engineers building infrastructure, but they need good people alongside them with the skills to ensure it’s built in ways people will like, and the skills to sell the joy of using it. I’d love to throw some brilliant marketing people at the Link Bus, for example, make it the thing to do.
And the vision is achievable, you reckon?
I’ve always thought this about New Zealand – that it’s probably easier to do something here than anywhere else. Write a novel and get it published; build a weird house; open an unusual business; revolutionise domestic violence laws; redesign a city.
It’s partly a sense of scale, but it’s also that we’re a developed country with a sound economy and highly educated people. We love thinking of ourselves as flexible, and (despite some evidence to the contrary) as liberal. Our heritage is important but we’re not crushed by it.
That relative lack of being cast in a mould gives us such an advantage, especially when it comes to building a better city.
Thanks, Simon! Read more in the latest issue of Metro. (Note: the header image features a sliver of Gary Venn’s fab illustration from Simon’s October 2015 article in praise of the Outer Link bus. Good to see bikes in the picture there, too!)