For me, the best thing about lockdown, hands-down, has been sharing the road with heaps more other people on bikes than I usually do. I get particularly excited when I see a whole family out on bikes together.
A couple of weekends ago, I went for a ride along the waterfront with the kids who are in my bubble. It was somewhere around the middle of Level 4, when everyone needed something new to do, and the sunny, warm afternoon meant that the streets were busy with people on foot and bike.
I regularly cycle to the city centre through Westhaven, Wynyard Quarter and the Viaduct, and I think of it as one of the few consistently comfortable, low-car bike routes in the central city. But riding the same journey with kids helped me to see it through a whole new lens.
The waterfront zone
We hit the waterfront at the intersection of Curran Street and Sarsfield Road where a lumpy old section of ‘shared path’ takes you down to the water’s edge. Curran Street technically extends all the way to the Harbour Bridge, where Westhaven Drive begins. I always think of this as the start of Tāmaki’s urban waterfront.
Curran Street is one-way heading in, from the intersection down to the sea-wall, which means that cars are only able to enter at this point. They can’t exit here, and have to continue on to Wynyard Quarter. The street reverts to two-way for the final, short stretch of road to the bridge, and there’s parking both sides.
Although the one-way works as a traffic filter of sorts, there’s always a steady stream of traffic heading in the direction of the city. Where’s that traffic actually going, I often wonder? Why are people driving down there? From what I can tell, there are three reasons to be driving along this part of the waterfront:
- Yachties heading to carparks: There’s a lot of carparking at the yacht clubs (the Ponsonby Cruising Club, the Richmond Yacht Club and the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron are all housed down there, in a sea of asphalt) and Westhaven.
- Recreation: The other users seem to be pretty much just people going for a drive to look at the view. Aucklanders come from all over the city enjoy this cool little strip of waterfront. They park up on the lower part of Curran St and enjoy walking under the bridge, watching the sunset over the inner Waitematā, and getting a glimpse of Rangitoto looming over the North Shore.
- Fishing: The seawall is usually lined with people fishing – only to the west of the bridge, though. I wonder if there’s a rule preventing them from fishing over near the yacht clubs.
Sharing space with cars
On the sun-drenched L4 afternoon we were there, the footpath was heaving with walkers, runners, fisherpeople, and cars looking for parks. When I’m on my bike by myself, I usually slip off the footpath onto the road, but I soon realised that the younger kids weren’t going to follow me. The number of cars spooked them, and they were more comfortable dodging pedestrians on the footpath than joining me in the traffic.
So around the corner at Westhaven Drive, we stayed on the boardwalks and didn’t venture onto the road. Being long and straight with good sight-lines, the boardwalks were slightly easier to navigate than the footpath. There were plenty of other people on bikes and scooters dodging pedestrians too, so although it was slightly chaotic people were good about making space for each other. It’s not ideal though: the boardwalks are about 3m wide, which is simply not enough width for a slightly random kid on a bike, a group of people, and a dog, to comfortably pass one another.
Perfectly un-programmed play
Those acres of carparks I mentioned above are all empty in lockdown, and some have been recently refurbished with a silky-smooth asphalt surface. They’re the perfect place for a 14-yr old to ride really, really fast, and a 10-yr-old to practice cycling with no hands.
It reminded me of big post-industrial open spaces I’ve come across in much more bike-friendly cities, where un-structured, undesigned open space has been left as is, for people to use it how they wish. An empty stretch of hardstand would probably just become temporary carparking here.
Our little group was happy rolling along the roads of Wynyard Quarter. Although they don’t have any cycle infrastructure built in, the streets were particularly low-traffic in Level 4, and the urban form – kerbless, lots of landscaping, short blocks – made us feel comfortable being in the carriageway. There are also beautifully designed car-free spaces that it’s easy to veer off into and explore, like Tīramarama way, and the very skateable new park near Silo Park.
The older part of the Viaduct was a different story. With Te Wero bridge up due to Level 4, we had to wend our way around the lagoon which – because the kids still weren’t happy riding on the road – meant navigating narrow paths, ramps, and awkward pinch points. There were lots of other cyclists doing the same, and coming up to Viaduct Harbour Ave we ended up in a bike traffic jam with a couple of guys and a really small kid with training wheels. We all squeezed single-file past some big bollards, power poles and railings to avoid getting onto the road. I turned too hard and narrowly missed falling down some steps towards a lower level of the walkway. Seconds later, I heard a shout behind me, turned around and saw that another woman on a bike had done exactly that.
What is a bike lane, anyway?
At Quay St, the only piece of dedicated bike lane on our ride, the kids were ahead of me and I watched them roll along the footpath beside it. They hadn’t even noticed it or recognised what it was. Yes, the design Quay St bike lane can be described as subtle, But I think it had as much to do with the fact that the kids just haven’t experienced ‘bike lanes’ in Auckland, and don’t know what to look for.
Stuff to see, places to play
We paused at Te Wānangaby the ferry terminal, where a few small kids were rolling around on the beautiful green net installation – Kōrimurimu by Tessa Harris – and peered over the railings to look at the mussel strings that have been installed in the water below.
We crossed the road to Te Komititanga and did figure-eights over Tāmaki’s vast welcome mat. I love the scale and simplicity of Te Komititanga, and it’s a lot of fun to zip through on a bike. It feels like there’s room for everyone.
At Queens Wharf, we found another wide open play-space: a long clear concrete strip to zoom along, a ramp here and platform there to jump over, a row of cats-eyes to slalom between. We had a rest at Michael Parekōwhai’s Lighthouse, and enjoyed the feeling of being way out on the water’s edge, teetering into the harbour.
On our way back, we realised that the pop-up pump track was open in the eastern viaduct, and the 10-yr-old got a few loops in.
The home stretch
The crowds had thinned on the ride back; it was starting to get dark and the wind had picked up. We took space on boardwalks and footpaths more confidently, and the kids knew the way by then.
There are so many beautiful, exciting and interesting places and spaces to encounter along the waterfront. We’re good at art and expressions of cultural landscape, here. The experience of getting between them by bike was complicated and at times frustrating, but many people, including lots of families, were still out doing it, even though the journey from Curran St to Queens Wharf simply isn’t designed for bikes. Rather, it’s designed on the assumption that bikes will share with cars or with people on foot.
It seemed like a missed opportunity to create a bit of extra space, particularly in a L4 situation when so many people are looking for things to do in the city. Curran St to Queen’s Wharf is an ideal recreational bike ride: a little far on foot for a family with various humans of different speeds – but perfectly doable on bikes.
In Oslo, a complex and formerly disconnected series of waterfront spaces are linked together by cycle lanes and footpaths that traverse a 10km strip of water’s edge. Some of the spaces are highly designed, some are simple expanses of asphalt and concrete. But there’s space for everyone, and it all connects together – the city’s playground.
I’d love to see some simple changes, or a tactical urbanism project exploring a connected cycling route between Quay St and the ‘start’ of the waterfront at Curran St. I don’t think it would take much to turn it into a place that feels properly safe and linked-up. It’s not fair to people on foot to share the limited car-free space with those on bikes and scooters – that’s unsafe for pedestrians. Bikes need room, or their own infrastructure, so that everyone can travel easily and safely. And a bit of extra traffic calming and the reallocation of some parking space could open it up to the keen, but less confident, people on bikes, giving them access to a really special part of Tāmaki landscape.
Edited to add: we kept to our bubble, kept our distance wherever we could, and our adults also wore masks, which wasn’t strictly required. The well-worn point is that social distancing in public space is difficult when much of the available space is still dedicated to cars.