This post began as a thread over on Twitter, where it struck a chord. All I did was share some thoughts and photos from last weekend’s lovely Kidical Mass bike ride (hosted by Bike Auckland under the banner of Biketober and the inaugural Auckland Climate Festival)… and it really took off.
Perhaps we were just all in the mood for some positivity?
It had been a weird week or so, with a fair few headlines about old chaps angling to stop new things, and some grim talk of storms ahead. But you know what you can’t stop, even on a rainy day? A kid on a bike. Let alone a whole bunch of ‘em!
Kidical Mass is a sweet family-friendly spin on the Critical Mass movement. It began in 2008 in Eugene, Oregon and is steadily becoming a worldwide thing, with a strong European wing. Different places do it in different ways, but at heart it’s a ride for the young and young-at-heart.
I’m the latter. On a grey Saturday, although I was inclined to sleep in, instead I got up and biked into town with a bunch of local kids to join the ride. And I’m so very glad I did.
But hardly anyone rides a bike in Auckland, you say. Because, rain. And also, hills. To which the children I rode with, who ranged in age from four years old to twelve-in-two-days, would say: “Hold our ginger beer.”
These kids tackled the uphills like mountain goats. Pedal pedal pedal all the way up, brave and unperturbed. I ride an e-bike and I was working hard to keep up with the smallest rider, who was only four. The look on his face when he got to the top of Ian McKinnon Drive!
Of course, the downhills are exhilarating too. One very happy little guy went “woo-hoo” all the way down Grafton Gully, his legs flung wide.
So it’s a 9km ride from the Pt Chev shops to Queens Wharf, our destination. The wonderful thing is that you can get pretty much the whole way entirely off-road, and thus protected from traffic. The Northwestern Cycleway hooks into Grafton Gully which leads to Beach Road (or alternatively, Lightpath and Nelson Street and the Viaduct), and next thing you know, you’re right in the city.
You do have to cross some big streets along the way, though, hence the hi-viz.
For me, the ride into town never gets old: I’m pedalling along, just following my nose, and suddenly find myself amongst the skyscrapers. Imagine how that feels for a kid. As I rode, I found myself switching between adult-mind and child-mind, and thinking about the infrastructure from a kids’-eye view.
Parents and disabled people who cycle this route will know what I mean when I say, you get to wondering what kind of people (on what kind of bikes) the infrastructure has been designed for. For example, these staple thingies at the top of Grafton Gully are a real bugbear for longtail or box-cargo bikes, and were a bit of a palaver to navigate with a group – and yet the really tiny kids just limboed right underneath them.
The tricky bit at the bottom of Grafton Gully where it meets Beach Road is famously a bit of a bodge. And it was all the more noticeable when travelling with kids: suddenly we felt very exposed.
(There’s a lot going on in this pic, including an abandoned election sign posing an empty question – practically a caption competition.)
Then we came to the somewhat camouflaged bike path on Beach Road. A high-concept (and big budget) design in its day, it was a revelation when riding with a bunch of young co-pilots.
The wide bike path is often mistaken for a footpath by pedestrians – perhaps because it’s pretty much visually identical to the designated footpath alongside. Grown-ups on bikes can get a bit cranky about this, especially when in a hurry.
But with kids in the mix, it’s… kinda okay? Lovely, in fact.
Kids and trees, what’s not to like? The planting provides a natural buffer zone from the busy street. Must be so much nicer, too, for pedestrians, for people in the shops and restaurants, and residents in the apartment buildings, not having to be hard up against the traffic.
Little kids, big city. They both grow up so fast! Blink and you miss it.
(My own kids stayed home; they’re much too grown-up now for little bike adventures with their mum. Also, generally not awake at this hour on a Saturday morning. Also, they deserve a break from thinking about bikes and climate and the world being on fire, every now and then.)
Riding through the central city these days, you can almost always hear yourselves over the traffic, which is nice. And being able to ride side by side and chat as you go is the dream. Just like if you were in, ooh, say, a car.
The low-traffic byways of Britomart, which accommodate side-by-side riding easily, have a very friendly flavour.
Our group rolled up to the EcoMatters Bike Hub on Queen’s Wharf, where everyone was gathering for the official ride. It was a great turnout, with excellent buzz, and a few Halloween-themed costumes. All kinds of bikes and parent-child combinations, and aunty-uncle-grandparent-child-combos too.
As the formal ride set off, I thought of the words from our new Mayor about how our transport agency “must seek to deeply understand how Aucklanders actually live now, how they want to live in the future, and deliver transport services that support those aspirations.”
He means this, right?
After all, as someone smarter than me said recently, A city where everyone drives is a city where nobody moves. In a free world, we’d all have free choice about how to move. Right?
On we moved, along Quay St, with the occasional Mamil pedalling in our wake. (Love those guys, they’ve been out there staying healthy and kinda holding space for the rest of us for a while now.)
Thinking of infrastructure, Quay St’s cycleway is an object lesson. It was first installed back in 2016 as an affordable interim treatment with concrete planters on reclaimed road space. Here’s what it looked like one week after it opened…
Now, it’s a gorgeously landscaped part of a full-scale road rebuild to create a gateway to downtown – which included seawall rehabilitation, play space, paving, planting, a ton of quality design, cost a fair amount, and most would say is worth every penny.
This tells us two things: that with bike facilities as with kids, you can start small and grow big.
But also: if you’re rebuilding a whole street from the ground up anyway, bike paths and trees will be the icing on the cake. By which I mean, they’re the bit that costs the least in terms of ingredients, but also the thing people ooh and ahh over, take photos of, and come back for an extra taste of.
Love a good cake metaphor. Now let us pause and admire this tiny magic moment…
… did you spot the mobile library?
As we rode through the Viaduct, a woman stood and applauded the kids as they pedalled past. She made our day, and I suspect it was mutual.
A quick roll to Te Wero Bridge and along North Wharf…
…and we reached our destination, Silo Park. A couple of easy km along the waterfront on top of the 9km we biked to town, but who’s counting? Nobody, when it’s fun and safe, because the miles fly by. And then it’s time for a picnic and a play, yay!
As the rain started and the picnic packed up, I biked back into town and met up with my sister and nephew. Together, we biked through Te Komititanga – what a pretty plaza – and up the now practically-pedestrianised Queen St. Coulda been Copenhagen!
Those wider pavements are working well for families, and the scooters-built-for-two. Bits of Auckland are being fixed, bit by bit, and we’re all the better for it.
It rained on the way home. We got wet. Did we mind? We did not. We sang along the way: Doe, a Deer; Frere Jacques, and other old favourites. The last of the wisteria looked beautiful in the rain (oh how I miss being in Japan).
The Northwestern cycleway gets us to the local shops – and then we need to brave another 2km of everyday Auckland traffic to get safely home.
No photos of this part, because it’s dangerous. You have to concentrate – on trying not to get doored, while vehicles whoosh past – and frankly there’s not a lot of joy to be found. No close shaves on this day, thank goodness. We made it home safe.
But here’s the thing.
Those kids – aged from four to “twelve-in-two-days”, who biked a whole 9km into the city on safe and protected long-distance routes – they don’t have a shred of bike infrastructure within their neighbourhood. Not even a painted lane.
They do bike to school though, and in phenomenal numbers compared to other places in the city. In the 2018 census, Pt Chevalier’s bike-to-school mode share was 8.3% in Pt Chev East and 14% in Pt Chev West. And in the census block where the local intermediate and high school are, 18% of arrivals are by bike. (All of this is in comparison to a citywide average of 1.5%).
What’s their one neat trick for local cycling without any infrastructure?
It’s that the kids – and quite a few adults too – mostly ride on the footpath, because the roads aren’t fit for purpose. This a literal life-hack for those on wheels, but it’s not ideal for those on feet or with mobility needs.
Every “sneaky driveway” is a risk along the way. There have been crashes and injuries – on the footpaths, on the roads, on the painted zebra crossings (including our beloved local crossing guard, injured while doing her duty on Meola Road). And just a couple of weeks ago, a kid was hit-and-run off his bike while crossing a side street a few blocks from school.
It’s not fair. Frankly, it sucks that the youngest, bravest, sweetest little people in my community – and the oldest, too – don’t have any local streets they can safely travel on.
And they’re not alone. All over Auckland, in the parts of town where kids don’t cycle as much, or barely cycle at all, it’s not because they don’t want to. It’s because we haven’t made it so they can.
Meanwhile, it’s been a week of grim climate news about what all our children will have to bear in the years to come. Utterly grim.
Without climate leadership we are facing unacceptable risks-over 2 degrees of warming let alone an anticipated 2.4 to 2.6 degrees would see children alive today facing up to a 5 fold increase in extreme events, many extreme hot days, water & food shortages https://t.co/Un0alTcKgN
— Bronwyn Hayward (@BMHayward) October 27, 2022
But I promised you positivity.
So here it is: I’m glad I got out of bed and joined the ride, and found some bittersweet joy in hanging out for a few fun hours with littlies who are (mostly) blissfully oblivious (for now) to the big, hard conversations we’ll have to have on their behalf in the weeks, months and years ahead.
Not for the first time, I thought about this wonderful research paper which describes how, in an age of inescapable climate impacts and anxiety, a bicycle offers children “constructive hope – concrete, mundane, everyday opportunities to feel and show that they can make a difference.”
It’s something they can do that’s free, healthy, social, confidence-building and fun. Something that’s for them.
What was interesting to me about Kidical Mass, in the end, was that it wasn’t a rally as such. There were no speeches, no signs, no chants of ‘what do we want/ when do we want them’. It was pure fun. For most of the young participants, it was just a ride.
But for the older kids, who already know the stakes. For the families and the advocates who went the extra mile to pull this event together on a rainy Saturday morning. For everyone who couldn’t make it because there’s no safe pathway. We saw you. We thought of you.
Over the coming weeks and months, our city’s leaders will make big calls about what progress looks like in a climate crisis. They might even decide to put the brakes on the kind of progress that gives children room to breathe on our streets.
Or, they might choose a fairer path. Here’s hoping.
PS I probably could have calculated the cost per km of any of the paths mentioned in this piece, but you know what? Kids pedalling along freely without worries: priceless.