Nicola Shepheard: Two-wheel zeal

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I am a cyclist. I bike to work in downtown Auckland most days, except when it's raining heavily. It's a 6km trip, and I am possessed of a hunted animal's vigilance every breath of the way.

I lock eyes (defiant, faintly crazed, baleful) with drivers approaching on side roads, or about to turn right in front of me from the opposite lane. I scan driver windows of parked cars ahead of me for bozos about to blithely fling open their car door. I never assume motorists have seen me, or that if they have, they'll take me into account.

When a lane is too narrow for both a car and bike - often because of parked cars - I'll ride down the centre. Many drivers consider half an arm's-length sufficient clearance when passing cyclists. I don't.

And, when it's safer to run a red light or cross with pedestrians than squeeze beside two lanes of snorting, metal behemoths, I will.

I've had a few animated discussions through car windows at the lights. And, yes, I do pay road taxes through my car registration.

I don't bike because I'm a fanatical greenie. I don't bike because I don't have a car (I do), or can't afford petrol or bus fares (I can). I don't evangelise about biking - in fact, I warn people it's damn scary out there.

I bike because, despite the vigilance, fumes and sweat, I love it.

I love the directness of my motion: the beautiful, physical neatness of intent, muscle and cycle fusing. I love how little space I take up; how nimble and fleet and fluid I can be. I love the feeling of exertion, of open air, the continuity with my environment. I love that, today at least, I'm not adding to the problem of pollution and oil-guzzling, and saving money to boot.

So far, my only scrape has been with a car coming out of a driveway. We both braked and my left leg was jammed between the metal of the car and the metal of my bike. It was only bruised. But I hobbled off heartened: the driver was genuinely apologetic.

Because, you're just as likely to get a barrage of insults for daring to even be on the road. Little wonder only 1 per cent of trips in Auckland's morning peak are made on bicycle.

Naked antipathy towards cyclists is as endemic in Auckland, as, I suspect, in many other parts of New Zealand. Perhaps one reason is cyclists bring the faux-greenie class face to face with the ugly hypocrisy, the mile-wide fault line at its heart. You know the type, they shop at expensive organic food stores, but drive there in SUVs. They'll go green - as long as it doesn't impinge on their yoga/film festival schedule.

Then, of course, there are the unapologetic petrolhead neanderthals who have no pretensions to green-ness, nor thought for anything but their convenience and pleasure.

And yet, according to the Ministry of Transport, 1.3 million of New Zealanders have bicycles, most of them, presumably, clogging up hallways or offering homes to spiders in garages. Are we a nation of frustrated cyclists? Is there is a basis for empathy across the battlelines?

A Land Transport New Zealand-led national campaign called Bike Wise, beginning next week, aims to encourage Kiwis on to those dusty bikes. It's a welcome start; but it will meet some formidable resistance.

Even self-proclaimed urban sophisticates at Metro magazine have come over all rabidly anti-cycling. The March issue features an article by writer Jan Corbett called "The cycleways that ate Auckland".

I'm sure Corbett bleats for many when she writes "why does a whole line of traffic have to slow down for one fitness-obsessed rider in terrible pants, with a geeky helmet and scant regard for the road rules?"

(OK, so I wear a florescent mesh vest and a helmet and gymwear. It's a better look than mulched flesh.)

Corbett gets even more personal, accusing cyclists of "this nauseating missionary zeal. They're so self-righteous and pious, claiming to be saving the planet and the health costs of a sedentary lifestyle by reducing the modern city to a bicycle economy...

"And now they want to be able to cycle over the Harbour Bridge. Well, that shouldn't be an option - it should be compulsory, particularly in high winds with no safety barrier."

WELL, JAN, a meeting of Auckland councils and Transit last week has brought us a step closer to your fantasy. A team is looking into options for a cycle/walkway across the bridge, including the $5 million plan favoured by lobby group Cycle Action Auckland. It would trim the traffic lanes on each of the bridge clip-ons down to 3.1m, the standard size for new motorway lanes, making room for a 2.3m cycle/walkway in either direction.

Research commissioned by the group suggests if they could, Aucklanders would make about 10,000 trips a day by foot or bike.

There are tentative moves afoot to encourage us onto our bikes.

In the last financial year, LTNZ and the seven Auckland councils spent about $7m on cycling projects, with another $4 million earmarked for this year. State highway authority Transit spent just $1 million of the $3 million it had targeted for walking and cycling.

Auckland Regional Transport Authority, the body charged with curing Auckland's gridlock, has the incredibly modest aim of lifting walking and cycling to 15.5 per cent of trips from the current 15.1 per cent.

Nationally, the new proposed government target is that 30 per cent of all urban trips will be made by bike or foot by 2040, up from the present 17 per cent.

Last month, two ex-cycle couriers and former cycling champions, Clinton Jackson and Paul Sumich, made a leap of faith by opening Auckland's first one-stop bike station. Bike Central offers showers, a cafe, bike storage, repairs and hire. Explains Sumich: "We used our time on the road as a barometer of the increasing number of cyclists in town over the last two to three years."

An Auckland City Council transport planner praised the enterprise, but said the council wasn't interested in public-private partnerships.

Meanwhile, London has just announced a £400 million ($980 million) plan to build 12 "super-cycleways", part of a drive to lure 400 per cent more pedal-pushers on to the city roads by 2025. Already, a council scheme pays half the cost of a new bike for staff of participating companies.

London will also introduce free bike hire modelled on the Parisian velib scheme. Velib is a council-corporate partnership, and its architects anticipate 250,000 hires a day once the scheme's running at full steam.

Seattle recently initiated a 10-year plan calling for 190km of new bike lanes. It hopes to triple commuter cyclists. Even motorhead capital Indianapolis is building cycleways. In the United States, some firms give employees the choice of a company bicycle instead of a company car, and pay the difference in costs as a cash bonus at the end of the year.

Virgin Vacation's 11 most bike-friendly cities include Amsterdam, Portland, San Francisco, and Berlin.

So, who's the modern city?

SUMICH LISTS three internationally proven ways to foster cycling: publicly and/or privately subsidised incentives to use a bike or bus; cheaper and more facilities like Bike Central; and reducing the speed limit on busy streets to 30km/h, bringing cyclists and motorists to the same speed.

"I'm not anti-car; I'm not saying everyone should be on a bike no matter what. But there's room for everybody."

Bevan Woodward of Cycle Action Auckland maintains New Zealand's biggest metropolis will be a serious international force only when it takes cycling seriously, along with walking and public transport.

"To be a truly international city you cannot have 80 to 90 per cent of your residents driving around in their cars. It just doesn't work."

Our "desperate dependency" on motor vehicles and roads is undermining Auckland, and therefore New Zealand's, competitiveness. More than that, says Woodward, it's cheating us of a soul.

"You can't have a city with a soul without good public transport, walking and cycling.

"We have to go through some uncomfortable change, but more punitive changes will come, with fuel taxes, less parking, more expensive parking. People can scream and point the finger at cyclists, but we're just the scapegoats, the canaries in the coalmine."

- Herald on Sunday

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