Barb Cuthbert is chief enthusiasm officer for cycle advocacy group Bike Auckland. With a background in urban planning, for the past 12 years Barb has dedicated herself to helping Auckland become a place where active transport modes are valued and safe. This Sunday, May 30, at 10am, Bike Auckland will hold a rally at Pt Erin Park, to protest the lack of action on the Auckland Harbour Bridge SkyPath project.
I had a golden childhood in Whakatāne. We spent whole summers on the beach, and in a little clinker dinghy on Ohiwa Harbour. Our parents just said, "off you go, here's some lunch". The biggest would be in charge of the smallest and off we'd go. Or at primary school we'd cycle to this lovely place called White Pine Bush. It was 20km out of town and we'd pack picnics and cycle there and back. We had such amazing freedom.
I was the youngest of three and the only girl. My father - an engineer and early environmentalist - didn't have sisters and, because he'd been to an all-boys school, he thought women were glorious. My mother was also wonderful, and it wasn't until I went to boarding school that I realised not all mothers were like her. So many of my friends argued with their mums, because their mothers were trying to shape them, but my mother just let me be me. Mum was Kate Sheppard's great niece. She didn't talk about it a lot when I was young, although it meant a lot to her and that power was threaded through her life, the belief you could make things happen if you just went for it. And that women and children deserved every opportunity available to men and boys.
Learning to ride a bike wasn't a lightbulb moment for me. That came later, when I was the planning consultant on the consent for a shared path to replace a set of shonky boardwalks on the North Shore, connecting Francis St to a foreshore path on the Bayswater Peninsula. The new boardwalk design was far too narrow, but luckily one of the community groups I consulted was Cycle Action Auckland and they said it needed to be twice as wide. I was relieved when council agreed to the change – as it cost twice as much - because on opening day the boardwalk was full of people cruising along in wheelchairs, in pushchairs and on bikes. It connected four schools, two peninsulas, the Bayswater ferry and the Belmont shops and we saw the freedom people had been given and how strong the project had made their community.
The other lightbulb moment came when I wanted to visit friends in Te Puke, and decided to ride my bike. This is before the cycle trails. I did it over a few days, and I discovered what a delight it was, being on my own, in the countryside, on a bike, with space to think. I had a backpack and a sleeping bag and I spent a night in Miranda which was gorgeous. Karangahake Gorge was a bit risky, but I coped. Then a night in Waihi, another in Tauranga and every day I had an incredible feeling of celebration. I'll never forget looking over the
Firth of Thames, the evening glowing blue and pink. It was so beautiful, and so much more magical not being wrapped up in a car, but on a bike.
That experience, combined with the boardwalk job, made me realise how good biking is for the soul and for communities. It wasn't a religious conversion, but I felt a desire to make things happen and because our two boys had finished university, I said to my husband, "hey Mike [Ashmore], we don't need two incomes". He looked a little suspicious, but I continued. "So one of us needs to work for Auckland, to make it function better, while the other one works for a living". I sold Mike a vision of making Auckland better for our as yet unborn grandkids, and he looked at me, possibly a little reluctantly and said, "I'm your sponsor. I'm here, you're doing it". What incredible generosity. My husband who's been with me since we were 20. And he's still working and I'm still dedicated to the cause.
I joined Bike Auckland [formerly Cycle Action Auckland] at the same time a bunch of others joined, a fantastic group of committed, talented professionals - including Pippa Coom – with the energy to make things better for Auckland and a belief that it was possible. Then the Waterview Tunnel was proposed around 2010. It was really significant, designed to connect the motorway network and Aucklanders were really excited by it. But when Max [Robitzsch, Bike Auckland's infrastructure liaison] and I looked at the first plans, we noticed there was no cycleway where the road went underground. We saw a connected cycle network as a huge priority, just as important as roads, but we were told, "no, the policy was, when a road goes underground, there's no obligation to put a cycleway up top". But Max is an excellent transport engineer and my background was negotiating to settle Environment Court appeals. We worked through the issues with the local community, which included many immigrants and refugees, many of them having never driven or owned a car. They biked and saw cycling as extremely important, so that gave Max and me the confidence to fight for a fully connected cycleway. When the Board of Inquiry decided that NZTA had to put aside $8 million for the project, we felt such relief and joy. You look at that Waterview Path now, it sets the template for Auckland, that you don't just connect things for cars and buses, but for walking and biking as well. It was a compelling success and, if Max and I hadn't been there, backed by staunch local communities, it wouldn't have happened.
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The SkyPath is Auckland's most promised and undelivered project. Back in 2018, the government threw out their arms at Northcote Pt and said, "Waka Kotahi will build this SkyPath on Auckland Harbour Bridge". In 2019 stunning graphics showed SkyPath Mark II was on track for a 2022 opening, but since then the project has sunk without trace. Waka Kotahi says it's working on a new project behind closed doors but, even if it is, it'll be years before we have a bridge connection, even though it's a vital link.
I'm not a person who organises rallies. I try to collaborate, to make things work from within the system but, when the system is broken, we have to do things differently. What we're asking for is pretty modest, a three-month trial of a lane on the bridge over summer. Council talks about the Climate Change emergency, and the government is keenly promoting all sorts of innovative streets - "give it a go and see" they say – so we're putting a stake in the ground and telling them what we want – which is action on a trial cycle lane.
I do get asked, how do I keep doing this? In the face of negativity. But there is a huge groundswell of love for biking and I'm just riding the crest of the wave. It's true we have the sceptics, and the haters, but statistics tell us 60 per cent of Aucklanders would ride a bike if it was safer. There is so much appetite. Did you know, e-bike imports are expected to overtake new cars this year?
I certainly can't spend my life sitting in a car. Apart from the fact that I don't own one. It's a waste of life. And on a bike you get so much joy. The ferries are trying to cope, but the fact is we need more options to get across the harbour without vehicles. All other international cities encourage biking on their major bridges, so why not Auckland? Because the only way to get more people to ride, is to build more stuff, connect more paths, and that includes building the bridge.