The newest addition to Auckland’s infrastructure takes city cycling to the next left, writes Catherine Smith

I don't usually claim to have much in common with engineers - putting things together is not my strong suit. But on Tuesday, when I donned a fluoro vest and rode the newest piece of Auckland's cycling infrastructure with project manager Stephen Cummins of GHD, I couldn't get enough of the geeky details of the shared pathway, formerly known as the old Nelson St off-ramp.

It is barely a year since the Lightpath Te Ara I Whiti, (it got a fancy pants name at Thursday's opening) first got the nod. New York's glamour former tsar of transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan, was in town to talk up how she transformed the Big Apple's car-clogged streets to plazas given over to people and bikes. She was less than flattering about Auckland's un-connected bits of cycle paths. The "three Ls" who shape Auckland - mayor Len Brown, design head Ludo Campbell-Reid and chair of Auckland Transport Lester Levy - keen to impress Sadik-Khan, fell over themselves to promise Barbara Cuthbert of Bike Auckland in front of an audience of over 1500 city-lovers that they would convert the abandoned motorway into a connector between the aging Northwestern cycleway, the new Grafton Gully path and the rest of the city.

The result is extraordinary. This bridge, complete with art works of pulsing lights, pohutukawa trees and a stunning perspective of the city's favourite bits is no dull bit of infrastructure. Cummins, possibly punch-drunk from lack of sleep, reckons that a project of this complexity would typically take a minimum of two years, but every one of the suppliers was so excited by this build that they pulled out all the stops to whittle that time to eight months. Despite reporting to many "parents" (this is an NZ Transport Agency project as the stretch of road is part of the national motorway), the design team was tight and fast-moving: GHD was lead designer, with architects Monk Mackenzie and engineers from the Agency.

Early thoughts were to plunk something clunky and temporary between the back of K Rd and the old off-ramp. Fortunately, saner heads (and money from minister Simon Bridges' urban cycleways programme) funded a much better option. Already it's been named in the World Architectural Festival, design mags are raving.

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Catherine Smith bikes the new Nelson St cycleway. Photo / Getty Images
Catherine Smith bikes the new Nelson St cycleway. Photo / Getty Images

As Stephen, Scott Winton from Auckland Transport and I mounted our bikes at the bottom of Canada St beside the decrepit Mercury Plaza food court, we jostled for first place to roll out on the gorgeous kilometre sweep. Aucklanders have been watching the seven sections of the gently curved steel bridge being dropped into place, a delicate operation between Hamilton steel fabricators PFS Engineering, specialty designers Novare and the Agency to not disrupt State Highway 1. If you missed it, check out the videos on nzta.gov.nz/projects.

The first incline off Canada St is easy, even for unfit me (it'd be even easier after a run-up from the speedy descent from Upper Queen St). This section of the path is almost bucolic, with its row of baby pohutukawa. Around the corner is the first grand reveal: there is the motorway right beneath your feet. Cool and slightly thrilling.

The excitement builds as you drop on to the old off-ramp on to the bright pink surface. It took some thinking - green, red and blue are already used for transport, yellow was too vivid for passing cars - before artist Katz Maihi settled on pink to represent the heart of the totara. As we rode past workers shaking the glittery magenta sand on to the wet paint, it looked for all the world like a giant school craft bee. In fact it's an eco-cred mix of renewable materials and vegetable oil from local company Resin Surfaces Limited. There was more tricky engineering to fit the sloped posts and glass and mesh screens to the old barriers, chock full of steel and with differing cambers - they built 'em strong in the 70s. Then there were the sliding gates that allow emergency vehicle access to the highway, and Lightpath's crowning glory, a series of LED arms that gently pulse and change colour as you reach the end of the path. Earlier in the week we'd spotted its test run from the Shore, a band of light connecting the bridge and city lights. I'd love to be the person in charge of programming it, but that joy belongs to the public art people at Auckland Council.

This is not a path for zooming at speed. It was designed to take advantage of views that you completely miss from a speeding car. Spot the slice of old tree-y Ponsonby, a framed view of the sea, then round the corner for the Sky Tower and grunty city. Fittingly, the big old pohutukawa at the end of the motorway are already a blaze of red to match the old flower sculpture. A zig zag of pedestrian crossings and we were into the protected cycleway on the west side of Nelson St.

I laughed to see, as we pedalled down the hill, the old "motorway ends" sign being carried away. Cyclists may not quite rule in Auckland, but this is a pretty great start.

Make a day of it

The Nelson St cycleway finishes at Victoria St. Keep watching as the next section to Market Pl opens in the new year, to connect to the Quay St cycle path (also being revamped by April).

In the meantime, here's how to finish the ride:

1. Victoria Park

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Turn left at Victoria St. If you're nervous about being back on road, break the law and ride the footpath, use pedestrian crossings to get to Victoria Park. Ride across the park (stop at the markets for icecreams, or the playground) and use pedestrian crossings to Beaumont St.

2. Westhaven Promenade

Cut left to join the beautiful boardwalk around Westhaven to the base of the bridge. Dream of one day joining the Sky Path over the bridge, but in the meantime enjoy the boats, lounge on the chairs and stop for a feed at the old-school eateries at either end.

3. Wynyard to Waterfront

Head straight down Beaumont St (it's not separated from cars yet, so take care) and then meander around the shared streets of Wynyard Quarter, across Te Whero bridge to the Viaduct and Maritime Museum. Check out the new spots on Princess Wharf, then join up with the Quay St off-road path.

4. Make a loop of it

Vigorous cyclists can join the protected cycleway from Quay St, through Britomart Place to Beach Rd, then hook up to the Grafton Gully cycleway. It's uphill, so not the best way to get back to your starting point at Upper Queen St, but it shows us the future of the city - protected, linked cycling for everyone from 8 to 80.

Check out Auckland Transport's 10 Great Rides. Pick up a Passport at your library or council offices or download from at.govt.nz/cycling-walking/