Learning to Ride on the Left
It never really hits you that you’re in a different country until a few days after you’ve arrived. The change is so abrupt and so sudden that, though your body may have made the trip, your mind is still at the airport at home checking in. It’s our third day in New Zealand and our minds have finally arrived like wayward luggage. Our flight was uneventful, except for the Air New Zealand safety video that featured Richard Simmons. Where were we going?
Auckland by most appearances is very similar to any large city in the states, and yet it’s just different enough to make you do a double take. After we reassembled our gear outside the airport (and consumed a pair of meat pies), we warily hopped on our bicycles to ride on the LEFT side of the road. It sounds like a trivial thing to do, simply ride on the other side. Perhaps its because we are cyclists and transportation wonks, but the act of stepping out on the road (remember to look RIGHT as you exit driveways) and riding on the left hand side felt antithetical to all our cyclist survival instincts. It was as if someone told you to stick your hand in a fire and not to worry about it all too much because you’ll be fine.
You will be fine, but your mind will be mush. For the first day or so there was a strong sense of cognitive dissonance. We were riding on the left, which should be unsafe or certain death into oncoming traffic, but it wasn’t. Traffic is the intimate language of the city. In New Zealand, the words are the same-ish, but the syntax is completely different. So for the first few hours on the road, we rode with great trepidation and skepticism that we were actually doing the right thing.
After getting turned around a few times and getting used to how Kiwis sign things, we were able to find the cycle path that led almost entirely from the airport to Auckland. When we were on the outskirts of the city, the hills began with a vengeance. By no means were we expecting flat riding, but there were some serious Seattle type hills that pop out of nowhere. Grades were easily over 10 to 13 percent for some short painful blocks. Eventually, we made our way to the hostel where we were staying and settled in. Our room had a marvelous view of the CBD (Central Business District) with the pointy and proud Sky Tower protruding from it all.
There are a couple of things that came as a surprise. First, how many cars there are in Auckland. For some reason, we didn’t expect so many drivers in such a small country. Rush hour at its worst reminds us of places like Los Angeles. Given all the traffic, we were also surprised to see a small number of bike commuters mixing it up in the fray, and they ranged from your male roadie type to commuters in regular clothing. There was also a decent number of female cyclists on the street.
Interestingly, there was some sporadic bike infrastructure – like way-finding, the occasional off-street path, and green bike boxes (or “advance stop boxes” as they are called here).
While at the moment, Auckland may have a long way to go to be bike-friendly, there are some rumblings of good things in the works. We interviewed Glen, the owner of Eight Thirty Coffee who is an avid cyclist and just added a cargo bike to his business to do local coffee deliveries. They had modified a tandem and affixed a large wood box to carry bags of roasted coffee to subscribers.
We also met three women at a downtown coffee shop that are heavily involved in bike advocacy in Auckland. Rowan, Pippa and Barbara were planning a cycling fashion show when we met them. Rowan is active in the new younger demographic of cyclists interested in Critical Mass, bike polo and the bike co-op. Pippa is an elected official working on making her district more bikeable and also happens to be part of Frocks on Bikes, a bikey group that encourages everyday cycling. Barbara is the media outreach person for CAN (Cycling Advocates Network), New Zealand’s main bike advocacy body.
Through them, we got the scoop of how Auckland is changing to be more bike friendly. The current mayor is interested in making Auckland more “livable”, which includes encouraging alternative forms of transportation. One of the biggest hot button political issues in New Zealand is traffic congestion – some things are indeed universal.
We had planned to be on the road today, but were told about an event on Sunday where cyclists will be able to ride legally across the Harbor Bridge from downtown Auckland to the North Shore. So, we are sticking around to film it and get some interviews at the event for our video series. Not quite what we planned, but a worthy segue. Late Sunday, we plan to start our journey South, out of the city and into the country, towards Taupo and Napier. We are slowly starting to get back into the rhythm of travel again and expecting the unexpected.
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