Want to solve Auckland's gridlock problem? Be lazy

While ways to solve Auckland’s congestion problem are being hotly debated, Matt Weavers of Big Street Bikers has a solution to put forward: electric bikes. Lycra and high levels of fitness aren’t necessary, either.

Matt Weavers

I like to drink beers. I smoke the odd cigarette. I used to pay for a gym I didn’t use. I don’t like wearing lycra unless it’s to a party. And I ride a bike. Up a large hill six times a week. How is this possible? Well, I have an electric bike.

Last year, Aucklanders wasted 20 days sitting in traffic. That’s almost a month we could have been lying on a beach dreaming of not sitting in traffic. In the same time, Auckland grew by 43,000 people and 43,000 new cars. With annual population growth set to hit over 50,000 very shortly, our gridlock risks ending up like downtown Manila on a public holiday.

Over $3 million a day is being spent on infrastructure to avoid this nightmare scenario. Everyone can’t wait to see the subway in Auckland, but this takes time. A lot of time. As an individual, there’s little we can do to speed things along short of picking up a shovel and helping with the dig. After relying on the government to sort it out for the last 50 years, only recently are we seeing a turnaround. Luckily, there’s now something we all can do to help, and it's far more enjoyable than digging a giant hole.

Cycling in Auckland has never gone mainstream for two reasons: safety and hills. Dodging the traffic can be terrifying. Some cyclists go to such lengths as wearing bum-hugging, rave-wear just to stand out to drivers, which often works for all the wrong reasons. Now with the opening of the excellent cycle paths, safety is not the issue it was. Profile projects like the hot pink Nelson St cycleway and the SkyPath under the bridge are raising the profile of cycling as a safe activity for everyone. Importantly, this also means less lycra. When we see regular people riding in dresses, jeans and suits, the culture starts to change.

I like to drink beers. I smoke the odd cigarette. I used to pay for a gym I didn’t use. I don’t like wearing lycra unless it’s to a party. And I ride a bike. Up a large hill six times a week. How is this possible? Well, I have an electric bike.

While our 50 volcanoes sure are pretty to look at, they don’t make for a flat city. Like most people, hills don’t excite me. The idea of riding a bike to work always seemed like something proceeded by an intervention with friends, family and a softly spoken priest. But in the last few years, technology has come to the rescue in the form of a giant cell phone battery and a small motor built into the conventional push bike, giving motivationally challenged people like me an easy way in.

The best bit about an electric bike is riding uphill. Much like going downhill, you get a little bit excited. Ask any qualified astronaut and they will agree that cheating gravity generates a mild euphoria. This gets even better when you start overtaking proper cyclists pretending to be Lance Armstrong struggling in the Pyrenees. It’s the smell of victory in the morning, without breaking a sweat.

Take the safety and hills out of the equation and cycling to work makes a lot of sense. Every day, over 300,000 people drive to work within an easy 5km radius of the city. On an electric bike this takes about 10 minutes. Suddenly the idea that commuting can be fun is no longer ridiculous.

So why hasn’t this taken off? Well, they aren’t cheap. For about $5000 you can get a bike with unpronounceable German components, a leather seat and a very sophisticated bell. At the other end of the market for $2500, you can take your chances on a bike from China which is probably just as good, if not a little uglier. While it is still the price of a used car, the market is exploding overseas. Over 37 million electric bikes were sold last year, outselling electric cars 10 to 1.

In Auckland, it’s gaining momentum. Lacking any official figures, we must substitute it with the well-known economic indicator, ‘how many sellers are there on Trade Me?’ There, it seems, container loads of electric bikes are changing hands each month. You see it on the streets as well, with superhuman retirees overtaking cars on their expensive electric bikes. Traditionally, trends shift from the young to the old. Due to the high cost of entry, this time it’s the oldies that are on the cusp.

As prices fall and young people start getting involved, shift will happen. For Auckland to cope with growth, something has to give. At the moment, mainstream uptake of electric biking seems as good as a solution as any on the table. Instead of waiting 20 years for light rail and other public works, this is something we can do today. Imagine our city with fewer carparks, less pollution and people enjoying their ride to work. All it’s going to take is a few forward-thinking individuals and innovative businesses to get on their electric bikes and lead the way. If a beer-swilling, gym-dodging, lazy guy like me can do it, so can you.

Matt Weavers is a founder of Big Street Bikers, a startup hacking Auckland’s traffic problem with an electric bike subscription model.

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