The early morning mist was turning into rain, tyres swishing along the shiny asphalt as I turned against the flow of freewheeling commuters riding down the Nelson Street cycleway. At the lights, the motorway spewed its traffic onto the one-way city streets. I was heading out of Auckland, off to explore its nascent network of cycling infrastructure on a tour of selected Isthmus projects.
An hour earlier I’d met up with colleague Alan England at Cafeteria Allpress. On a map of Auckland we plotted our route: a big, open double loop, clockwise out north as far as Hobsonville, across the Waitemat?, then clockwise again to the south down as far as Onehunga and back. We estimated it at 140km, a solid day’s ride.
Bolstered by an international cycling renaissance, Auckland has started to plan and build for cycling, with investment predicated upon proven returns that riding a bike improves health, environment and the economy. NZTA research suggests that three-quarters of adult urban New Zealanders would cycle if there were safer networks. But cycling infrastructure is not the new normal just yet, the capital-city-of-cars is in the messy middle of bike-lash, budget limits and political and design compromise.
A bike-shaped light shone green and we were off, onto the elevated pinkness of Te Ara i Whiti, five minutes of separateness along the repurposed central motorway junction off-ramp. We cut a track down the Great North Road, diverting for a loop around the community-built Arch Hill Mountain Bike Trails, down the busy, commuter-friendly Northwestern Cycleway and along the freshly-poured concrete of the Waterview Shared Path.
At Avondale, we lapped Olympic Park’s ‘”ghetto-drome” before continuing along Portage Road, once a track along which M?ori carried their waka between the Manakau and Upper Waitemat? harbours, to the Whau River’s disconnected sections of shared path, parts of a much bigger plan. We weaved through the suburban back streets of Kelston, Glendene and Te Atatu South back onto the comfortable Northwestern, before swinging long and wide out west, along Don Buck Road, skirting the rural-urban boundary until we were suddenly thrust into the big boxes and wide, painted streets of the new Westgate town centre. Harassed by fast-moving tradie’s utes and into a stiff breeze we negotiated a nastily narrow section of Brigham Creek Road, with a brief respite on a new cycleway past half-built housing blocks at Whenuapai. We rode the footpath that hugs the rusty chain-link fence of the Defence Force base and on across the big yellow bridge over SH18, deposited into the comfortable cycle lanes of the rapidly urbanising Hobsonville Point.
The rain had stopped in time to ride over the motorway bridge and along the rolling Upper Harbour cycleway through Albany to Milford. We wolfed down a large lunch at Takapuna’s Café Mimosa before continuing through the quiet backblocks of Devonport to the plastic seats of the ferry (until we get the SkyPath, a community-driven vision for a cycle lane clipped onto the side of the Harbour Bridge, the ferry is the only way to take a bike across the lower Waitemat?). I paused the GPS and we had 85km under our tyres, about half of it on dedicated cycleways.
At the Ferry Basin we headed east along the busy Quay Street Cycleway, past the port and over the p?hutukawa roots of the soon-to-be-upgraded T?maki Drive shared path. We took a breather at Achilles Point, then on through the peaceful streets of Glendowie to the gravel paths of the bucolic Point England Reserve, an undeveloped rural block on the T?maki Estuary. We emerged into a rapidly changing T?maki, rows of state houses with missing teeth and modern infill then squeezed across a narrow footbridge over fast-flowing tidal waters and along the green foreshore of the volcanic Panmure Basin, tunes drifting from Alan’s bluetooth speaker.
We cautiously weaved our way through the roundabouts and carparks of Sylvia Park shopping centre, two bicycle intruders in a world designed for cars. The South Eastern Cycleway made for an efficient few kilometres of riding before being left in the lurch, thrown back onto the industrial streets of Penrose. At the massive cul-de-sac of the Southdown Power Station, a dubious-looking path continued through wasteland and up over the rail yards that feed the vast container-scape of Metroport. The hidden Waikaraka Cycleway follows the heavily modified northern edge of the Manuaku Harbour, between the muddy mangrove harbour and the high security fences of Auckland’s arse-end, to Onehunga wharf. The sun dropping was dropping low, a hazy evening light bathing the new beaches of reclaimed Taumanu Reserve as we rattled along the boardwalk and up to Hillsborough.
At Mount Roskill we mixed it with the traffic down the arrow-straight Dominion Road, stopping to consume large quantities of dumplings and beer as darkness descended. The magnetic pull of the city acted on us; minutes later we were in the crowds of the lantern festival in the Domain, onto the schizophrenic Beach Street Cycleway, the Quay St Cycleway through to Wynyard and back to Freeman’s Bay and the studio.
Riding a bike engages all the senses. It’s spontaneous, flexible and efficient, and it’s simply the best way to experience the city. And as it turns out, Auckland’s actually a great place to ride a bike. If we keep planning and designing for cycling, connecting the missing links, then filling in the finer grain, Auckland could do the impossible and become one of the world’s great cycling cities. It’ll take another 20 years, but it’ll be worth it.