The Wrong Side of my Car

A blog about Auckland City, its streets, and culture shock

8 Feb 2016

The Big Reason™ why Auckland is Unfit for Bicycling

A lot of people argue that there’s a Big Reason™ why people will never ride a bicycle in Auckland.

And they are right. They just guess the reason wrong.

It’s too cold some say. It has zero days of frost, and zero days of heavy snow per year. How terrible.

Or it rains too much. If only we had a nice warm and dry climate. Like Amsterdam or Copenhagen. You know, if you look at the winters over there, we’re doing pretty good on the ‘warm’ part.

Or it is too hilly. Maybe. I commuted to work on my bike from a few places, and the usual serve of uphill stretches is 15 to 20 climbing metres per km. That’s a lot. But I still make it to work. Just a bit more slowly.

Wrong, wrong wrong. The Unique Reason™ is inside the people living here.

The people

A lot of silly and more serious issues here come back to the Lack of Courtesy and Empathy over here.

A common sight on main streets in Auckland is people standing on the centre line of the street, waiting to cross the other half. Which is weird. I can’t remember ever seeing that in Belgium. But why?

To help you understand, I’ll introduce you to the kiwi Merge. It is a New Zealand specific way to merge on the motorway. It is a way to win a few seconds by overtaking a couple of cars on the on-ramp in front of you.

The kiwi Merge

That is how you get in front of that guy in the red car. Great. Does anyone see a possible problem with that manoeuvre?

It is of course not so great for the guy in front of you. Nobody with even a minimal bit of empathy will do this, because he knows this will be quite grievous at best, and a way to cause an accident at worst.

But no bad feelings if you pull that stunt over here. Empathy or courtesy on the road just aren’t part of Kiwi culture.

Let’s return to those poor sods on the wrong side of their cars again. You know the entrance of Western Springs park, where all the parking is?

That thing in the middle is called a ‘pedestrian refuge’.

Great place to spot pedestrians in the middle of the road. The park is quite popular with young families. Do you know how many strollers fit on that pedestrian refuge? Here you can find out. Because we are driving and we have right of way, and we will drive 50-but-actually-55 kph. Strollers be damned.

In case you’re asking, yes I am one of these guys who likes to ruin traffic flow by stopping and let these people cross. I sometimes wish there were more of them. I’m just not in the mood for killing a baby today. So sue me. Or have patience.

How often do you see pedestrians waiting in the middle of the street in other countries? Never? Maybe the people there have more tendency to show some decency, and give their fellow people on foot a chance to escape that little refuge.

And bicyclists

So, that doesn’t bode well for bicyclists. Strollers are an unwelcome guest on our streets, but they still evoke more sympathy than bicycles. Bicycles stand barely above possums in the pecking order on the street. It is illegal to kill them, but only sort of.

Suppose I open a car door in front of a bicyclist, and that cyclist has to swerve to avoid me, and collides with another car.

In Belgium there would be exactly zero discussion about who’s at fault. I would be a moron for opening your door in front of other traffic. You’re supposed to check before you open your door. You teach your kids to do so.

But here, enter the Lame Excuses. I couldn’t have possibly seen that cyclist. He materialised there all of a sudden out of thin air. I’m on the correct side of my car, my rights are absolute. It is his own fault, that bicyclist shouldn’t be there.

It’s one of the more extreme examples, but there is generally a consensus that bicycles don’t belong on our streets. And drivers will Show No Courtesy. We have now found our Big Reason™.

So it doesn’t come as a surprise that most people never ride a bicycle. The ones that do are mostly the ever reckless young male demographic.

And equally unsurprisingly nobody lets their children cycle to school. The ministry of transport has some sample data about a variety of trips. Primary kids cycling to school didn’t even register — 0% — and getting dropped off by mommy or daddy is going strong at almost 60% *1. In the city! Do you know how much fun it is for parents to drop off kids at the school, during rush hour in the city? D’oh!!

What to do about it?

First of all, if you find yourself driving, show some courtesy. Don’t drive too fast. Give cyclists some space. It is perfectly normal to stay behind them for a while if you can’t pass them. And for the sake of humanity, pull over and let those mums with their strollers cross your side of the street!

What about bicycle advocates? You can focus on cycle lanes for a while (we badly need those on busy arterials) but eventually you’ll have to tackle this issue. Cycle paths only get you so far. Eventually you’ll have to cross the street to your home, or ride on that quieter back street which will probably never get cycle lanes. And as long as cyclists are on their just-above-possum spot in the order, that’s not going to happen.

We need to, above all, make cycling acceptable.


(*1) 

One thing in these numbers I find hard to believe, is that only about 5% of the kids take the school bus (which I suppose counts as “Public transport”). It is only a small sample, but still. Walking on the other hand is reasonably popular, which you can easily observe around schools at bell time.

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