I grew up in a small village just outside Cambridge, UK. My Dad never learned to drive a car, so he always biked everywhere, and still does, at the age of 74. I think he was a big part of normalising bike riding for me. He’s my bike hero.
I was quite late to learn to ride my own bike, until I was 7 I used to sit on the front of my Dad’s bike and go really fast down hill (and I wasn’t a small child). The road we lived on, at the outskirts of the village, had 70mph traffic so I didn’t learn like my friends did, out in the local streets.
In the last class of primary school, all the kids did a cycling proficiency test: riding on the road, indicating, that sort of thing. I think because it was the early 80s and because it was Cambridge, it was seen as a necessary skill to learn, like swimming.
Both my primary school and secondary school were too far to ride to for a kid, but at weekends I would ride to piano lessons and to visit friends in the village. I think because my Mum was the only car driver in the family, giving us the extra independence of a bike meant that she was in less demand as a taxi service.
My 6th form college, when I was between 16 and 18 years of age, was close enough to ride to, so I spent 2 years riding there and back, followed by two years on a course and working in Cambridge city. This was when my bike afforded me the most independence and I’d do most of my days and nights by bike. Almost none of my friends my age could afford to buy or run a car.
At 19 I went to university in Nottingham and took my bike with me. It didn’t really occur to me that I was one of the few people who rode a bike to college. In my final year, my bike got stolen and it felt as if my independence had been taken away. Walking home alone in the dark felt too dangerous, but riding a bike seemed much less so.
I moved to New Zealand in my mid-twenties and settled into Auckland, where the only people I saw riding a bike were mostly men on road bikes, wearing Lycra, or on mountain bikes, driving to a mountain bike park, riding round and round and getting back in the car. My partner was a mountain biker and I tried it, but I had to confess to him that I didn’t much like it. I wanted to bike to a destination. I wanted it to be part of my everyday transport.
For the first 10 years I was in Auckland I walked a lot but didn’t really ride a bike. I also drove a lot, like most Aucklanders. But when I visited the UK every 18 months or so, I would immediately get back on my bike and realise I really missed it in my everyday life.
The point at which I really got back on a bike in Auckland was about 5 years ago when I moved from working at home to a shared office a “doable” bike ride from home – 20 minutes – and I started riding every day. Part of that commute was along one of the motorways and I would regularly be riding faster than the cars. An off-road cycle path 50% of the way also helped make that choice easy.
Two offices later I now ride about 40 minutes each way. I wouldn’t have done that at the start – too far – but now it sets me up for the day, gives me some exercise, which I would otherwise struggle to do, and makes me much less prone to feeling down. If I had to go further than that every day (or if I had to deal with more hills) I would get an e-bike.
I got involved with my local bike group, Bike Te Atatu, not long after it had been set up, because their proposal to add bike infrastructure to the main roads and to slow traffic on the side streets was (and still is) a brilliant one. Te Atatu is a peninsula, one road in and out. It’s fairly flat and has lots of families and young people living here, so it’s ideal as a model suburb to try ideas and measure improvements in numbers. Of course everything official takes a lot more time than it should and we are still waiting for these things to be taken up by Auckland Transport. In the meantime we organise social and recreation events and rides, trying to encourage more people onto bikes. I think normalising transport bicycling is important; the more people are seen riding bikes to the shops, for example, the more people will give it a try, and the numbers increase exponentially.
I have also been involved with Bike Auckland (Bike Te Atatu’s ‘parent’ organisation) to help people set up similar groups in their suburbs. There’s a groundswell of cyclists now, not just recreational cyclists but people moving from A to B, going shopping, riding to work or school, and I think the more we can promote and encourage this the better. Recent investment in proper infrastructure has seen rider numbers increase a lot, and completion of some of those networks will help.
I ride an upright bike, fairly slowly, in my normal clothes, with all sorts of things in my giant basket, and (illegally) not wearing a helmet. I like to think that people see me and think “if she can do it, maybe I can too. Maybe it’s not so scary or dangerous. Maybe I don’t need to buy special clothes.” That’s my basic form of every day bike advocacy.