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On cycle lanes, ethnicity and class: Why nothing screams missing the point quite like slamming safer cycling

Leftwing blogger Martyn Bradbury claims that ‘nothing screams white middle class privilege quite like cycle lanes’. Tell that to the increasing number of Aucklanders from all walks of life who are getting on a bike, says Kurt Taogaga.

For a long time, cycling was something that just didn’t occur to me. It was too dangerous in this car-saturated city, for starters. But more than that, it just wasn’t something that someone like me did. Growing up a league playing, Samoan-Māori slacker in a modest household, I didn’t know a single person my age who cycled beyond early adolescence. By the time my friends and I had our driver’s licences, our bikes were leaned up in the garage and forgotten about. From then on, cycling was associated with the infamous MAMIL – “middle-aged man in lycra” – someone that people like me just didn’t want to be, to be perfectly honest.

Teau Aiturau (centre) and some members of Mangere BikeFit, who biked all the way from Mangere to town for the K Road Open Streets day in May this year. Photo: Bike Auckland

Mangere biking advocate Teau Aiturau (centre), flanked by members of Mangere Bike Fit, who biked all the way from Mangere to town for the K Road Open Streets day in May this year. Photo: Bike Auckland

Yet, as I grew older, cycling started to make more and more sense. One day, on my way to work, I watched a guy who looked just like me struggle his way up the hill to Kingsland. It’s a fairly tough gradient: long and steep, but very doable in the right gear. He was mixing it with the impatient morning traffic; there were no buffers to protect him, not even a coat of paint to signal to motorists that he might even be there. Right then, I decided – this was normal.

On K Rd, unlike New North Road, cycling is fairly routine. Now protected cycle lanes are in the plans, providing a safeguard for people on bikes through one of Auckland’s most important thoroughfares. In my circles, the support seems overwhelming, though I understand there is trepidation around on-street parking and concern that these cycle lanes symbolise the nail in the coffin for the ‘old’ K Rd, once home to the city’s marginalised. And the depictions of their users in the project documents seem to prove just that: the images suggest the lanes are a privileged, white, middle-class endeavour, a classic sign of gentrification.

At the launch of Mangere Bike Fit, October2015. Photo: Mangere Bike Fit/ Triple Teez (via Facebook)..

At the official celebration of the first stage of the Te Ara Mua/ Future Streets Project in Mangere, September 2016.. Photo: Mangere Bike Fit/ Triple Teez (via Facebook)..

But of course, claiming the artist’s renditions as precisely representative of the people who will actually use the cycle lanes is simplistic in the extreme. All types of people will use the cycle lanes, just as all types of people drive vehicles and use public transport. Cycling is increasing in popularity throughout Auckland, so inevitably, the face of cycling is becoming much more diverse. The people I encounter cycling every day, often through K Rd, are an eclectic bunch: blokes that look as hard worn as the bikes they ride, millennials aping their contemporaries in Copenhagen and office workers commuting to the CBD – sometimes forgoing lycra for their business attire.

For better or worse, there’s nothing sacred about the identities of our neighbourhoods. They are in constant flux. Before K Rd was the grungy preserve of alternatives and a safe space for the LGBTQ community, it was Auckland’s premier shopping district. This is just the latest iteration in the story of a cherished part of our city.

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This newest version will include cycle infrastructure and it will benefit many more than just the “privileged, white middle class”. Inequality and the obesity epidemic are some of the key issues facing our country today. Who suffers the most from the necessity of owning a private vehicle? The licensing costs, the insurance, the high and volatile cost of petrol are burdens are borne most heavily by those who can least afford it. Similarly, obesity has hit certain sectors of society harder than others. In this country, they tend to be poor and they tend to be brown.

Beyond Auckland’s upmarket inner city, we need only look at the Te Ara Mua project in Mangere to see streetscapes designed to be beneficial for pedestrians and cyclists alike. Here cycling will have a far broader impact than simply embodying the bourgeois transport mode du jour that people like Martyn Bradbury think it is. Public transport has a role to play, sure, but there are few other modes of transport that can tackle the twin problem of obesity and the increasing cost of transport more effectively than cycling. Cycling, and the infrastructure necessary to make it a safe and enjoyable activity, offers that choice to both rich and poor, with outsized benefits for those lower on the socioeconomic ladder. In the past we have gravely underestimated the effect that the design of our cities have on our wellbeing. No longer.

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An essential step in the realisation of a better, healthier Auckland is protecting those who currently cycle and enticing the many sitting on the fence to try it out. Cycle lanes do not scream out the privilege of the white middle classes; they scream out that our city is attempting to re-balance a transport equation that has remained out of kilter for far too long. Instead of criticising them, we should be pushing for infrastructure proven to get a wide range of people out on bikes to be rolled out to the more underserved parts of our city. That guy struggling up the hill in Morningside normalised cycling for me, by stripping away all the class or ethnic hang ups I’d long associated with the act of getting on a bike. There are thousands of other would-be cyclists out there, just waiting for a push to give it a go. Let’s do everything we can to help them, no matter where in Auckland they might live.

Bike Auckland has a number of stories about the successful ongoing efforts to encourage cycling in Mangere, particularly amongst kids.

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