Learning to Ride on the Left
It never really hits you that you’re in a different country until a few days after you’ve arrived. The change is so abrupt and so sudden that, though your body may have made the trip, your mind is still at the airport at home checking in. It’s our third day in New Zealand and our minds have finally arrived like wayward luggage. Our flight was uneventful, except for the Air New Zealand safety video that featured Richard Simmons. Where were we going?
Auckland by most appearances is very similar to any large city in the states, and yet it’s just different enough to make you do a double take. After we reassembled our gear outside the airport (and consumed a pair of meat pies), we warily hopped on our bicycles to ride on the LEFT side of the road. It sounds like a trivial thing to do, simply ride on the other side. Perhaps its because we are cyclists and transportation wonks, but the act of stepping out on the road (remember to look RIGHT as you exit driveways) and riding on the left hand side felt antithetical to all our cyclist survival instincts. It was as if someone told you to stick your hand in a fire and not to worry about it all too much because you’ll be fine.
You will be fine, but your mind will be mush. For the first day or so there was a strong sense of cognitive dissonance. We were riding on the left, which should be unsafe or certain death into oncoming traffic, but it wasn’t. Traffic is the intimate language of the city. In New Zealand, the words are the same-ish, but the syntax is completely different. So for the first few hours on the road, we rode with great trepidation and skepticism that we were actually doing the right thing.
After getting turned around a few times and getting used to how Kiwis sign things, we were able to find the cycle path that led almost entirely from the airport to Auckland. When we were on the outskirts of the city, the hills began with a vengeance. By no means were we expecting flat riding, but there were some serious Seattle type hills that pop out of nowhere. Grades were easily over 10 to 13 percent for some short painful blocks. Eventually, we made our way to the hostel where we were staying and settled in. Our room had a marvelous view of the CBD (Central Business District) with the pointy and proud Sky Tower protruding from it all.
There are a couple of things that came as a surprise. First, how many cars there are in Auckland. For some reason, we didn’t expect so many drivers in such a small country. Rush hour at its worst reminds us of places like Los Angeles. Given all the traffic, we were also surprised to see a small number of bike commuters mixing it up in the fray, and they ranged from your male roadie type to commuters in regular clothing. There was also a decent number of female cyclists on the street.
Interestingly, there was some sporadic bike infrastructure – like way-finding, the occasional off-street path, and green bike boxes (or “advance stop boxes” as they are called here).
While at the moment, Auckland may have a long way to go to be bike-friendly, there are some rumblings of good things in the works. We interviewed Glen, the owner of Eight Thirty Coffee who is an avid cyclist and just added a cargo bike to his business to do local coffee deliveries. They had modified a tandem and affixed a large wood box to carry bags of roasted coffee to subscribers.
We also met three women at a downtown coffee shop that are heavily involved in bike advocacy in Auckland. Rowan, Pippa and Barbara were planning a cycling fashion show when we met them. Rowan is active in the new younger demographic of cyclists interested in Critical Mass, bike polo and the bike co-op. Pippa is an elected official working on making her district more bikeable and also happens to be part of Frocks on Bikes, a bikey group that encourages everyday cycling. Barbara is the media outreach person for CAN (Cycling Advocates Network), New Zealand’s main bike advocacy body.
Through them, we got the scoop of how Auckland is changing to be more bike friendly. The current mayor is interested in making Auckland more “livable”, which includes encouraging alternative forms of transportation. One of the biggest hot button political issues in New Zealand is traffic congestion – some things are indeed universal.
We had planned to be on the road today, but were told about an event on Sunday where cyclists will be able to ride legally across the Harbor Bridge from downtown Auckland to the North Shore. So, we are sticking around to film it and get some interviews at the event for our video series. Not quite what we planned, but a worthy segue. Late Sunday, we plan to start our journey South, out of the city and into the country, towards Taupo and Napier. We are slowly starting to get back into the rhythm of travel again and expecting the unexpected.
(Keep our adventures going and the site growing! If you’ve enjoyed our stories, videos and photos over the years, consider buying our ebook Panniers and Peanut Butter, or our new 2012 calendar or some of the fun zombie apocalypse shirts we’re designing.)
Julie December 8, 2011 at 5:37 am
Glad to know you landed safely and have already connected with bikely people! Love that you’ve already been side-tracked. The best laid plans, eh? Great opportunities are not always evident. Enjoy!
James Hinchcliffe December 8, 2011 at 6:41 am
Hi Russ and Laura, looks like you’re having fun already. Will you be hopping across to OZ?
peteathome December 8, 2011 at 9:08 am
I have never been brave enough to try to bicycle or drive in countries where they drive on the left. I’ve watched many times, while visiting London, a random Londonder reach out and pull a tourist back onto the sidewalk as the tourist steps out in front of a bus because they were looking int he wrong direction. In fact, I was that tourist at least once.
john wadsworth. December 8, 2011 at 9:18 am
keep the wonderful video adventures coming..:-)
Brian December 8, 2011 at 9:47 am
Nice to see and hear about cycling in Nz. Can you tell us how expensive a litre of gas is compared to litre of water and milk. Four liters equal to Us gallon of gas.
Stephen Lambert December 8, 2011 at 12:36 pm
My Kiwi brother in law and sister just got back from NZ, and my sister commented on her many driving close calls, usually pulling out of a parking lot and into the wrong lane.
She brought back many beautiful photos and gifts as well.
On a side note, I purchased a buff after seeing your video, great for the cold Iowa winter. I (and you) started something here in the bike shop, now we are all wearing them.
Thanks for the great gear info, stories and photos.
Mark Shaw December 8, 2011 at 1:03 pm
Ha Ha I like this post but don’t worry about riding on the left its just the same when us brits go abroad and everyone drives/cycles on the “wrong” side of the road. Have fun Does New Zealand have roundabouts ?
Eric December 8, 2011 at 1:35 pm
Wow! I just started following your blog today and you’re in my country! My family and I moved to NZ from the US a few years ago. We are in the preliminary stages of planning a year-long family bike tour, probably back in the US. If you wind up out here on the East Cape – really the path less pedaled – look me up.
carol honson December 16, 2011 at 8:15 pm
look forward to future videos around nz.
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Are you not going North from Auckland at all?