Risk Assessment

CN: contains a brief description of sexual harassment, and Nazis.

 

I’m struggling to find a way to parse my thoughts this week. It’s been a busy few days after all. I know this is a cycling blog, but to be honest after yesterday I need this platform to put words to some thoughts.

Yesterday, I found myself being made to feel so unsafe by men that I changed my route and travel to minimise contact with them on two separate occasions. The first was a man on the bus, asking if I was “taken”, telling me I was beautiful, asking where I lived and then asking me to sneak him onto the train platform. The second was a man dressed in a German WW2 uniform at the Very Vintage Day Out event, right down to an iron cross medal and pin badge with the eagle and swastika. We didn’t speak, but nonetheless I felt compelled to avoid him on my way out the event and crossed busy traffic rather than see him again.

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Obligatory bike content

Each incident involved someone using subtle threats to exert their will over someone else. The guy on the bus might not have a conscious strategy, but by sexualising the conversation from the start, by the time he’s asking me for a favour the threat is implicit. It says “I view you sexually. I want something from you. If you say no, I might sexually assault you.” Did the guy on the bus threaten me? No. Was there a threat? Yes. And I’m sure there are very few women/NB folk out there who haven’t felt that tight feeling when they’ve been threatened in this way, the raised heart rate, the quick evaluation of any possible allies, of escape and alternative routes.

The guy dressed as a Nazi (and I have zero time for any more armchair military historians explaining the finer points of WW2 German army uniforms. Go away) to attend a family event is exerting similar power. Swastikas and iron crosses are potent symbols of fascism and violence, and to wear them is to make a statement of intent. It tells the world “I am comfortable with what these symbols represent. I feel safe enough to wear this in public, and given the violence carried out under this banner who’d dare to step up against me?” Did the guy in the Nazi uniform, having his photo taken with smiling women as part of a photography competition (yes, really) threaten me directly? No. But the threat was there. I cannot imagine how it would have felt to be Jewish, and/or a person of colour, and be confronted by such an obvious display of fascism on what’s meant to be a fun day out, but I can imagine the symptoms of that distress.

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…….I got nothing. 

That tight feeling happens every time someone yells a sexual obscenity at me from a passing car on my ride home. It happens every time some dude in a ute deliberately cuts too close to me on the road, or stands too close behind me in an elevator. It happens far too often, and in too many places, and to too many people. The need by people with social privilege to exert their dominance in this way, to claim every space, is exhausting to live with.

I don’t have any sweeping conclusion to draw here, no “and here’s how we fix this”. People need to make space for others, need to address their own behaviour and that of their peers. Expecting the people being threatened to be the ones to have to make the changes in society is a cop-out, and a dangerous one at that. I’m tired of being made to feel intimidated, tired of the need others have to dominate space that should be for everyone. Groups like Women In Urbanism Aotearoa are working to address the inequities in infrastructure that make spaces unsafe, but to be honest this should be everyone’s job. I don’t want sympathy, I don’t want men telling me they’re sorry I felt threatened, I want to not be threatened in the first place. I want to be able to ride home, safely, without sexual harassment. I want to be able to take a damn bus without having to make a risk assessment first.

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A foot in each camp

I’ve had a good week on the bike. Nobody’s sexually harassed me (as opposed the previous fortnight, where I had three catcalls/vocal threats), I’ve not had any incidents where I’ve felt in physical danger (possibly because I’ve started riding on the virtually-unused pavement for a part of the 4km stretch of Great South Road south of Penrose) and the good weather and lighter evenings means there’s now more of us out and about, and there’s a lot to be said for safety in numbers.

Cyclists seem to have a terrible rap in this country and the more I ride the more I think I’m starting to work out why that is. It’s evident in every ute driver who has an entire road to overtake in but will make a point of passing as close as possible. In every honking idiot with an oversized media platform standing in a brand new cycle lane asking where all the cyclists are.

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It’s obvious in every conversation about stopping cyclists being maimed or killed on our roads which always has some middle-aged Janet or Brent talking about That One Time a cyclist ran a red light or had the cheek to change lanes to turn right, an event which apparently means they’re allowed to intimidate cyclists with impunity (the same people pop up in almost every conversation around recycling or beneficiaries). It’s in every transport announcement that says there just aren’t the numbers of cyclists to warrant any infrastructure, without even the slightest hint of awareness about why that is. The vitriol is real, and weird, and bloody dangerous.

Part of the reason, I guess, is our continuing failure to be cars. The other part is our failure to be pedestrians. We’re too fast to be people, too slow to be cars. We take up too much space on pavements to be safe, and not enough on the roads to be treated with respect. We’re not hidden behind the anonymity of a windscreen, but the safety gear we try to protect ourselves with places a different kind of barrier between us and the world.

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“Just a couple of lights, stay visible you know?”

Bikes occupy a space between motorised transport and foot traffic and apparently asking people to entertain the notion of something on the roads in between these two camps results in disdain and yet another story about that one time they saw a bike ridden badly. We’re given rules to follow that don’t match up with what is safe for us or that reflects our characteristics and as a result we manage to piss everyone off by existing.

As with so many things, the solutions are both quite obvious and infuriatingly out of reach. Adapting road rules to better meet the needs and capabilities of cyclists is a lot cheaper than infrastructure or improving driver training or awareness campaigns, but we live in a society where trying to level a playing field is greeted with howls of indignation from sections of society who’ve never been asked to share and aren’t going to start now. People who don’t ride seem to think cyclists do certain things out of spite, when in actual fact they’re sensible measures we take to make it slightly more likely we’ll get to our destination intact. I mean, how hard would it be to implement these?

  • Cyclists can slowly ride through red lights when the pedestrian signal has changed to a flashing red
  • Cyclists can ride on pavements through industrial-zoned areas, giving priority to pedestrians
  • Make cycle helmets optional (I can’t imagine riding without one these days but it’d be nice to have the choice on short trips to the shops!)

We have a new government who seem to be more in favour of alternatives to cars, and whilst I doubt that four year wait for an investigation into making south Auckland better for bikes will get any shorter, it’d be helpful to see at least some measures put in place to make it a bit safer for those of us who insist on not being cars to get where we need to go.

A numbers game

I figured that I should write something more positive about cycling to and from work, seeing as my last post was pretty depressing. It’s really not too bad, or I wouldn’t be doing it. I’m not a martyr, and I hope to remain that way! Because I’m a bit of a data nerd, I crunched some numbers about riding an e-bike and how it stacks up.

Free photo: Pumping Gas, Fuel, Pump, Industry - Free Image on ...

Every day I ride my e-bike to work and back instead of driving a car, I stop 7.8kg of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. According to the Onya’s manufacturers, a full battery charge costs about 10c, so 50c a week compared to $25 for the same amount of petrol at a rough estimate (depending on what scandalous overcharging or undercharging or smart card we’re all talking about this week)

There’s a lot of discussion about the energy someone on an e-bike uses compared to someone using a mechanical bike, but even assuming about 50% like this blog here, I’m happily burning through a large meal’s worth of energy every day I ride to work and back. I’ve been riding for four weeks now, and my legs have more muscle in them than they have since I did crossfit, only without the extra piles of stinky washing and the five hours a week I needed to find in my schedule to attend classes (not to mention the fees!). Because of the pedal assist, I get to work without being particularly sweaty, so ride to work in what I’m going to wear at the office. Taking out the faff of showering, changing clothes, drying hair etc removes another “I can’t be bothered” obstacle to using the bike.

Door to door, it takes about 50 minutes to get to or from work. That’s 100 minutes a day where I’m alone, outside, exercising, without my phone or social media or anything else to distract me. I cherish those 100 minutes, I really do. I’ve stopped to watch tūi having pitched rap battles amid cherry blossom in Epsom, kereū defying stereotype and elegantly swooping under telephone lines in Mount Eden, and more blackbirds and sparrows and mynahs and gulls than I care to count, even in the industrial backlots and sideroads of Penrose. I get kids waving at me from their own bikes as I pass by, I get time to think and usually by the time I get either home or to work I’ve blown out whatever cobwebs were there when I set off and I’m ready to step into being a wife and mum or employee without needing much decompression time at all.

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Yes, there are some stretches of my commute where I don’t feel that safe (and I may have started using the very sparsely-populated footpath on afternoons where the traffic is particularly noxious, which helps a lot), but the benefits are pretty undeniable when you break it down.

Speaking of unsafe stretches I have found, I think, a reasonable compromise between “make it home alive” and “get to work on time”. Just FYI, if you find yourself having to navigate the Bermuda Triangle, then I’ve found this cheeky little hack that misses the utter hideousness that is the motorway on-ramp and Penrose junctions without adding too much to your travel time. Rockfield road has a cycle path, O’Rorke and Industry Roads could have paths with minimal disruption to anybody. Just a thought!

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Four kilometres, four years

I was going to make this week’s blog a gentle, fluffy affair about what I’m finding works in terms of cycling/office clothing, or What I Think About on the Ride Home, but then I got an email from Auckland Council that made me really quite upset and has given me some work to do.

The week I started commuting to work, I emailed Auckland Council about how dangerous Great South Road is for cyclists, and asking what their plans were to make it safer. For those of you not familiar with Auckland geography, the city lies between two giant harbours and the pinch point is just north of where I happen to live.

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This map shows where the two harbours almost meet. Portage road is where Māori would carry their waka overland between the two and is the narrowest part of the entire city.

You’ve probably noticed that there are three main routes crossing this isthmus south from Manukau to north and the city. One of these is the Southern Motorway, four lanes of either thundering traffic or a gridlocked hell, depending on the time of day and your luck. The middle option is the Mount Wellington highway, and the far left road is my route, Great South. There’s no “back road” option here. No sneaky route. A motorway, or one of two trunk roads with lots of heavy industries on them and the trucks that service those industries.

Not one of these three routes has any, and I mean ANY, provision for cyclists. So I asked the council what their plans were. The answer was pretty bleak.

“The ACN (Auckland Cycle Network) identifies a potential future cycleway along Great South Road between Otahuhu and Auckland City Centre. At this stage, this route is not funded or planned for investigation as part of our current programme or the programme for the period of 2018 – 2021.

The programme beyond 2021 does anticipate greater investment in cycleways in the South, including Otahuhu.

While we regret that we cannot provide more positive news on the short term link between Otahuhu and the city, we can advise that there is planning for improved cycleways as part of other projects on an east west axis across the isthmus. This includes improved cycleways between Mangere and Sylvia Park and Otahuhu and Sylvia Park – both routes via Otahuhu.”

2021. Four years before they’ll even investigate it, let alone make anything happen. An “East West link” isn’t much use, given the distribution of jobs (north) and people (south). I had gotten my hopes up, what with the council’s enthusiasm for cycling in the city centre, and out towards the more moneyed suburbs. Surely, I thought, south Auckland will be next?

Apparently not.

There’s a lot I could say here about the chronic underrepresentation of south Auckland in investment and politics. I could say something about demographics, bias and the needs of one group of people being seen as less important than another, but to be honest I don’t feel qualified to do so in this space as a Pākēha immigrant. But 2021 seems a long time to wait for an investigation into infrastructure that might save my life.

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Friendly

This isn’t hyperbole. I’m on Great South Road for 4km of my commute and every single day that I ride that stretch I have what I would consider to be a near miss with another vehicle. Whilst I appreciate that a “near miss” is quite subjective I’d like to think I’m not easily spooked and a near miss for me is a vehicle within touching distance, or one where I have to take action to avoid. Over a four year period of cycling along that stretch I imagine a collision with a motor vehicle to be inevitable, barring an improvement in infrastructure.

When I started cycling to work three weeks ago, I was full of enthusiasm for heeding the call, ditching the car and being a little more environmentally responsible. I didn’t anticipate that in order to do that, I would find myself having to fight the council for the right to travel to work safely. At the moment it feels like my options are to break the law by cycling on the pavement, or put myself in very real danger by sharing the road with traffic. The fight for a safe, legal alternative starts here.

Finding my way

It’s been a horrible week on New Zealand’s roads for cyclists. An eight year old girl was killed by a truck driver whilst cycling home from school a few days ago, and she was one of four cyclists that died on our roads. After last week’s travails trying to navigate one of Auckland’s busiest trunk routes, I decided the risk of becoming another sad headline was too great. I sat down with google maps and Auckland Transport’s cycling map to try and find a route that was less likely to make me a traffic statistic.

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Route recalculating the old-fashioned way. 

My new route is a couple of kilometres longer and unfortunately still requires about fifteen minutes along GSR, but now cuts out a large section of motorway-related and heavy-industrial traffic, which is a relief. The roads are still pretty busy for the most part, and there’s still barely any cycle lanes at all, but the road is wider and cars and the odd bus are far less intimidating than articulated lorries and trucks stuffed with sheep destined for the meatworks.

The bike went in for a 200km service at the start of the week, which was just a tune-up but good to have the whole servicing aspect checked out. The chain has (for a bike that’s kept almost exclusively indoors) mystifyingly rusted up a little which is a bit concerning but knowing I can swing by the store and get anything like that checked out is reassuring.

I’m still enjoying the F-19. It’s a fun bike to ride and I find myself having several discussions a week with complete strangers about it, which is quite nice. I’m getting used to the pedal assist and how to get the most out of it throughout my route, and my body is slowly adjusting to cycling a good 30+ kilometres a day, three(ish) days a week.

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And when it’s tipping it down and the traffic is homocidal, there’s always the train….

The thing that most people don’t seem to get about e-bikes is that it’s more about the bike than the e- prefix. I’m still cycling, I’m still exercising and I’m sure there’s a valid argument to be made that 20kg of e-bike really isn’t all that different to riding a light roadbike if you’re fit enough. For me, being able to dial up the pedal assist when pulling away from traffic lights, or when I’m feeling unsafe on a major road (which is more than I’d like to admit), or simply when I’m a bit tired and want to be home a bit quicker means that commuting every day doesn’t seem like some Herculean task compared to how it felt riding a conventional bike. It’s interesting the difference having a throttle makes psychologically!

Dicing with Danger

After my absolute drenching on my first day’s commute, it was a relief to have clearer skies and better visibility over the rest of the week. In my first week going carless, I cycled all the way to work three times, bike-train-biked once, and spent a day in bed with one of the many, many bugs my son brings home from daycare.

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Not Great South Road

For all the good work being done to improve cycling infrastructure in Auckland (and make no mistake, there is some REALLY good work being done), it’s incredibly depressing to try and make Great South Road a workable cycle commute. I’ve ridden in rush hour traffic in London and Glasgow in the dark times before cyclists really existed and the corridor north to the city ranks alongside the worst of those trips. If you’ve ever hopped off the Southern Motorway onto her sister route, then you’ll know it’s a desolate hellscape of massive lorries farting out diesel fumes, potholes you could swim in, and the kind of driving normally only seen in the closing hours of Le Mans 24 hour. Between my house in Ōtāhuhu and Greenlane there is about 50m of marked cycle lane, which nine times out of ten has a car waiting to turn at the lights sitting in it anyway. I’ve taken to waving enthusiastically at cars that pass by me so close I could get in their passenger window if they had it open, in a hopeful gesture that maybe they’ll recognise that I’m a human being who doesn’t actually want their twenty year old Corolla taking my foot off. There’s something aggravating about riding past queues of parked cars on one side, and cars with a single occupant on the other, and thinking how little effort it’d take to use the space more efficiently and safely.

Ironically, for all the close calls and enraged bus drivers beeping at me for having the gall to be cycling in a cycling/bus lane (the cheek of me, I know), the worst incident that happened to me this week took place on the shiny new bike lane on Carlton Gore Road in Newmarket. I watched a young man in an oversized black 4×4 nearly hit two cyclists in front of me as he tried to park his monstrosity in the bike lane, before getting out and yelling and threatening the cyclists for, what, not wanting to be hit by a car I guess? I stopped and got a mouthful of abuse as well, culminating in a threat to run me over. It was a stark, crappy reminder that infrastructure is important but it’s a limited defence against drivers who aggressively exploit the power imbalance between them and cyclists.

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If I started my week soaked to the skin and being chased by trucks, I finished it at as far a remove as it’s possible to get. I’d wrangled a night away by myself in a homestay on Waiheke, and taking the bike across to the island was revelatory. Not having to worry about finding buses or getting lifts without the expense of taking a car across or hiring a vehicle meant I could find a place to stay based entirely on what I wanted and could afford, as opposed to where it was and how I’d get there. Zipping along the cycle paths of Waiheke at dusk with kererū whomping along overheard, the e-bike flattening out the hills so I could take in the scenery and relax after a day at work, meant that by the time I reached my destination I was well into holiday mode and could enjoy every minute.

It’s been a pretty intense first week without the car, I’m hoping this isn’t standard procedure! I’d like to cycle the whole way into work every day but it’s quite draining having to combat all the obstacles it presents so aiming for a best-of-five approach might be better. At least the clocks have gone forward and the weather is only going to improve from here….

Start as you mean to go on

When you get a new job, or embark on a new career (much scarier) it feels like the perfect time to reinvent yourself. Moving from a suburban teaching job to a CBD based office job meant commuting from where I live in south Auckland by car would be a terrible idea, yet public transport would also take too long. I decided to embrace an idea that I’ve flirted with for years and ditch the car for an electric bike.

The recent advances in e-bike technology and associated drop in price means a decent folding bike will set you back somewhere under or around $2500. Given you can pick up a second-hand car for that price, it certainly isn’t within everyone’s price range just yet. That’s where Waiheke-based designers of the Onya e-bikes come in. They are offering a lease option for people wanting to have an e-bike without the responsibility of owning and maintaining one.

For a princely $29 a week on a 12 month contract, I rode out the store with an electric blue F-19, which takes up less space in our small flat than my son’s stroller yet still has enough grunt to zip away from the lights without sparking the wrath of an impatient ute driver. A few test rides in the sun before I started my new job cemented the F-19 as a fun ride and I began looking forward to commuting on it properly.

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Reinvention and good intentions are easy when the sun is shining and the traffic is light, but an altogether different beast at 7:15 on a typical Auckland Monday morning when the rain is sheeting down and the forecast is promising a whole day of the same. However, I’m aware that I’m one of those people for whom making an excuse on day #1 means excuses for day #2 and beyond far too easy, so I wrapped myself up in my raincoat and hit the road.

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I got rained on. Twice. I narrowly avoided mishap at the hands of angry, pinched-looking women in oversized white cars. And I had an absolute ball.

For all the talk of environmental responsibility and reducing congestion, it’s easy to forget that riding a bike is FUN. Put a little motor in there that makes hills flatten out and takes the terror out of traffic lights, and even a soggy commute up Auckland’s least picturesque trunk route becomes something engaging.

Of course, it’ll be even better when Auckland Council make a decent, consistent cycle route all the way up from Manukau to the CBD, but I arrived to work with a smile on my face and with plenty of time to dry off and change.

I’m not a small person, and post-pregnancy I’m definitely carrying a few extra kilos, but after a largely uphill journey I had more than half a charge left for the return later that day. The forecast said there was a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon but it was sunny when I left the office and I figured I’d maybe make it home dry. Yeah, nah.

The heavens opened somewhere around Penrose and I got absolutely, impressively soaked everywhere my raincoat wasn’t. The rain was bouncing off the road, and at one point I was wondering if I was actually feeling hail stones or just convincing myself I was. Brrrr.

Having no real experience of either electric or small-wheeled folding bikes I was mildly concerned at how the bike would handle the deluge. Happily additional weight in the frame and excellent weatherproofing meant that the F-19 handled the conditions with aplomb. I got home in one very soggy piece, impressed at how well the bike had got me home in some of the worst weather Auckland can throw at you.

Having made it to work and back in weather that would have made most ducks reach for their HOP card, I feel like I’m pretty well set up for the rest of the week and beyond. I’ll report back to see if my initial enthusiasm is sustained past the first couple of days, and what difference riding to work is making to my health and my wallet.