An Open Letter to Auckland Drivers

Dear Auckland Drivers,

I am one of you and I’m a regular bicycle commuter. For the last few years a bicycle has been my most regular method of traveling the 12km between my home and work. I do the trip in all weather, but the fact that I’m a guy on a bike doesn’t define me. I am also a husband, father, son, brother, nephew, friend to many, and a work colleague. I’m a Christian Minister and I serve an organisation working to help the world’s poorest. These things make me who I am more than the fact that a bicycle is one of my chosen modes of transport.

I want you to know that I listen to you on radio talkback and I read the comments you leave at online news articles, on Facebook pages, and on blogs, and many of you scare me. You also scare me on the road.

Before I get into that though, let me tell you why I ride a bicycle to and from work. I like to think I’m a conscientious citizen. We live in a city with traffic problems where many of us have to sit in our cars in lines of slowly moving vehicles regularly – I’ve done it often, I know that frustration. We live in a world where we need to be carefully considering our treatment of the environment so people like my seven year old daughter (that’s her with me in the image a while ago, after we painted each other’s faces… I was supposed to be one of the 101 Dalmatians) aren’t left swimming in the squalor we might leave behind. We also live in our wonderful nation that has, like the rest of the world, come out of a recession that occurred because of financial irresponsibility and because of that, we live in a nation where long term saving has been encouraged. Alongside that, we live in a city with an extremely high cost of living. To top it all off, we live in a nation with a growing obesity problem and the cost of that to us, the taxpayers, is only going to increase.

In response to all of that I choose to ride a bicycle. You see, our city is growing fast and no matter how many big highways we build, they’re not going to solve congestion problems – we need other solutions and so I choose to be part of the solution by being one less car on the road during that morning and evening commute most of us have to do. Doing so means I’m not sitting in front of you in a car and I’m causing 1000 times less wear and tear on those roads that cost so much to build and maintain.

When I ride my bike I’m not burning fossil fuels that are needed over and over again to keep my car running and my bike has far less material involved in its construction than any car so the environmental impact of its construction and eventual disposal are far less than the average vehicle. Hence, hopefully, my environmental impact in the long run is less and I may have contributed just a little bit to a cleaner world for my daughter.

Riding my bike saves my family money. By not running a second car at this point in our lives frees up money that we can save. We’re not big earners but we save well. We don’t get any government assistance and as long as circumstances allow, we plan to never use it. Me riding a bike helps maintain our financial security and self reliance. My main bike is second hand and cost a few hundred dollars. It’s not an expensive road bike. I maintain it cheaply. I’m not a cyclist who has spent multi-thousands on a bike, though it shouldn’t matter if I did, it would still be cheaper over the long haul than another car. We manage our finances carefully and are setting ourselves up for retirement so we won’t need to be a burden on anybody else.

Pedaling away on a bicycle most days also keeps me fit and healthy. I’m not a dedicated, lycra clad, cycling devotee out doing long trainings most days (I admire those that do) so they can compete at a high level, but my commute does my body wonders. I don’t want to be a burden on our health sector in the long run and riding my bike helps me achieve that. I have a desk job so if I didn’t have the bike ride, my life would lack regular exercise as I’m too lazy for gyms and can’t motivate myself to run when there isn’t a good reason for it. Biking gets me somewhere. The bottom line is that without the bike commute to and from work I’d probably get overweight and that would have a cost not just for me, but you also.

Hopefully you can see I’m trying to do something good for myself, my family, our city, and therefore I’m trying to do something good for you. I have that in mind when I’m riding on the road where I legally have to be. I ride very cautiously and do my best not be a nuisance and to stay out of your way. Sometimes I can’t avoid it and sometimes it’s safer for both of us, mostly at intersections or when passing parked vehicles, for me to get in your way and to take a whole lane for a moment. The bottom line though, is that no matter how cautious I am and no matter what I wear, my daily commute is dangerous, but I continue with it because I want to make a difference.

let’s be honest, there are good people riding bikes and there are careless people riding bikes. There are also good people driving cars and there are careless people driving cars. There are people doing dumb things with both and I can’t stop that. The big difference is that when careless people on bikes make mistakes, the worst you’ll get is a dent in your car while they suffer the consequences of their decisions, but when a careless driver makes a mistake it can kill someone like me. I don’t want to die till I’m old and have done life to its fullest. I want to see my daughter grow up and actively be a part of that.

On my commute here’s what I encounter almost daily. Each of my rides would include one or more of these:

  • People pulling out of parking spaces into my path without looking.
  • People coasting through roundabouts without looking properly and therefore not giving way to me, causing me to brake evasively (I crawl through them for this reason and it makes no difference whether I have hi-vis gear on or not).
  • People turning left across my path just after passing me.
  • People not giving way at intersections.
  • Cars running red lights (yes, it’s not just cyclists doing it).
  • Car doors opening without the occupant checking their mirror first.
  • People coming up to an intersection and stopping well past the give-way line, causing me to go around them by placing myself out in the main car lane.
  • People not giving way at intersections.
  • People passing extremely closely, especially when I’m making my way around a parked car. It only takes a second or two to slow down and let the cyclist pass the car first. Sometimes if I hear and see you coming up quickly behind me when I glance over my shoulder, I’ll brake and let you past first, but I shouldn’t need to when you’re behind me.

I could add more. There are plenty of times where all of these have occurred because someone is illegally on their phone while driving, thus reducing their awareness. With all this there is also the glass from broken windshields and bottles that gets swept into cycle lanes and sits there for weeks (it’s not practical for me to ride with a broom to get rid of it) and the areas where wide roads get very narrow when turning into multiple lanes at intersections (this is where many cycle lanes disappear), squeezing out any safe room for cyclists – this is the worst for a cyclist when it happens on a hill as staying in one of those lanes for a hill start means that we really get in your way, and that makes me nervous. There are two places on my ride home where I get on the footpath to avoid this and not hold you up for too long at the intersection.

I’m not a red-light-runner, though I understand why many cyclists do it (it may surprise you to know that many of them are just trying to stay out of your way, not hold you up at the intersection and therefore make it safer for them and you… obviously it’s not true of all, but it’s true of many). I follow the road rules and try to act courteously and politely at all times. You see, to me, you’re not just a person in a car, you’re a human being who loves others and is loved by others. Your life is a rich tapestry of relationships and your life story is something that would greatly intrigue me if we were sitting down for a coffee/tea/beer/orange juice and we had a chance to chat together. That’s what this is all about… we’re all humans in this together and we’re on those roads together.

When I’m on that road on my bike and you’re in your car, I’m vulnerable so it scares me when I read the anger of Auckland drivers directed at people on bikes. It scares me when you talk about wanting to hit us or you demonstrate little to no patience for making room for people like me. I don’t want to dwell on that though as it’s not what defines you or me.

I just want to ask one thing, please, please, please, when you’re driving in your car, be aware. We’ll all make mistakes from time to time and that can’t be helped, we’re not robots, but we can make an effort to be more aware of each other and to give dignity and respect in the way we act on our roads. You and I could cross paths at any time and when we do encounter each other on the road I’d like to get to my work or family with a smile on my face and I’d like the same for you. Let’s treat each other as human beings sharing spaces that need us both. As long as we continue to dehumanise others on our roads, they’ll remain dangerous and angry places to be and that’s not good for anyone.

Yours in dignity, love, and respect.
Reverend Frank Ritchie

 

  • Dave

    I have read your letter as a friend of Mark Keowen’s , well worded and politely put from a good angle , I am both a rider and a driver and the roads scare me now , so I ride much less , but we need this change of heart change of perspective to understand that cyclists are indeed helping the road congestion they should be respected , maybe an education /advertising programme that showed them in this light would help . I drive and ride along the Tamaki waterfront and have thought many times that the council should request cyclist to ride up onto the footpath where the road narrows i.e. over bridges and not hold up the cars , make it safer for cyclists and not frustrate the drivers , the council have already put the cycle ramps in place , Just need to educate the cyclists . You have prompted me to write to the council to suggest just this and slowly I hope we all learn to accommodate cyclists for all the reasons that you have voiced …. thanks Rev .. be encouraged …

    • http://francis-ritchie.com/ Francis Ritchie

      Thanks, Dave. I agree, it’s a change of heart that needs to happen towards seeing it less as a battleground and more of a mutual desire to get from A to B in the way that’s best. We need to see each other less as ‘cyclists’ and ‘drivers’ and more just as human beings with different modes of transport. Sometimes I get discouraged about using my bike, but comments from people like you keep me at it :)

  • Fran

    Nicely written. I have after many many years slowly gotten back on a bike, with my daughters 13 and 15. Are the moment we are just riding the local, quiet roads of Laingholm, and everyone in the cars have been great.

    I have also been a motorbike rider for a few years now, and also get the same thing happen as well, with roundabouts etc. And for all that they say it is because people don’t expect to see a bike or motorbike, so don’t see one, I have seen cars pull out in front of trucks as well, so all we can do as riders is treat everyone as blind, and we do our best to stay out of their way.

    Enjoy the riding as much as you can, esp in the current lovely weather.

    Fran

    • http://francis-ritchie.com/ Francis Ritchie

      Thanks, Fran. I loved my ride to work this morning. The air was still and the sky was blue. It’s a stunning Auckland day. Treating everyone as blind is definitely a good approach and it’s how I ride. Most people don’t mean to make mistakes that put us in danger, it’s just that, as nation, as you’ve said, people don’t expect to see a bike. We haven’t trained ourselves for it, which is why all the data shows that the best safety mechanism is more people on bikes.

    • Nell

      Hi Francis.I am lucky enough to live in Nelson where we have a number of bike paths and there is less traffic density.However I never hesitate to get onto a footpath when my safety is threatened -I don’t care about fines etc. my uninjured body is worth more.We could do with a law like in the netherlands where if you hit a cyclist you are deemed to be at fault.nothing like a lesson in the back pocket to make people aware and remember.Most people are too lazy or time poor to bike and we are a car culture in NZ.Be blessed every day in your work and remember footpaths are your best friend!

    • http://francis-ritchie.com/ Francis Ritchie

      Thanks, Nell. I love Nelson but haven’t been there in a while so I can’t recall the biking infrastructure. I’d imagine it’s a nice place to bike around. Yeah, the Netherlands would be worth emulating in a number of ways :)