For the past four years, Emma McInnes has been dedicating her energy—whether full- or part-time—to advocating for cycling in Auckland, New Zealand. Prior to that, however, riding a bike was just a hobby that fell out of fashion when she was young. “Something not many people know about me is I grew up on a proper beef farm,” McInnes reveals. “We lived about three and a half hours away from Auckland and it was very removed from everything. I was pretty much the anti-urban.” Learning to ride a bike on the farm, she remembers her dad teaching her, falling into hay bails until she found her balance. But aside from riding her bike around the farm, McInnes didn’t find herself cycling that often, living so far away from everything.
As she entered her teen years, McInnes all but stopped riding her bike, until a move to Auckland for school helped her re-discover her love of cycling. “I needed a better way to access the city where I had come to study and a better way to get around and be social and get to work and get to university.” Experiencing her new city on two wheels, she discovered a passion for advocacy, channeling that into volunteering with Generation Zero and pushing for positive change at a local level. “I love the idea of seeing more children on bikes and old women and young women on bikes as well. So I’ve just been trying to champion or push it ever since.”
Cutting Her Teeth on Karangahape Road
One of her first campaigns with Generation Zero was advocating for protected bike lanes throughout the city where conflict was growing as the number of people choosing to cycle around Auckland increased. A particular hot spot was Karangahape Road (more commonly referred to as K Road), which—despite a council in favour of a cycle way plan for the city—left this key link out.
“We couldn’t understand why, because it was sort of in the middle of everything; the road that connects you to everything,” McInnes recalls. “It was also one of our most dangerous roads as well as one of our most used roads.” McInnes and fellow volunteers visited all the businesses on K Road, convincing 120 of them to sign in support of a cycle track, as well as 2,000 signatures from the local community, and coordinating a mass bike ride along the contentious strip of road. “We were seeing that the businesses really wanted this, but no one had gone around and talked to them. We didn’t feel like we had to do that, but it was something we saw as a huge disconnect between retailers and the local government.”
Despite the massive outreach efforts, K Road unfortunately remains unprotected three and a half years later, but it is where McInnes really cut her teeth and got excited about cycling advocacy. “I never really looked back from there.”
Protected Bike Lanes: More Than Just a Barrier to Cars
If you ask McInnes why protected bike lanes are so important, she’ll affirm that they provide a safe, comfortable place for people of all ages choosing to ride a bike. However she also sees them as an added level of protection against harassment for women cycling in the city. “I feel, as a woman, when you’re out cycling that you’re a target. People like to comment on you because they’re not used to seeing something as ordinary and every day as a girl on a bike.” McInnes has experienced both verbal and physical harassment while riding her bike from men who may think they’re acting in her best interest, but are doing a lot more harm than good.
Protected bike lanes are more than just a barrier to cars for her. “I don’t get that harassment when I use some of the better cycling infrastructure in the city. So I know that cycle ways are not just a barrier from the unsafe situation that cars put you in, but also from people who do sometimes try to harm you.” McInnes went so far as to write a poignant editorial about her experiences pointing out the many ways designing cities for women benefits everyone.
The Founding of Women in Urbanism Aotearoa
McInnes joined Auckland based transportation consultancy MRCagney in 2015 as the designer and communication professional, following which she took a step back from her volunteer work with Generation Zero, who had moved on to addressing more national issues. But her passion for advocacy has not dwindled, and she’s found another way to be an influencer for change, this time focused on issues around equity, launching Women In Urbanism Aotearoa in August of 2017.
Women in Urbanism Aotearoa was started by a group of women at MRCagney who were all active in the community, and looking for a project they could collaborate together on. “We all enjoy our workplace,” says McInnes, “but we were still finding ourselves as the only woman in a meeting or asked to do tasks outside of our roles – like grab coffee.” Hearing many of the same stories from other women they knew, they wondered why a network didn’t exist for them to discuss these things, and they decided to do something about it.
“We invited any women from any industry to come and meet for drinks,” McInnes remembers. “We just wanted to meet with different women and create our own space where we could support each other.” With little advertising, word-of-mouth spread quickly, and their first event drew in 40 women, a considerable crowd for their first event. From that point, their Facebook group has grown to almost 1000 members, and they’ve been brainstorming events and workshops focused on generating conversations around gender, urbanism, transportation and housing, all through a woman’s lens. This has included evenings with some high profile women like Green Party Member of Parliament Julie Anne Genter and former Chief Planner for the City of Toronto, Jennifer Keesmaat.
“This Group Challenges Women to do Better for Other Women”
“People are really keen to come and speak to a group of women for a change,” McInnes explains. And they are also willing to speak to other groups, running workshops for local public and private organizations to help them start a conversation around supporting inclusive spaces and where the group can support them. In the end, their goal is to make sure that diverse voices – men, women, people of colour, those with mobility challenges – are heard, and there is a recognition of the immense value that brings to society.
“Our urban industry would really benefit if it was made up of people with diverse backgrounds. There’s so much focus on hiring engineers who look at problems too technically and are not thinking of thing in a human way. We need problem solvers and problem solvers come from all different backgrounds.” McInnes is quick to point out that companies touting a line item of gender equity in their staff, need to take a hard look at the roles that 50% of women fill, and ensure that they hold positions at all levels, including leadership. “We need to see more women at that level as well, and when women get into those leadership roles, they need to be holding the door open for other women as well. This group really challenges those women to do better for other women.”
Equity Means Bringing Diversity to the Conversation
For McInnes, this includes recognizes her own inherent privilege as a young, white woman and professional who has the time to dedicate to volunteering. “I may not always want to be at committee meetings or the like, but because I have that space, I feel a responsibility to be present and help.” She also understands that while her raised profile often makes her the voice for the group, she and her colleagues always encourage the best voices, and often new ones, be given the opportunity to share their perspective, because at the end of the day, equity means bringing diversity to the conversation.
Reflecting on the last four years, McInnes is proud of where she’s come, but knows her work is just beginning. “I think of how much I struggle in the city every day and I wonder if I notice it more because I’m in this world and because I’m interested in urbanism. But if I’m struggling, I can only imagine what it’s like for people who are bound by wheelchairs or are taking prams everywhere.” For McInnes, volunteering is the perfect way to heal from her own experiences while helping the people in her community enjoy a city that works for them. “Having more women designing their cities means that they’ll be better represented outside in their community, and that can only be a good thing.”
Emma’s commitment to Women In Urbanism Aotearoa is crossing over into the Modacity world! In the coming months, we will be sharing profiles of some of the amazing women she shares her passion with in New Zealand, written by Emma herself. Welcome to the Canadian Women In Urbanism family, Emma!