One of the first things I’ve learned about living in a big city is that you can’t just walk everywhere. Sure, the infrastructure is usually there, but where in my hometown it’s totally feasible to make the 15 minute stroll to the library or the downtown or the grocery store, here that journey might take you 45 minutes or more on foot. This means I’ve had to hone my public transportation skills, which hasn’t always been straightforward in a place where I’m already new to the culture. This has resulted in a few (mis)adventures, but thankfully people here are usually very kind and helpful, and between that and Google maps I’ve been able to make it work. Below are a few things I wish I had known though. I hope they’re entertaining at least, and maybe help you avoid a transportation oops-ident (not an accident, but not an ideal situation either) like the ones I’ve had.
- Christchurch metro: Truly a form of transportation with character. You never quite know what the metro experience will be, although I’ve found it to usually come through for me when I need it the most. Yes, it’s sometimes late, and occasionally early, which can be just as unhelpful if you’re not at the stop yet. (This is why checking the metro site online is the best way to keep up to date with bus times.) And it’s definitely not the way to go if you like fast, efficient travel (often it’s faster to bike than bus). BUT it’s also a reasonably affordable, sheltered from the rain, and clean form of transport (especially compared to the US). One of the best parts of the metro is people watching, like last week when I saw someone get on carrying nothing but an energy drink and a plastic soprano recorder just like the one I learned to play in elementary school.
- I’ve definitely experienced some “hmmm this seems unideal” situations on the metro, like when I’ve missed my stop or misunderstood the route (sometimes it changes based on the time of day). However, I’ve always felt very safe, the drivers will often take pity on you if you’re lost, and the system can take you within a reasonable distance of almost anywhere in Christchurch. So don’t be afraid to give it a go, especially if you’re like me and don’t have a car. Just don’t forget to direct a “thank you!” to the driver when you get off. This is a prime example of Kiwi courtesy, and it’s definitely the thing to do considering the driver holds your fate in their steering-wheel-guiding hands.
- Bike: When I was younger I had a bike basket that said “I love my bike” and honestly that’s true. Here it takes me all over the city, and it means I don’t have to solely rely on the unhurried metro to get somewhere. It also allows me to gain a better understanding of the city and how to navigate versus being on the metro. And it’s exercise! I bought my bike from Around Again Cycles, which takes used bikes and resells them to people at a good price. And when you’re done you can sell them back for a fraction of the price based on how long you use them. I bought mine for $300 NZD and I should get around $100 NZD back when I return it at the end of the semester. They also have cheaper and more expensive options based on what is in stock at the time.
- Christchurch is advertised as a great city to bike in because of how flat it is and because of its ubiquitous bike lanes. This is mostly true, but it should be noted that the infrastructure hasn’t quite caught up to the hype in some parts of the city. Downtown is great, but further away from the city center has less defined lanes and/or lanes that merge on and off with the sidewalk and parallel parking lanes, which can be confusing the first time you see it. You also have to adjust to driving/biking on the left side of the road. My philosophy has been to take it slow and I always get on the sidewalk if I don’t feel safe on the road. I think biking on the sidewalk is technically against the rules but I see people do it all the time, and it’s definitely worth it if you’re feeling uncertain or unsafe. I also use the crosswalk signals to make right turns unless I’m on a quiet residential street or somewhere else where I can confidently cross all those lanes of traffic without being run over. Typically Kiwi drivers seem very respectful and aware of cyclists in the city, but it’s never a bad idea to be careful. I also wear a high-visibility helmet and I’m planning on getting a high-vis vest (like what construction workers wear ), which is common to see on cyclists here.
- Other than the slight safety risk, the only other downside to biking is being exposed to the weather. Sun will burn, and rain will soak. Of course it’s always an option to give up and find a metro stop, because the buses have bike racks on the front. However, as I learned, putting one's bike on the front of a bus all by yourself is just as difficult as you would think. Unfortunately the metro driver was not amused by my incompetence. He sat and watched me through the windshield much like how a football fan might watch in disbelief and disappointment as their team completely fumbles what seems like an easy play (to them). My apologies and profuse thank yous when I got on the bus didn’t seem to do much, but my bike didn’t fall off the rack and under the wheels of the bus, and I got it off the rack with much less fanfare, so all's well that ends well. If you ever plan to bike and metro, I highly recommend watching a video of how to use the bus racks before you find yourself being honked at by the driver because you just put your bike on the rack backwards. Not that I experienced that.
- A Time to Avoid Transport: Unless you want to find yourself bobbing in a tightly packed sea of identical school uniforms, avoid the metro from around ~2:30-3:45 PM. Most schools release during this time, which causes utter transportation chaos. On foot, it’s much harder to find a place to cross the road due to backed up cars, and the metro is packed with students, and has to stop at almost every stop. Personally I kind of enjoy getting a glimpse into secondary school life here, but if you’re trying to get somewhere on time or you want a calm commute, late afternoon on a weekday is not the time to go.
- Intercity Bus: Contrary to popular belief, NZ is actually kind of difficult to get around if you don’t have a car. However, there is some hope with the Intercity Bus system. I’ve only utilized it for one trip and there’s usually only two buses departing each stop per day, but considering it’s one of the only options for getting around the country besides driving and flying, it’s hard to complain. Overall, I found it clean, safe, and easy to book. I bought their Flexipass, which allows you to buy a custom number of hours for a reduced rate. This is a good option if you want to take a number of short to mid length trips, like I did to Kaikoura, and it even allows you to use it for time on the ferry between the North and South Island. However, I’ve read that if you want to take a long trip (like from Christchurch to Milford Sound) it makes more sense/is cheaper to just book a ticket for that specific trip instead of using a bunch of your Flexipass hours. And in some cases, flying might just be the cheapest, although definitely not the most climate-change friendly.
- My main tip for Intercity Bus travel is to make sure you have a pack cover of some kind if you’re using a backpacking backpack (even just a raincover should do). They don’t like to have loose pieces dangling around in the luggage compartment of the bus, so most drivers will require you to have something that smooths over the many straps and buckles on your backpack. I was completely unaware of this until the driver announced it 5 minutes before we left, but thankfully I had packed my raincover and was able to use that over most of my backpack, which was enough. There’s also not a ton of room on board for “carry-on” luggage. Think of a small backpack or tote bag that you can fit your essentials into for the journey, but not much else.
I feel like transportation gets a bad rap as one of the worst parts of travel, but I hope some of these tips make it a little easier if you ever visit Christchurch. Despite some of the not fun times I’ve had on transport here, I’ve also really enjoyed it. It’s nice to sit on the metro and watch the city go by and occasionally eavesdrop on the many conversations going on around you. (Unfortunately never figured out what that guy was doing with a plastic soprano recorder though.) One morning I even took a really early metro and got to watch through the window as the sun rose over the city. And some of the bike routes through town take you through some of Christchurch’s most beautiful parks. I try to remember all that when I get lost on my bike and find myself riding in the pouring rain, or when I forget about the school release times and realize my 30 minute grocery run will now be much longer. In order to do stuff, you have to get there first, so you might as well enjoy the ride along the way.
More Blogs From This Author
Anna Marie Riner
Kia ora! My name is Anna Marie, and I am a creative, outdoorsy individual from the Black Hills in South Dakota. This semester, I'm excited to be crossing the globe to New Zealand for some studying, tramping (hiking), eating, birding, interning, exploring and much more.