Bike haters parked in the Jurassic
Sydney Morning Herald, 23 August 2012
What is the sound of a dinosaur? History does not record. Increasingly, however, the sad, lost roarings of the O'Farrell government make plausible mimicry. Attacking cycleways, in contradiction even of its own roads experts, just sounds more prehistoric than ever.
At one level, it's a beware-the-ministerial-route-to-work story. One-time planning minister Bob Carr 's chauffeured commute through the redbrick walk-ups of Maroubra is why, a decade on, every Sydney apartment building looks like an inbred egg crate.
Now, it seems, the regular trip down College Street by the Roads Minister, Duncan Gay, might finally do for the cycle lanes.
But even saurian brains can't be that small. Bikes must occasionally leave bike lanes, just as buses occasionally leave bus lanes. And although rudeness and stupidity are as common among cyclists as others, a few random failures do not a catastrophe make.
So is the state just playing to a different audience? Is all this cycle-rage chest-beating really aimed at the talkback sector, out beyond the bike line?
My taxi-driver test supports this interpretation. Stoked by shock-jock demagoguery, car-on-bike hatred rages on – as though cycling is some guilty pleasure indulged in only by some inner-city gluten-free intellectual elite. As though roads were for cars, not people. As though, out in the burbs, real men drive SUVs. Stuff health. Stuff cost. Certainly, stuff the environment.
That's rubbish, surely. There are plenty of suburban types who cycle, and plenty more who would, given the cycleways to do it. Plenty of suburbanites are impacted by fuel budgets, health concerns, eco-mindedness. Plenty of them get that the future is green, because it has to be.
Even in the city, with space so contested, the RTA (now RMS) itself finds that, despite a near doubling in cycle numbers in two years, "no significant delays to other road users … have occurred".
You'd think they'd be grateful. Every trip I make on my bike is a car trip not made. It's petrol not burned, road wear not imposed and congestion not, well, congested. Statistically, it's also future health bills avoided. All of which benefits everyone, with only me doing the work.
Notes one blogger, "on the figures, if the 800 cyclists who cross the Anzac Bridge every day drove instead, there'd be 8km more traffic".
But you can't win. They whinge if you're on the road, more if you get off the road onto a footpath and more still if you have your own cycle lane. This four-wheeled hatred of two is so irrational I can only put it down to envy. I'm the one doing the work, yes. But I'm also the one having the fun – feeling the breeze, slipping through the sclerosis, parking without fuss. I'm the one getting to meetings on time.
Admittedly, as we share the black top, I do get to breathe their smelly rear-end emissions. But it still beats spending hours each week in an equally stinky gym. Admittedly, too, you need nerves of steel. But what better preparation – indeed, what better metaphor? – for a life of letters? Yes, you could come a cropper any time, and no, you're not paranoid, they are all out to knock you off.
For most, safety is the top cycling issue – both the commonest reason for not cycling, and the commonest rationale for cycle rage. Your standard taxi driver will insist that his real concern is for the health and wellbeing of the cyclist he's just veered at. LOL.
The safety thing is largely a furphy. Certainly, for obsessional, racing-type cyclists there are issues. Studies show sexual problems and bone-density loss, possibly related to perspiration-related calcium depletion, resulting in multiple fractures. (Stuart O'Grady, who broke a collarbone and five ribs in Germany this week, has an impressive list of previous fractures including ribs, collarbones, shoulder, vertebrae and skull).
For most cyclists, dilettantes like me, the health benefits far outweigh the risks, even sans helmet. The University of Sydney public health professor and cycling advocate Chris Rissel says optional helmets would double cyclist numbers. Bike share, he says, has been 10 times more successful in London, where helmets are not required, than in Melbourne, where they are. In Sydney, 23 per cent of adults say they would cycle more if helmets were not mandatory.
This is part-convenience, part-pleasure and partly because the helmet requirement makes cycling seem more dangerous than it is.
"In the first three months of the London scheme," Rissel says, "share bikes were used more than 6 million times and the injury rate was a low 0.0023 per cent." And that's without dedicated lanes.
There are etiquette issues. Anyone who walks a lot will have been nearly bowled over by cyclists speeding on or across footpaths. Pedestrians get vague, they walk without necessarily thinking, they drift.
So, although Rissel also argues that registering cyclists is pointless, there could be a case for education. Driving schools teach the mechanics of driving but driving manners – when to wave thanks, when to yield your rights – are learnt from parents.
Cycling manners – who gives way at cycle lanes and crossings, how to ring your bell without offence – are still evolving. For many they're primitive indeed, including the Domayne bedding delivery man who this morning parked on the cycleway, yelling "send your complaints to Clover Moore, she's such an educated woman". Unlike some.
Bikes sit somehow between cars and pedestrians, with some of the rights and obligations of each. One thing they do allow, though – one of the delights – is the ability to smile and say ''thank you'' as you pass.
This is huge. If the Lycra lot could learn from it we'd be better at counteracting a dinosaur government determined to stoke the rage.
Says dinosaurfacts.org, "the ankylosaurus has very little brain inside its reinforced skull, so when faced with danger it reacts automatically and aggressively". I reckon if it looks like a dinosaur, and sounds like a dinosaur … cycle rapidly away.