Cycling in the city as the ‘share economy’
Brisbane Times, 23 October 2014
It's Friday, rush hour, and Crown Street is all snafued with footpath construction. We are crossing with the lights, the poodle and I, filing between barricades when a bearded cyclist whizzes through, narrowly missing an old bloke who, having crept across Cleveland, takes the footpath for safety. It's not. Sure, the cyclist wants to get through on green. Yes, cycling benefits everyone. And yes, on-road dangers make footpath-cycling an occasional necessity. But no, the footpath is not the cyclist's right, much less his right-of-way. And no, threatening friable pedestrians – or any pedestrians, actually – is not okay.
I say this knowing it will infuriate the cycle lobby, although I am a cyclist myself, and that cycling's many enemies will regard it as ammo. But that says more about the ludicrous polarisation of the debate than the arguments themselves.
Saturday is the finale of the Spring Rides festival. Today is also the end of the international Walk 21 conference. Both are good causes. Healthy, clean, green and engaged. But there is conflict.
At stake is not whether we love cyclists or hate them. Wrong question. It's not even about forcing cyclists to obey the rules. It's about what the rules should be. Two carriageways, three modes of transport: present desires, future survival. How to deal?
Judging by the rhetoric you'd think everyone loved cycling now. For last weekend's Spring Cycle, Bicycle NSW's website sprouted support from all three levels of politics.
"Any day that starts on a bike is a good day," said Prime Minister Abbott. Premier Baird talked up "cycling as a healthy way to get around" and Lord Mayor Clover Moore, having been all but burnt-at-stake for her cycling support, wished everyone a wonderful spring ride.
Even The Daily Telegraph, which has for years warred against cycling, ran a story by former Olympic cyclist Kate Bates arguing that "cycling offers low-cost and sustainable transport that does little damage to roads and … contributes to a healthy lifestyle".
So has the cycling atmosphere softened for spring? Well no. Not really. Much of the support is for "recreational" cycling, where you drive your bike to some faux-forested bike path – Homebush, say – change into your go-get-em lycra and sweat out a few laps to avoid the rels on Sunday arvo. That such cycling is just suburban narcissism reified, prioritising personal, short-term well-being over the general long-term sort, seems quite beside the point.
Regarding on-road cycling, the background hate persists, cultivated by the Murdochcracy. Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine regularly decries "the dangerous fiction that the road is there to share," and shares with Alan Jones the bike-lane descriptor "Clover's jihad on motorists". For these guys, cyclists can't win. On road or cycleway, the cyclist is vermin. Last month Devine claimed somewhat bizarrely that on-road cyclists are "like Israel's settlers, ideologically driven to colonise ever more dangerous territory" even as she excoriated Sydney's "gridlock-inducing bike paths."
The Sunday Telegraph's Claire Harvey describes cyclists as "ungrateful dickheads" who should appreciate all the times motorists could kill them, and don't. Indeed, Harvey implies, we should be so grateful we hop right off our bikes and back into our filthy, fattening cars.
Yet there's irony here. Much cycle-hatred focuses on perceived rule-breaking – yet a new report finds, conversely, that much cycle rule-breaking is driven by on-street driver aggression.
"Cyclists reported being influenced to break road rules by motor vehicle drivers' impatience and aggression," found the study by Louise Shaw and others from the UNSW School of Public Health and Community Medicine.
You're cycling Anzac Parade. The bus lane, where you are allowed to ride, is jammed with parked cars and the remnant fringe so narrow you risk being "doored" and thrown under a truck. So you claim the lane – since that, too, is your right.
A red double-long bus roars up behind. Hot-breathed, impatient, it pulls out and roars past, swinging back in front of you so close that you sway in its vengeful wake. For a second you consider making a complaint. Then you reflect that public transport is a good thing and should in principle be supported. So you suck it up.
At the lights you have a choice. You can sit back in the traffic, swallowing fumes and anger, knowing they'll hate you anyway for accelerating too slowly on green and deride you for trying. Or you can thread through to the front. There, because this is your regular commute, you know there'll be a minute on red where you can easily cross the intersection without danger to anyone, and that this will get you to the cycle path without further infuriating the angry traffic. Naturally, this is what you do – further infuriating the angry traffic.
Is it wrong? Regarding the letter of the law, yes. Regarding the spirit of the law, to maximise safety and amenity for all by busting the red is absolutely in line. Yet it makes you doubly hated: for being in the way and for getting out of it, especially if it's a bike path that removes you.
What is the answer? Should we all just stop cycling, and see what that does to the congestion, the pollution, the diabetes bills? Or should we try to devise a protocol that accommodates all modes?
Continental vastness has given Australia some bad mental habits in the city-making department. City space is contested space. That's axiomatic. Every square centimetre of London or New York has a dozen competing uses, and that's just in the now.
The "share economy" regards itself as new and hip but a city is, by definition, spatial time-share. The more sharing required – the less you get just to chug your SUV wherever you want – the more engaged and exciting a city becomes. This is the deal, and Sydney teeters on the brink, seeking the etiquette – speeds, gestures, warnings and rights – to where we can all share happily. This is not a dangerous fiction. It's a fundamental, creative truth.