11 Mar 2012

Sydney cycling, clashing cross currents

Posted by Mike Rubbo

I found it hard to believe the venom of the attack in the Daily Telegraph this week on our Mayor,  Clover Moore,  and all   for trying to make Sydney a bike friendly city by building safe separated paths for cyclists .

The Murdoch press,  which seems to dislike anything visionary, is having  nasty fun  as it joins forces with our Conservative State Premier, Barry O’Farrell who apparently has no interest in bikes as transport.

On TV,  Barry  reputedly said that people could walk to work on  pogo sticks, for all he cared. (Heard by my wife, Katya)

I guess he thinks that  cycling to work is equally  strange

The Tele much approves of  the Premier’s plans to take  away the mayor’s planning powers,  even as Mr. O”Farrell threatens to dismantle the bike ways she’s already built.

That would be quite popular judging by comments left on the Telegraph story.

“Bless, you Barry, than goodness.”

“Thank you so much,  Barry. This mad woman is killing the city”..

“The cycle lanes are a complete failure. You can watch them for five minutes and not a single rider goes by”

“Onya bike Clover. Sydney has had it with you”

People do love their cars here. Some do hate to see  cars losing space to bikes.

But readers might react differently if things were put in context.  If they knew   that what Clover is doing is normal good  practice world wide, for example

They’re not told of  the extensive  separated Bike-ways New York is building,

or those that London…

….Or Montreal…

…or about  the separated paths which  Paris has on the go where 25,000 public bikes a much loved.

Not told either about  Montreal cutting its car traffic by  14% through bike use,  and  vying to build more  bike-ways than  any city in North America.

We seem to be in a swirl of cross currents here.  At the same time at the Daily Telegraph mounts it campaign against bikes as transport, the Sunday Telegraph runs a story about bikes being, the new black

Many curious things in this story.

1.The riders are women who actually make up only a tiny  percentage of our  bike force.

2.The bikes shown are predominantly Dutch style sit-ups, not the bike of choice here at all.

3. The women wear fashionable clothes, not Lycra as is so common.

4. Almost none pose with helmets.

This package would have  been unthinkable a year ago.

So, what gives the Daily Telegraph  and its attack  a toe hold in the public mind here, seeing that they are so far out of step with global thinking,  as well as with local fashion trends?

Well, last Friday, March 9th 2012, I rode into town on my own bike   to see for myself.

I crossed into Sydney on our magnificent Anzac bridge, a major way into town  for cyclists.

I found a system of  separated paths already in place, far more extensive than I realized , giving an almost unimpeded run into the city.

It’s a network that you have to try to believe. A new Sydney!

Here,  the separated path, a bright green, runs down Union street…

…towards the Pyrmont bridge….

…which bikes cross, sharing  the space with pedestrians.

It’s  not ideal but O.K. because most riders do slow down to 10 Kph.

This leads to the Kent st. another key separated  cycle way, running north-south.

I took the bright green path up towards out famous Harbour bridge.

This stretch was  a revelation, a serious commitment of street space to bikes…

….becoming quite a steep hill as one approaches the bridge.

At the top, were even greater surprises, a beautiful sweep of separated bike-path coming in from the east…

…leading to this neat tunnel towards the city core..


.. that is  if you don’t want to head north over the bridge in the cage.

Boy, I had no idea this bike-ways “problem” had spread so far. And apparently this is only 10 Kms with 190 Kms. yet to be built.

Of those  kms. 55 will be separated paths like those I’m riding on today

You’ve already got a lot of  bike track  to pull out, Mr O’Farrell. Better get destructive  real fast.

Take us backwards, please, just as gas goes up!

“Good on you Barry. Let’s rip up these bike lanes and return the streets to the car.”

“No more subsidies for this tiny proportion of passenger transport”

So, there was no clue for me in the bright new  infrastructure I saw as to why comments to the tabloid press are so angry, why cyclists are so disliked.

The situation is so fertile with fury that visiting planner, John Pucher, from the US declared two years ago…

”Whether I was a pedestrian or cyclist,  I found the level of the hostility of enough Sydney motorists worse than I had seen anywhere in the world.”

If your tune into the shock jocks like Alan Jones,  you get a clue as to what’s seen as wrong. These are the  common  accusations leveled at cyclists.
1. They don’t  obey the rules of the road like stopping  for traffic lights
2 .They speed dangerously.
3. Ride on footpaths
4. Slow the traffic flow.
5. They  don’t stick to the cycle paths when they are provided.
This last charge is important. As O’Farrell does say, why build cycle paths if  cyclists are going to ride 0n the roads anyway?
What did I find? Back to Union street.
It’s true often there were as many cyclists on the road as on the separated paths. Here 50% are on the street.
Here, almost all on the street not the separated path. This is a very quiet street, though.
But when the traffic is busy, moving further down town,I found that  most riders go for the separated path.
Running red lights? Yes they do, I found. Again, in Union st.
But most cross cautiously after looking that the way’s clear.
Almost no one waits for the special bike traffic lights now installed on Union, preferring to go with the larger green.
But when  you get to a busy spot,  where running the bike light would be dangerous,  and then most obey the new bike lights . There is a getting used to factor, I’m sure.
I found strong compliance too on  with the bike lights on Kent street
And very acceptable use levels too, that is for a new system.
Ten bikes here, out numbering the car traffic.
Ten cars not clogging the road, Mr. O’Farrell?

As for speed, I didn’t see dangerous riding. But  our cyclists do  look like they are going fast perhaps because they are dressed for speed









They look like bike couriers or…













Even racers.












Women too look like they are in training which they probably are.

Here lies a big part of the problem I suspect.

Drivers sense they are sharing the road with riders who have another agenda,  and that is keeping fit for their weekend sports rides and  for racing.

(Our cyclists do look superbly fit in contrast to the generally obese population)

But it’s like sharing the road with race car drivers.

A friend who uses her bike a lot agrees that the image of riders in training is a problem.

When drivers shout  at her : “Get off the road,” she’s has the sense that behind the remark, is the idea that she’s like a kid playing cricket on the road and she should get into a park.

When in Lycra on a very fast machine, the temptation is naturally  to go as fast as you can, not to stop for lights, to weave through traffic, to look like your in some sort of game.

Not all do this of course, but that’s the impression the look gives.

This look of our commuting culture,  sets us apart from the rest of the world.

If you doubt we really bare so different, Google,  urban cycling in  Italy, France, Holland,  etc. and see what images come up

When you compare our scene with Europe, the difference is indeed startling.

This woman rides in Copenhagen (photo,  as with some others, from  Copenhagen Cycle Chic)

Cyclists  reply by saying  the way they dress here, their fast machines, is  because of greater distances  they must ride compared with Europe, and other practical reasons.

But I’m not convinced that’s the whole story

In Europe,   it turns out  people often commute just as far as we do, and whilst they  face less hills, their headwinds are fierce.

During the week in Europe ( Montreal in this case) the bike culture looks more like  this

Or this. (Copenhagen)

Or this in Dublin. (A Dublin lawyer rides between chambers and court)

An Amsterdam businessman. In Europe,  all social classes and all ages  ride  bikes. Here,  it’s predominantly young males

(From The Waltz of the Bikes)

On my morning shoot in Sydney, I saw only one rider sporting the European look. This woman looking very out of place.

Does it matter?

Well, considering the hostility  towards cyclists here,

considering Barry is planning to rip out the bike paths,

considering that sporty riders prefer the roads to bike paths,

it matters a lot.

We have to find ways to grow this other culture, the new Black as the Sunday Tele called it, the new look.

If we do, we’ll dilute the sports/training culture and change the vibe. Old ways will remain but a new color, a new friendliness,  is added

Wht will it look like? You just know this couple is not in training, not doing PB’s .

“Come ride with us” they seem to say on their Velibs in Paris.

Rather than, “Out of my way.”  (photo altered)

Our  cycling commuters are  currently disguised as something else. As  weekend sports riders, using  their commutes to train.

Let’s join them with these folks, natural lovers of  the separated paths who’ve even time to talk as they ride..

It’s no one’s fault we ended up with our  mono cycle culture.

I suspect it  all began  with our compulsory  helmet law, bought in  Australia  wide,  in the early nineties.

It seemed like a great idea at the time, but there was a downside.  Whilst many have pointed out that the new law drastically cut cycling numbers…..

so that this became a picture of the past, that is men riding to work….

(Not the only reason of course. Cheaper cars were a major factor)

But what has not been noticed,  is that the new helmet  law worked a bit  like a selective herbicide.

This Helmet herbicide effectively  killed off those who just rode  to school..

A masked ride at  Clovelly, ( State lib. of NSW Flicker stream)

Killed off too those got around with mates.

Or just rode  to the shops.

These riders  had all felt safe, couldn’t see the point  of helmets, and just stopped riding to avoid being hassled by the cops and paying  fines

At the same time,  the helmet herbicide helped grow the ranks of those who already  thought helmets a good idea, who were already using them. They thrived greatly in numbers at the expense of the others

Looking like this guy on Union st.  at  7.30 AM. (face altered)

And so we got this strange mono culture , a bike hero culture, revolving around the helmet which we still have today like nowhere else.

We thus came to to expect  our cycle magazines  to have  covers like his…

And never feature  riders like this.

And never,  never,  this.

But now the new Melbourne magazine, Treadlie,  comes in as a  fresh cross current to this  mono culture.

Note this cover.  No helmet, sit up bike. Basket

Copenhagen Cycle Chic has been a big influence here, Inspiring Saskia Howard to start Sydney Cycle Chic, as she explained in the New Black Story.

Is this a good move to question helmets? Surely we need them?

Well, high compliance of helmet use  has not made us any safer. (On my ride, I saw almost 100%)

Indeed,  we have more chance of being hurt on a bike in Aust.  with a helmet  than that Belgian father and child above.

Why is this, you might well ask.?

Many reasons.

1. There’s  safety in numbers and helmets cut the numbers.

2. Drivers tend to be more careless around helmeted riders and those not protected, a British study showed.

3. Because, in bringing in the helmet  law,  our Govts. virtually  washed their  hands of cycle safety, it was now the responsibility of the rider.

Thus authorities here, till Clover Moore and  a few other progressive politicians got going, did  nothing to build safe separated bike-ways.

Still,  politicians understand  that real cycle safety is  under the wheels not on the head. (see the film at the end on how the Dutch got their system)

We might feel safer. Whenever the comp. helmet topic comes up,  there’s a flood of testimony from riders who swear that their helmet saved their life.

These stories are  often enough to stop helmet reform in it’s tracks, especially when backed up by the sober warnings of Trauma doctors who, for some reason,  can’t see the big picture,  public healthwise

Meet here Dr. Tarek Razek,  Head of Trauma at McGill, Montreal.

Back in 2009, he was strongly urging the Montreal Bike share scheme, Bixi, to incorporate helmets.

It was an impossible demand actually,  and would have effectively killed the Bixis bikes. Fortunately,  his advice  was ignored.

Now 6.8 million Bixi trips later,  with helmet freedom,  and less than 10 serious accidents, I wonder if the doctor now admits his alarmist tone  was not helpful.

I wonder too whether his colleagues here might learn from that.

Surely our obesity epidemic should be front and centre when weighing cost benefits.

Would riding a bike to school have helped here? (photo altered)

What we need to do to  swing our bike  culture  away from the mono, the sports leisure mode,  towards the slower culture of Europe and that includes helmet choice.

Of course whoever want to wear a helmet will can always do so

Then, I predict, the aggro will diminish and more women will ride.

Bike shops will make  just as much money I’m sure,  though they wont be selling as many bikes called, “Badboy” or “Hooligan” names for urban bikes  from the very popular,  Cannondale stable

How do we  do this? We have the means at hand, the veritable magic wand, the proven way to turn masses of non riders into riders of the European sort.

It’s called Bike share . These are the public bike systems which are transforming  140 cities around the world.

These are bikes in racks, usually every 300 meters in a participating city, usually free for the first 30 mins.  once you join up. These are bikes you don’t have to own, don’t have to worry about storing or being stolen.

These are bikes for that moment you need to make a short city trip,  and keep not a second more. They are always sit-up bikes.

Sturdy,  hassle free bikes,  unglamorous it’s true, but with everything you need  except a helmet.

That’s in part because there’s just no way to dispense a sterilized , inspected,  helmet automatically along with such a bike. Thus, wherever there’s bike share, there’s always  helmet choice, meaning most of the planet.

Tel Aviv and Mexico city both got rid of compulsory helmets to enable public bikes. That’s how important authorities ranked them

Boris Bikes in London.

Here’s the mayor himself,  Boris Johnson in London, saluting the success of his scheme over all the naysayers.

Bicings in Barcelona. There are 5000 on the streets of that lovely city,  clocking up 350,000 trips a day.

Bixis in Montreal, also 5000 strong, public bikes which have transformed that city, justified all the new bike ways that they’re  building .

My son, Nicolas who lives   in Montreal,  gave up his car a year ago, and now uses nothing but the  Bixis and public transport to get around. He works for big bank

We do have two public bike schemes here, one in Melbourne and one in Brisbane,  but they are just limping along because to ride these bikes,  you either have to be carrying your helmet with you,  or buy one for the ride.

And that’s not practical. Indeed, subverts the convenience, impulse nature, of public bikes

This is why I was so glad to see  this week that the City of Sydney has adopted  the idea of a special helmet exemption for public bikes, something this blog has been proposing for two years.


The Mayor suspects, I’m sure,   that public bikes are the key to filling her bike-ways and  quietening the opposition

She may also know that Public bikes have a history of calming  city traffic and cutting the aggro,  as Andrew Montague, Mayor of Dublin points out .

This is because such bikes come across as less threatening to drivers. Public bike cyclists may be annoying in other ways, not being such  good riders, for example,,  but they produce a smile because they are…

1. Just people going somewhere. Not in training,

2. They are not running lights, or much less.

3. And they love separated bike-ways

4. They are more track-able and accountable if anti social.

4. Riding on footpaths? Public bikes may still do that,  and in the Northern Territory, few know that  it’s legal, as is riding without a helmet on such paths.

Of course we’ll still have our sport/leisure  commuters , the present mono culture, but their numbers will be diluted and a new  cycling decorum  may well emerge ,  as it has elsewhere. See, The Waltz of the Bikes to get a glimpse of what this looks like

So that’s the modest proposal for the way forward. A new,  helmet choice bike culture to be  trialled in Sydney, specifically targeted to enable Bike share to work.

It wont be easy.  But then, it wasn’t easy for the Dutch either. They weren’t born on bike wheels as many imagine. They had to work hard for the bike solutions they now enjoy. You’ll be surprised how hard.

















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12 Responses to “Sydney cycling, clashing cross currents”

  1. Thanks Mike for this thoughtful update on the sad state of NSW politics. Hearty congratulations for the City of Sydney being the first (local) government to suggest reform of the big helmet law mistake and only the second government after the Northern Territory, to my knowledge.

    The bike share can be important in a City where cycling numbers are low, and can have a big effect overnight (doubling trips in Paris and seeding a further doubling of trips on individually owned bikes within a couple of years). Sydney might fall into this category, with cycling making up a small proportion of trips (falling ever since helmet laws were introduced). But it won’t happen with helmet laws.

    I suspect the State politicians don’t care about the bike lanes but recognise they infuriate the less-enlightened which gives them something to attack Clover Moore with. It will be fascinating to see how the next election for Mayor of Sydney turns out, what will Barry O’Fool say if Clover wins again?

    There are already big increases in cycling thanks to Clover’s new bike lanes, and each increase enlarges the constituency that supports them, and her. This might explain whey O’Fool is so desparate to stop further progess, because he recognises they are breeding support for an independent politician who stands up to Big Business.

    Maybe O’Fool represents those envious of the inner-City lifestyle which Clover is making even better. If so they would do better to emulate her and get some of it for themselves in their suburbs.


    Nik Dow

  2. http://www.situp-cycle.com/2012/03/11/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/now-we-go-on-Ken-400.jpg

    This image is broken – can you fix it? I want to see what the hill looks like! :-)



  3. Mike – thanks for the update on this. I was truly hopeful that this would be the break cycling needs in this country and would shame Brisbane into doing something similar.

    Alas… years of brain washing by the car lobby will take some undoing. I’d love to see your points in mainstream media. Have you considered submitting this?



  4. Whereas the a certain Murdoch title at the other end of the world is running this…



  5. Interesting coverage Mike.

    The people who came up with the helmet law wouldn’t have guessed how it ended up transforming cycling. To expand on the car analogy, if they made helmets and 3 point harnesses mandatory in cars, we would see more sports car drivers, driving more aggressively as they feel vindicated and protected. Gentle drivers would give up, leaving the road to the maniacs, who would not make car drivers popular with the rest of the population.

    This is a bit like what happened to cycling. However, bicycle helmets has spawned such a fanatical religion that many helmet believers refuse to see the damage done by the helmet law, whether it is reducing cycling, making it more dangerous, or increasing animosity with motorists. Cycling numbers and the image of cycling has declined so much that most politicians couldn’t care less about cycling. Many mainstream politicians deride cycling as an unimportant dangerous sport, which is what it has become to most people. It takes an unusual, visionary politician like Clover Moore to rise above that.

    It’s hard to think of a worst way to kill a gentle mode of transport. That it was the done in the name of “safety” is ironic.

    Do we have to wait for the blind zealots who came up with this policy to retire before another generation has the courage to admit this was a mistake? How much damage will have been done by then?

    It is a sad story in so many ways. Many peoples heath has been affected by such a counterproductive policy. There isn’t much more room for cars in big cities. Will we be the last ones to figure this out? We’re leading the way in blindness to our own mistakes ….



  6. Nice post!

    I’m a Dutch guy from Amsterdam living in Sydney and I find the environment to be very cyclist unfriendly too! It’s has definitely put doubts in my mind whether I want to remain in Australia or not, as I don’t want to drive a stinky car to work or waist my time being stuck in public transport! I got fined too the other day for not wearing a helmet! I just wrote a postpost about my cycling experiences in Sydney.


    Martijn Boersma

  7. There’s a free bike hire scheme in Adelaide too.



  8. Good post Mike,
    finally a cycling advocate pointing out the significant difference in character between cyclists in European cities and the bike warrior mentality seen in Sydney, which leads back to your point about the requirements for helmets. I disagree with your assessment of Pyrmont Bridge, I find commuter cyclist ride too fast across the bridge and don’t give pedestrians the separation space required and things only get worse on the shared path to King St.

    as you said the key to getting acceptance for cycling by the majority would be allowing for the European style of cycling to be possible, make helmets optional and that would be start.



  9. Re the London Times’ ‘Cities Safe for Cycling’ campaign, what a shame that of the three illustrations of cyclists on the site’s front page, none is representative of people cycling in cities.

    Further, I wonder how deep the Times’ commitment to the cause really is, given that one of its regular contributors, Matthew Parris, regularly uses his column to vent his spleen on cycling and cyclists. Perhaps in his next diatribe he could blame poor Mary Bowers, the Times’ reporter whose hospitalisation provided the inspiration for the paper’s campaign in the first place, for her predicament.



  10. Hi Mike,

    Good post, you’re on the right (cycle) track! Some great points there.

    A couple of small things, though! Firstly, the photo of London near the top isn’t London, there’s lots of clues in the photo that mark it out to be somewhere in mainland Europe. (We don’t have many separated cycle tracks here in London, actually. In fact, judging by your photos, you have many more there in Sydney already, and they seem of better quality!)

    Secondly, the “Boris Bikes” project was actually started by the previous mayor, Ken Livingstone. Boris just let TfL continue the project.

    Other than that, up the good work! I hope Clover Moore can continue her good work.



  11. This is an amazing post Mike. Totally. I think you really covered it all – and in such a way that could make the “cycle skeptics” to listen. Well I’m not one of them, I couldn’t agree with you more!

    I will move to Sydney in december and although I get a bit shocked seeing only sporty men on carbon bikes in your photos, I am very excited to get on my sit up cycle and be one of those who can show the alternative. I am very excited for what has been done in Sydney recently (although I must say it already looks like those lanes are getting full! Which is positive but they might have to make one way lanes out of some of those green ones!)

    That politician will have to face an increase in cyclists regardless he wants it or not, it is happening everywhere in the world – even where the infrastructure is not there to bare all the cyclists, like here in Stockholm (The increase has really been exponential here since the 90′s although not much has happened with the bicycle lanes.) The cyclists and the debate has created a lot of publicity in newspapers – and that is positive, it used to be quiet you know!!. I think it is very positive that its on the agenda, and I’ve seen many good articles in SMH as well.

    Anyhow, keep up the good work, this was great to read!

    All the best
    /Elin (Sweden)



  12. Those News LTD papers report the populist mentality; not incite a mentality. You ask any motorist and there’s almost a vicious disregard to cyclists. They’re seen as a public menace. O’Fool panders to these fools, while News reports it, as it should.

    The B&S section is on health, so of course as an advocacy section of the newspaper, will promote cycling.

    The only way there’ll be a culture shift is leadership by politicians. Ironically the helmet laws are Labor’s pet idea. The Greens offer no hope as such laws conform with their nannism. The Libs might be the best hope especially if there’s an argument on discrimination and freedom, and the almighty dollar for the bike-share schemes that are currently heavily subsidised, both with bikes themselves and subsidising cheap helmets.

    Clover Moore needs to make stronger arguments than just “climate change”, given the distrust and apathy on that issue these days. She appears as a loon to them, when she should appear as pragmatic. More bikes = less cars = less congestion. Convince them of that then attitudes will swing.


    Being Frank

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