11 Mar 2012
Sydney cycling, clashing cross currents
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 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.”
5. They don’t stick to the cycle paths when they are provided.
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…
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
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
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.?
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.