Cyclists are an oppressed minority.
Car drivers resent cyclists on the road, and pedestrians resent us on the footpaths, even when they’re designated cycleways as well. On the same ride I’ve been told aggressively to get off the road and use the footpath by a car driver, and to get off the path and use the road by a pedestrian! I’ve even had full drink bottles thrown at me by passing hoons in cars. And yet I’m a very law-abiding cyclist who always keeps to the left and am very aware of and respectful of other road/path users.
The extreme version of this hostility/disregard towards cyclists was the collision in Germany in 2005 that killed Amy Gillet and maimed other members of the Australian cycling team, not to mention the “hit and run” dickhead who somehow avoided killing anyone only a few weeks ago near Sydney. However, even casual cyclists like me get subjected to lesser versions of this sort of ignorant, dangerous treatment on a daily basis. Drivers either don’t see cyclists or assume that they have an unfettered right to drive their car into a traffic lane or turn left or right across a cyclist’s bows and that you will somehow manage to get out of their way.
Somehow or other public attitudes to cycling need to change urgently. Petrol prices can only keep rising over time irrespective of global warming or emissions permits, simply because of the impending “peak oil” and growing demand from China and India. Inducing many more people to use bikes for transport much more frequently will be one of the cheapest and most effective ways to reduce our oil consumption.
I’m sure people would do it now if the option was made safer, more accessible and attractive to a wider range of users. Jen and I both cycle just about everywhere in Darwin. We own two cars but seldom use them, so petrol prices don’t really bother us. We’re lucky in a sense, because Darwin is fairly flat and well endowed with cycle paths, and we both work close enough to home to make cycle commuting an attractive option. We even ride into the city to restaurants, movies and theatre, and carry home all our shopping on the handlebars. It makes us healthier, contains middle-aged spread as well as saving money, and we never have parking problems because we can always chain up our bikes right outside our destination.
There’s no reason why governments couldn’t make cycling much more attractive in many other cities as well. Despite that, big cities like Melbourne and Sydney make little effort to accommodate cyclists.
A few excessively narrow cycle lanes on main roads which require you to take your life in your hands to use them in peak hours is about the extent of it, though Melbourne has a modest network of off-road cycle paths if you know where to find them. However, moving in the opposite direction of what’s needed, Melbourne recently put restrictions on cyclists taking their bikes on trains during peak hours.
Here are a few relatively simple ideas that could make cycling a more attractive option for just about everyone:
- Create many more separate cycle paths so people from every part of a city can cycle to work, either completely off road or at least separated from the vehicular carriageway by substantial concrete ripple strips to deter car drivers from simply ignoring them and mowing down any cyclists in their way.
- Every bus should have a cycle rack at front and rear, and every suburban/commuter train should have a cycle rack in every single carriage. Commuting through a combination of cycling and public transport is often potentially far quicker and more convenient than either car or public transport alone, and would help to alleviate traffic congestion caused by people currently virtually forced to commute by car because their destination is too indirectly served by public transport.
- Governments should provide modest subsidies for pensioners and other older or less fit people to buy bikes with supplementary electric motors (to help them get up steeper hills).
- They could even have snowfields-style T-bar tows on the steepest commuter hills (like Spit Hill on Sydney’s north shore) to encourage more people to cycle to work without needing to be super-fit or arrive exhausted.
- Governments should mount ongoing PR campaigns, both promoting the advantages of cycling and warning other road users that cyclists have every right to use the roads and must be treated with respect and consideration.
- Lastly, police should aggressively enforce the road rules against drivers who treat cyclists as if they aren’t even there, and against the few cyclists (mostly bike couriers) who equally treat the rules with contempt.
Whatever happens with global warming and emissions permits, I predict that traffic in urban Australia is going to look a lot more like Asian cities within a few years, with a much higher proportion of our population commuting by bike. What’s more we’ll all be better off as a result.