Kim Huynh considers why people are unkind towards cyclists and oppose bicycle infrastructure.
Recently Anne Treasure made a strong case for building separate bike paths as a way to boost the levels of safety, fun and efficiency on our busiest public thoroughfares.
There’s been a huge response to the article, much of it supportive. Many others (on Facebook in particular) have criticised cyclists and opposed moves to allocate more resources to them. Considerable vitriol has been directed at the aggressive or pretentious lycra-clad variety.
As a self-professed and somewhat self-conscious middle-aged man in lycra (MAMIL), I think it’s important to consider and address these criticisms.
A small detour first. I regularly hear well-travelled and visiting cyclists remark that Australians are strikingly unkind towards them.
If this true, I wonder again whether Australia’s post-1788 frontier history in part explains our tendency to esteem rugged silent types and decry more dainty fellows in loud tights.
And then there’s the fact that Canberra is a spread out city in a wide brown country that loves and needs cars. With Summernats having just passed, it’s worth asking to what extent this love and need breeds antagonism towards road cyclists.
So here’s the top four arguments against cyclists (focusing on the derided MAMILs) and separate cycling infrastructure, along with my response to them.
4. Cyclists are dangerous and unruly
The greatest criticism of dangerous and unruly cycling comes from fellow cyclists who understand that we’re a misunderstood minority in a sometimes hostile land. As a consequence, our negative actions tend to tar the entire group.
The main thing for competitive and aspirational cyclists is to confine big efforts to races, the open road and the trainer, and take it easy where there are other commuters around (in other words, be judicious when using Strava).
There’s no doubt that cyclists do the wrong thing and are stupid at times, but that’s largely because we’re human, not because we’re on two wheels rather than four. Only last week, police have described ACT motorist behaviour as ‘alarming’, ‘reckless’ and ‘beyond comprehension’.
What was missing from the many comments responding to Anne Treasure’s article were accounts of recklessness and intentional wrongdoing from motorists against cyclists – such as screaming obscenities, running us off the road and throwing garbage – all of which endangers our lives and blackens our days.
3. Cyclists should be registered
The argument goes that cyclists use the roads and therefore should be registered. Moreover registration fees can help pay for segregated infrastructure. Riders would also be more accountable and have insurance to pay for the accidents that they cause.
When it comes to cyclists paying their dues, I’d be grateful for more specific research on the costs and benefits of riding with respect to transportation and well-being. However, the environmental impact seems manifestly smaller than driving a car. And more cycling generally means fewer cars and less congestion for everyone. In addition, when good infrastructure is in place, cycling is surely a positive public health measure.
So unless cyclists have number plates on their helmets, I can’t see how registration would increase accountability and dissuade misbehaviour. If you see cyclists doing the wrong thing are you going to chase them down and demand their registration cards? The only thing that registration would dissuade is people getting on their bikes.
Of course, riders should be encouraged to carry id and have insurance (see Pedal Power ACT), but mandating it is excessive and counterproductive, which is why only last month the NSW government did an about-turn when it comes to requiring cyclists to carry id.
2. Cyclists are pretentious w@nkers
Cycling apparel can be indiscreet. It’s a bit like wearing swimmers or undies in public. For this reason, we should have frank and respectful discussions about how far cyclists can venture from their bikes while still wearing their kit (the office is probably too far).
However, donning lycra isn’t totally about ego. Spending hours in the saddle demands a good chamois. Tight but right fitting clothes militate against chafing. And garish attire helps you to be seen.
To be sure, many MAMILs also probably wear lycra for show. Sometimes there might not be much to show off. But little if any harm is done by their exhibitionism. And to the extent that the MAMIL phenomenon is a reflection of mid-life crises, it’s preferable to buying sports cars and having harmful affairs (although MAMILs can probably do those things too).
Finally, the best response to pretentiousness is to simply not care what people wear and judge them by more substantial measures.
1. Cyclists often don’t use cycle paths so why build more?
I suspect we have to take this criticism on a case-by-case basis, weighing up in different locations whether it’s better to have faster cyclists on paths with walkers, or on roads with cars.
Cyclists should be prudent and consider others when deciding to go on the path or on road. Perhaps we should choose the path more often, put up with the bumps, sacrifice a few minutes so that we can enjoy the ride, and endure the minor weight penalty of affixing a bell to our handlebars to warn others.
It follows that motorists should be mindful of treating bikes like cars, not overtaking unless it’s safe, and refraining from beeping that horn unless there’s good reason to do so.
All of this suggests that, where there’s high traffic, there should be separate bike paths. When it comes to commuting, the best way to promote harmony is to keep us apart.
Where do you sit when it comes to lycra wearing and bicycle infrastructure? What are some key dos and don’ts when it comes to cycling in Canberra and beyond?
Kim Huynh is a RiotACT columnist, lectures international relations at the ANU and has been riding Canberra’s paths since he was a wee lad.