Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Two wheels good: in defence of urban cyclists

The author's girlfriend, on her way to menace Adelaide motorists 

Why do so many people hate cyclists? It’s a question that has both serious and less than serious answers, but to my mind it’s the serious ones that are winning out. We seem to be living in a time of increasing hostility towards those among us who opt for two wheels over four, and I say that as someone who has neither owned or routinely used a bicycle since the 1990s. (If anyone is interested, in primary school I was a member of a bicycle-based gang called Slashed Spokes whose membership was limited to desperately affable nerds. Our quest for notoriety in the badlands of leafy middleclass suburbia proved futile, although it’s possible we once terrorised an elderly magpie).

The urban cyclist has long been the subject of ridicule, connecting generations of comedians from Monty Python to Eddie Perfect. The latter’s ‘Self Righteous Cyclist’, an unfunny grab bag of clichés, encapsulates a view held by many: that urban cyclists are lycra-wearing phonies more interested in their next fat-free latté than their next kilometre on the bike.

Other critiques paint a more ominous picture. With satire-proof silliness, a recent editorial in the Australian condemned city cyclists as ‘arrogant’ and ‘selfish’, and the authorities as craven servants of cyclists’ lobby groups for extending bike lines and putting up fines for people who open their car doors into cyclists. The editorial came in the wake of a now infamous dooring incident in Melbourne’s CBD.

Bicycle use in Australia is increasing and so is the number of accidents involving cyclists. 2013 saw a 42 per cent spike in cyclist deaths across the country. It goes without saying that such a statistic is not a laughing matter, but I doubt songs such as Perfect’s reveal genuine malice. Much more troubling than the self righteous cyclist is the self righteous motorist, if only because the laws of physics dictate that the former will always come off – often literally – second best in any collision with the latter.

The anti-cycling brigade would have us believe that cyclists are forever breaking road laws and riding on roads that they shouldn’t. I have never seen a cyclist run a red light; I have seen the passenger of a car deliberately open his door into a cyclist when both were stopped at a red light. Both the passenger and driver laughed as they sped off, leaving the cyclist tottering dangerously on a busy road. Within weeks of my partner taking up cycling for her commute to work on Adelaide’s highly bike-friendly flat near-city roads, she told me that at a succession of intersections a carload of young men had yelled at her. This wasn’t a particularly high-spirited brand of wolf whistling, she felt, but a concerted attempt to intimidate her into losing her balance. Still, the Oz tells us, it is the cyclists who are the menaces on our roads.

So what exactly is our problem with cyclists? Why, in the words of Melbourne writer Doug Hendrie, do drivers ‘reserve a particular savagery for cyclists’ that does not extend to other differently wheeled forms of transport such as buses or trams? One answer could lie in the fact that cyclists do more for their bodies and more for the planet than the rest of us. One recent study has shown that transitioning from the car to the bike could add as much as 14 months of life while Deakin University research tells us that for each kilometre travelled on bike rather than by car, about 0.3 kg of CO2 is saved. Guilt, if you’ll pardon the pun, has always been a powerful driver of hate.  

The more substantial answer, however, can I think be traced to where the real sense of entitlement exists: in the ‘right’ of motorists to drive as quickly and carelessly as they want on city roads. The harried businessman does not want to have to look before swinging open the taxi door, the mother who is running late dropping her children off at school does not want to have to wait for a break in the traffic to overtake a slow-moving cyclist. Unsubstantiated anti-cyclist rhetoric fuels the sense that too many drivers have that the roads belong to them, and anyone on two wheels is an interloping upstart who should get out of the way or else. This territorial angst is made worse in my hometown, Adelaide, by a farcically disproportionate amount of car parking space in the city; there are currently 41,000 spaces compared to 30,000 in Sydney, a city with more than three times Adelaide’s population.     

The reality is that cycling is the way of the future. Its uptake is steadily rising in Australia (though more markedly amongst men who, it would seem, are more willing to take the risk) at a time when it is widely recognised that road transport accounts for one of the largest slices of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions pie. ‘When I see an adult on a bicycle,’ H.G. Wells said, ‘I do not despair for the future of the human race.’ He was probably thinking of cycling’s essential and too often forgotten playfulness rather than its environmental credentials, but the aphorism works even better today because the future of the human race really is at stake, and in no small part due to the massive consumption of fossil fuels engendered by our overreliance on motorised transport.

A friend of mine has promised to lend me his bike for the rest of this month while he is overseas. No doubt I’ll be wobbly for a few days while I try and think of all that stuff you’re supposed to never be able to forget about how to make the bike move forwards with you still attached to it. You may hate me for it, but the only one who’ll be terrified will be me because the only menaces on our roads are the ones with smoke coming out of them, and out of the ears of the people making them move self righteously forwards. 

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