Spin cycle

Lots of discussion about cycling in the media in the last few days. Last night Liz Hayes strapped on a helmet and hit the road with muppet NSW premier Kristina Keneally for Sixty Minutes. “Vicious Cycle” played up the extremes of the conflict between motorists and cyclists in Sydney, but the issues at the heart of the story are real and need to be addressed.

The stats have it that 1.4 million bikes were sold in Australia last year compared to 1 million cars, and it’s the ninth consecutive year bikes have outsold cars. I’d like to know what percentage of those bikes are pink and trailing streamers and sold around Christmas-time, but it’s still a shirtload of bikes.

On Saturday the Sydney Morning Herald splashed a similar story on their front page, proclaiming Sydney as “The city that hates bikes”. (cover your ears, Big Red!)

There are a couple of catalysts for all the coverage. A US academic is publishing a paper in the Journal of Transport Geography, showing his findings that Sydney is really not a nice city for bike riders. The City of Sydney has also pledged $76 million for a network of 200km of bike lanes throughout the city’s streets, and there’s talk of a cyclists’ centre (secure lock-up facilities, showers etc) being built at Taylor Square to encourage bike commuters.

It’s hard to know how it will all work, and there are bound to be even more teething problems as we try to work out how bikes and cars will share the road. But it’s so good to see the council recognising the role bikes can play in a great city – relieving traffic congestion and pollution, encouraging fitness. At a simpler level too I reckon riding a bike makes you appreciate your surroundings more – you smell freshly cut grass or what people are cooking for dinner, you have time to notice sunlight and flowers and random street art. Although riding through George Street will almost certainly never be like this!

Parts of Sydney are already bike-friendly. My commute from home in Randwick to work in Redfern is idyllic, weaving through parks and composed almost entirely of bike path, so I don’t need to go on the road at all. But on the occasions I’ve had to ride into or through the city, it’s a different story.

There are almost no bike paths. Many of the streets are one way, the lanes are narrow and drivers are aggressive. There are too many pedestrians for riding on the footpath to be an option (this is also illegal, unless you’re a minor). I understand why drivers get frustrated with cyclists flaunting the road rules, but when the environment is so against you it becomes that much more tempting to run red lights and weave between lanes to try to get through.

Can we also recognise that just as there are good and bad drivers, there are good and bad cyclists? And not all bike-riders are Lance Armstrong wannabes or kamikaze couriers. Generally those who wear lycra have a pretty different ethos about bike riding to those who don’t. (I am sure there is a laboured pun here about crazy lycra riders – “American Cyclo”? “Lycrapaths”?)

Beyond Sydney, Brisbane has already invested quite a lot in cycling infrastructure in the last few years. I believe at the moment they’re looking at introducing a bike hire scheme like they have in Paris. This led the Courier-Mail to do some scare-mongering headlines (no really, I shrieked), like “police vow to crack down on drunken cyclists”.

In Canberra there are bikes everywhere, it’s so flat it seems a perfect biking environment. But hills aren’t always enough to deter a bike culture. Look at San Francisco, the most bike-lovin’ city I’ve ever seen and also the hilliest! Bike path on almost every street, people cycling everywhere, no helmets necessary.

And then there is the promised land of bikes – Holland. A truly evolved nation, where biking is so naturally part of people’s lives that they can do almost anything while pedalling – hold an umbrella, make phone calls, eat sandwiches… The bikes over there are mostly laid-back townie style, heavy-set but beautiful and made for an ambling pace, always with chainguards and mudguards so that the girls can pretty much wear couture while cycling and not be concerned about getting grotty.

We can dream….

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