New South Wales’ draconian new cycling penalties, which include fines of up to $450 and require all people riding bikes to carry photo ID, made me think of the fixie-riding hipster shown below.
On 26 June 1906, he was sued at court for riding his bike on a footpath in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens. In a letter read to the court, the cyclist was unapologetic: he did not think he was doing any harm, as hundreds rode through the gardens without incident.
To no avail – he copped a 2s 6d fine plus court costs. Who was this reprobate? Australia’s second Prime Minister, the “Father of Federation” and former state member for Essendon and Flemington, Alfred Deakin.
Deakin often rode his bike to Parliament in the years before cars became a common sight on Melbourne roads. I have a rule that I break on an almost-daily basis: never read the comments on online cycling articles. In addition to the usual comments (people riding bikes should be registered, I once saw one run a red light, they look ridiculous in lycra, etc) people often opine that our roads were not designed for bikes. Yet it wasn’t until 1916 that cars became so prevalent on Melbourne roads that safety regulations, like requiring that all cars drive on the left hand side and occupy no more than two lanes, came into effect.
Regulation to improve safety of road users is a wonderful thing, but policy that serves only politics is bad policy. The penalties introduced by NSW Transport Minister (and self-proclaimed “biggest bike lane sceptic”) Duncan Gay have nothing to do with safety and everything to do with pandering to angry drive-time call-back radio listeners stuck in their cars. Like the former Victorian Liberal government, for Gay the answer to clogged roads must always be more roads.
This ignores a vast amount of international data showing that building roads doesn’t solve traffic problems. It’s called induced demand, and it can worsen traffic on improved or expanded roads. Case in point: the state of Texas spent $2.8B expanding the Katy highway to 23 lanes (!) and traffic delays actually got worse.
So most cities are actively looking for ways to improve transport mode share, with some even trialing schemes to pay people to ride to work. Instead, NSW is ripping up bike lanes, matching the hostile rhetoric with an environment that is physically hostile as well.
All of this will lead to fewer people cycling less often.
This is not only bad transport policy, it’s bad health policy. In 2010, lifestyle diseases were estimated to cost Australia $37B in direct and indirect costs. Lack of physical activity is the fourth highest risk factor in global mortality. When the Federal government is continuing to cut health funding to the states, creating a hostile and unsafe environment for people riding bikes is short sighted, to say the least.
For me, it’s not just an issue of policy, it’s personal. Ten years ago I weighed 15 kg more than I do now. I experienced frequent anxiety and periodic depression. My father and uncle had both died suddenly of strokes at the age of 60 and I was only 35 and already on medication to reduce my blood pressure. The writing wasn’t so much on the wall as hitting me repeatedly over the head.
One day I got on a bike and rode to work. It wasn’t terrible. So I did it again the next day. I started dropping weight and my blood pressure improved. And when you don’t feel physically terrible all the time, your mental state improves as well, in my case enough to give me the motivation to seek help for my mental health issues. It’s an over-simplification, maybe, but I believe it to be true: cycling saved my life.
You might think it’s strange, then, that I wouldn’t call myself a cyclist. I love to ride bikes, but as the Danish/Canadian urbanist Mikael Colville-Andersen points out, calling someone who rides a bike a cyclist makes about as much sense as calling someone who uses a Hoover a vacuumist. For more people to start cycling, it needs to be seen as a normal activity, not a subculture with special clothing, unwritten rules and pitfalls for the newby.
In Seattle, a program to actively promote a change of language has lowered the temperature in the so-called “cycle wars” to promote respect for all road users and take the emotion out of what should be a sedate discussion on how to get the most people from A to B in the most efficient, healthiest and least environmentally-damaging way possible.
I like to think Deakin would approve. He was a rare master of both policy and politics, tackling complex issues from agricultural irrigation to how to best join the disparate Australian colonies in Federation. As he argued to the court, the vast majority of people ride bikes without incident or outcry. But he still copped a fine. Perhaps we haven’t progressed as far in 110 ten years as we’d like to think.