Car-intercourse-bike. Bike comes off second best. Bike-intercourse-car. Bike comes off second best. Australian drivers are some of the most selfish in the world when it comes to sharing the road with more vulnerable forms of transport.
The attitude seems to be that if anything without a motor comes in between a car going from point A to point B it’s violating the driver’s right of way. Having just spent a week riding in Arizona at the Adaptation Futures conference, I got the strong impression that US drivers are more bike friendly than Australian drivers. What can be done to make Australia, a mostly flat country that’s great to ride on, more bike friendly?
I live close by to Beach Road in Melbourne, one of the great rides. It has become so popular on weekends that roadside parking has been banned between 6 and 10 am Saturday in one municipality for the last few years, another for about a year and now the linking council, Bayside, has just announced a permanent ban. That isn’t guaranteed because it hangs on government funding of $1.5 million and the state government has just yanked all new bike infrastructure in the recent state budget. (Rally to protest Sunday July 29)
Jan Garrard in The Conversation points out that bicycle infrastructure and program funding gives a $5 to $1 return on benefit to cost, whereas road funding is much lower and sometimes less than parity. One figure on the proposed East-West tunnel link in Melbourne gives a return of around 70 cents in the dollar. I met an economist from the Victorian Department of Transport at last week’s 41st Australian Conference of Economics who is hell bent on building the link. The Bailleu government is in favour of course, but I got the impression that DoT would be trying to build the link regardless of what the government thought. I made the suggestion that there was some much cheaper infrastructure with higher returns that could be built at much lesser cost. But bicycle infrastructure was cut. Go figure.
Another recent debate on bikes on roads has been whether rider numbers in Australia are increasing and whether helmets should be compulsory. They are in absolute numbers but not in proportion to population growth. This can be put down to a few trends. One is the growth in car-oriented suburbs over the past thirty years. Another has been cultural, working on two fronts. One is the growth of the “I can drive as fast as I like wherever I like” attitude, the other is the cotton-wooling of kids where they are now driven to school. These two trends are inter-related.
Rider numbers are increasing in inner city areas and along main commuter routes but are still low in the suburbs of our sprawling cities.
The helmet liberation army are becoming increasingly vocal in their campaign to see compulsory helmet wearing removed. This is based on several lines of argument with evidence of varying quality.
Studies gauging intent to ride if helmets were removed suggest the added fitness from those riders would deliver greater benefits than the added injury from crashes without helmets. This is essentially a utilitarian argument. There are two issues to this – one is that stated intent to ride is not the same as riding. Studies continually show that stated intent is sensitive to framing issues, so it is unlikely that all the people who say they would ride, would ride. The other is that although the health benefits from increased fitness and costs of head injuries can be balanced monetarily they are not the same.
Added fitness from more riders (if the argument that more people would ride helmet free and exercise more than they otherwise would) is a frequent small benefit, acquired brain damage or death is an infrequent large loss. People continually weight these losses differently and the difference between how individuals weight these loss/gains varies widely. If a minimax argument is made, the minimum number of maximum losses, then the argument for compulsory helmets becomes stronger.
The last few articles on The Conversation on rider numbers have been reduced in the comments to a yes/no argument on compulsory helmets. Neither side, in my view, have done themselves too many favours with poorly argued I’m right, you’re wrong arguments relying on inference and providing little understanding of risk and less of the economics of risk.
My view is that reforming bicycle transport in Australia cannot be reduced to a single issue. There is no silver bullet. It requires a three-pronged approach. This needs to recognise the unique aspects of Australian transport, infrastructure and culture.
Culture – back to the first paragraph. Australian driver culture is toxic. One of the great things I saw while in the states were signs everywhere that said share the road. That has to be our motto here and we need to change driver culture to manage that. This also means that cyclists need to become a little less holier than thou, run fewer red lights and acknowledge good driver behaviour. Often. I’m aware that four wheels behave worse on average than two wheels, but selective sampling means that bikes get noticed more often. If riders think they’re good on the inside, they’ll have to be extra good on the outside. And people: lycra is sensible. Get over it.
Infrastructure – we need more on the economics looking at the co-benefits and externalities of riding. My personal co-benefits include greater fitness than otherwise; higher work productivity through fitness, mood and quality thinking time; low carbon emissions and low impact on infrastructure. There are lots of benefits and the economics need to be emphasised. As detailed above though, I think we have to careful as to how risks are translated into dollars when assessing costs and benefits.
Legal and general – it may be possible to justify no helmets safely for <20 kmh riding on town bikes etc but if minimax risk management is applied, then not with the current culture and infrastructure. That really needs to be fixed and won’t happen quickly unless governments come to play. Currently in Australia the car is receiving even more special treatment than it usually gets, especially in the eastern states. Two-tier riding behaviours need to be recognised, where we have genteel commuting including riding to school, town riding, family and recreation as one tier and fast commuting, training and long rides as the other. That’s without thinking about expanding mountain biking in the countryside.
One final lack is a comprehensive plain language interpretation of car and bike road rules and regulations to help explain how car drivers and cyclists can engage in civilized intercourse. Australia-wide standards would be nice. I have looked at the road rules and regulations in Victoria and there is no way that they can be interpreted sensibly. What do green bike lanes mean in Victoria? They don’t say. The guidance from peak cycling bodies is not comprehensive enough. When can solid white lines be crossed and when not? Can cars cross out of designated lanes, across a green bike lane and two white lines? It seems they can. Elsewhere in the regulations it says that single and double white lines have the same function – is that only in the middle of the road? Drivers think that one peleton cannot overtake the other. They can if they’re two abreast and not on a highway and are signalling to overtake (a big mob of four abreast is not legal).
It’s difficult to share the road with diverse vehicle types, and with the regulations and infrastructure we have now, it’s not clear how that should best be done.