josh rosner

BICYCLES AND CARS: AN ACRIMONIOUS RELATIONSHIP

In Australian Culture and Society on September 28, 2012 at 2:09 am

History records numerous wars fought for seemingly banal reasons. Someone, somewhere, at some time may have had an inkling of the origins of the particular conflict and perhaps why and how it escalated to a full-blown battle, but over time, as the bloody, unforgiving reality of combat progressed, history concerned itself less with why and more with how – how to win.

My hometown of Canberra has, in recent years, taken on the appearance of a battleground, in which cars fight with bicycles for space on the roads. Canberra likes to tout its credentials as a ‘bike friendly’ city and, for the most part, it is. The city is littered with designated bicycle paths. Some form part of the road structure and in other places bicycle paths are independent, designated paths separated from other traffic.

Much of the new battleground, like many wars, is being fought over territory. Car drivers believe the roads were built for them. Bicycle riders – more often the serious lycra-clad riders on bikes worth as much as a small sedan – believe they have as much right to use the same roads. It’s a classic stand-off that has slowly escalated into nasty territory.

Many major cities around the world have had to deal with a burgeoning number of bicycle riders. A common response has been designated bicycle paths, whether, as I’ve already suggested, they are part of the road system or independent paths. Some cities have experienced considerably more success than others. New York, for example, continues to be plagued with frustrated drivers – taxis, mostly – driving or parking in the bicycle lanes, yet European cities such as Groningen, in the north of Holland, have today an entrenched culture of bike riding along the city streets that is a great success.

The Dutch university city of Groningen takes its bike riding very seriously.

So who is in the right?  My view is a simple one. Where the taxpayers have been generous enough to construct or designate a lane or path for bicycle riders, that’s where the bicycle rider should ride – with or without lycra. Admittedly, bike riders can also be taxpayers and, admittedly, bike riders may also be car owners who pay for the upkeep of the road network through their car registration and other taxes. Be that as it may, the issue is one of equality, law and safety, as I see it.

EQUALITY

This is not, as one may be tempted to view it, a matter of cars and bicycles sharing the roads together with equal rights, equal freedoms and mutual respect. The are two reasons cars and bicycles are not equal. First, only cars are required by law to be registered and second, cars are not permitted to drive on the bicycle paths. For the field to be a level one on which to play, bikes would need to pay a registration fee to use the roads (or, at least, be taxed in a way other than the rider also being a car driver and tax payer) and cars would need to be afforded the same right to choose between road or bicycle path as bikes. Patently, the latter is a dangerous and untenable option. Bicycles and cars are not equal, nor should they be.

LAW

In Canberra I am beginning to see an increase in the number of bike riders not wearing a helmet. This may be nothing more than a consequence of the increase in bike riders across the city. I personally believe bike rider’s should be free to choose whether they wear a helmet while riding or not (although I would not extend that same freedom of choice to motorbike riders). I’ve seen convincing evidence that suggests wearing a helmet can lead to dangerous compensatory behaviour amongst bike riders. Leaving that aside, the law requires bike riders to wear a helmet in Canberra, so they should be worn.

Of greater significance than the flagrant flouting of helmet laws is the way bike riders navigate traffic and obey (or not) traffic laws. There is rarely a day goes by when I don’t witness a bike rider on the road pull past waiting traffic at a set of lights and move to the front of the queue – bad enough in itself – and then, once the pedestrian light turns green (but while the lights for waiting cars remain red) ride their bike across the intersection. This is illegal. It is also unnecessarily arrogant and does little to further the bike rider’s cause. There are many more examples of the ways in which bike riders flaunt the laws, usually to their own detriment. Take a look at YouTube!

SAFETY

Canberra’s main street, Northbourne Avenue, has a bicycle lane along its edge on both sides. The lane is shared by cars when turning left and buses when stopping to pick-up and drop-off. Bike riders, instead of waiting for a car or bus to continue its journey or move out of the bike lane frequently pull into the lane beside them. Too frequently they do so in a dangerous manner, causing cars in turn to swerve dangerously to miss them.

Most mornings, weather permitting, I walk with my dog around Lake Burley-Griffin. At various points along the walk there is a separate, designated bike path, and at other points pedestrians (of which there are considerable in the warmer months) share a path with bike riders. There are signs posted at frequent intervals advising all who use the paths that none has more right to be there than another. Or, to put it another way, bike riders do not have the right to power along at break-neck speeds using paths that are also populated with joggers, walkers, children, ducks, black swans, dog walkers and tourists, expecting everyone and everything to get out of their way. Unfortunately, I see this almost every day.

Recently I was walking with my dog and a woman came up behind my barelling along on her bike and when she was close enough for me to hear her she yelled out, “Bike rider.” In the time it took me to turn she was riding past me. She failed to slow down as she passed, despite barely enough room for all of us. Had my dog been spooked and ran in front of her bike, he no doubt would now be dead and she no doubt would have ended up over the handlebars, face first along the bitumen. The latter I could live with. Not the former.

London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, multi-tasking without a helmet.

I’m not suggesting the increase in bicycle use in Canberra and many other cities is in any way negative. Obvious it is good for the environment and good for health. But we should not draw the conclusion that environmental and health benefits equate to unfettered rights for bike riders. It does not.

One obvious and logical reason to build designated bike paths is to remove bikes from the vicinity of cars. Bikes travel slower than cars. They also tend to come off second best in a collision. It seems logical to me that bike riders should be fighting for separate bike paths, away from the traffic, rather than unnecessarily expecting to add to already congested roads where there is a far greater risk of an accident.

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