The bicycle is a machine of utmost elegance. If you had to invent the minimum-gesture device to address the maximum number of contemporary crises – carbon, congestion, pollution, obesity, health costs, land-pillage, sprawl – that device would surely be the bike. Is that why Australians hate it?
The weekend cycling death of Mudgee grandmother Jill Bryant will no doubt intensify Roads Minister Duncan Gay’s urge to ban cyclists from certain roads. In NSW, 14 cyclists were killed last year: double the year before. But to ban bikes for that reason would be the transport equivalent of closing primary schools because kids were shot at Sandy Hook.
Instead, the Minister should expedite measures for making cycling safer without pushing cyclists off the road.
There is tempting symbolism in the Mudgee accident: eco-minded female run down in daylight, from behind, on Mother’s Day by that hyper-male vehicle, the 4WD ute. In general terms, if not in the particular, the symbolism is real. Any cyclist knows it. The bike wars are culture wars.
Bike-hate is not principally about delay. Motorists show remarkable patience for other cars. They’ll sit comfortably behind stoppers, parkers, turners and incompetents of all kinds. But sitting behind a bike makes many people mad. Really mad. Why? Because bikes represent cultural change. Cultural change is threatening.
This is ironic, since the bike easily predates the car. But the bike is also the form of the future. That makes it dangerous.
Admittedly, there are rainy days and long trips that cycling does not suit. But for the half of household trips that are under 5 kilometres, cycling is perfect.
The car, by contrast, is deeply last century. Aggressive, loud, fast, filthy, thrilling, conscienceless and blindingly convenient, it either exacerbates these crises or has caused them.
Don’t get me wrong. I love driving. I adore road trips. But this isn’t about what I want. Sadly, it’s not even about what you want. It’s about the wants of the other 7.2 billion planetary humans. Which makes it, simply, obvious. We can’t all drive everywhere.
In cycling policy, as in all things green, Australia lags. Well, naturally. Just being young, wealthy, educated, immense and sunny is no reason for us to lead the way to the future.
Yet even in America, people are driving less. This is especially marked amongst millennials (born 1981-2000) and, since it predates the downturn, is not economically driven. Which is why it is increasingly seen as the way of the future.
For 80 years, from 1920, vehicle use in the US grew steadily. In 2004 it peaked, and by 2010 was roughly ten 10 per cent below the long-term trend. The same shift, though smaller, has characterised Australian cities. Young people are choosing to drive less.
This phenomenon is so striking that it has been seriously studied. Dozens of explanations are proposed, including smartphone connectivity and the non-car-dependent availability of sex.
But what matters is that it’s not a cost thing. It’s a lifestyle thing. A choice.
Greg Fischer, entrepreneurial mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, is completing the Louisville Loop, a 180-kilometre shared cycleway, specifically to attract inner-city residents. San Francisco and Boston have major ‘'walk first'’ programs, prioritising pedestrians, then bikes, then cars. San Francisco has its amazing Critical Mass event and dozens of small Michigan communities are pursuing '‘complete streets'’ – designed to validate bikes, transit and pedestrians, as well as cars and trucks, as essential street users.
Pedestrians are core. You can run a city without cars (Venice, say, or Sydney in Olympic mode). But a city without pedestrians is inconceivable. Such a city has no retail. No bars. No music. No buskers. No theatres. No sense of place, connectedness or community. A city without pedestrians is not a city. It’s a business park. And bikes are pedestrians on wheels.
Cars have economic upsides, certainly. But they also have economic, as well as health and environmental, downsides. A Texas Transportation Institute study found that in 2007 congestion caused an annual $78 billion fuel-loss.
Yet in Sydney, Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian cancelled funding for the Inner West GreenWay, a cycleway along the new light-rail. She defunded the last, connecting bit of the Liverpool Street cycle lane.
Instead we have Lend Lease’s hideous, $25 million engineering extravaganza, the Albert (Tibby) Cotter Walkway on Anzac Parade, opposed even by cycling groups, yet contracted before it was even approved. The entire Seacliff Bridge cost only twice this amount – and all so that visitors to the 2015 Cricket World Cup won’t have to cross at the lights.
This is madness. Grade separation has never worked well for cities. What sane pedestrian will loop-the-loop when you can cross at grade? Groundedness is a pedestrian’s right, and a cyclist’s. Cities need pedestrians and, increasingly, pedestrians demand cities.
This is why Surry Hills and Redfern continue to skyrocket. It’s why youngsters bus in every night and why opinion-leaders are immigrating from Gordon and Hunters Hill. Everyone wants that walking-and-cycling lifestyle.
For me, cycling to a downtown meeting is quick, reliable, clean, fun and free. Better still, it saves me from gym-time. But it’s not safe. Cycling deaths are up, but fewer than 20 per cent are caused by cyclist error. License cyclists if you must, Mr Gay, but it won’t reduce deaths. We need cycle paths: more, connected, now.
It’s no longer an inner city thing. In Bateman’s Bay, Coffs, Junee and Coonabarabran, cycleways proliferate. Three-quarters of NSW people want to be able to cycle.
We know the benefits. Weight loss. Clean air. Interesting streets. Walkable nightlife. Explorable shopping. Street talk. And time not-spent-commuting to enjoy it. In short, villages.
The government’s NSW 2021: A Plan to Make NSW Number One sets 32 goals. Goal seven is Reduce Travel Times. Goal 10: Improve Road Safety. Goal 11: Keep People Healthy. Goal 20: Build Liveable Centres. Goal 22: Protect our Natural Environment. Goal 27: Enhance Cultural, Creative, Sporting and Recreation Opportunities. Each is furthered by bikes and pedestrians. Each is undone by cars. Join the dots, Mr Gay. And the cycle paths.
SYDNEY MORNING HERALD COLUMNIST,
AUTHOR, ARCHITECTURE CRITIC AND ESSAYIST