I was involved in an interesting twitter conversation yesterday and I felt a blog post arising from it. It started with a tweet from Mikael Colville-Andersen aka @copenhagenize:
Tim Stredwick, our local Hobart bike hero also known as @bicycle_tim, retweeted this (without the Salon article link unfortunately, so I missed that):
That’s where I first saw it, and then I reacted (perhaps a little strongly…):
The conversation continued thus:
The thing is, I think it is an unhelpful position for a cycling advocate to take in Hobart. In Hobart, the car is still king. Bicycle infrastructure is in its infancy. A cultural shift is needed for safer roads in Hobart.
It’s unhelpful if anti-bike people read this message: they’ll just see it as excusing what they see as the typical cyclist’s behaviour, and use it as one more reason to push for having bicycles removed from the road entirely. Bike registration anyone?
But it’s also unhelpful for those who already ride antisocially: they can use it to justify their own poor behaviour, viz. “Even @copenhagenize says its not my fault I’m riding the way I am: the infrastructure made me do it.”
The dialogue on cycling in Australia and especially in Hobart is currently stuck in a pretty pointless us-vs-them cycle. Bad behaviour is endemic and increasing on the roads, and it’s certainly not just limited to people on bicycles. Of course discourtesy is by no means unique to Hobart but here are some examples of the attitudes that are part of the problem:
- Selfish driving: on a multi-lane road, if you indicate to change lanes, it is common for a driver in that lane to hurriedly close up the space you planned to merge into. I have not seen this particular behaviour elsewhere.
- Bike rage: verbal abuse for not giving way to a “faster rider” is not infrequent on the most comprehensive part of Hobart’s cycling infrastructure — the Intercity Cycleway. I’ve often heard riders complaining about children on bikes and mums with prams on the cycleway (it’s a shared use path).
- Aggressive driving: road rage is a daily sight despite the shortest commutes of any capital city in Australia.
- A tit-for-tat response to discourtesy from other riders and drivers; we all trip up on this one; I know I do. Take a chill pill, Marc!
- Dangerous overtaking (illegally, even on blind corners) and speed; Tasmanians drive much too fast for the conditions. Both of these issues are very visible on highways in Tasmania, car vs car, even without bicycles in the equation.
Now Australia has a peculiar attitude to road rules. People get very upset when anyone else is seen violating a rule (for example, speeding) but the rules are still seen as unfair and even decried as illogical by many. It seems this knee jerk reaction is amplified when it comes to cyclists who disobey them — running red lights, riding triple file (actually this seems rare to me but it is often cited as people become more aware that double file is legal)… And, “how dare he ride without a helmet!” Does it impact you if he does that?
A quote from the 2011 AAMI Crash Index sums it up:
“When we cut someone off, it is because we are in a hurry; when someone else does it to us, it is because they are a jerk.”
But even the most relaxed of my non-cycling friends complain about the behaviour of cyclists. While most of them support the creation of great bicycle infrastructure, they’d probably be offended to hear this sentiment from a cycling advocate and may even question if cyclists “deserve the infrastructure” if they are going to ride so badly in the first place.
Last year, Jan Gehl was commissioned to prepare a report for Hobart and there was a strong negative reaction from some segments of the population. All while they complain about traffic jams and other drivers of course… Part of his report dealt with cycling but he outlined the need for a much greater cultural shift than a bit of cycling infrastructure! I personally think Jan Gehl’s report is fantastic and would love to see it all come fruition, but it seems I am in the minority in Hobart.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Attitudes on the roads in Hobart have improved in the last 5 years. The number of cyclists on the roads is increasing dramatically. Aspects of Jan Gehl’s report are being acted on by the council. But there’s a heck of a long way to go.
So how does this all come together? Better cycling infrastructure is going to increase the number of riders on the roads, but I don’t think it’s necessarily going to change the behaviour of those who already ride discourteously. They’ll just be a smaller proportion of the cyclists out there. Courtesy on our roads is part of a cultural shift that must come from within the society. I think those of us who are cycling advocates need to always be aware of the deep seated resentment towards those who ride badly, which impacts all cyclists, and not be seen to condone this discourtesy, even if the original argument has some validity!