New South Wales is making ID cards mandatory for cyclists. Why does Australia hate cyclists?

Cyclists participate in the 2010 Sydney Tweed Ride, to promote the use of bikes in the city. Image: Getty.

The English-speaking countries of the world don’t have a great record when it comes to cycling infrastructure or cycling rates. With a few exceptions – mostly university towns such as Cambridge, UK and Palo Alto, California – the bicycle was abandoned early in the car age. And, while usage has grown recently, there’s little sign of a major come back.

Yet even by the standards of the English-speaking world, Australia’s major cities do particularly poorly for cycling rates. Cycling’s share of trips in Australia’s major cities is well below 1 per cent, compared to over 2 per cent even in famously cyclist-hostile London. (In Rotterdam, the Netherland’s least bike-friendly city, it’s 25 per cent.)

 

Vroom, vroom. Image: Australian Government, Department of Infrastructure & Transport, 2012.

This seems bizarre: the flat, low-density suburbs of Canberra and post-WWII Melbourne are otherwise well-suited for the kind of too-far-to-walk trips where cycling is dominant in cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam. So, what’s holding Australia back?

We certainly lack dedicated cycling infrastructure, and road infrastructure doesn’t cater for cyclists well. Even the Sydney Harbour Bridge, designed in the 1920s when bicycles’ mode share was over 20 per cent, lacks a cycle on/off-ramp at its north end: cyclists have been carrying their bikes up a steep flight of steps for 80 years.

Later road developments are worse: Melbourne’s similar West Gate Bridge, designed in the late 1960s, bans all cyclists outright. So do the vehicle tunnels built under Australia’s major cities during the 1980s-2000s.


But that’s not the whole story. Thanks to both the short-sighted attitudes of post-war transport planners, and the difficulty of justifying expensive dedicated cycling infrastructure given low mode shares today, most countries currently seeing a cycling resurgence have poor cycling infrastructure. So what makes Australia worse?

The problem for Australian cyclists is that they’re caught up in a wider culture war. In Australia, with its wide open spaces and history of constrained rural poverty, the car became a symbol of prosperity and modernity in the post-WWII period, even more than it did elsewhere.

Unlike most English-speaking countries, where it is understood that urban roads are designed for people, Australia bought wholesale into the automotive industry’s con-trick concept of jaywalking. Police officers in major Australian cities continue even now to fine pedestrians for safe road crossings made against pedestrian lights.

Drivers – even more so than in the rest of the world – believe that the roads are rightfully theirs, and treat other road users with contempt. As round-the-world cyclist Thomas Andersen said on his Reddit Ask-Me-Anything:

The worst attitude I met towards cyclists [anywhere in the world] was the day I cycled into Sydney in Australia.

The legal framework for cyclists in Australia has actually become worse, even as the cycling resurgence has happened elsewhere. There is no clear evidence that cycle helmets provide a net safety benefit; yet most Australian states have had mandatory helmet laws since the early 1990s. Such laws stigmatise cycling, reduce cycling rates, and encourage drivers to believe that the main cause of cycling casualties is cyclists’ own behaviour.

In July 2015, following heavy pressure from driver lobbies and right-leaning tabloids, the centre-right New South Wales government announced plans to raise the fines for cyclists who break road laws to the same level as those applied to drivers. The same legislation will compel adult cyclists to carry identity papers at all time. This is despite the proven fact that the risks posed by cyclists to other road users are, despite tabloid claims to the contrary, negligible.

Why is the criticism so vociferous now? As car culture loses its sheen and the traditional working-class male jobs associated with the post-war period lose their relevance, politicians and pressure groups are increasingly stirring up cultural issues as totems in preference to addressing the economic and social problems.

The fact that cycling is an extremely cost-effective way of improving both health outcomes and transport congestion at virtually zero risk to non-cyclists is almost irrelevant. As in the case of climate change, the fact that there’s a fight over bike policy has nothing to do with the data, and everything to do with unscrupulous politicians and tabloids stirring up prejudices against latte-sipping hippies.

In other words, bashing cyclists is easy. Providing sustainable 21st century jobs for angry White Van Men is hard.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.