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.