Friday, 10 June 2011

"Bugger this", said Nicky

There is an interesting discussion on the Adelaide Cyclists website at the moment. It's generating a good deal of interest. It so far has five pages of comments.

It starts by quoting an email to Stephen Yarwood, the Mayor of Adelaide, from a local cyclist saying she is giving up cycling for now because, to summarise, she simply does not feel safe between speeding cars and buses on Pulteney Street and having to ride into opening doors while using the "bike lane". This is despite wearing the obligatory safety gear like a fluorescent jacket and helmet.

The author, Nicky, has taken the time and trouble to write to someone about why she isn't bothering to use a bike in the city but how many other people are there, who we never hear about and who now leave their bike in the shed slowly gathering dust and spider webs - along with many others across the country?

Some commenters come up with some useful suggestions, such as removing on street parking, lowering the speed limit and having a "strict liability" law. My own humble opinion is that while all of those suggestions have merit, we really need so much more.

Quite a few people do cycle in Adelaide. Generally though, they are either doing it for recreation, usually during the weekend, or they are commuting. At other times of the day, it is rare. In the main, those people who cycle regularly are used to traffic and roads being in the condition they are. Some of them will offer lessons to "novice" cyclists. You have to ask yourself what sort of message that is sending though. It is saying that this activity is one that requires special safety training. In other words, it is dangerous to the unskilled. Most people can see that of course and it is why they do not bother. Others try it for a bit and, like Nicky, give up because it is just not worth it. We are told that for the upteenth year in a row, bicycles outsold cars yet again. I see quite a few new cars on the road but not quite so many bikes. I can't help thinking that many of them are used for a bit but then sit idle.

If you have been riding on Adelaide's roads for some time (or indeed any city with ride roads dedicated almost exclusively to motor vehicles), it is easy to forget how non-cyclists perceive them. You get used to traffic and become familiar with your favoured route. You learn what obstacles and dangers to watch out for. As your confidence builds, you can easily forget that you are in fact at great risk from those trucks passing closely by you. It then becomes easy to dismiss claims that cycling either is not safe or does not feel safe. As George says in one of the posts:

I'm also suspicious of surveys that ask non-cyclists why they don't ride. People will give the answer that makes them look good or they think the interviewer wants, and lack of safety is a good reason that doesn't make people look bad whereas reasons like "its too hard", "it takes too long", "I get sweaty", "there are no showers" makes them look self-centred. (I do think some people answer honestly).

Quite a reasonable point. Or perhaps they do genuinely think it is unsafe (cycling at a leisurely pace is less taxing than walking so sweat and showers should not be an issue). If it is claimed that safety is not the issue, you have to ask yourself, "would I allow my 8 year old child to ride in this way?" "Would I be comfortable if my child's teacher wanted to take the class on an excursion to the zoo by bicycle?" (it happens in the Netherlands all the time) "Would a pensioner feel safe riding a bike to their nearest public library?" If the answer is no, ask why.

In a separate post, Belinda says:

If people feel unsafe riding, then rather than expect the general population to fund massively expensive alterations to current infrastructure, they should have a look at their own skill-set in riding, and seek first to build their confidence. Other people ride Pulteney St confidently with no problem. To me, its like asking the government to shave a few hundred feet off the top of Mt Lofty because a few people find it a bit too steep.

That is a valid point but it is a symptom of the poor environment for cycling and in fact impliedly accepts that safety is an issue. What does it mean to "build your confidence"? If people are justifiably reluctant to get on a bike and ride in heavy traffic, the answer is not simply to change your perception and build your confidence. It may well be that other people ride on Pulteney Street confidently, but that statement (perhaps unintentionally) implies that those who do not or cannot must have a problem. I do not think they do. There is nothing strange about not wanting to ride in what people properly perceive to be a dangerous and hostile environment.

So what's the answer?

It is obvious and is explained in what in my experience is one of the most widely quoted cycling blogposts. You increase subjective safety. Read the post. First, the roads must be actually safe for cyclists - not just road warriors who speed along Pulteney Street with confidence, but children and adults of all ages. You do that by avoiding conflicts between people on bicycles and heavy motor vehicles. There are many tried and tested ways of doing so that can be applied to all sorts of junctions and road layouts. Second, you must make the roads feel safe for people on bicycles. If they are having to look over their shoulder and pull out into a lane of traffic to get past a parked car and then still worry about the driver's door being swung into their path, they will not feel safe and will not ride a bike there.

What Belinda describes as "massively expensive alterations to current infrastructure" is perhaps over-egging the pudding a little. It is not that expensive. We have very wide roads in Adelaide that can easily accommodate the types of road layout that would give people a choice of transport modes. Even on narrow streets it can still easily be done.

Until we do that, we will continue to have a tiny modal share for cycling made up almost exclusively of commuters and we will worsen congestion. No amount of additional road building will stop that.

Pulteney Street - not entirely cycling-friendly.


  1. It's a great conversation to have going.

    It's worth noting that the Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood, also a member, took the time to respond publicly and privately to Nicky.

  2. Agreed. It is great that we are having the conversation, along with the wider one about Adelaide's future as a whole (of which 5000+ is part).

    I saw Stephen Yarwood's reply. He definitely gets it.

    I think that while change will be gradual, we will see something particular to Adelaide that works and suits us well.

  3. Great to see great blogposts like David Hembrow's being disseminated all over the world. In 20 or 30 years time I think countries like the UK and Australia (I make no predictions for the USA) will look back and wonder why it took us so long to figure out the massive benefits of bikes as the ideal urban transport.

    Keep up the great work

    (UK resident... though I have ridden a bike in Adelaide many times)