Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Bicycles are dangerous - it's official

A recent survey conducted by Newspoll for GIO research and discussed in a story on AdelaideNow came up with the following result:

The survey found cyclists were rated as the most dangerous type of road user by 54 per cent of all drivers, followed by taxi drivers (45 per cent), motorcyclists (44 per cent) and truck drivers (37).

That's right. Out of all road users, cyclists are the most dangerous. You can just imagine all of those people cowering in their cars terrified of the dangerous psychopath on his lethal bicycle.

It is difficult to know what to make of it. I assume that what people mean is not that cyclists are dangerous to them but that they ride in a way that is dangerous to themselves. It is a common thing you hear in this country. I wonder why.

I think the answer is obvious. The comments you read on AdelaideNow and the results of the survey are symptoms of the woefully inadequate system we have.

If driving and cycling ever comes up in a conversation I notice some common themes. Cyclists are dangerous because they disobey the road rules. For example, they ride through red lights, across pedestrian crossings, two abreast, not in bike lanes and so on. Putting aside the fact that it is quite silly to tar everyone with the same brush, a lot of the time people on bicycles are simply reacting to their environment. More often though, a motorist might think the cyclist is being dangerous when in fact they're not. The problem is that the motorist and cyclist are looking at the same thing from different angles.

This can be illustrated with some examples. Assume there is a line of stationary traffic. A cyclist, not unreasonably, travels along the left to the front of the queue. Is she cheating? What about when she gets to the front? Should she stay to the left and hope that she will be given enough space? What about if the driver rode down the right side? Is that against the law? What if that is the only side where there is space?

If they're supposed to stay behind the line of cars because they're a "vehicle" and "wait their turn" what happens when the traffic moves again? Are they then expected to move to the left and stay out of the way of motorists?

What about when a cyclist approaches one of the many small roundabouts around the place that have disappearing cycle lanes leading up to them? Self-preservation dictates that you take the lane so that you can be seen. I've tried that. One time the driver behind me gestured by pointing towards his head as he passed too close. Other times you might get the finger or a toot but most commonly you get the car accelerating away and passing a little too close for you to feel comfortable.

The problem is that most drivers do not understand "taking the lane" and other things that cyclists do to keep themselves safe. This is despite all of the "raising awareness" and "education". But even more problematic is that our road system sends conflicting and dangerous signals all over the place. You see it all of the time when a cyclist has to overtake a parked car. Many motorists have no idea what to do. Some genuinely think that the cyclist has to stop and wait for cars to pass before riding around the parked car. You also see it at intersections where a cyclist is not pretending to be a vehicle but is instead riding to the left. Problems arise when they are travelling straight on over the intersection but the cars passing them are turning left. It is a collision waiting to happen.

The problem starts with the fact that none of our roads are properly categorised. There are still very few streets that are blocked to through traffic and so motorists quite rightly believe that they can travel through them at 50 or 60 km/h. Across the city are countless places where motorists come into conflict with cyclists and neither really knows what to do because the road does not clearly tell them. On busy roads, the space for cyclists must be clearly delineated and what is expected from each road user must be made clear at conflict points. Cyclists can be kept separated not just through bike lanes but through proper road design and networks. You do not need a bike path on every road but you do need to design a network for cars and a separate network for bikes.

Other countries, as we know, are way ahead of us. We have barely begun.

Oh, and when you do require a bike path, it does of course need to be designed properly.

Just as a postscript, when I was riding home today, I came across the aftermath of a collision between a utility and a Subaru station wagon. The front of the Subaru was crushed while somehow the cab of the utility had been flattened from the top. How the crash happened I can only guess but judging by the damage to the two vehicles they hit each other with considerable force. It was a perfect illustration of system failure. This was at an intersection right in the middle of a residential area. It is also a busy pedestrian route for the local primary school. The road design allowed two cars to come into conflict at the speed they did. I do not know but I am willing to bet that they were both probably just passing through. Most of the traffic around here is.


  1. Edward,
    Your point "The problem starts with the fact that none of our roads are properly categorised." is very important I think. It's the first step to getting our roads fixed.
    Paul James at Pedestrianise London posted some of his work as he makes his way through the Dutch design manual.
    I'm keeping a copy in case I see a job advertised for a traffic planner. For about $100,000 I would be prepared to sit in an office for a year. With a street map, some coloured pencils, some minions to count traffic, and the first table from that article I think I could redesign the whole thing correctly. Perhaps we should be having Dutch traffic planners in residence instead of thinkers.
    One thing that table makes clear is that most of our bike lanes should not be there. They are on direct through routes for motor traffic, which requires a separated track.

  2. Hi Steve,

    Thanks so much for the comment. That really is a great post. Paul James has summarised it really well.

    You would know that Professor Wegman from SWOL touched on road categorisation very briefly when he came and visited as Thinker in Residence. He referred a lot to systems failure but never really got to the heart of the issue. He's produced an interim report ( I'm looking forward to the final version.

    Keep your eye on those traffic planner jobs :)

  3. Edward,
    Thanks for bringing up Professor Wegman. I remember ignoring his talk at the time due to my increasing level of cynicism with the Rann government. I have now watched the video and read the interim report.
    I have renewed hope. At least the government is talking to the right people.
    I just hope they don't cherry pick the report for the easy bits and then bury the rest.

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