I love bicycles. Such simple, efficient, elegant machines. ‘The pinnacle of human endeavour’ according to my companion; I think he’s right. So I’m excited that Wollongong City Council is undertaking a City of Wollongong Bike Plan. More on that in a minute. First, a couple of reflections on cycling.
I recently travelled to Europe to visit my family. While I was there I made my way to northern Italy to catch a stage or two of Giro d’Italia – Italy’s 100+ year old annual road cycling race. Several hundred cyclists riding the length of Italy over 23 days. With a few thousand others I watched the end of the 171km stage 18, beginning in Belluno and ending in the high mountains at Rifugio Panarotta. As the first rider appeared around the bend the crowd leaned forward, shouting, clapping, urging him on. He was followed by two or three others, and then some minutes later by the peloton and Maglia Rosa – the overall race leader.
Giro d’Italia – like Tour de France – is a tremendous show of strength, steeped in more than a century of history, in which cyclists (and cycling) are supported by the communities they ride through, historically by the families of those communities, and today by fans from nearby and around the world.Days before the Giro, I rode the cobbled streets of Aarhus, and once again delighted in peddling beside all sorts of people of all ages. Cool 20- and 30-somethings, mums and dads carting kids about, straight-backed 80 year olds. In Aarhus, as in many European cities, people ride bicycles to get to work, pick up a loaf of bread, drop off the kids, head out for dinner, dash to the train station, take in the weekend air. It’s people using bicycles to get these things done that shapes and flavours a city and the lives of those who dwell there. In Wollongong – the city where I currently live – we have a fairly healthy road riding culture. It’s common to see a pack of lycra-clad bodies whizz past my window. I like the blur of colour, the fast clicking of freewheels, the gaggle of conversation. The beautiful coastline provides a perfect setting. And the fantastic coast path attracts loads of weekend cyclists: little kids learning to ride, wobbling along just ahead of eager parents; surfers with home-made board racks heading to the beach; and a good number of older men getting some exercise and taking in the sea breeze.
But what we’re missing in Wollongong is a culture of ‘getting stuff done’ on a bicycle. It was reading Bike Snob NYC that I first came across that phrase, and I like it. It takes in regular people getting on bicycles, without donning a special outfit, to do normal, everyday activities, as part of their everyday lives. The kinds of errands that currently make many Australians reach for the car keys.
The benefits to health and city liveability that the bicycle brings about are well documented: improving the general health and wellbeing of the population, reducing air and noise pollution and road congestion, and increasing sense of community, safety and neighbourliness. Just about anyone can learn to ride and even maintain a bicycle, and most people can afford one. It is an ideal mode of transport.
Two key global trends – aging populations and dwindling fossil fuels – make the bicycle an ever more relevant part of the city. The contribution of cycling to our health as we age – improving cardiovascular strength, mobility, mental dexterity, confidence – are without question, and the resources required to produce a bicycle and keep it moving are minute as compared to Australia’s current favourite mode of transport, the motor car.
Back to that City of Wollongong Bike Plan. I’ve contributed to two stages of the community consultation process, including commenting on the Draft Plan earlier this year. It is a rigorous and impressive document. It discusses benefits of cycling, compiles cycling stats, surveys existing facilities, and points to priorities such as bike lanes, bike parking and some cycling promotion and education. It’s fantastic to see it happening. But in my reading it places too much responsibility on riders, and too little on drivers.
Two of the top four barriers to cycling identified in a community survey conducted as part of the Plan are ‘safety concerns’ and ‘attitudes and behaviours of motorists’ (the other top barriers are ‘lack of off road bike paths’ and ‘lack of bike lanes on roads’). This is certainly consistent with my experience. I ride my bike to work every day, use it to do my grocery shopping, visit friends, and head up the coast path on weekends. In all this there are only two problems I regularly encounter, both connected to the culture of driving.
- First is a small but significant number of aggressive drivers. They shout, honk, threaten, rev their engines, and generally abuse anybody on a bicycle on the road. Their attitude and practice of road use is inconsiderate, extremely unsafe, and at times illegal. I come across more of these in Wollongong than I have in any other city I’ve ridden a bike. As I say, few in number, but large in impact.
- Second is far more common: the regular driver who is unfamiliar with negotiating bicycles on the road, and perhaps unaware of road rules as they relate to cyclists. At times they pass too close, misjudge the speed of a bicycle when overtaking, or simply don’t look out for bikes on the road. Their practice can be dangerous, but I believe it is rarely malicious. In these people I hold hope, and it’s here that I think real change can happen.
With this in mind, three things can be done to make roads safer for cyclists and happier for everyone:
- Devise education programs for drivers about how to safely and considerately share the road with cyclists.
- Promote the broad benefits of bicycles and cycling to health and city liveability.
- Get more people on more bikes on more roads. Greater numbers make cyclists more visible, give drivers experience in sharing the road, and contribute directly to the health and wellbeing of the community.
I’m looking forward to the final City of Wollongong Bike Plan, and to once again cycling in a place where the bicycle and bicycle-rider are valued elements of a good city.Leah Gibbs is a member of AUSCCER and a lecturer in UOW’s new Department of Geography and Sustainable Communities. Her last post was ‘Shark Cull Begins’ You can follow her on Twitter @LM_Gibbs.