Why are Australian drivers so hostile to cyclists?
Earlier this week, a video of an altercation between a cyclist and a pedestrian emerged. The two were travelling in opposite directions passing to the left when they brushed shoulders.This caused the world’s angriest pedestrian to chase after an unusually slow cyclist, push him over and break his ankle.
The cyclist did nothing wrong. He moved as far left as he could and in Queensland cyclists can legally ride on the footpath unless otherwise signed. The pedestrian could have quite easily taken a step to the left. Queensland police are still investigating but no one has been arrested. You would expect the pedestrian to be charged with common assault.
However, despite the pedestrian clearly being in the wrong, a large number of people have blamed the cyclist. Australian drivers are reluctant to share roads with cyclists, and apparently they're not welcome on footpaths either. The hostility towards cyclists is supported by unqualified claims that they run red lights, get in the way of cars, and they don't pay to use the roads.
Let's get the running red lights thing out of the way first. Most cyclists don't. Running a red light in a car is dangerous, on a bike it's suicide. The most common reason given by cyclists who do run red lights is that they were turning left, and believed it was a non-issue because they were on the shoulder. These cyclists are in the wrong, as are the ones that don't stop at pedestrian crossings, but they can be fined just like a driver. Running red lights is not endemic to cyclists and cyclists are not exempt from penalties. Why single out one particular group of road users? There is also a good chance that a lot of cyclists caught running red lights entered the intersection on a green light but did not make it across in time. Most commuter bikes have short enough gear ratios to clear an intersection from a standing start, but sometimes you're in the wrong gear or you enter as the light is about to turn yellow.
Many argue that cyclists should pay rego and hold licences to make them accountable for their actions. This ignores a few key issues. Most adult cyclists already hold car licences, there are far too many bikes to practically administer a registration system, and car registration only covers the admin cost of registration. In Victoria most of the fee charged covers TAC compulsory third party insurance. The purpose of this insurance is to cover the medical bills of anyone you injure while driving. Cyclists are unlikely to injure anyone other than themselves.
Before you bring up the fuel excise, money raised from fuel excise simply goes into the federal budget to be spent on whatever the government chooses to spend it on. Even if it did all go to roads, cyclists have no reason to contribute to road construction and maintenance beyond the taxes they already pay. The impact of cyclists on the road network is totally negligible. The impact of cars is largely negligible, too. The design life of a road is expressed in equivalent axles over time. One equivalent axle is the loading on each axle fully laden truck. In terms of road maintenance, cars don't even register. Their loads are too small and dispersed. Forget bikes, then. As for new roads, private developers fund the construction of new streets that cyclists use. Local councils build cycle lanes. State governments build toll roads and freeways that cyclists are not allowed to use. Next time you enter a freeway, note the “no cyclists, animals and agricultural implements beyond this point” sign.
I've been cycling to work for the last 12 months. The motivation was purely practical. I only have a 2.2km commute and the closest all-day parking to my office is about 400m away. I can ride to work in a shade over five minutes, while driving takes closer to 10. In my experience, car drivers aren't a problem. More often than not I feel as though I have been given too much room as drivers leave the left lane entirely. Bus drivers, on the other hand, won't move a millimetre. The first time I was overtaken by a bus I was so shocked I was nearly blown onto the nature strip. I've since gotten used to it and now just hang on and hope I don't have to go around a parked car. Then there's rain, headwinds, slower cyclists, school crossings, magpies, inattentive pedestrians and rough surfaces. Despite all the drawbacks, I firmly believe that cycling is a more enjoyable way to commute than driving. You start the day with some fresh air and exercise. Things that would be a non-issue in a car, like rain or potholes, are genuinely life-threatening on a bike. That adds some excitement to an otherwise mundane activity.
Because I, like thousands of other Australians, ride to work, I don't waste petrol, or occupy a parking space. That means there's more of both available for those who need them more. You may have to wait a few seconds to overtake a cyclist, but you will get the time back when there's an extra parking space available, or one closer to your destination. Or when you're queuing at a petrol station. In heavy congestion, your average cyclist is probably going unimpeded along the shoulder while you crawl along.
I suspect that a lot of anger towards commuter cyclists is misdirected, and should be levelled at middle aged men in lycra. The sort of people who ride their $10,000 bikes double-file in large packs on arterial roads and highways. MAMILs argue it’s safer. It isn’t. A line of two abreast cyclists will be shorter than a single file one. This is true, but a single file line is more manageable. On a standard width road, there is enough room for a driver to overtake a cyclist riding on the shoulder with the required 1.5 metre clearance without leaving their lane. If you have two cyclists, the right side cyclist will be in the carriageway and the driver has to encroach into oncoming traffic. The safest way to ride is single file as far to the left as possible. MAMILs give all cyclists a bad reputation.
Australian drivers need to be kinder to cyclists. People prepared to commute by bike make life easier for everyone else. MAMILs need to stop ruining cycling for the rest of us.