In last Thursday’s online Brisbane Times, journalist John Birmingham indulged in a 500 word rant about poor unfortunate motorists who have to share the road with nasty two-wheel types on bicycles. In particular, Birmingham reserved his wrath for a “stupidly, smug, selfish git” on a recumbent bicycle, which he claimed, was holding up morning traffic on Brisbane’s Story Bridge “at about 12 clicks per”. While it seems unlikely that the cyclist “and he alone” might have been the only cause of a traffic snarl in Brisbane’s morning peak-hour traffic, it seems doubly unlikely that a recumbent (which is actually faster than a normal bike) was the real cause of Birmingham’s angst.
Worse still was the chord Birmingham struck with the commenters to his blog entry with its litany of insults and ways of dealing with the “problem”. Cyclists were “major dickheads”, “selfish”, “cycle tools”, “wankers and wankettes”, and horror of horrors…“vegetarians”. One respondent, Simon Bedak, suggested that drivers should re-align their windscreen wipers to face sideways and “squirt at will” to “counter-annoy the cyclist and the pedestrian”. The comments reflect a worldwide trend of deep hostility between drivers and cyclists especially obvious at events such as Critical Mass.
Drivers condemn cyclists for running red lights, going the wrong way in one-way streets, take up a full lane, and generally holding up traffic. Meanwhile cyclists bemoan drivers who don’t indicate or yield to bikes, as well as dangerous overtaking, aggressive behaviour and general lack of consideration of cyclists needs. Verbal abuse is common on the road, and drivers and cyclists are equally guilty of it.
The argument becomes more perplexing as a large proportion of drivers are also cyclists while the vast majority of adult cyclists have driver’s licences. As of 2003, almost half (46.6 per cent) of the 1.5 million private dwellings in Queensland had at least one bicycle in good working order. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that 819,000 people rode a bike in Queensland in that year. 84.6 per cent of those cyclists aged over 15 years also had a vehicle licence (putting the lie to the common complaint that cyclists “don't pay to use the roads through registration”).
The hardened attitudes of anti-cyclist drivers is not officially supported by the State Government whose plan (pdf) is to increase the proportion of all person trips made by bicycle by an additional 50 per cent by 2011 and by 100 per cent by 2021. The government recognises five key areas in which bicycles are advantageous. These areas are transport (easing congestion on roads and minimal impact to road surfaces), health benefits (preventing coronaries and depression), economy (cheap costs & healthier cyclists taking less sick days), social equity (affordable travel) and environment (pollution free and carbon neutral). But even with a doubling of the number of trips the totals will remain low, varying as it does today between 3 per cent of all daily trips in Brisbane to 8 per cent in Cairns.
However the government’s words are not necessarily matched by its actions. The State Government has enthusiastically supported Brisbane councils controversial plan for five new road tunnels across the city. The cost of the North-South tunnel alone is now in excess of $3 billion. These tunnels will be off-limits to cyclists while calls remain unheeded to build another “green bridge” from Bulimba to Teneriffe for a fraction of the tunnel cost.
Nonetheless, advocacy groups such as Bicycle Queensland believe the real challenge lies in winning hearts and minds rather than creating infrastructure (though they acknowledge that is important also). The group represents 6,000 Queensland cyclists and attends about 170 meetings, seminars, consultation sessions and planning days annually with government agencies and private industry. Their 2006 annual report (pdf) talks about the need to encourage “significant behavioural and cultural change”. Birmingham's article shows it will be a long, slow road, and one desperately in need of a cycle lane.