Sunday, October 28, 2007

Motorists and cyclists: mixing oil and water

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.


Sarah said...

Wow. I haven't read any of Birmingham's BT blogging but that was because I thought his stuff looked boring and tried too hard to come across as controversial, not because he was a massive wanker.

What Birmingham and other aggressive drivers don't realise is that the difference between bad behaviour by cyclists and themselves is that cyclists are less likely to do it because they don't have the comfort of being surrounded by an invincible metal box. Drivers exhibit far more bad behaviour on the road, and the consequences for them doing so are typically far less than the consequences a single slip-up can have for a cyclist in traffic.

Birmingham and his ilk have no respect for the potential loss of human life that their actions can cause.

I don't even ride on the road any more because nearly every time I left home on a bike I'd have a near-death experience of some sort thanks to some wanker in a car breaking the law. And I worry when I see cyclists in peak-hour traffic, with people swerving violently to pass them, cut them off etc... it's not pretty.

Derek Barry said...

Good points, Sarah. That's a shame you've given up riding.

In my article I linked to the story about Cardiff University academic Ben Fincham whose research suggest that the real reason motorists hate cyclists is "because they're secretly scared of hurting them on the roads".

According to Fincham:

"Cycling is seen as something that's done by people who are slightly unhinged, or willfully negligent anyway. The idea that they probably break the rules of the road is going to upset people and if that is at the forefront of your mind, it will influence your experience of them."

I'm not totally sold on this but the idea merits exploration and would certainly account for the extremes of hostility cyclists encounter on the road.

Chris said...

Here's a personal commentary from a QLD cyclist I've just published on Wheels of Justice.

Brisbane: He Died with a Metal Storm Slug in His Head

Maybe the Brisbane Times should serious take notice of the Publishing Poison segment on Media Watch this week?

Or will there be further pathetic diatribes and corresponding slaps on wrists as happened in the aftermath of the Cronulla Riots?

Derek Barry said...

thanks for the WOJ link and the Bundaberg story, Chris. I wasn't aware of that hit-and-run incident (not an "accident" as reported by the Bundy newspaper).

However there is a very fine line between being allowed to publish your opinions (however distasteful they may be) and being charged for inciting violence. I tend towards the libertarian position and believe these people should be able to exercise their voice - that even goes for some of Birmingham's more feral commenters.

I believe it's better we know publicly that such opinions exist rather than driving them underground. Engagement is a better
solution than recourse to the law.