A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

A tale of two wheels

As more Melburnians swap the steering wheel for handle-bars, Lorna Musgrove discovers that the road less travelled does not always run smoothly. 

Blog by Lorna Musgrove
 
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IT’s a cold and crisp 11 degree morning – the kind where you see your own breath in front of you. Cars are at a standstill in Melbourne’s peak hour traffic but rugged-up cyclists race onwards, not letting winter, or anything else, stand in their way.

And each week more than one million people across Victoria are choosing the two-wheel option to get to work. Melburnians are realising there is an alternative to the peak hour crush and are hopping on their bikes in record numbers. 

According to a 2012 report by the Victorian State Government,  there has been a five per cent increase in the number of people riding to work in each year between 2001 and 2011, with parts of Melbourne experiencing a jump as high as 10 per cent-a-year over the same period.  

Anyone tackling the city commute will tell you that traffic moves at a snail’s pace and trams and trains are packed to overflowing.

So it should come as no surprise that many Melburnians are looking for an alternative. But before we start to think that cyclists are taking over, it’s best to remember that the 2011 census found that 65 per cent of Melbourne’s commuters still travelled by car, with only one per cent getting to work by bike. 

And it would appear that not all drivers are keen to keep an eye out for the cycling minority. A 2010 study into cycling injuries found that, despite Australia’s relatively low cycling rates, cyclists made up around one-in-40 crash fatalites and one-in-seven serious injuries.

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Trucks parked across bike lanes force cyclists towards traffic and tram tracks

CYCLING IN MELBOURNE 

The vocal — and vociferous — debate between cyclists and motorists has been well reported by the media, with attention grabbing headlines appearing in the Herald Sun, such as “Curbing the road wars between motorists and cyclists”, and similarly confrontational in The Age: “Push for peace as rage rises between drivers, cyclists.”  

There’s no doubt it takes a degree of courage for cyclists to brave the road alongside cars and trucks; especially when not all drivers are keen to keep an eye out for pedal-powered road users.

Sick of being blamed for causing cyclist accidents, some motorists have called for cyclists to be registered, licensed or even banned from the road.

So, in 2014, we are faced with a divided Melbourne where cyclists and motorist are often pitted against each other, sharing the same overcrowded road space and with cyclists coming off second-best in accident and death statistics.

Recent comments published in the Herald Sun, capture their frustration:

Cameron — July 2: “I will start to take notice of cyclists when they have to pay some money into the upkeep of the roads they use. Until then, they should keep off them.”

Guy — July 2:  “ALL other road users are required to be tested and licensed to be able to use a particular vehicle (Motorcycle, Car, Truck, etc.) Why not cyclists?”

David — July 1:  “Let’s face it, cars and bikes are a bad mix on the one bit of road. The roads were designed and built for motor vehicles.”

But the chief executive of Bicycle Network, Craig Richards, says talk of a war between motorists and cyclists doesn’t help anyone. While he acknowledges past conflict, he believes that this has been seized upon and amplified by the media.

He doesn’t think cyclists and motorists are at war and says that an attitude based on mutual respect is the key to a peaceful co-existence between different road users.

“We all need to work together, we’re all sharing the space. The space is limited; we want the infrastructure to improve over time. It’s coming, but it’s coming slowly.” 

LESSONS FROM ABROAD

Copenhagen: Cycle utopia 

The Danish capital regularly tops lists of the world’s most cycle friendly cities, where bike numbers exceed the population.

Quicker, more practical, healthier and cheaper than the car — the benefits of the bike are sworn to by the residents of Copenhagen.  

A further testament? In a city of 569,557 people there are 650,000 bikes. More than half of the population use a bike every day to get to school or work. 

Hundreds of kilometres of bike lanes afford cyclists the safety of being totally segregated from cars and trucks and, recently, the city’s traffic lights were changed so that they favoured the cyclist — making bike trips quicker than ever. 

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Cycling is the preferred mode of transport for most Danes.

Paris: The city of ‘bike’ lights

Established in 2007, Paris’s bike sharing program, “Velib”, with 20,000 bikes, is the largest such scheme in the world, adding to the thousands of personally owned bikes ridden every day by Parisians of all ages.

In just two years, the program accounted for one-third of all bike trips in Paris.

When Guardian journalist Lesley Evans Ogden bike-tested seven different cities around the world she found Paris to be a “pure delight”. 

“Parisian bus drivers gave me plenty of space, and didn’t behave aggressively,” she wrote. “I did get a sense that traffic here has become accustomed to bicycles.”

Each Vélib bike is ridden, on average, six times a day. Plentiful bike paths, a cycling culture and a no-helmet law encourage Parisians and tourists to hop on and ride. Compare this to Melbourne, where the highest recorded rate to date for its bike scheme is just one trip per bike a day.

Vancouver: Right on track 

Vancouver is a city that is similar to Melbourne in many ways. Driving is still the preferred mode of transport but the city is making a concerted effort to foster a more cycle-friendly culture.

Vancouver’s  latest census data has found that slightly more than 200,000 people, or 1.3 per cent of commuters, cycle to work. As a result, the city is making a concerted effort to keep cyclists on the road giving Vancouver an edge over Melbourne in terms of integrating cycling and public transport. 

Every Vancouver bus has a bike rack installed at the front, meaning cycling can be combined with public transport to give people a greater range of transport options. 

Bikes are also allowed on trains and ferries, as well as buses.  

In this audio piece we hear from three cyclists, who discuss riding in Copenhagen, Paris, Vancouver  and Melbourne.

GETTING MELBOURNE ‘BIKE FIT’

Australia doesn’t yet have a culture of cycling acceptance – and it is this acceptance that the international cyclists from Vancouver, Paris and Copenhagen named as the Number One element in creating a bike-friendly city.

In the Australian consciousness, cyclists are often portrayed as taking part in a specialised and dangerous activity that impacts other road users. 

Culture change is slow and difficult to orchestrate. The use of cameras and fines foster a culture of ‘dobbing’ on each other, which only pits drivers and cyclists in opposition. 

Perhaps what is really needed is to create an environment where motorists and cyclists want to work together, instead of one that relies too heavily on the threat of fines and police intervention. 

The Victorian Government has suggested better designed roundabouts and the Greens have called for $1500 fines to enforce a safe distance between cars and cyclists.

There have also been calls for better bike lanes, while entrepreneurs have invented new cameras for cyclists that can record dangerous driving by motorists.

It would seem that Melbourne’s cycling success hinges on a perception shift from cyclists as ‘lycra bikers’ with a death wish. Instead, cyclists need to be recognised for who they are — ordinary, everyday people such as mothers, suited-up businessmen, and people from all walks of life, riding without the need for flashy gear, advanced fitness or abnormal bravery.

In short, it needs to become normalised, not marginalised.

► This blog was originally published at JOUR90008

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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