Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Catherine Deveny Interview

I recently had the pleasure of having a good chat with Melbourne writer, comedian and social commentator, Catherine Deveny. She is an avid commuter cyclist, what she terms "walking with wheels", and those familiar with her will not be surprised that she has some strong views on various topics related to bikes.

Catherine enjoys the wind in her hair

So without further ado, I present to you one opinionated, informed and ready-to-talk Catherine Deveny.

LG: Have you always ridden a bike?

CD: I remember never thinking about bikes at all and one Christmas when I was about eight, there were five of us and the three eldest all got bikes…I remember not asking for one or particularly wanting one…it was red and it had a white seat with flowers on it and it had a slight burn mark on it and I think my parents got it a bit cheap. It was a dragster and I loved it and it was great.

I got a job when I was twelve…I worked every night after school for a chemist delivering medicine and I did it on that bike until it was stolen and then I bought one from the Trading Post from Gaffney St. Coburg I remember.

LG: So would you say you loved bikes form that point onwards?

CD: I think my real love of bikes actually came when I had children. My ex-partner, Mario, who is a mad cyclist…he’s a commuter cyclist and also a bit of a lycra lout, but not a lout, he’s a lycra lad…he bought me a bike when my son, Dominic, was about one…with a baby seat on the back. And Dom’s thirteen and a half now and I still ride that bike. And it was from then on that we always rode bikes.

LG: What are some of things you like about cycling?

CD: I just hate people spending money that they don’t have to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like..I just think a lot of people make unnecessary purchases and decisions and lifestyle choices and then have to make even more detrimental ones to back those things up…do you know what I mean? They go, “Well, I can’t cycle because I live out in the ‘burbs, and I live in the ‘burbs because I need a big house, and I need a big house because I’ve got these four cars, and I need these four cars because…

And if people made simpler decisions, they’re just happier. What they spend is cut by drastic amounts, the amount that they have to work is cut by drastic amounts, the amount of stresses they have are less because they’re riding. They don’t have these huge money problems and they’re not working horrible jobs because they have these huge debts. For me, I think it’s a real revolution…a commuter cycle revolution

And also, I’m really against social critiques, where you get together, you have to get married, you have to move in, you have to have children, the woman has to change her surname, she has to stay home, you have to have a car..I mean, I moved into this house seventeen years ago, no driveway, and people are like, “Driveway, you don’t have a driveway?!” Well, what does anyone need a driveway for? “To park your car in.” Well, there’s a street. “Oh, but it’ll get nicked.” But I’ve got insurance, or you just get a shitty car, and who cares? I ride and drive through the inner city and if I see a driveway, I just think, what a fucking phenomenal squandering of land and of space, for what? I find it really quite obscene. I think there are ways that we can all live together really pretty happily and far more cheaply and far more stress-free…

Another huge thing, which is a massive benefit that people don’t see, is it’s a big boost for local business. Not just for bikes shops but also because people stop, they get a coffee. It’s much easier, you know, people say, “Ah, what’s that shop?” If you’re on a bike, you just pull up, pop your head in for three minutes and then maybe come back later. You can really stop and start your journey much more easily.

It’s also good for kids. The independence they have and the skills that they develop; independence and navigating and taking risks and making choices.

LG: With reference to the “commuter cycle revolution”, do you think Melbourne is a good cycling city?

CD: I think that Melbourne is an excellent cycling city, and I’m very excited about it…I think we are where Copenhagen was twenty years ago, so I predict that because cycling is picking up at a huge rate of knots, despite the helmet laws, that we will be there in about ten years, hopefully. We just need to divert what we spend on roads and put it into public transport and cycling infrastructure.

LG: And what can Melbourne do to improve as a city for cyclists?

CD: I think there’s three things we should do. The first is that cyclists should be treated as pedestrians, not as a vehicle…so for example, if there’s any instance of a crash between a car and a bicycle, it’s always the car’s fault (as is the case in Amsterdam. LG).

I think that we’ve got to remove mandatory helmet laws. They should be recommended but not compulsory. So people can make their own decisions.

And I think that cycling should be part of getting your drivers licence. So, perhaps, you have to go out on three two-hour rides with a guide through the city so that you can understand the interaction between cyclists and drivers.

Also, let’s move it away from either hobby or fitness and into walking with wheels.

But probably the most important thing and the most immediate thing we can do is that there should be tax incentives for people who ride to work. I think that people who ride to work eighty-percent of the time should be entitled to a financial incentive. I know in Holland there’s a system like this, and if you can show that in a certain period you’ve ridden to work then you get $700 or $500 towards a new bicycle.

So, it is the more who cycle, the more who will cycle. And I’m very behind it because I think it will attack so many of the problems that we have in our society; obesity, depression, financial stress.

There’s also an unwillingness to take risks. I just hate it when people say, “Oh, cycling in the city, it’s so dangerous, it’s crazy, it’s a death trap.” And I think, well, have you ever actually done it? I mean, yeah, there are issues with motorists but fatalities and accidents are far, far higher for pedestrians and people driving cars.

Also, if there’s more people cycling on the roads, then motorists will be more mindful, because they themselves might be cyclists, their partners, their kids, their friends, their mum, their dad…so then they’ll look for cyclists and they’ll see them. It’s like when you first get pregnant; you see more pregnant people and you’re more aware of them…

LG: I love your enthusiasm and confidence regarding the future of bicycling in Melbourne, and I guess I feel the same way but at the same time I see so much resistance to cycling. To quote you from an article you wrote in The Age, “There are thugs, lunatics, idiots and morons in all areas of life and cycling is no exception. So why is the odd maverick Lycra lout not simply viewed as an exception rather than an accurate representation of the entire cycling community?” And that always happens, you always hear, “All cyclists are idiots, all cyclists break the law, all cyclists go through red lights”, and it doesn’t seem to be going away.

CD: No, I think it is. I’m really happy to be able to disagree with you on that. I think that if you look at any kind of progressive movement that people find threatening, whether it’s atheism or feminism or being gay, lesbian, bi, transsexual or whatever…They’re always referred to as the Greens, the lunatics, fringe, radical feminists, militant atheists…and I think that as soon as something comes into the public space which is threatening…and is threatening because of the idea of it, but it’s also threatening because it’s growing so fast, that there is this very, very noisy, tiny minority, which makes a lot of noise and loves to paint cyclists in the most unappealing light hoping that it will all spread. But it’s not stopping the fact that when people get out there and experience it and realise how much benefit it is to themselves, how much more time they have, how much control they have over their life, how much money they have in their pocket, and also the health benefits. So, yeah, that’s my take, what do you think of that, Laurence?

LG: Well, the fact that they are noisy is unfortunate because if you look in the comments section of The Age or the Herald Sun, they’re the ones that stand out and are heard the most. But I guess the fact that there are more people riding is promising.

CD: Yeah, and it’s so similar to what I see, whether it’s feminism, or atheism, or same sex marriage…whatever it is that comes up, it’s the same voices, we do not want change, we cannot cope. It doesn’t matter what it is. Everybody has to be driving cars, everybody has to be living in a house with their spouse and their children. No one’s allowed to do this and that. It’s the same voice. You know, they’re not representative of what’s happening in the community.

LG: They’re just loud.

CD: Yeah, they are loud, and they’ll always be loud when there’s something which forces them to extend themselves...if it’s something that threatens them, and that makes them feel like they’re going to have to get out of their comfort zone, then their response to fear is conservatism. Their response to change is fear and their response to fear is conservatism.

LG: OK, and on a slightly different tack; helmet laws. It’s no secret that you oppose helmet laws. Can you see that law being rescinded ever in Australia?

CD: Yeah, I can, I can see it being rescinded. And my feeling is it might take civil disobedience in order to do it. It’s going to be hard but it makes sense. I think that what might happen for a while is there might have to be a middle bit where people like you and I, who are very keen cyclists, that we cycle a lot and we get other people cycling a lot wearing helmets so that infrastructure is better because of the demand, so that it is so good that people feel a bit safer about it…I can tell you right now, I will always wear my helmet on some rides, even if the laws are rescinded. But I won’t wear it on all rides, just like I do now. Like if I’m riding down to a cafĂ©, I won’t put my helmet on. If I’m riding predominantly on bike paths, I don’t put my helmet on. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. One of them is the aesthetic, the feel.

But it doesn’t take much to see that the science and the statistics around the laws are…well, it’s junk science really. All they talk about is head injuries per thousand population. Yet they don’t talk about the fact that populations are getting less healthy, getting fatter, more depressed. And you hear people saying, “Yeah, well, I can tell you that I came off and my helmet saved my life”, yeah well, I’ve seen people die of heart attacks, stroke, obesity, depression…

And it’s such a huge part of the equation, the helmet thing. If you are told you have to wear a helmet, that suggests that what you are doing is unsafe. And also, when you’re wearing a helmet, you do become a bit of a car magnet, and there’s lots of stats to back that up, that show when you wear a helmet, drivers aren’t as careful around you. If they see children, if they see someone without a helmet, motorists are better drivers around them…it’s not just a simple helmets and head injuries equation. It’s much, much bigger than that.

LG: Of course. My father’s a keen cyclist as well, and he says that on the odd occasion he doesn’t wear a helmet he feels petrified and rides much, much more conservatively, which for me is really scary, because you’re really not that much safer with a helmet on, so to feel that you are so much safer is dangerous in itself.

CD: Yeah, it’s like a piece I wrote on four-wheel drives a while ago; they’re far more likely to be caught speeding, drink driving, not wearing seatbelts, whatever…they’re very dangerous cars and very dangerous drivers. And it’s because they feel safe. They’re up high, they’ve been told that they’re safe, so they actually drive in a more dangerous fashion. And as a result they have more accidents and cause more collisions.

LG: And the problem there is that they actually are safer. And, while you are safer wearing a helmet, you’re not much safer. Anyway, to change tack a little, why do you ride a bike?

CD: I’ve been motivated to cycle for lots of different reasons. But, now, I think it’s quite radical, it’s progressive, it’s an absolute revolution. When I think about the thousands of dollars that we save in the short term that mean we can go to Vietnam or go skiing and say no to work that we don’t want to do…let alone the long term benefits…you know, I’m just against this whole notion of putting all your eggs in one basket, working night and day. I’ve seen people who are my age, I’ve seen men who are old men with little boys inside them. They’re just so fucked, they’ve just been working non-stop. Particularly in areas like law, politics, medicine, the media...and I just think, what’s the point of working all these hours? You’re going to be dead or functionally dead by the time you’re sixty. I want to be healthy, well, riding…and chatting and having adventures and having sex and being able to do fabulous things and not be in pain right up until my nineties. So, a part of the cycling for me is removing as much stress, financial burden and unnecessary spending. And also, this is insurance for my health and happiness, so I can enjoy and be able to do more things, which might include making money, it might include helping other people…but basically, taking your life and your health and your transport into your own hands.

And I look at these people in their four wheel drives, driving in and out of work, and then they drive themselves to the gym. But you know, they could be up at the same time in the morning, on a bike at home. They’ve saved their gym membership, they’ve saved their road tolls, they’ve saved on petrol, they’ve saved on their car loans.

LG: And I think that’s an area where Melbourne needs to improve. For those who live too far from work to ride, we need a better public transport system, where you chuck your bike on the train or on the bus…

CD: Sure. And there’s dick heads out there who are like, “Uh, I can’t ride, it’s too far.” But I’m not talking to them. I’m saying that more people can ride more often. Not everyone, no, no, not everybody, but more people can ride more often.

LG: Regarding Melbourne again. Do you think Melbourne has to do something? Without wanting to sway your answer, I think Melbourne needs to be overhauled in a lot of ways to make it a good cycling city.

CD: I do too although I’m possibly the wrong person to ask, Laurence, because I have fantastic cycling infrastructure around where I live. I’m also a bit of a maverick and quite brave. I mean, I’ve ridden bicycles and motorcycles all over the world. But I think that the helmet laws really do take the government off the hook, because it makes them feel that they don’t have to do anything about putting better infrastructure in. I think that the designated bicycle lanes are absolutely fantastic and the paths along the bike paths are good. Maybe you need to talk to someone who’s a bit more cautious…

LG: Sure. Sounds good. And, last question, completely different topic, any interest in the Tour de France?

CD: No.


  1. just wear the helmet. really, its not that difficult.

  2. There is no absolutely liability as suggested in the Netherlands, except in regards to children. Otherwise each incident is judged on its own merits, and so on... but of course cyclists do have good protection under the law.

    In other words drivers do not drive around thinking how they might be liable for every incident -- cycling is safe because of separated infrastructure on fast streets, design which keeps slow streets slow, good enforcement, the fact that most drivers are also cyclists...

    To that point Catherine makes a good suggestion about "bike training" for drivers, but of course it would be good to complement this with other government schemes which are fun but not compulsory.

  3. @Jason - Be honest. It is difficult for people. Happy for you to wear a helmet but stop projecting. Should we all like the same food as you? Bike share in Melbourne is failing for at least one good reason.

  4. @GreenIdeaFactory I was referring to the Dutch law "strict liability" which means that a driver's insurance is deemed responsible in a collision between a car and a cyclist.

  5. nicole vander LindenAugust 24, 2011 at 9:57 PM

    Love CD but have to disagree on the helmet change... Im happy for people to not wear helmets as long as they are happy to pay for the costs of their rehab when they get brain damage. Helmets save brains and lives, they should not be optional...

  6. I think helmets should be optional, and it's rather narrow-minded to think they should be mandatory.
    Here is a good discussion regarding mandatory helmet laws, analytical and non-emotive:
    The comments section at the end is quite insightful.

  7. Maybe helmets could be optional in some situations, but compulsory if riding on roads with cars, or something? I often ride on footpaths, at only slightly above walking speed. I stop and pull onto nature strip if pedestrians come by, and I walk the bike across pedestrian crossings. I don't think I need a helmet for this ; I really don't think I'm at any more risk than if I were on foot. I'm not going any faster than a runner, and I would not fall much further either. On fully separated-from-cars bike paths, through parks and so on, I don't think I need a helmet, and what I love most about riding a bike is the feeling of wind in my hair and sunshine on my head and being able to hear everything around me, all of which is taken away when wearing a helmet. I enjoy riding my bike less when wearing a helmet.

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