Thursday, February 16, 2012

Missing the point

Cycling is a hot topic at the moment. In Melbourne we have a city divided. Just like women identifying themselves (or being identified) as either Jackie or Marylin, most Melbournians can now be labelled either Warnie or pedal-pushing hippy. Which one are you?

Of course, as with most labelling systems that offer a grand total of two choices, you're probably neither one nor the other completely. But everyone seems to have a pretty strong view on the matter. The Age and Herald Sun comments sections run hot every time a cycling issue is mentioned, which now seems a quotidian occurrence. Read them, and if you are someone who has even an ounce of common sense, you will probably weep.

The thing is though, I feel most people are missing the point. Contentious issues such as bicycle registration and licencing, helmet laws, and strict liability laws are contentious for a reason. It's because you can plant yourself on either side and argue away to your heart's content, safe in the knowledge that you are absolutely correct because everything you say makes sense.

Take, for example, the recent push for bicycle registration. While there are several arguments, the most common one goes something like this;
That's the root of the problem, isn't it? That motorists, motorcyclists, truck drivers and just about any other road user you care to name has to fork out hundreds of dollars each year for the right to use our roads, but cyclists are not required to spend a penny, or be identified.
That's from an article by Bruce Guthrie in the The Age. It seems a perfectly logical argument and yet I think bicycle registration is a terrible idea. Yes, cyclists use the roads, but unlike motorists they very rarely cause harm to anyone. Most of the money motorists spend on registration goes to third-party insurance and road trauma victims. Road degradation (which, incidentally bicycles hardly contribute to at all) is mostly repaired by council and government cash. Where does that money come from? That would be tax, not registration.

The same goes for licencing, compulsory helmet laws and strict liability laws. What's strict liability? You can read a woefully inadequate article that alludes to the law here (check out the comments too, they're gold) or an excellent post here.

The thing is, just like arguing about what caused WWI (Industrial Revolution? Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand? Militarism? Imperialism? Nationalism?), people are never going to agree. To continue the metaphor, and warp it slightly, the focus should be shifted from arguing about what caused WWI to working out a way to avoid it. Obviously without a DeLorean, it's not possible to avoid the actual WWI, but it is possible to avoid the metaphorical WWI (which would see cyclists and motorists battling in the trenches of St. Kilda Road armed with cranks and carburetters respectively).

In the scheme of things, it doesn't really matter if cyclists are registered and licenced or forced to wear helmets or drivers are assumed guilty until proven innocent (strict liability). No matter what permutation of these things you think is best, there will still be exactly the same problems between motorists and cyclists.

Laws don't prevent people from doing the wrong thing. If they did, no one would speed, no one would put their feet on the seats of trains and no one would murder. We all know people do speed, put their feet up and murder. The reasons for why these things occur vary. Perhaps a disrespect for others, maybe a bad upbringing or potentially a dislike of the law itself. I don't really know.

The problem with laws is they don't solve the root of the problem. People can, and will, argue all day about what laws fix things. These people are missing the point.

So, my question is, what is the root of the problem in Melbourne? And in other cities? What changes need to be made to improve driver-cyclist relations?


  1. As an Adelaide cyclist, I haven't experienced Melbourne cycling directly, but we have similar (if lower key) issues. The root of the problem is a lack of respect, on both sides, for each other. There are idiots on both sides who insist on flouting the laws. Commute on a bike regularly and every day you will see cyclists running red lights, motorists talking on mobile phones, cyclists riding the wrong way down one way streets, motorists parking in bike lanes, etc etc.
    I agree that increased regulation is not the answer, and registration of motor vehicles doesn't stop law breaking.
    I think the answer is that the right thinking people of the world (like us :) need to do the right thing with a smile. That's all you can do. Change people's behaviour by making the desired behaviour the norm. Tell me I'm dreaming if you think so, but I don't know how else to fix this, and it's something I can do.

  2. It's never going to happen, but making it compulsory for every licensed driver to do a week on a bike every year would go a very long way to solving the problem.

    But back to reality ... I think as petrol prices continue to ride, public transport continues to be fairly useless (in Melbourne, your milage may vary) and perhaps as the message about obesity starts to get through to a wider audience we will see more people on bikes, so the attitudes will change, if only due to the weight of numbers.

    The Dutch went a generation from car centric to bike focused (check out this EXCELLENT video ) and somehow in this process, the attitude of car vs bike has to have changed.

    We need cycle specific infrastructure - white lines painted on the roads don't do much, but bike only lanes like in Albert Rd do. It'll be a brave politician that puts a "Copenhagen Lane" on St Kilda Rd or Chapel St, there will be a HUGE outcry about appeasing the greenie cycling lobby, and 18 months after it's done, people will say "I can't believe nobody thought of this sooner"

    In the meantime ... make eye contact with motorists (you're harder to hit when they've actually seen you), wave a think you when they do what they're supposed to do (positive reinforcement) and try not to get into pointless arguments (like I did earlier this week - knowing the road rules doesn't put me in the right, but I was pissed off at being honked at because I was "not respecting the peajk hour traffic").

    Happy cycling!

  3. JonH. I agree but I fear there aren't enough right thinking people on either "side" (not that there are sides...) to muffle the rest.

    NickO. Yes. Infrastructure is the answer; no doubt. Unfortunately, I think it will take more than a brave politician. I think in the current climate, a brave politician would end up being a suicidal politician.

    I just saw the video below this morning on the Netherlands. For change to occur there, mass public protest and outrage was necessary. I guess that's what we need in Melbourne, but I can't see that happening for some time.