You win some, you lose some. This is definitely one of those posts – more than usual – where I’m going to toss an idea out there and see what comes back. This is because at first I felt like there was something to this until I got far enough into it that I was out of time to start something fresh. I’m not exactly sure that there really is anything to it, but there still might be. I still feel like there is a small distinction to be made that may end up proving more useful than it might appear. Anyway, read on, and if there is a germ of something in here, please continue the discussion in the comments below…
A bike has many purposes. In Australia, it is one of two – to race, and to get somewhere.
That’s not all that unusual, but for quite some time now, to race has been the dominant purpose for bicycles, though that is starting to change. When I say race, I don’t really mean actually racing on them, but doing all the things that people who do race on them do. Actually, it’s not even the racing that bothers anyone, which is a bit weird. When there is an actual bike race, with road closures and diversions and everything, people don’t seem to be all that bothered about it. When they can’t go certain places, they just get on with it and go around. Maybe it’s the fact that a sanctioned race is official. The authorities have legitimized it. Permission has been granted. It’s ok then, I guess. I don’t know.
It seems to me that what really gets people going more than anything else is coming across cyclists who look like they’re racing, or training for racing, on open roads. Little old ladies on bikes just don’t get people upset. I’ll just say it, then: Lycra. Lycra, on road bikes, on open roads.
During and leading up to an actual race, traffic is legitimately being held up for people to ride their bikes. For training, or, as most of us do, recreational riding just for the enjoyment of it, cyclists are not actually holding up traffic in order to ride their bikes. Cars can still get around, with the time lost able to be counted on one hand, using seconds. Yet, this is the moment when motorists lose their minds (note: non-Lycra clad “ordinaries” do cop their fair share of crap too, but not as much as their more streamline counterparts).
I’ve said it before, but I really think that one of the biggest reasons that people lose their minds when they see people in Lycra riding bikes on the(ir) roads is that they believe they have no right whatsoever to be there, and that is because all they are doing is playing bikes on the roads. Roads are for serious business. Not for playing on. Unless you are also in a car…
I’m just going to reiterate the point (again – that I made in the link above) that motorists seem to miss the fact that the truth of the matter is that most of their journeys by car are completely unneccessary. I think one of the more powerful social campaigns we might get going could be one that really lays bare the fact that a staggering percentage of journeys undertaken by motorists aren’t necessary, and that they are exactly like the cyclists they get so worked up about. Hypocrisy can be a pretty reasonable motivator.
So, now I’m going to make a few generalizations. While regular people on bikes still get hassled in the hills from time to time, and those in Lycra get plenty of hassle in the city, I’m going to suggest that, for the most part, the hills (assuming you live near hills and those hills are, for the most part, less populated than the city), especially on the weekend, contain cyclists who aren’t typically “going anywhere”, like to work. They are just… going around. Which is fine, in case you’re wondering.
The city, while containing a fair number of cyclists who are also not really going anywhere, also contain a great many cyclists who are.
So, we come at long last to the thing that I was originally going to suggest. The problems that cycling faces in the city are different from the problems cycling faces in the hills, and that perhaps we should be treating them as (slightly) different problems needing (slightly) different solutions. Even if we don’t want to base a public campaign around the idea, I think that it could inform how advocates and those in positions of influence and power think about how we can move cycling forward. Maybe it will just focus our efforts more efficiently.
The point is that to really make cycling a viable form of transportation, to shift people out of cars and onto bikes, to change communities, to improve the environment, to really increase the well-being of the average person, we need to focus our efforts on urban cycling rather than pleasure cycling. Obviously these things aren’t mutually exclusive. Pleasure cycling can be done in town and some people need to get places by bike in the hills, but you get the point…
Of course, there are some key similarities. Most notably, the problem of cars being driven into people on bikes. That happens everywhere. And from the other perspective, people on bikes being in the way of people in cars, which also happens everywhere.
I suppose the difference is not the physical danger, as, even though the circumstances can differ, both settings have their potential for it, but in how people mentally and emotionally approach the situation: using a bike to get somewhere = somewhat tolerable, using a bike to play in my streets with = intolerable.
The problem with rural cycling is that you can’t build a dense network of cycleways because 1) the sheer scale of it would be enormous, and 2) people wouldn’t use it because certain roads are popular for the simple reason that they are awesome roads to ride on. You can make some cycleways, as we have in South Australia, and they’re great and all, and necessary, but they won’t ever really do anything to remove cyclists from those wonderful, windy, hilly roads that are what cycling is all about for a lot of people. *Ahem* And hoons in sports cars. And motorcyclists.
Yes, build cycling amenities wherever you can and where it makes sense, but for the most part, the only other thing you can do is to change the attitude people have towards cycling (unless you can suggest another way). One way is by wishing and hoping for a cultural shift in attitude, and the other is by drastically changing the laws.
So I guess my thought was that we might need to approach cycling in rural settings and cycling in urban settings slightly differently based on the mere fact of where they take place, when really it’s just circumstantial that the countryside contains a far higher percentage of recreational cyclists than the city, and that it’s really the difference in people’s attitude towards pleasure-cyclists and practical-cyclists that makes the difference.
Still, we’d be pretty hard-pressed to run a practical cycling campaign for rural settings. I mean, yes, it would be awesome if we could get to the point where this were the next logical step, but Australia is a ways away from that.
But one of the things that started me off in this direction was the constant bleating from people about the minimum safe passing laws physically causing motorists to drive headlong into oncoming traffic like they don’t have a choice in the matter, and that if death is avoided by not passing directly into the jaws of death then they will slowly asphyxiate as they sit trapped behind cyclists for all of eternity, and for no other reason than to allow these grown adults to play with bikes on my roads!!! These are rural problems, typically. There are plenty of safe passing opportunities in the urban setting, and far more scope to design around it, at any rate.
Yet, when discussing cycling in the mass media, or in politics, or in any of the other forums it is discussed in, the problems of rural cycling are always brought in as evidence to take down cycling in urban settings. This is where I feel that we might be able to be a bit smarter about the way we campaign and advocate for cycling in our cities. That maybe it would be helpful to make some distinction between urban and rural cycling. Maybe. Maybe?
Anyway, I also realize that there are plenty of urban settings, such as the infamous Beach Road, where cyclists and motorists regularly come to grief in a highly concentrated fashion, and that there are plenty of dickheads who’ve never touched Lycra that do a great disservice to cycling generally, but let’s just leave those aside for the moment, lest they further weaken my attempt at something useful…
Over to you.
Header image: The Sticky Bidon