October 31, 2009 Comments 22
You always know when you write about the battle for road supremacy between cyclists and motorists that you will touch a nerve. But the avalanche of email and online comments in response to Thursday’s column shows an extraordinary new level of sensitivity.
With one of Australia’s most picturesque and convivial bike rides, Sydney to the Gong, on tomorrow, it is time for a fair-minded reappraisal of what has gone wrong in relations between cyclists and motorists, who now see each other as adversaries competing for an increasingly scarce resource.
The bad blood is not just because one feral cyclist dressed like Cadel Evans got himself filmed punching a bus driver on the North-West T-way. It’s that somehow Sydney’s (and perhaps Melbourne’s) tolerance of subprime driving conditions has reached a tipping point.
For motorists worried about losing their licences amid an orgy of fines, speed cameras, school zones, chicanes, speed humps, road closures, infinitely variable speed limits and a dizzying array of new signage, the growing band of entitled cyclists on painfully congested roads is simply the last straw.
“Some cyclists have become … the most obnoxious, aggressive and self-centred people in Sydney,” wrote William. “A single cyclist on an inappropriate road often causes a cascade of delays and congestion to multiple people in cars behind them.”
There were cyclists like David who wrote to call me a “toilet bowl scum”, and the usual missives addressed to “The Retard Miranda Devine”.
But there were also cyclists who were sick of the militant among them alienating drivers whose goodwill they need to keep safe on the road. They have even coined a new word in honour of the North-West T-way maniac: bisycho, a “cyclist who goes postal on drivers who don’t share the road”.
There were people who wrote distressingly of loved ones killed and maimed while riding pushbikes. David Oliver’s 39-year-old nephew, a triathlete, was killed while riding near Dapto by a car allegedly driven by an unlicensed driver. He leaves a widow and toddler son.
Others described the hostility of motorists: “I’ve been hit in the back with a drink bottle thrown from a passing car while riding in a designated bike lane,” wrote Fletcher. “I’ve been yelled at by a guy hanging out the car as [it] sped past at 100km/h in a 60 zone. On the Old Pacific Highway a guy in a four-wheel-drive missed me by two centimetres while holding his mobile phone to his ear. I was almost killed by a P-plater overtaking a car over double yellow lines. I’ve had cars deliberately swerve at me.”
Of course such behaviour is intolerable, even criminal.
But what some cyclists don’t understand is that they have squandered the goodwill even of decent motorists with such belligerent antics as the Critical Mass bike ride at peak hour on one Friday a month, designed for maximum commuter inconvenience. The fact that police condone the disruption has only fuelled public resentment.
And while shooting the messenger may play well on a cycling blog, the public has drawn its own conclusions.
“How many of you cyclists think you have a god-given right to ride four abreast on the Pacific Highway on the weekends without the SLIGHTEST regard for any other road user?” wrote Chris.
“I’ve had several nasty experiences with cyclists on King Street, Newtown,” wrote John. “Cyclists feel they have the right to aggressively attack motorists and perform acts of malicious damage to their vehicles on a regular basis.”
Baz wrote: “Every morning and afternoon I have to pass cyclists riding on a roadway when a perfectly acceptable bike path is only two metres [away]. Then when I pull up at the next set of lights they pass me again and ride through the red lights only to cause another traffic jam further along. I am now forced to leave 15 minutes earlier to make up for time lost due to inconsiderate cyclists.”
For those correspondents who demanded to know my bike riding habits, I once was keen enough to tackle Sydney to the Gong, but when my bike was stolen from my garage it took me a year to notice that it was missing.
We cowards can’t help a sneaking admiration for the two-wheeled warriors who risk life and limb in the unequal battle of the road. But they seem not to realise how terrifying it is for a motorist to come upon them on a busy road.
The reality is that cycling in Sydney is risky at the best of times but borders on suicidal on busy arterial roads during our lengthening peak hours.
The solution is not to make motorists’ lives more miserable with utopian attempts to re-engineer our lifestyles, but to encourage commonsense and courtesy on both sides.
The good news is that sensible cyclists are beginning to accept responsibility for their behaviour.
In Toronto, Canada, cycling groups recently launched a campaign of solidarity with motorists after a bike courier was killed during a road rage altercation. They hand out thank-you notes to drivers who are thoughtful and courteous to cyclists.
In Australia the website Cycliquette, which was launched this month by the Canada-born “average cyclist” Wade Wallace, is another example of the new, conciliatory approach.
“Cyclists need to clean up [their act] in order to coexist with motorists so that we’re respected on the roads,” writes Wallace.
“As it stands, there are too many of us (myself included) who ride in massive bunches, abuse our rights and act like a bunch of hoons.”
The Amy Gillett Foundation, named after the elite Australian cyclist who was killed while training in Germany in 2005, is another endeavour to “promote a safe and harmonious relationship of shared respect” between cyclists and motorists.
As with everything in life, courtesy goes a long way.