by Freestyle Cyclists member Tom Nockolds
News yesterday that the NSW government plans to drastically increase the fines for bicycle related road offences has left many in the cycling community feeling shocked and speechless. Myself, I feel a great sense of loss as I now weigh up my options and give serious consideration to the unpalatable option of not riding my bicycle ever again.
I doubt that we’ll see a reversal of these fines in my lifetime; forevermore we’ll have fines for cyclists that treat us as though we are equivalent to motor vehicles on our streets. The reality is cyclists are in no way equivalent to cars or trucks and have a lot more in common with pedestrians in terms of speed, attitude and vulnerability.
So how did we end up with these laws? Well a short history lesson. For the last 30 years, there has been a great schism that has divided the world of bicycle advocacy. On the one side of this divide has been most of the english speaking world who have tended to subscribe to the Vehicular Cycling school of thought, while on the other side, dominated by most of continental Europe and exemplified by cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen sit the Segregated Cycling camp.
Vehicular Cycling, whose principal advocate has been John Forrester, has the belief that cyclists need only claim their space among motorised vehicles to remain safe on the road and that increasing cycling participation depends on nothing more than promoting this idea. While the arguments for and against Vehicular Cycling and Segregated Cycling are complex, the good news is that we don’t need to delve into these too deeply to see which has been the more successful strategy for promoting vibrant cycling cultures. As I mention, this schism has been in place for well over 30 years and we can merely look at the success of each side based on the outcomes they have achieved.
Amsterdam and Copenhagen have been for a long time the most successful cycling cities in the world. Indeed, the Netherlands have been widely recognised as being the gold standard for cycling participation and safety. Both these places have implemented Segregated Cycling policies for three decades or more. These ideas have been so popular that their policies have been copied by other European cities such as Paris and Barcelona. Good ideas tend to travel and even London, located behind enemy lines in Vehicular Cycling territory, has converted to the Segregated Cycling ethos. The results in these cities are dramatic and couldn’t be any clearer: separated cycling infrastructure that recognises bicycles as a third type of road user – neither car nor pedestrian – will see a dramatic increase in utility cycling across all demographics.
And what about Vehicular Cycling examples of success? Simple – there are none. There has been not one case of successful use of Vehicular Cycling as a way of increasing cycling participation in a city, country or otherwise.
Australia, sits at the extreme end of the Vehicular Cycling schism. In the early 1990s we were the first country in the world to boldly implement mandatory all-ages helmet laws. New Zealand quickly followed Australia’s lead and since then…well…no other country has followed our lead. As mentioned earlier, good ideas tend to travel, and this is one idea that hasn’t gone very far at all.
I want to repeat this, because I don’t think it’s appreciated by enough Australians: we, along with New Zealand, are the only countries in the world with mandatory helmet laws for adults. Everywhere else in the world makes it the choice of cyclists to look after their own safety; to make decisions like adults about what is safe and what isn’t safe when it comes to riding their bike. In other words, they are treated just like pedestrians.
Helmet laws do not make cycling safer and they do a whole lot to discourage cycling. As a direct result of our helmet laws, thousands of cyclists stopped riding their bikes and Australia now has a malformed cycling culture that is sports-oriented, male oriented and almost entirely devoid of everyday people using their bikes as a normal form of transport.
The end destination for Vehicular Cycling is to have bicycles treated the same as motor vehicles, creating the final barrier that will prevent almost everyone from hopping on their bike to make simple journeys. Sadly, New South Wales will arrive at this destination in March 2016 when new fines for bicycle offences are introduced – such as a fine of $425 for running a red light. This contrasts with the ongoing journey for Segregated Cycling – in Paris earlier this year new laws were passed making it LEGAL for cyclists to proceed through a red light.
I’m heartbroken. I have previously vowed that I will not wear a helmet while riding my bicycle. Partly because I don’t like the feeling of false security a helmet gives me; partly because I refuse to be a part of creating a false image that cycling is more dangerous than it actually is. A $320 fine for not wearing a fine is too hefty for me. Perhaps my best strategy is to set myself a yearly ‘budget’ for cycling fines of $320. If I get a fine in that year then I’ve blown my budget and will ride my bike no more. Or maybe I’ll just wear a helmet – but I know it’ll make me less safe because of the risk compensating behaviour I’ll undertake and it’ll do further damage to cycling by making it look like riding a bike is complicated and dangerous – something that requires special safety equipment.
For now, I’m going to get out on my bike as much as I possibly can before these new fines come in. It’ll be a few melancholy weeks through the autumn of Australian cycling, after which the long dead winter will begin. Nothing much will grow after these laws come into force. Vehicular Cycling has led us to this end. It will not lead us any further, so this is the end of Vehicular Cycling. We can only hope that one day in the future we’ll see green shoots start to show themselves – the shoots of Segregated Cycling advocacy. When we see these appear in Australia we’ll know that there can be hope for a vibrant and popular utility cycling culture to grow again in this country.