A broad church

I’ve been riding a bicycle actively for about the last decade or so, after riding as a kid, then again in my late 20s and early 30s. I usually get involved in organisations representing whatever I do, so have been pleased to serve on the management committee of Bicycle Queensland for a few years. I’ve also taken the time on various visits around the world to go see cycle organisations and advocates, look at cycle transport infrastructure, and just ride a bike. In August, I took on the Jenny Brockie role to run an Insight style event called Share the Road in Cairns. Hey, I even rode a bike up New York’s Sixth Avenue in the evening peak period earlier this year.

So I’d like to share a few things I’ve learnt along the way:
– all sorts of people ride bikes for all sorts of reasons. It’s a broad church!
– the benefits of more people cycling are obvious and compelling. It’s a big contributor to community health, has much less impact on the environment than vehicle transport, and uses land efficiently in terms of space needed for volume of trips.
– cities go through stages in their evolution towards becoming a “cycle city”. The places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen where bikes are now the dominant form of transport, have been on that journey for decades.
– the single biggest factor on that journey is building separated infrastructure.
– compulsory helmet laws are the exception around the world and have a significant impact on levels of bike use (they reduce the numbers considerably – who wants helmet hair!)
– of all the countries I’ve ridden in, Australian car drivers are by far the most aggressive and hostile to people riding bikes.
– the single most significant factor that makes cycling safer is to have more people doing it. This is not just about safety in numbers. The more people who use bikes, the more “normal” and accepted it becomes, and so most people know people who get around by bike and it moves from being at the fringe to being mainstream. This changes the perception of other road users to those riding bikes. So in countries where this happens, the sort of hostility often encountered in Australia is a rare, rather than an everyday, event.
– women are the indicator species. The more women who ride bikes, the safer and more mainstream it is becoming.

The point I wanted to focus on particularly here is the groups who use bikes, and how that indicates the progress of a city towards becoming a “cycle city”, where it just becomes an accepted, mainstream part of how people get around.

There is the Lycra brigade who tend to ride on roads on more expensive bikes and go fast. Then there are the social riders who ride more on bikes paths and in parks, for fun and recreation, family outings etc. Another group are the commuters, a mix of people wearing Lycra and all sorts of clothing who use a bike to get to and from work; and then there is the group who just use a bicycle to get about their daily life in their regular clothing. This last group will often use cycle share scheme bikes to opportunistically make short trips, but more often use their own sturdy, basic bikes. They usually don’t consider themselves cyclists at all – as a person from the Danish Cycling Federation once told me, Danes don’t consider themselves cyclists, it’s just part of their daily life; just as they use vacuum cleaners, but don’t consider themselves “vacuum cleanerers”!

So cycling is a broad church. If the most prominent and obvious group in your community are the Lycra wearers, then your city is still in the early stages of cycling development. Most Australian cities are still more or less in this stage. Other cities like Portland Oregon and Vancouver BC are progressing down the path where many use bikes just to get around. If this last group I mention above is the obvious one, then you’ve made it as a cycling city, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

Greg Vann
November 2013

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  7. steph brown says:

    I have ridden bikes in amsterdam, wash dc sydney and now i am back in adelaide. We need carfree lanes on weekends down major roads such as Anzac Highway so people can get a taste of commuter cycling.

    • Greg Vann says:

      Thanks for the comment, Steph. I reckon there is a range of ideas to reallocate road space to other modes that our cities could be trying.