Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Harry Callahan(1) approach to making cycling safer.

You’ve got a bucket of money to promote cycling. How would you spend it? Recreational events, encouraging school children to ride to school, and so on. All well and good. But in my city, Melbourne, which is mistakenly promoted as a cycling city, a recent audit(2) showed that this is not effective. More people are not substituting their car trips with bicycle trips, despite the fact that they buy bicycles in increasing numbers.

How can this be? Well let’s consider this from the viewpoint of competition for road space, and dominant cultures. In Melbourne you can’t commute on bicycle paths exclusively. So sooner or later you are going to have to interact with cars, and car drivers. The road rules here are fairly good, in that they clearly state that bicycles are equivalent to cars on the road. So in theory all is fine.

So how far do our new cyclists get on their new bicycles? Probably as far as the first roundabout. Here they will attempt to get cars to give way to them, and fail. As is the nature of dominant cultures, car drivers will not acknowledge you as a road user. I’ve had cars try to physically run me down as I walk across a pedestrian crossing with my bicycle. Why? In the viewpoint of the dominant culture, we don’t exist.

It is nice to think that persuasion and education will change this. But where is the evidence that it actually works? Certainly in Melbourne despite many years of these programs I have yet to see any change at all.

Which brings me to enforcement. The reason we enforce laws is to change behaviour, and where the culture is not what we want, to bring about change. We were one of the first to introduce seatbelt laws, and to have hidden speed cameras.

But if you look at enforcement and cycling, you will find articles about bad behaviour by cyclists. How to train cyclists to follow the rules. Of course. This is how dominant cultures work. I’ve hit you with several tons of metal? Silly you, it must be your fault. When you look at the accident statistics, it shows that roughly 60% of the time it is not your fault, it is actually the car driver’s fault. But since we are the dominant culture, it’s your fault. So just behave better, ok?

What really annoys me is when supposed cycling advocacy organisations fall for this trick. I think they have a cosy, cosy approach to compromise. If we play along with the dominant culture then perhaps we will get more bike lanes. Maybe even a bike path. But this just reinforces the car, and fails to make it safe for cyclists. Let’s face it, it is bullshit.

How can we make Melbourne safe for cyclists? I would spend the money on plainclothes police on bicycles, with patrol car backups. When the car driver forces the cyclist off the roundabout, or fails to give way to a cyclist, they find that they have just been fined a significant amount of money. It is necessary to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the dominant culture that they will not be able to offend with impunity. That the cyclist they see in front of them just may be a policeman.

It is a nice thought that dominant cultures might voluntarily change, but I suggest that the evidence is to the contrary. Only a widespread  enforcement campaign will make Melbourne safe for cyclists and pedestrians. So that when you stop at a roundabout waiting for the car to give way you will be able to say “.. go ahead, make my day.”

(1)  Harray Callahan : a fictional policeman star of Clint Eastwood movies.

(2) Auditor General’s Report on “Developing Cycling as a Safe and Appealing Mode of Transport”

1 comment:

Haiko said...

A more vocal bicycle lobby would be good, the current one as you say is a little to pliant with the powers that be.

Clear goals by the bicycle groups:
- ie. bike lane here , here and there,
- a tunnel here
- a bridge there.

Mass rallies of bicycles....

Loved the bit about 'bad bad cyclists, or car drivers, that's just mudslinging. useless.

What happened to the mass cycle rallies in Melb ? every friday evening ?
Upset too many drivers did it ?
Can't have that.
have to be "noice" don't we ?