Not despairing Down Under – I do not despair’s reflections on a cycling month in Australia

Bike at West Head Lookout Sydney

Photo Kevin Mayne

So Aussie is done. 28 days, 3 cities, about 20 bike rides and many more trips by train, tram, ferry and car.

And like all travellers I will come back to the question “how was it?”

Of course I am going to say “brilliant” – because what will stick longest in the memory will be the high points. Velo-city Global 2014 was full of inspirational people and I met many more en route. And I had some excellent rides that will always be fond memories.

I had hopes for a strong cycling presence on the streets because I had heard that there has been something of a renaissance of cycling levels, especially in Melbourne and Adelaide.  But when I reflect further on my overall impression of cycling and cycling culture in the three cities I visited I am more inclined to say “curious” and even “challenging” because there are many aspects that present our Australian cycling friends with big challenges.

First the good news.

If there is going to be great cycling in cities the opportunities don’t fall in to place by accident. Things happen because there is some mix of advocates, politicians and technicians who have vision, passion and influence. And faced by the challenges of their cycling culture they are willing to stand up and be different, starting to promote cycling as a mass activity not just a sport.

Velo-city crowd

There is no doubt in my mind that those people were at Velo-city and across Australia. Politically our Adelaide host was Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood who was a role model on the podium and at events like the Big Bike Brekkie where he seemed more like the Europeans by turning up in his day clothes and just riding.

Mayor and CEO of Adelaide on the Bike Brekkie Ride

Most advocacy organisations in Australia are not huge and are heavily reliant on events to boost membership and pay the bills. But Bicycle Victoria is per capita possibly one of the biggest cycling advocacy organisations in the world with over 40,000 members from a population of just 5 million, hugely impressive. The other organisations are no less passionate if perhaps not as big.

Bicycle New South Wales

The other community we met were the local promoters, entrepreneurs and activists who were great fun and great to be around. And of course in that community a huge shout out to Tina McCarthy our ride host in Melbourne. Her boundless energy and enthusiasm is infectious.

Altona ride in Melbourne

There are lots more people I could mention and many more who I didn’t meet but heard about and read their valuable contributions to the Velo-city discussions. I have no doubt that I was among friends and fellow travellers on the road to more cycling and I have to thank them for being great hosts.

The second bit of good news is that things are happing on the ground. At the moment the amount of really high quality cycling infrastructure is very limited so the signs have to be considered “green shoots”, especially because the quality infrastructure in the cities is far from established. The one high quality cycle route in Adelaide was only part finished and already there is a vote at the state parliament to try and get rid of it.

However in central Melbourne I saw that the much more established infrastructure was working because there were many more riders and some of them were not the usual suspects in lycra, this felt much more like a cycling city with a wider selection of riders.

Partly protected cycle lane in Melbourne Cyclists in Melbourne

The urban leisure infrastructure is well established and well used. I have posted how much I enjoyed the River Torrens route in Adelaide, the round the bay routes in Melbourne and the Olympic Park in Sydney.

Avenue of Gum trees River Torrens Linear Park Adelaide

As well as the urban routes I will long remember my ride out to West Head in Sydney’s Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park, it was spectacular.Hills on the West Head Road Sydney

And these leisure routes were being used, there was a steady drip-drip of cyclists on all of them.

So on reflection I can report that these three Australian cities gave the impression that they could be joining the international group of “starter” cities that have begun their cycling revolution and could move up to next level where cycling starts to take a proper place in transport.

But, but, but……

This revolution currently looks different to anywhere else I have been. It isn’t Dutch or Danish, that’s for sure, but it is also different from the other low level cycling countries I have visited.

Just as Australia is inhabited by different looking animals as far as I could see Australian cycling culture is really all about different looking people, manly MAMILs  (Middle Aged Men in Lycra). Yes there are hipsters on fixies. Yes there are some women and young people and even people in day clothes just pottering about on bikes. But it seems to me that they are having almost zero impact on the understanding, reporting and promotion of cycling. Throw in the image of the Prime Minister thrashing about on a road bike with his mates to show his machismo and you can see what cycling promoters are up against. The Bike Brekkie in Adelaide was supposed to promote city cycling and most people turned up in lycra. Doh!

The start - bike brekkie Velo-city 2014

Some of the Australian advocates were also getting just a bit frustrated with the European delegates who they said were “obsessed with helmets”.  Having spent a month here I think I understand that much better. Helmets really don’t matter as much if the vast majority of cycling is a sport you dress up and something you do as an “activity” because you could take away the helmets and not much else would change. So the helmet issue is really the tip of a much bigger iceberg, the problem that so few people have any concept of cycling as a daily activity, as a normal mode of transport for short trips. I may have photographed a few people in Melbourne in normal clothes but when i observed evening rush hour the vast majority of riders were dressed for sport, not travel.

And I am really not sure some of the advocates are actually helping this situation either. I reported on the “extremist” cycling infrastructure in my last post, but it is much more than that. For example almost all the advocacy organisations rely hugely on leisure events for their income. That means their image, their web sites, their brochures and their exhibition stands are covered in images of people who look like cycle racers on fancy bikes and wearing lycra, sunglasses and helmets. To me the idea that these organisations represent what we would recognise as daily cycling just seems to get lost.

The other reason any possible cycling revolution looks different to me is because Australian cities really are really challenging places to promote cycling. As an English cyclist I didn’t enjoy cycling much 30 years ago when I lived in Australia and I still find the city layouts and transport patterns alien. In the central business districts there are grid pattern roads around huge tall modern buildings. Wide multi-lane highways leading right across the cities.Adelaide Post office

And then there are the suburbs, spreading and sprawling over a huge footprint because of the amount of space commanded by both houses and the huge wide roads that links them and the many out of town shopping malls. Car use and car parking dominated every aspect of the streetscape then and it is much worse now. In Sydney that is worse because it is steeply hilly, and hot.

Tookak Road cycle lane

Because of the colonial heritage I know some people thought Australia would be a version of Britain or Europe, just a long way away. In transport terms Britain is the easy comparison to make: they speak English, they drive on the left and they have failed to grow cycling for 30 years. Pretty obvious really. But wrong.

To my eyes there is almost nothing European about this urban form, it seems to have shaped itself on similar lines to North American cities which have developed over a very similar time period. In much of Europe we constantly battle over space, here there is almost too much of it and the cities have run amok. The few cities we have like this are more likely to be in Eastern Europe than anywhere else.

So whenever you cycle on road in Australia you have to be able to cope with extended distances because of the urban sprawl and I had to cross or turn on big multi-lane highways several times on every ride, a process that varied from challenging to terrifying, in particular in Sydney.

Beecroft Road Pennant Hills Road cycling facility

That is an impossible for all but the brave and it strikes me that without comprehensive national or state strategies for junction management cycling in Australia will be forever stuck with just the most fearless of cyclists. The existing on-road cycle lane network is frankly worse than useless as I wrote here.

I’ll make just one final observation that I found seriously disturbing.

One of the most important motivations for getting people cycling and keeping them cycling is the fact that cycling makes you feel better. It is fun. It makes us smile. We know there are mental health benefits of cycling. We know that according to research the health benefits outweigh the risks by factors as much as 20:1.

But probably because of the compensation culture in Australia parts of the cycling world somehow seems to have let their lawyers squeeze the joy out of cycling.

Take this sign beside a beautiful, smooth, car-free cycle track.

Trail safety notice Williamstown

Or this wording on the web site of a cycling organisation.

Welcome

Whatever happened to joy, spontaneity, freedom……..?

And when the cycle helmet discussion flared up in the media in Adelaide I was astonished to see on television that instead of the usual trauma doctors that we always debate with the entire debate in favour of helmets was being conducted by accident compensation lawyers.

It was all deeply depressing.

So what do I conclude overall?

From this evidence promoting cycling as a mass activity in Australia looks like a doomed enterprise. The advocates are probably right, the cycle helmet compulsion that we Europeans see as a huge barrier is actually as more a symptom of an underlying culture where cycling is a sport and leisure activity operating in a suffocating legal climate.

One international expert at Velo-city was so frustrated by all the lycra, the helmets and the accepting attitude of the advocates he said to me “I give up on this country”.

I disagree. Against the background of cycling in Australia the change agents at all levels demand our respect, our support, maybe even our sympathy and certainly our encouragement because every bit of progress that they make to “normalise” cycling is a bigger victory than it would be almost anywhere else.

And it can be done. The new lanes are going into the centre of the cities despite the opposition. And almost at the end of my trip I went out to Sydney’s seaside suburb of Manly. I found bikes at the ferry terminal like at a European station. And I found a whole community of laid back people just pottering about on bikes, carrying surf boards and children and generally living a bike friendly life. No special clothing, almost no helmets.

Bikes at the Manly Ferry terminal lady cycling with dog in Manly Cyclist with child at Manly Cyclists in Manly

It was lovely, a breath of fresh air, a real cycling treasure. If here, why not everywhere in Australia? C’mon Australia, every cycling day could and should be like this.

I do not despair.

The worst of Australia’s cycling infrastructure – “dooring zones” and part time cycle lanes

Useless cycle path in Sydney

I Do Not Despair is about being positive about cycling, travelling to places by bike and enjoying the company of cyclists.

But sometimes I just see things that make me ask “What were they thinking?” In Australia I had some great rides but I found many examples of cycling facilities that seemed spectacularly ill-conceived and designed.

In both Melbourne and Sydney the most common example was “dooring zones” and in Melbourne they were joined by “part time” cycle lanes.  They probably have some other official term in the minds of the people implementing them but these were my phrases, although I could have called them a lot worse.

I think they fail the test for cycling provision in the most important way of all. They are of absolutely no benefit to anyone – there is no “design user” and as far as I can see no road safety benefit at all. In fact even worse, these sorts of facilities create user conflict and badly educated cyclists which in the long run makes the cycling experience worse for everyone else.

Highly experienced vehicular cyclists don’t need them because they are confident riding on roads and should be riding out in the middle of a carriageway to protect themselves from close passing cars. New or less confident cyclists get absolutely no benefit whatsoever because they offer almost no psychological or real protection from busy traffic, leaving the cyclist exposed and afraid. And if that is the case they are a surely waste of public time and resources?

Dooring zones.

Sydney

Let me take the “dooring zones” first. During side chats at Velo-city and even more in my reading of Australian cyclists social media and blogs I kept coming across lots of comments about “dooring”, the highly dangerous practice where a car user opens the door of a parked car into the path of a cyclist.

Most regular cyclists know about this one.  I have had it happen twice in fourty years of riding and got away with minor injuries but I know of some horror stories. And there is no doubt dooring plays on your psyche when you ride again, indeed many people never go back to riding, but after a near miss or two you learn to keep your distance.

Cycling AdelaideI saw one or two examples of bike lanes outside parked cars in Adelaide, but generally they were wide enough to allow the user to ride well outside any risk. I couldn’t really understand the high profile concern about the subject among the Aussies.

Then I got to Melbourne and I was astonished to see with “dooring zones” on my very first day and subsequently I saw them all over the place. Then on many of the roads I cycled in Sydney they were like a plague and of consistently dangerous designs.

Melbourne cycle lane - dooring lane on Chapel Street

In Sydney I didn’t only find a defined cycle lane outside the parked cars, in most cases the bike lane was just a parking lane, only slightly wider than usual. This means a great space some of the time but an unpleasant slalom course around the parked cars that are present most of the time, again risking the ire of motorists on the main lane who don’t know how to interpret my moves when I had to pull a bit wider round the vehicles (which was most of the time.) I got shouted and hooted at a couple of times. No pictures? Sorry, too busy surviving.

No wonder this is a major topic among Aussie advocates, these are appalling, almost to the point of being lethal. Why motorists and cyclists alike have not succeeded with legal cases against the councils involved for causing risk and harm to road users is beyond me.

Putting a bike lane right up against the side of parked cars, and indeed allowing it to be further narrowed by cars parking badly is an official signal to cyclists that this is where they are supposed to be, despite the fact that this is completely and utterly wrong practice in every sense.  And to compound the problem any sensible cyclist who avoids the risk of dooring by moving out into the main lane is seen by motorists as being “in the wrong place” invoking further antagonism between users. It could only be worse if this were somewhere like Belgium where the bike lanes are compulsory.

I even found one dooring zone retained on the roads when a reasonable quality separated lane cycle lane had been built adjacent, so somebody must think they a continued place in cycling. I don’t get it.

Parking lane cycle lane Williamstown Melbourne

Part time cycle lanes.

Tookak Road cycle lane

Crazy design number 2 is the part-time cycle lane. I first discovered these on Toorak Road in Melbourne. At first couldn’t work out what I was seeing, I could see a cycle lane but it was covered in parked cars. So naturally I assumed this was an old fashioned parking enforcement problem, a lack of political will to enforce the rules. Ok we all get those, but this looked particularly bad.

Then I saw a sign that said the parking was prohibited at rush hour, opening up a third lane on the inside of the road and enabling the cycle lane to appear. As if a magic rabbit has been drawn from a hat the cyclists are now welcome and indeed encouraged on this road, but only if they are prepared to take on two or three lanes of rush hour drivers who are the real and intended beneficiaries of the removed parking.Toorak Road Melbourne part time cycle lane

So in the eyes of the transport planners there must be two presumed states of cycling here. There is the 22 hours per day cyclist who needs no cycling facilities. And then for 2 hours per day these poor lambs suddenly are given a bit of paint and a metre of the lane. This is of course complete and utter nonsense, cyclists don’t just exist two hours per day and they don’t need bad protection in rush hour, they need good facilities, or continue with none at all. These stupid lanes were just no use to anyone.

As far as I could see they were sensibly being ignored by the few cyclists using these roads who were generally confident and took the whole lane to keep themselves safe from motorists trying to squeeze by.  I saw nobody who I could categorise as a less confident cyclist. The photo below is a perfect example.

Melbourne

I would regard the positioning of this cyclist as exemplary for this sort of multi-lane road. But look ahead and his lane disappears actually into nothing, while underneath the cars there is a paint line that supposedly will push him to the left during rush hour. Useless and dangerous.

In conclusion?

I know there are many out there in cycling advocacy who have become absolutist about cycling facilities and will condemn any and all cycling facilities without complete segregation as useless. I don’t share that view, I see that cycling is growing where the relationship between vehicle traffic and cyclists is managed through a mixture of measures such as car free areas, cycle lanes, speed control, traffic laws and in some cases just culture. For example in other Australian cities and in the last few days in New Zealand I have seen similar cycle lanes outside parked cars, but they had much greater width, the passing cars had wider lanes and they were travelling much more slowly. I found the cycle lanes a positive support and they were being used by much less experienced cyclists than the lycra types and occasional hipsters in the big Australian cities. example here:

Photo by Kevin Mayne

But I cannot see how anybody in Melbourne or Sydney could possibly better off with the dooring zones and part time cycle lanes I saw.

Sadly I believe they probably make the environment for most cyclists much worse. Some high quality facilities are being installed in the centre of both cities but it doesn’t take away the problem of what you have to ride through to get there, after all a safe cycling trip is only as good as its weakest link.

The question remains. “What were they thinking?” I do despair – sometimes.

Coming next “Cycling on Freeways”. Seriously.

I Do Not Despair’s final musings on Adelaide, our Velo-city Global 2014 host.

Central Adelaide seen from the Torrens River

Time flies at Velo-city, and it goes even faster when we have to dash off for a tour of long neglected friends and relatives around Australia and New Zealand.

So before I am swamped by the hustle and bustle of Melbourne and Sydney here are my final visitor’s reflections on Adelaide.*  The most common description of Adelaide I hear from Australians is that Adelaide is “just a big country town” which is something of a put down from its big brash neighbours. But as a country boy myself that isn’t a put down, it’s a commendation.

There is undoubtedly a grain of truth in the description. At its heart Adelaide remains a very accessible and relatively relaxed city. Its design helps, the 19th century utopian layout with green spaces and a circular park around the compact central district create a nice atmosphere. That’s the impression I really remember from when I first went there in the 1980s, work trips that sometimes involved a weekend break in the city. The city is working incredibly hard to keep, or maybe recreate that feeling, as a modern liveable city with improvements to the city open spaces, pedestrian streets and eating quarters where people want to spend time. I liked it then and I liked it this time.

Veggie Velo Adelaide

There are also still quite a lot of those 19th and early 20th century buildings that we can call “colonial” style, from government buildings to churches, pubs and shops. They are unmistakeably Australian and a vital part of the city character.

 

Franklin Hotel Adelaide Hindley Street Adelaide

However these are somewhat swamped by the modern buildings that are allowed to dominate the skyline and create the impression of much narrower streets, especially on the gloomier days.

Adelaide Post office Haighs Chocolates at the Beehive Adelaide

Biggest shock of all was to see the Adelaide Oval dominating the banks of the River Torrens to the North. I recall a traditional green painted cricket ground that nestled into the parkland and was an attractive companion to the nearby cathedral. Now it is a monster, but one that attracts up to 70,000 footie fans (Australian Rules Football) every weekend and is a major contributor to the city economy. As a fan I like these great cathedrals of sport, however I have to say that it just seemed a bit intrusive compared to what I remember.

Adelaide Oval and Adelaide cathedral Adelaide Oval at Night

The cycling environment reflected the city.

There is a huge amount of space for cycling and it would be so easy to grab a lane in most streets but at the moment that is not a political reality. The city Mayor and the state government of South Australia both understand the need to do something about the impact of cars on the city and to deliver the liveable city they want. But with big wide streets and low traffic levels compared to many other cities the imperative for change in travel behaviour isn’t there yet. The one segregated cycle lane in the centre lane has yet to be completed due to the anti-cycling pressure, but there are at least other facilities which can act as the forerunners for change.

Adelaide cycling Cycling Adelaide

I found it quite easy to ride most of the time and I think the traffic really wasn’t especially aggressive compared to many other cities I have ridden in. And the traffic levels really were very light, except for a brief burst in rush hour and the hours after the footie on a Saturday night.

However the huge roads with multiple lanes did make it almost impossible to work out how to turn right and I spent frustrating amounts of time stuck at traffic lights which made progress painfully slow. Some of our colleagues from countries that have superb infrastructure found it intimidating and it certainly isn’t conducive to nervous cyclists because of the difficult junctions.

Bike brekkie sea of lycraConfirming that impression the cycling levels were apparently low and completely dominated by sporty looking cyclists. You can see from my photos that I hardly ever had a cyclist as a backdrop. It was autumnal and rainy on some days – but none?  At the weekend along the Torrens there were lots of families but even in the city the number of riders in day clothes was almost non-existent. The mass ride for Velo-city was called the Bike Brekkie Ride and was meant to attract the city cycling community. If the turnout was typical it showed that the city really doesn’t have an underlying daily cycling culture.

Mayor and CEO of Adelaide on the Bike Brekkie RideThe Mayor and the Adelaide City CEO almost stood out in their day clothes. I was riding along in my shirt and jacket and felt like I had completely met the brief “to stand out in the crowd”, I even attracted comments to that effect.

And the cycle helmets really, really do not help. It is almost impossible in my mind to remove the “warrior” impression portrayed by almost cyclist I saw just because they were forced to wear a plastic lid. Normalised cycling remains a bit of leap of faith at the moment, it is going to take a lot more efforts to get to that point. However the sport and leisure base is strong so that should give confidence that there is an underlying demand waiting to be tapped.

On balance I would say that Adelaide is meeting the challenge of modernity and liveability in a way that I can really identify with. For those that know their British cities it reminds me of Cardiff – with many of the amenities and lifestyle options of a capital city but in a manageable package. I lived happily in Cardiff for 10 years so I could certainly do the same in Adelaide and it was a great place for a visit.

If the on line chatter after Velo-city is anything to go by so did our many other visitors.

*There are numerous reflections and commentaries on the Velo-city conference itself on other sources. I have linked to a number of them from my Twitter account  @maynekevin and our ECF web site has a daily summary on our news pages here

Some of my other favourites are the Australian ones by Steven Fleming ; Bicycles network and ABC television.

Adelaide town hall welcomes velo-city

 

 

Torrens River Linear Park – Adelaide’s green cycling gem

Gallery

This gallery contains 13 photos.

“So what did you think of Adelaide?” will be the obvious question as we move on around Australia and then back home in a few weeks. Especially as I haven’t been here for nearly 30 years. The honest answer might be … Continue reading

Coffee and cycling? Bikes and baristas in Adelaide to kick off Velo-city 2014

Bikes and Baristas

My kind of place.

Off to the distinctly hip East End of Adelaide for a coffee at the “Bikes and baristas” Saturday event as part of Velo-fringe.

And joy – a bike jumble. Old bike bits, renovations, upgrades, fixies and lots of steel bikes.

Bikes and Baristas street Market Velo-city 2014 Adelaide

Sadly luggage limitations stop me cashing in. (And the watchful eye of my travelling companion). Indeed I might have made a killing with my personal collection of 1960s and 1970s European cycling rubbish had I but known.

But a very cool start to the week if you like that kind of thing. .And great coffee!

Bike sale Bikes and Baristas Adelaide Velo-city 2014 Bicycle jumble sale Velo-city 2014 Adelaide