My work colleagues will occasionally regale me with their encounters with cyclists. These unsolicited monologues all tend to have a ‘please explain’ overtone. I guess I’m viewed as a suitable target because I am one of ‘them’. It’s easy for motorists to lump us all together and believe we all exhibit the same bad behaviours. It’s easy to do because cycling is such a rare commodity in this city. Similarly, members of the public will regularly ‘advise’ me to wear a helmet when they see me riding slowly through the park on my bicycle. But are these the same people who are content to overlook a motorist that is using a cell phone while driving? It’s an important distinction because one of those activities has the potential to do some serious harm.
The responses that my colleagues tend to prefer are along the lines of, “yes, it was lucky you checked in the mirror before turning so you could avoid hitting that negligent cyclist”. Occasionally I try my luck with a response that presents a bigger picture – that there are a growing number of cities around the world where priority is being given to the moving people over the moving of cars. In those cities, unlike here in New Zealand, motorists are not at the top of the food chain. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Pedestrians, people on bicycles, people on public transport – in that order, are all prioritised over motorists. The sums have been done. The research shows clearly that getting people out of cars and into active modes of transport is a win-win situation. It makes for a healthier and wealthier community and economy. That is what we need to be aspiring to.
Cities with high numbers of people cycling will have a lot of what I like to refer to as, ‘wheeled pedestrian’ cyclists. That is, people riding bicycles that emphasise comfort and utility, over speed. The bicycles feature things like mudguards, chain guards and facilities for carrying things (including children). They are perfect for doing short, local trips. Lycra, helmets and other specialised equipment are the preserve of sports cyclists. Park and Ride facilities around public transport hubs cater for bicycles, not cars.
These cities are also endowed with a network of wide and separated cycle paths. These paths are great because they make cycling safer and more appealing to a larger group of people. Motorists also benefit because they gain from the increased level of predictability. Cyclists are allocated a space for cycling. Motorists know to expect cyclists and know where they will be. It’s the stuff that would make my work colleagues happy.
But there’s more to it. The approach to road design by the transport authorities in cities with high rates of wheeled pedestrian cycling is completely different than it is here. While we are focused on funnelling as many motor vehicles through the city as quickly as possible, cities that have high rates of everyday cycling focus on what is called ‘sustainable safety’. The purpose of sustainable safety is to take the ‘sh*t happens’, out of road travel. Speed reduction and street design that caters for human error feature highly in these cities.
Getting people out of cars doesn’t just happen automatically. It requires well planned and strategic input. Viable transport alternatives to the car need to be provided of course but efforts in making the bicycle a cool and appealing form of transport also need to be undertaken. (I always marvel at how the tobacco industry has managed to make a deadly habit into a socially acceptable practice). Our civic leaders need to take the lead in developing a strong social contract that puts the safety of all road users as the top priority. Driving needs to be viewed as a public health issue in the same way that tobacco has become. It will take time so it needs to start sooner than later.
It is my days spent in a classroom with a bunch of exuberant 5 year olds that tells me that change is possible. These children are naturally inclined to be kind and caring to one another. They want to work together towards a common goal even though they are all unique individuals. My job is simply to let that culture come to the fore. I do the foundation work, establishing a supportive environment and providing positive models. It’s hard to find the words to describe the magic that unfolds. The success I experience in my classroom tells me that a significant improvement in our transport culture could be achieved as well. If we set our minds and hearts to it.
‘Cycling’ is sport and recreation. ‘Riding a bicycle’ is everyday activity. No sweat. As easy as walking, but faster.
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