Cities with high rates of commuter cycling have histories of public action in favour of planning and infrastructure. In Australia there has been more active opposition. By Rose Donohoe.

Building cycling cities

Melbourne cyclists have been on the lookout for the “Boulie Tacker” since 2014.

Over the years, the zealous vandal has dropped thousands of sharp tacks along a busy bike path on Yarra Boulevard in the city’s north-east.

Impossible to detect at speed, the tiny shards of black metal have pierced countless tyres, threatened serious injury and cost the council more than $100,000 in cleaning and surveillance.

Years of police investigation have failed to reveal the culprit’s identity, but it is clear to cyclists that they are the target.

Over in the west, on Melbourne’s Capital City Trail, a slick of diesel oil has been anonymously dumped three times this year. In Sydney, a council-commissioned artwork promoting cycling has been dismantled. In Adelaide, anti-cycling stickers have been distributed around the city. And in Brisbane, a popular Facebook page has been accused of inciting violence against cyclists.

With booming metropolitan populations, growing traffic congestion, and the ever-present threat of fossil-fuel-hastened climate change, Australian cycling needs a good news story. But it has not been forthcoming.

Every day, 69 per cent of Australians drive a car to work, usually as the only passenger. Meanwhile, 1.1 per cent of us ride a bicycle – fewer people than five years ago.

Fifteen thousand kilometres away, there’s a city with more bikes than people. Amsterdam is revered as a cycling mecca, where people mount their two-wheelers in rain, hail or shine, often with a couple of kids on the back. Much like its canals, bikes are part of Amsterdam’s charm. But this hasn’t always been true of the world’s most famous cycling city.

Rewind to the 1960s and ’70s, when many of the world’s cities were wholeheartedly embracing cars as a favoured mode of mass transport. Cycling in Amsterdam fell from 60 per cent to as low as 10 per cent and the roads more generally became a dangerous place. In 1971, traffic deaths peaked at 3300, including more than 400 children.

Citizen outrage manifested in the manner du jour: public protest. Under the banner “Stop de Kindermoord” – meaning “Stop the Child Murder” – protesters marched and rode on Amsterdam, demanding a renewed focus on cycling.

Dr Marco te Brömmelstroet, academic director of the Urban Cycling Institute at the University of Amsterdam, says the protests undoubtedly changed the course of Dutch cities.

“Mainstream planners and politicians didn’t want a cycling city,” he says. “Quite the opposite – they were deliberately working on a city model that divided living and working areas, with fast mobility in-between. The citizens stopped this.”

Around the same time, Danes took to the streets of Copenhagen opposing the construction of large motorways. They began placing white crosses at the sites of traffic deaths. Again, the government was forced to listen. Bicycle traffic in Copenhagen has risen 68 per cent in the past 20 years. In 2016, bikes overtook the number of cars in the city for the first time since records began.

In the Spanish city of Seville, in 2003, academic Ricardo Marqués Sillero was one in a group of cyclists who pushed hard enough to get separated cycling lanes onto the political agenda. Sillero’s plan to install 80 kilometres of completely separate bike paths was successful, and commuter cycling has increased twelvefold. New York, Berlin and San Francisco are other examples of cities where activism is forcing change.

Dr Brömmelstroet says public lobbying is “essential” for the creation of cycling cities. In short, governments don’t make cycling cities – people do.

But in Australia, we’re busier protesting against bikes than for them.

Melbourne’s lord mayor, Robert Doyle, blames a culture of resistance.

“I don’t think we’re as compliant as the Scandies, so it’s going to be a long haul,” he says, citing the public’s treatment of the recently introduced oBike shared bicycle scheme.

“People don’t like the bikes, so what do they do? They toss them in the Yarra. They turn them upside down. There’s a kind of civil protest going on.”

Australia’s big cities each have some form of cycling action plan, but none anywhere near as ambitious as they could be with public support. Currently, Canberra and Hobart lead the nation in active commuting – 8.4 per cent and 8.1 per cent, respectively. Perth and Adelaide have the lowest numbers of people riding or walking to work – 3.7 per cent and 4 per cent.

City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has made cycling paths a priority, but admits it’s an uphill battle – literally, in the case of Sydney’s terrain.

“We’ve historically had governments in Australia that have promoted cars, and people still like to park their car outside their terrace house,” Moore says. “We also have a lot of challenges compared to [flat] cities like Melbourne and Copenhagen.”

As for the City of Sydney’s proposed 200-kilometre cycle network – compared with Brisbane’s plan for 1700 kilometres – Moore says it’s “all we can fit in”.

There’s no doubting Moore’s passion for bikes. And despite cycling rates in New South Wales dropping 5 per cent in the year to 2016, cycling in the City of Sydney rose 6 per cent last year. This translates to one in five inner-city dwellers getting on a bike at least once a week. That’s enough for Moore – who’s fought pushback the entire way – to claim a win.  

“Despite the Telegraph and Alan Jones, we’ve made Sydney a cycling city,” she says.

Moore has introduced cheap cycling and bike maintenance courses, including specific courses for women – an important acknowledgement of the hefty gender gap in cycling lanes.

In Melbourne, less than 20 per cent of cyclists are women, although the use of some separated cycling lanes sees that percentage grow to 50.

Georgia Booth, a 27-year-old woman living in Sydney’s inner west, says her cycling career ended after a disastrous first attempt.

“I was riding in a bike lane, and a car tailed me for a while, then pulled up next to me and [the driver] screamed at me to get off the road,” Booth says. She stopped riding after that.

Anne Verlaek, a Dutch woman who moved to Australia in 2015, says cycling in Sydney is “ a different ball game”.

“It’s not like cruising around in Amsterdam – you have to be fast,” she says. “And because there aren’t enough bike lanes, you get yelled at for slowing down traffic.”

In Melbourne, Robert Doyle says bike riders need to take responsibility for their own role in the ongoing culture war.

“There is a sense of entitlement from some of our cyclists,” he says, as he recalls being verbally abused recently. “We were offering bike repairs and wanted to talk to cyclists about shared spaces, and a cyclist sped past at about 30 kilometres [an hour] and shouted at me, ‘Get off the bike path, you dickhead.’ ”

Doyle yelled back to inform him it was actually a shared path.

Further north, the anti-cyclist Facebook page “Brisbane and Cyclists” has come under fire for violent comments, including threats to run cyclists, referred to as “road toads” and “peddling [sic] terrorists”, off the road.

Plumber James Reynolds says he created the page, which has reached 5000 members, after having “a number of near misses with cyclists who disobeyed the road rules”. He claims to have received positive responses from people all over Australia – including cyclists.

Asked whether cyclists, such as the man who yelled at Melbourne’s lord mayor, need to check their attitude, the president of the Australian Cycle Alliance, Edward Hore, dodges the question.

“Well, I’d rather he was speeding on a bike than speeding in a car,” he says.

Unlike his aforementioned counterparts, Hore admits he spends more time on the defensive than proactively forcing policy change.

“We’re constantly putting out fires,” he says. “We spend a lot of time showing people what happens to us on the roads.”

When it comes to creating cycling cities, Australia is behind other countries. Cyclists blame reckless drivers, drivers blame egotistical cyclists, cyclists blame unsupportive governments and governments blame macho cyclists.

Doyle says the answer is to aim for “a shared roadway, for everyone”.

Less diplomatic is Dr Brömmelstroet, who thinks the preferred hierarchy is obvious.

“Cars and bicycles are not equal. Especially not cars in their adverse effects on others, safety and air. It’s a choice between cars or people.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2017 as "Breaking the cycle".

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Rose Donohoe is a Melbourne-based journalist and copywriter.

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