In ‘Riding roughshod’, today’s Fairfax opinion piece, Bruce Guthrie, former editor of The Age and the Herald Sun, argues that bicycle registration ‘may’ be a good idea, although he doesn’t unequivocally endorse it. He starts out by positioning himself as an admirer of cycling as a healthy, environmentally friendly way of getting around, and ‘loathe to entertain the idea of any government impost.’ But he says registration may be necessary if cyclists ‘are ever going to be treated with respect by other road users’ and that it could ‘heal the rift between riders and motorists.’
When Guthrie talks about a ‘rift’, he is really talking about motorists being frustrated at cyclists’ supposedly bad behaviour. He recounts a litany of grievances that in his view demonstrate such bad behaviour. Some of them seem a little odd: A cyclist yells at him for cutting across their lane, or opening a car door, despite the fact that it doesn’t put them in any danger? Perhaps Guthrie’s idea of safe driving behaviour doesn’t look quite so safe when you are exposed to it from a bike.
No doubt a few cyclists do break the rules. Sometimes their behaviour may be dangerous, although the main danger will always be to themselves, rather than car drivers. Sometimes what is seen as lawbreaking is actually legal – for example, driving past stopped cars so you can position yourself out in front at an intersection, to be more easily seen. Other times, the laws are just bad, and cyclists need to break them to protect themselves.
For example, Guthrie complains about cyclists riding on the footpath, or even using pedestrian crossings. Guthrie notes of cyclists that ‘they have this annoying habit of changing their riding habits – one minute they’ll use the road, then the footpath, then a pedestrian crossing, if it suits them.’ Apart from the fact that it is perfectly legal for a cyclist to get off their bike and use a pedestrian crossing, Guthrie ignores the fact that one of the reasons cyclists use footpaths and pedestrian crossings is that they have no alternative – roads and intersections are often too unsafe for them.
Guthrie sees registration as a way of holding cyclists accountable for their supposedly irresponsible behaviour. The many incidents of law breaking and dangerous driving by registered motorists don’t make his list of grievances. I’d be surprised if he’s never experienced such behaviour – perhaps he just regards it as normal.
In fact, studies indicate that the majority of accidents are caused by drivers of motor vehicles, even though it is mostly cyclists, as vulnerable road users, who are seriously injured. Given this, you’d think that reducing cyclist and pedestrian casualties would involve changing driver behaviour. But road safety campaigns by government and police reflect Guthrie’s thinking, blaming cyclist and pedestrians.
The Victorian Government’s latest road safety action plan (p.15) doesn’t even recognise cyclists as a category of road user, and their strategy says almost nothing about cyclist safety. When I got stopped by police in a road block during the Safecycle campaign last year, my lights, reflectors, and bells got checked, and the policeman even questioned my choice of thongs. Is this really targeting the causes of road fatalities?
Operation Halo, a police action to take place throughout February, also appears skewed towards targeting vulnerable road users. It will be interesting to get the relative statistics as to how many cyclists, compared to drivers, are charged for law breaking as a result of this campaign. The frequent failure of police to charge drivers who injure – and sometimes kill – cyclists through their careless behaviour is inexplicable; the tragic death of James Cross is one such example.
Back to Guthrie, in whose view ‘the root of the problem’ is that cyclists ‘are not required to spend a penny, or be identified.’ Most cyclists do carry identification. But you don’t have to be a behaviour specialist to realise that having a piece or paper or a number on a bike is unlikely to change behaviour, either of drivers towards cyclists (which as discussed, is the main problem), or cyclists themselves. I certainly haven’t seen any evidence that car registration has done anything to prevent drivers breaking the law.
And cyclists already do pay for the roads, through their taxes and rates. Registration goes towards administration and third party insurance, not road construction and maintenance. Guthrie could have corrected this factual inaccuracy at the ‘root’ of his argument with just a bit of light research.
Despite cyclists taking up less room, reducing congestion, and generating less pollution, I wouldn’t mind betting they don’t get much for their taxes. In the CBD, cyclists get narrow bike lanes (if any), built alongside car doors and fast moving traffic, which often disappear leaving cyclists stranded and vulnerable. It’d be interesting to get a breakdown of proportion of cyclists vs drivers by locality, and commensurate expenditure of state and local government money in each area.
Guthrie, obviously struggling to find good cycling countries with registration, resorts to using Hawaii as an example of where it has been done. The bicycle mode share in Hawaii is about two percent, compared to 20-30 percent in places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen (none of which have bike registration).
Guthrie argues that bike registration could be used to fund separated cycling infrastructure, as ‘cars and bicycles do not go together well’. I’m all in favour of safe bike lanes and other bike-friendly improvements. That, combined with driver education about sharing the road, is the thing most likely to reduce driver-cyclist conflict. But we can pay for it out of the taxes cyclists already pay.
Finally, Guthrie suggests, perhaps with the money cyclists could get for rego, they could get Shane Warne to ‘front’ for them. A ludicrous suggestion given Shane Warne’s aggressive actions toward that cyclist – but unsurprising given that Guthrie appears to share Warne’s attitudes, including complaining, in what may have been an unfunny joke, that cyclists crowd out all the good Sunday cafes.
In the course of his argument, Guthrie (perhaps light heartedly) describes cyclists as ‘lycra-clad pedal pushers’. This incessant focus on cyclists’ attire bothers me. It was even recently echoed by women’s cycling group Frocks on Bikes and Darebin Bicycle Users Group in their comments that ‘friends don’t let friends wear lycra.’ Such rhetoric seems counterproductive for bike advocates. I can appreciate that they are trying to ‘normalise’ the appearance of cyclists, but really, attacking people who wear lycra just fuels the stigma. Who cares, as long as they’re comfy?
Anyway, perhaps I shouldn’t really engage with the mainstream media’s opinion pieces, and fuel their fire. The predictably framed controversies the media engineer are really just a way of getting people to read and talk about their often unexciting content. Still, the media could take a more reflective, nuanced approach to reporting cycling issues, than simply giving a voice to people like Shane Warne and Bruce Guthrie who clearly have an axe to grind and know very little about the issue.
In the UK, The Times, following a bike accident suffered by one of its reporters, has actually launched a campaign to improve cycling safety, although it has recently been criticised for focusing on helmets and hi-vis – putting the emphasis back on cyclists to protect themselves.
*Today I spotted a well reasoned article by Alan Davies – goes into the specific arguments against in a bit more detail than this post, in particular, the administrative costs versus the limited road safety gain. Just a bit uncomfortable with his last point about TAbbott being some kind of cycling role model (even though I don’t want cycling to just be a left wing thing).*