Met by silence, I dug deeper
I approached one of Melbourne’s bike police at a community workshop about cycling, thinking it’d be interesting to get their perspective, without considering what we might talk about. Perhaps I was secretly hoping I’d be the rational voice to convince him that penalising vulnerable road users like cyclists and pedestrians for failing to wear a helmet or jaywalking wasn’t the most effective way to reduce the road toll. I’ve always thought of myself as the kind of person who could talk to policeman.
He was a young guy, pretty good-looking. An inspired but intense friend was assailing him with ideas and stories, and introduced the policeman to me. ‘This is ____ , he’s a legend! He’s actually a cyclist. You may have seen him at the rally.’ This led to an easy conversation about the Zero Budget; the policeman agreed it was bad. I didn’t find out whether he was at the rally as an individual or on duty.
Then my friend was like, ‘So, you gonna join me on Drive To Work Day by running Bikes On Strike?’ Background: Drive To Work Day is a national day where all cyclists take to their cars, but me and my biking friends aren’t that into it because most of us don’t have a car and we find it a bit negative. But after the Zero Budget the idea of Bikes On Strikes had come up, where cyclists take to public transport with their helmets or placards or something. The time for negativity seemed to have arrive. My friend wanted us to run them on the same day.
The policeman seemed uncomprehending and possibly wary, and for some reason I felt a bit embarrassed. Did these ideas seem ridiculous to him? Is he thinking these guys are a bit fringe and nutty? Why did I care? I tried to explain the logic behind Drive To Work, ‘It’s a way to show how much congestion is alleviated by cyclists’ but I wasn’t getting any validating signals so quickly abandoned the thread. ’Anyway, what do you guys get up to?’ I said.
‘Oh, you know, enforcement. We have periodic campaigns.’
‘Oh yeah, you mean, like Operation Halo.’ I couldn’t think of anything good to say about Operation Halo, which seemed to me to be more about blaming vulnerable road users than protecting them, so I popped out this one: ‘I’ve always wondered if I could outrun the police if they tried to catch me.’ I kind of thought it was going to be this jokey tension-reliever, as it would have been if I was talking to my friends.
No response, so I explained further. ‘Yeah, like in a stand off between me and the police, would I win.’
He gave me a look best interpreted as disbelief at my stupidity. ’Really. Yeah, there are a few people that do that.’
‘Of course I’d never to do it,’ I quickly clarified.
Met by silence, I dug deeper. ’I mean, it’s just a fantasy.’
In my social interactions I work off this theory, which I’ve never really interrogated, that awkwardness can be overcome by sharing an honest story, particularly an embarrassing, self-deprecating one, and that if you just be yourself, people will like you. As I get older I’m realising this theory is fundamentally flawed as it rests on an assumption that others think similarly to you. I’m not sure why it’s taken nearly 30 years to work this out.
Me: ‘So……what issues are you working on right now?’
Him: ‘Well, cyclists without lights is becoming an increasing problem.’
I wasn’t sure what to say. This emphasis on cyclists’ personal responsibility seems a bit misguided to me, but fair enough, riding without lights is dodgy.
My friend declared that he never rides without lights, and in fact, that’s why he was walking home tonight.
The policeman told us: ‘Believe it or not I’ve seen some cyclists riding along, no lights, wearing all black!’ He shook his head in disbelief.
‘Oh, I ride without lights sometimes,’ I revealed stupidly, in reflexive defence of the black-clothed ninja who had been so roundly condemned as irresponsible.
The policeman and my friend both looked at me in surprise. I pedalled backwards, adopting a low, calm voice. ’Oh you know, sometimes when you get stuck out at night, and your light goes flat, you don’t want to leave your bike in the city so you have to ride home. I mean…on the footpath…slowly.’
‘Fair enough, that’s a different thing then,’ said the young policeman.
Who brought this uni student?
It turned out I was sitting with various policeman almost the whole night. It was one of those events where you rotated tables and swapped ideas. One of the policeman’s ideas was that if you take road space away from motorists by putting in a bike lane, you have to give them something back. I never really found out what he meant by that – was it building new roads, or something else?
On one table, another cyclist put forward the idea of making some of the major roads ie William, Elizabeth, one-way, as in some European cities. The policeman was like, ‘You can’t have that, it’ll just throw the traffic into chaos.’
Without knowing much about the actual proposal, I chipped in: ‘Chaos is not always a bad thing.’
‘Really?’ he said, sounding doubtful.
‘No. If you have unpredictability in the urban environment, people are like, what’s going on here, and they slow down and exercise more care. That’s good for cyclists. Whereas if you have certainty, people think they can just hoon up the road without looking.’
He wasn’t impolite, but looked a little incredulous, perhaps thinking who brought this uni student? For a moment I felt like maybe he was the face of commonsense, and I was really just living in fairyland.
People have a right to get to work safely by some means of transport
Policeman: ‘I’ll tell you one thing I disagree with that’s been said here. We can’t make Melbourne a cycling city in four years. We CAN make it a city safe for cycling. Understand my distinction here?’
Another cycling friend, who has this kind of slippery way of talking sometimes, says, ‘Oh, great, well that’s what we want too, so it sounds like we’re on the same page. We want to make Melbourne a city safe for bikes too. Actually, that will probably involve making it a cycling city though.’
I tried to explain to him how making something a cycling city could actually make it safer for cyclists. I told him that cars treated me more respectfully on Canning Street than, say, Arthurton Road, where motorists were like, what the hell are you doing here, get off the road!
Or how, on Spring Street, I refuse to ride in the bike lane, a narrow painted lanebuilt alongside car doors, and instead ride in the middle of the traffic lane, but motorists often beep and gesticulate for me to ‘Get in the bike lane!’
‘What I am saying is that if you legitimise cyclists through the urban environment, motorists will be more careful and respectful too, and they’ll be safer.’ He seemed to have some sympathy for this view.
‘See the thing is, Melbourne’s always going to be a car city. We’ve never going to be Europe. We’re closer to America. We’ve got a very strong car culture. But there need to be safe avenues for cyclists. I think cyclists have the right to have safe avenues to their workplace.’
Me: ‘Yes, people have a human right to ride on the roads without fear of being killed.’
He hesitated, seeming unsure of this characterisation of the principle.’Well…yes, in a way. People have a right to get to work safety by some means of transport.’