Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sydney: the city that hates bikes

That was a recent headline in the Sydney Morning Herald. It was sparked by the experience of Dr John Pucher, a transportation expert from Rutgers University, who said:
Whether I was a pedestrian or cyclist I found the level of the hostility of enough Sydney motorists worse than I had seen anywhere in the world.
In case you wonder what he means by “anywhere in the world”, he continues
In Texas or in the south-east of the US, it's aggressive, but there was an incredible level of aggression from Sydney motorists.
Wow. I thought it was just me.

For me, commuting back and forth to work was a death defying experience. It’s really not the way to start and end your day. Dr Pucher is impressed that Sydney is spending $76 million on 200km of dedicated bike lanes. I am not so impressed. I could have biked from my apartment to work almost entirely on one of those new bike lanes, but I avoided it whenever possible.

The problem was that the bike lane was adjacent to the highway. Biking is great for your health. Sucking down car exhaust is not. I opted for the residential surface streets. The downside was that many Sydney drivers simply think bikes do not belong on the road. Some even think it is illegal for bikes to be on the road. After all, isn't that what the dedicated bike lanes are for?

One morning, I t-boned a car that didn’t yield for me at a roundabout. The driver was irate with me! Another driver sacrificed her side mirror when she failed to yield the legal right of way at a 1-lane speed control section of a residential street. While I was happy that I avoided a head-on collision and only clipped her mirror, she chased me for 2km to express her outrage. A passing motorist, who was not a witness to the incident, expressed support for his fellow motorist by calling me an asshole. Obviously, the cyclist must be at fault.

Another problem with the bike lanes is that the cars have one set of traffic lights, but the adjacent bike lanes must use the push-button pedestrian lights. If the traffic light turns green before you get to the intersection to push the button, you're out of luck. You either have to wait 5 minutes for the next green pedestrian light, or break the law by biking across the intersection when it says "do not walk". This is absurd, and should be remedied by eliminating the whole push-button system. When the traffic light turns green, the pedestrian light should turn green. If there are no pedestrians waiting to cross, so be it. At least drivers will be trained to look for pedestrians before turning.

The editors at the Sydney Morning Herald try to split the difference by suggesting that conflicts between motorists and cyclists could be reduced if both sides just simmered down. That's easy to say, but hard to do given the assymetric risks. Cyclists are not the ones in a 2000+ pound steel box with air bags and seatbelts. Cyclists are on 20 pounds of aluminum with a styrofoam helmet. Motorists may be slightly inconvenienced by cyclists, but cyclists may be killed by motorists. Given that, I think cyclists are justified in expressing something less friendly than "no worries mate" when their lives are threatened.

1 comment:

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