I accept the world’s mockery of Australia and its misguided bike helmet laws. There is no doubt we have overreacted to one specific danger of cycling, without looking at the big picture. However, if we look at another specific danger, that of cyclists hitting pedestrians, Australia can claim the wiser response—along with Italy, Japan, and any other country that takes a slightly more laissez-faire view of this problem.
First let me say, there are many contexts where the need for segregation is without doubt:
But a cycle track through Times Square? A bit of urban design jargon will help make my point. Bridges, trails and arterial routes are examples of paths. Times Square is a node, approaching the size of a district. Other examples of nodes include historic town centres, parks, piazzas, and neighbourhoods that people call home. It gets confusing when nodes are linear—in other words, places people arrive that, but don’t actually stop. Examples include waterfront promenades, piers, or—dare I say—Brooklyn Bridge.
Cycle tracks belong along pathways, not nodes. Nodes (which let’s not forget, can be elongated) are destinations and have lots of people just hanging around, zigzagging, stopping, walking backwards, etc.. The message a bike lane sends us when it doesn’t stop upon reaching a node, is to maintain our speed. Precisely when we aught to be swallowing that pill we are so ready to give drivers, a bike lane tells us to blithely ignore the people around us and hit them or honk them if they step on our turf. A shared pedestrian treatment would tell us to slow down and graciously weave our way through, politely ringing our bike bells.
Though I wish Australia had a few more segregated lanes along paths, I’m glad we don’t have them through nodes. And I’m glad linear nodes, like the boardwalk past my town’s marina, require me to slow down and have manners. There are quite enough places where I have nothing to distract me from pedalling.
If my city’s park by the river or its port with cafes were covered with markings telling people they had to have a bike, or no bike, to be allowed to go here, or go there, the graciousness I encounter each morning wouldn’t last long. I’m haunted by the voice of an American woman I once saw riding across the Brooklyn Bridge, bleating at tourists in a voice like The Nanny’s: “bark lane, bark lane, you’re standing in a bark lane people, bark lane.” All she had to do was slow down, but a lane marking told her to bark.