I spoke about bicycle transport to a Lions Club meeting this week. It is nice to know you don’t have to go all the way to North Korea to experience strange costumes and salutations. We have them right here in our midsts, gathering in community halls on any weeknight.
But of course weirdness happens in bike planning meetings as well. We have our own jargon and costumes. That makes The Lions and Bike User Groups (BUGs) about equal. Except I doubt too many BUGs would invite a guest with no interest in cycling to speak from their point of view, as the Lions invited me to speak recently. They listened attentively. They asked genuine questions. They even bought me a roast dinner!
Speaking to a community group with no particular interest in cycling, helped me realise something as well, that talking about bike infrastructure to non-cycling Australians is like talking about electricity infrastructure to the Nepalese (who count themselves lucky if the lights come on for a few hours a day), or asking New Guinean highlanders to back you in your push for fibre optic broadband connections to every longhouse, or trying to sell toilets in Port-au-Prince (a Haitian city without any sewers). It is impossible to even have a public debate about bike infrastructure, in a country where people gave up hoping for safe cycling routes before many people living can even remember. We have gotten used to having no bike infrastructure, the way Haitians have gotten used to dying from cholera.
But is there anywhere I could go and have a sensible conversation about bike infrastructure? (When I say “infrastructure”, I mean something a city depends on, that could not be interrupted without every business having to close until that infrastructure has been restored.)
It might be possible have such a conversation, in hypothetical terms, in New York, where there have been instances (like this) of snow being cleared from cycle tracks even more promptly than roads. Still though, I worry that New York’s cycle tracks have been built from the same motives as the High Line, in other words with a focus on liveability, as opposed to core business. Bloomberg calls it his “virtuous cycle” of civic investment (explained beautifully here).
We see lots of photos of cyclists pressing through blizzards in Copenhagen, where half of all commuters can’t suddenly switch mode just because of the weather. But where are the roofs to protect cyclists, as bus and train riders have roofs to protect them? Buses and trains are like bicycle transport’s evil step sisters. We get to be Cinderella.
There is nowhere in the world where I can go and have an intelligent conversation about bike infrastructure, as I imagine bike infrastructure could and should be. Last year in the Netherlands people thought I was joking when I said major bike routes aught to be covered. I was given that old tired line about there being no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. I said, you don’t expect drivers of convertibles to ride around with the top down, wearing a raincoat.
I’m like you. I enjoy riding in the rain. But let’s face it, you and I are unusual. In any city where people have the option of cycling or driving (Rotterdam, Portland, Berlin, and Milan, for example) the vast majority go for the modes that keep them dry. The only cities where bikes outnumber the others are those where transit is limited and there is very little car parking.
I was very impressed by one lady at the Lion’s club meeting (a Lioness, I suppose), who told me she discovered cycling when growing up in South Africa. Trade sanctions on oil meant most South Africans cycled. Her suggestion was that Australia be even more offensive to the international community that we already are (I presume she was alluding to our treatment of refugees, or maybe our indigenous population). Isolation would get us all cycling again.
As much as I adore an absurd proposition, I have grown disinterested in any idea to incentivise cycling by discouraging driving: political pie in the sky nonsense. I’m interested in creative suggestions to incentivise cycling, without hurting driving. Even in Denmark and Holland there are regions where almost everyone drives, because they can drive, and where the inconveniences that surround cycling mean it has the smallest slice of the transport mode share. Meanwhile, in Australian and American cities, we can see bicycle planners have an impossible task if this mode is ever to be viewed as essential to the life of a city, and not just a bonus, like a few hours of light in Nepal, or somewhere to shit in Port-au-Prince.
It’s time we stopped glorifying cycling in the snow and the rain. To most impartial observers, an uncovered bike route is about as seductive as an uncovered sewer.