Response to claim bike infrastructure investment is sexist.

It is a misappropriation of government funds to subsidise fresh fruit and veg. Only rich people eat unprocessed food. Poor people eat big packets of potato chips and 12-packs of doughnuts. Governments should subsidise those.

If that sounds fallacious to you, consider this report out of RMIT University (or this summary thereof), arguing public funds should not be spent on infrastructure for bikes, because it’s mostly men doing the cycling. Women prefer buses and trains, Australian census data would tell us, so those are the modes that deserve public funding. Funding bike infrastructure is “sexist”.

Poor people don’t eat fresh fruit and veg in countries like Australia, because fresh foods provide fewer calories relative to their cost. Women don’t cycle in Australia, because the negligible bike infrastructure we have in this country demands masculinity of those who ride in our dangerous bike lanes that mix bikes and cars. And surprise surprise, we have more masculine men than we do women.

In defence of the authors, Paul Mees and Lucy Groenhart, their remarks about cycling come as asides in a report that is mainly focused on public transport investment. What I do find surprising, is that Mees could have written a book on European transit networks, yet write now as though he has never encountered European bike infrastructure. The bike is not a weak variation on driving in Europe, powered by skinny men who like to mix it with traffic, but a powerful variation on walking, powered by office girls in high heels and mums leading children to school. Many trips, in fact, are made to the train station, making cycling integral to the systems Paul Mees has written a book on.

Of course I’m dismayed but I’m also intrigued that people with a voice on transport issues do not have a constructive picture of cycling locked in their thinking. They could pass a written test on all the key issues, but would forget it all the next day. They’re like GPs, and cycling is like an exotic disease. Mees’s report on Melbourne’s 2009 Ride to Work Day, shows how his own perceptions of cycling are coloured by his experience as a male cyclist, using that city’s dangerous bike lanes. His experience leads him to categorise cycling with driving, not walking. It is from that taxonomy that all his other fallacies follow.

When I rode 130km on Saturday, my racing bike was more like a car than some shoes, I admit, especially with the tailwind back home from Delorsomewhere to Launceston, here in verdant Tasmania. But for commuting I cycle in a way I see more and more people doing in Sydney, using footpaths, waterways, parks, and Clover Moore’s kid-friendly cycle-tracks. I ride an upright bike with a bell, slowing to pedestrian pace when I have to, and speeding to more than an a car’s average speed when nothing impedes me. I believe the photo on the right is of Paul Mees, cycling in a manner that the unsafe bike lanes in Melbourne decree. I have never seen anyone commuting on a touring bike, wearing day-glow or a helmet, in a city that has real bike infrastructure, of the kind that attracts women. Paul knows women outnumber men on the bike paths of Denmark and the Netherlands. Did he have amnesia when he said bike infrastructure investment is sexist? Have his memories of European style cycling been eclipsed by what he sees there in Melbourne, the way Plato says the ideal realm of pure forms can’t be seen for all these present distractions filling our eyes?

Melbourne Critical Mass madness

Dear reader, I feel totally helpless. I tell the Dutch they don’t make full use of the potential of cycling, and they get defensive, as though a 26% bike modal share is already too much. I tell Australian cyclists they could take a few leads from the Dutch, and they say: “yeah, reclaim the road man!” waving their bikes in the air. I’m overwhelmed by the sheer man-hours involved if one were to bat down every stray public comment like Mees’s.

I think the best advice I’ve received in a while was from a friend in Amsterdam who shares my believe in a world wide bike modal share of 87 percent (america’s current car modal share). As architects we can draw that on paper. We can identify tracts through our cities where people can live and commute entirely dependent on bikes, then plan for the day when those tracts become beacons for the transformation of the rest of our nations. I think I’ll do that, and leave the transit and motoring advocates in the position of whining.

10 Comments

  1. Edward says:

    Thank you for this. Very reasoned. I have read two of Paul Mees’ books. They are superb. His analysis of the proper design of public transport systems is hard to fault. And so his weird views on bicycles are perplexing to say the least.

  2. Luke says:

    A friend from Milan visited london last week. She commented that London cyclists went fast and wore strange clothes (she’s polite – what she meant was that they’re sweaty men in naff dayglo).

    I’m afraid not all of Europe is on message. Hope you haven’t been burnt out.

  3. Tom says:

    Nice article, I like it. Couldn’t help but include the Plato reference. Good logic though, I did wonder when I read about the study.

  4. Luke says:

    London – Milan? Aren’t there some Alps in the way?

  5. Colin says:

    The male/female split should not be applied to total cyclist numbers but only to those new cyclists induced to ride by the provision of cycling infrastructure.

    In other words, we should build cycling infrastructure for non-cyclists, not for the tiny proportion who are already willing to brave the road. If our new cycling infrastructure is suitable only for that tiny proportion then Mees is right.

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