Thursday, August 5, 2010

Australia's cycling culture

The media has been awash recently with articles calling for a change in cycling culture from the sports and performance focused riding culture to a more relaxed, European culture. Something like the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog, Auckland Cycle Chic or Cycle Chic Sundays love to celebrate. The first 2 blogs blog have a whole lot of Australian cycle chic - including the recent 'no helmet' demonstration on the Melbourne Bike share scheme.The Sydney Morning Herald's article talks about how upright bikes are the norm in Europe unlike here where sports bicycles - mountain bikes and racers - are far more prevalent. Our helmet laws got a lot of attention and were targeted as the 'source of all evil'.

Then The Age reported on the slow uptake on the bike-share scheme in Melbourne, putting most of the blame on the need to wear helmets and downplaying the impact of winter.

A key aspect that is not emphasised enough though is that, for most of us cyclists, a helmet is a good idea. Our road and pathway infrastructure and the sprawl of our cities is more conducive to higher risk cycling, where helmet use is a good idea. For example, I am fortunate enough to cycle to the city on a high standard, off-road cycle path - but I cycle 8km so I need to travel at a decent pace. I have had one accident on the cycle path thanks to my speed and have witnessed a few near misses between cyclists thanks to narrow, congested pathways. If I didn't have a helmet I would have had a serious head injury. Those who brave the roads are in even more danger. In trawling for a photo of the Australian city commuter style I happened on a poem that illustrates the point (From Canada though). The writer alters Tennyson's famous poem to be the 'Charge of the Cycle Commuter'.

Maybe once we have a more comprehensive network of safe cycle routes and calmed streets through our cities there may be cause to consider whether some relaxation of the law may be appropriate where the infrastructure supports safer cycling.


Thanks to Mike Rubbo for his comment and this link to his great, in-depth blog on the slow uptake in the Melbourne Bike Share scheme. Will the reaction be similarly muted with Brisbane's CityCycle scheme to be commissioned later this year? I, and many others, hope not - but the truth be told, with the helmet police waiting to fine casual users, it will not be used. Because bike-share relies on impulsive, unplanned use by people who would not normally cycle - and hence don't have a helmet handy.

I still believe we need to make our streets safer to support bike share, and a massive roll out of cyclists on bike-share bikes will help achieve that. Unfortunately they will not use it en-masse if there is a requirement to wear a helmet - because it is no longer convenient.

I don't think there should be an exemption just for the bike share, as Mike suggests, it should be based on area (speed restricted roads in CBD) and/or infrastructure type (off-road cycleway/pathway) - but an exemption is needed or bike share will fail in Australia. That would be very sad, to be the only two failed bike share schemes worldwide.
I hope Mike, myself and the other 'doomsday prophets' are proved wrong. But to do so, Brisbane and Melbourne will need to be a bit more innovative in making helmets conveniently accessible.


Michael said...

I don't think you are being fair to our protest.

It was and is urgently focussed on the the fact that Melbourne Bike Share is not working due to the helmet law. I think that is irrefutable and surely a worry, given the way these schemes have proven themselves able to transform urban cycling in cities which have taken them on.

As Nick Low so eloquently says at the end of the film, Melbourne Bike Share in Trouble? no one is questioning your right to assess your situation as needing a helmet, just that there should be choice like everywhere else that these schemes are thriving.

Take a look at the movie at
and see if our positions are really that far apart. Mike Rubbo

Conor said...

The benefit of not having a helmet law is that it eliminates one more impediment to attracting new cyclists. Once they're on the bike and realise how convenient it is, we've got them hooked. And at some point they will have a close call or someone they know will have a head injury. At that point they may decide to start wearing a helmet, but they'll keep riding.

European cities are starting to see increases in helmet use without any compulsory requirements. Let's not handicap our ability to get people started.