"More bikes less cars". It's the sort of phrase we hear often from cycling advocates. Indeed, Bicycle Victoria has been using the ol' "More people cycling more often" for a number of years as their slogan. It's a phrase advocates can really sink their teeth into. After all, with so many benefits, getting people out of their cars and onto their bikes can only be a good thing, can't it? Or can it? Certainly, as a car-free transportational and recreational cyclist I know the benefits of cycling both in my own life and it's effect on the environment around me. However, I also worry about what else needs to happen to facilitate this, and what might follow.
Much of what you will read here may appear slightly selfish, but it's worth bearing in mind that most human desires of any kind are motivated by selfishness (or at least self-preservation) at least to some degree -- including many of those put forward as reasons for wanting "more people cycling more often". Bear in mind that I write this not as a new "convert" suddenly in denial about what I've been doing to the world all this time, this is not a motorist whining about cyclists, this is coming from a car-free cyclist for my entire adult life (and indeed before that), and it's not without some trepidation that I tread this path.
People talk about the environmental benefits of cycling and the reduction of resource consumption. A very notable aim. However, what is often forgotten is that cycling in and of itself, is not the sole solution to all of the world's social and environmental problems. Yes, it's part of the solution, but there are a whole range of other things that go into living sustainably which go along with it. I'm also a pragmatist. I realised some time ago that cycling was never going to have the mass appeal of driving. The perceived effort is too great, the value of "status" in western society (oftne reflected in the car people drive) is a deterrent, and finally, the perceived danger. Personally I think the development of cleaner fuels for cars is going to have a greater impact on saving the environment than any attempts to convert people to cycling.
People talk about cycling reducing traffic congestion, and this appears to be a valid point. After all, one person sitting on a bike takes up far less space than one person driving a big 4WD/SUV. Granted, I'd hate to be the poor bugger who suffered a heart attack and had to wait for an ambulance to get across the Sundale Bridge or anywhere along Bundall Road during the afternoon gridlock, so in that respect, perhaps I can't argue against reduced traffic congestion with any conviction. However, has anyone critically considered whether a road similarly clogged with bicycles would be any easier to negotiate?
Every day my current ride to work takes me along Bundall Road, passing gridlocked cars for several kilometres on end. At the squeeze point near the Sorrento Shops, I actually change lanes, passing between the lanes of traffic, simply because that's where I have more space to pass. Traffic doesn't get much heavier than this, yet the heavy, ponderous nature of the cars these people are driving makes them sitting ducks, easy to evade and pass. If all of these people were on bicycles, I fear that the traffic would be impregnable, even for a cyclist. Take a look at the early stages (i.e the first kilometre or so) of a mass ride like the Brisbane River Ride and you'll get some idea. Personally, I'm not so keen on riding in that environment every day.
While we're on the subject of these mass rides, I've also noticed the skill level that many people have on bicycles and frankly, the thought of many of them taking up cycling without any training or even a clue in most cases is really frightening. Yes, they are also a problem when they get in cars, but that least there is a nominal training and licencing program to govern this to some degree (although I agree that it could be improved). In any case, cars are heavy, ponderous beasts, and a sprightly cyclist can evade all but the most determinedly erratic of them. It's also worth noting that on these mass rides (or the rare occasions when I've used bike paths) I've seen plenty of instances of cycle rage, which bears a staggering resemblance to road rage.
The other thing that frightens me is the infrastructure that would be built to service this. Once there are a heap of unskilled and untrained cyclists on the roads, the government response is likely to be trying to build facilities to deal with it. Now this is all well and good, until a few people start making laws compelling cyclists to use these "facilities" that the government have spent big dollars putting there (this usually happens as soon as the opposition party whines about "under-utilised facilities"). It becomes even more scary when one considers the extent to which a lot of these "new" cyclists are likely to support laws aimed at simply "getting cyclists off the road" (we've already had examples of this with the M1 debacle here in Queensland).
Frankly, I have no intention of being forced into using some dumbed-down infrastructure aimed at the above purpose. The Netherlands is often spoken of as some kind of cycling nirvana by people who have never been there. To me it isn't. The prospect of having to go 4-5km out of my way on every
errand I run, simply because I'm prohibited from using all but the "official bike route" doesn't fill me with a lot of enthusiasm. Nor does the prospect of being relegated to the status of slow-moving wheeled pedestrian by the aforementioned route being clogged. Then there's the rampant bike theft industry to keep me looking over my shoulder... Incidentally, I'm yet to hear any positive comments about it by people who have attempted to use those facilities for their day to day errands, but I've heard plenty of negative ones.
Additionally, has anyone considered the benefits of being a small minority, or the consequences of losing these? On slow news days, people in the media like to trot out the old "cyclists don't pay rego fees" as do a small minority of whining motorists. However, if there were ever enough cyclists on the road to make it economically viable, you can be sure such a tax would be implemented in a matter of days. As the only cyclist in my office, I get to use the undercover area to store my bike -- an area usually only reserved for people much higher up the corporate chain than myself. As the only one riding a bike to my local grocery store, I get to lock it up right near the door rather than have to trudge across a carpark, indeed, I've often deliberately "not seen" the bike rack just so I could maintain such a privilege.
As I said at the start of this post, this is not an anti-cycling rant. I am well aware that cycling has the capacity to improve our quality of life. However, I do have some concerns with the automatic assumption that simply getting people on bicycles is going to solve all of the world's problems without presenting problems of it's own. The "car culture", as some refer to it, may be big, unsightly, unhealthy and possess a whole raft of other problems. However, for the crafty cyclist it has one undeniable attribute - it can be beaten. Personally, I would rather go on beating the "car culture" everyday than see cycling ruined by a "bike culture" that takes on most of the undesirable elements of the car culture.