Bike safety first

More and more Australians would like to harness the tremendous benefits of biking, such as physical and mental well-being, clean air and climate safety. As the photo above shows, which is from Geelong in the 1950s, Australians actually were used to commute in that way – in those days mostly because it was cheaper than the car, and it was faster and more practical than public transport.

40 years ago, back in 1977, efforts were made to improve cycling in Geelong with Australia’s first bike plan. The plan’s credo was that “every street is a cycling street” and was also widely recognised at the time as a model for bicycle planning – and in 1981, as this video shows, Geelong was officially declared “Australia’s first cycle city”.

» More about this on and on Wikipedia.

Cycling made sense to the Geelongians. So what happened? Well, during the 1980s and 1990s, the car became affordable for literally everyone, and in industrial cities like Geelong, over these decades, city planners and road designers simply ignored making proper space for the bicycles on the roads, again because it was cheaper and faster to leave the construction of the bike paths out. And, of course, because nobody stood up and complained about it. No one in council chambers spoke up for the cyclists.

Geelong never became a ‘Cycle City’. On the contrary, as someone who has been riding my bike in Copenhagen in many years, I’d describe Geelong as a clean-but ‘Car City’, and a dangerous nightmare for cyclists, apart from a few designated nature routes for weekend riders.

A mistake
Today, many Australian road planners are looking towards cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen and they realise, along with their councillors, that this negligence was a big mistake. For a number of reasons. The advantages to society when a majority of a community use their bicycles for their daily transport are well documented by now: We get healthier from the exercise, we don’t pollute the air, we don’t need much parking space, we make more spontanious stops and fall in conversations with others. It has all been carefully calculated and found to be a significant win-win to everyone.

Report after report, study after study has been published with findings that those communities that have many cyclists and less cars on the roads are better off. I wrote a blogpost about it four years ago, The real value of cycling, which data is still relevant. In December 2016, summarised the benefits in an ‘Ultimate Guide’:

» Biking Expert:
Ultimate Guide To The Benefits Of Biking

…and just a few months ago, for instance, another benefit was added to the comprehensive list:

The amazing health benefits of cycling we never knew about

“If cycling to work reduces cancer and heart disease then a law which reduces the number of people riding to work will increase the incidence of cancer and heart disease. This is exactly what mandatory bike helmets did – it reduced the number of people cycling to work.”
~ Freestyle Cyclists

“On yer bike – if you don’t want to die of heart disease or cancer, according to a new study,” one wrote on Facebook.

» The New Daily – 20 April 2017:
Cycling to work cuts risk of cancer: study

» BBC News – 20 April 2017:
Cycling to work can cut cancer and heart disease, says study

» The Guardian – 31 July 2017:
Swapping cars for bikes, not diesel for electric, is the best route to clean air
“Cycling can be a huge part of the fight to tackle city air pollution. Tim Burns of Sustrans explains how their Active Travel Toolbox can help us get there”

In the face of obesity, climate change and self-driving cars
Australia faces both an obesity emergency, a climate emergency and has alarming high figures of people who feel lonely. And the transport revolution of the self-driving car is just around the corner – with the potential to change everything we used to think about roads and traffic.

In a situation like that, you’d think it would be regarded in everybody’s interest if calorie-burning, carbon-neutral and community-connecting cycling was highly encouraged, not discouraged by the authorities in local and state governments.

One reason it is not, is that making those roads safe for cyclists quickly gets costly. And therefore controversial, as long as the majority of decision makers in local councils couldn’t dream of jumping up on a bike themselves.

More than half of residents in cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam use their bicycles to get to work and school every day, as the most natural and practical thing, whereas only around one per cent of Geelong’s resident use their bikes for transport.

If we decide as a community that we want to change that, here in Geelong, what should come first then? Will we first have to see lots of cyclists in the streets, which then will lead to better political understanding for the need to create safety for the cyclists and increased budgets for infrastructure improvements? In other words, the question then is: assuming that more two-wheelers on the roads will lead to more bike paths, how do we get people to start using their bikes?

Or… will it have to be the other way around: First we must increase the budgets to create safer bike infrastructure, and then – but first then – we will see the cyclists fill the streets?

Learning how cycling culture was developed in Denmark and the Netherlands, I have become convinced that it’s got to be the latter. Too bad that safer infrastructure is by far the hardest to get in the battle for the contested streets. From a bike advocacy point of view, this must be where the battle for creating a better city for biking begins: in the decision making chambers at city hall, rather than putting all sorts of efforts into campaigning to try and get more residents up on their bikes.

A question of vision
Then again, who said this is all a question about money? Finances allocated to radical improvements of ‘zero-carbon road safety’ will be much easier to find when the general mindset and transport culture has changed for one of several of the above mentioned reasons. It will, by that time when it happens, also be a way to create new jobs.

But a lot of improvements of the physical infrastructure around bike paths and proper protection measures for the ‘soft targets’ in traffic, the pedestrians and the cyclists, can be done with almost no expenditures.

Creating proper bike paths on new roads, for instance, doesn’t have to cost much. It is first and foremost a planning issue: how the initial lines are drawn on a piece of paper. Creating or improving bike paths on the existing roads could also be done without too much fuzz, if only the community was asking for it. Rolling lots of zebra crossings out for pedestrians is only a question of decision making and some white paint – that’s all it takes.

Furthermore, almost free of charge, lawmakers could start to revise the old traffic laws in ways that encourage and protect cyclists and pedestrians.

» The Guardian – 31 July 2017:
Swapping cars for bikes, not diesel for electric, is the best route to clean air
“Cycling can be a huge part of the fight to tackle city air pollution. Tim Burns of Sustrans explains how their Active Travel Toolbox can help us get there”

Discouraged by fines
I’m aware I am a newcomer sticking my hand in an Aussie bee hive here, but one simple example of something that would get more Australians to use their bikes is the infamous law that says that in this country it is compulsory to wear a helmet when you ride a bike.

A study in Copenhagen, where more than half of the residents use a bicycle as their means of transport every day, found that if the Danish authorities were to introduce such a compulsory bicycle helmet law, they would halve the ridership on bicycles overnight. The Danish city planner Jan Gehl told the ABC about the study two years ago.

Australians have strong opinions about the mandatory bicycle helmet law. Some are religiously defending it, others are passionately advocating and rebelling against it. But honestly, whether you wear a bike helmet or not makes little difference for your safety when you cycle on a road where there is no separation between cars and bicycles, and where cyclists generally are a rare sight. As is the case almost everywhere in Car City where I live.

The real and confronting problem concerning cyclists’ safety on the Australian roads – and the main reason why so few people dare to get up on the bicycles in this country nowadays – is not whether they wear a helmet or not. It is the shortcut that the Australian road planners made over the last three decades as they stopped designing the road infrastructure for any other means of transport than the car.

Spot the things we can agree on
If the passionate bike soldiers would look up from their respective pro & con ‘mandatory helmet war trenches’ for a moment, could we maybe first have a chat about what we can agree on?


• The benefits of biking are tremendous, both to our personal health, to the economy, the climate, and more

• The climate seriously needs our attention, and that involves burning less and eventually no petrol. The transport sector accounts for about 14 per cent of global CO2 emissions.

• Bike safety in Australia is appalling, and this is first and foremost an infrastructural and planning issue

If we acknowledge the findings of the Danish helmet study, which says that depriving cyclists of the right to freely choose whether and when they want to wear a helmet or not, makes half of them stop using the bicycle entirely – and if we acknowledge that the city has set a goal of reducing its air pollution, and that there are a number of economical benefits to the municipality if more people would get into active transport, won’t we then first an foremost have to take a fresh and much broader look at the Australian bike safety laws and priorities?

Speaking of making things mandatory, for instance, why isn’t it mandatory for city planners to assign proper and safe bike paths whenever a road is constructed or going through repairs? Why do we leave it up to that department to plan roads as they please?

That conversation would in my eyes be a lot more important to have than whether wearing bike helmets should be mandatory or not.

Could there be a middle path?
I hear local bicycle advocacy groups bringing the argument forward that “if only we would start seeing more cyclists on the roads, then the city planners and the car drivers would start to give them more consideration.” But I don’t believe that will ever happen. We simply won’t be seeing any big numbers of cyclists on the roads until the day we start fixing that grave planner and lawmaker mistake, after decades of neglect. Safe infrastructure first: bike paths. And better legislation that protects and supports the cyclists. Then the cyclists will come and fill them.

I have enclosed examples with concrete figures from Denmark and The Netherlands below – to illustrate what I am talking about here.

In that light, the on-going and very passionate public discussion whether the mandatory helmet-law is a blessing or a curse in a way becomes a diversion from the real bike safety issue: Helmets are good for your protection, but proper bike paths would protect you much better.

How about finding a middle path, where speed becomes the issue? – like saying, driving faster than 20 km/h is illegal unless you wear a helmet.

What we should be talking about, really, is not whether we are pro or anti helmets, but about why we still today – with all the science and research showing all the health and climate benefits – allow road planners, departments and councillors get away with ignoring that our city has a grave and obstructive bike safety issue.

To get our priorities right, for every hour we spend doing that, we should be talking about the construction of new, safe bike paths in 59 minutes – and mandatory helmet rules in one minute.

And the good safety news is that if we are successful in getting more cyclists on the roads in Geelong, this in itself will further increase the safety for the cyclists. Think of that photo from Geelong in the 1950s… the more the merrier!

Advertisement for tourism in Denmark: ‘Freestyle’ riding associated with happy and healthy outdoor imagery

Helmet freedom fighter: Alan Todd
Speaking as a Dane who have been riding a bike without using a helmet most of my life, and didn’t even think about it as a risk – the problem with the mandatory helmet laws for cyclists in Australia is not the helmets, but that they are mandatory – that you risk getting punished and fined even if you are just going for a short ride to a shop on a stretch with no traffic, or if you simply would like to enjoy the feeling of freedom and wind in your hair. Why should something as harmless as that be forbidden by law?

Why should I as an adult not be able to judge when I need a helmet, and when I don’t? No matter how much people have tried to explain it to me, I still don’t get that.

Someone who’s been engaged in that debate much longer than I have is Alan Todd – a bit of an ‘Australian helmet freedom fighter’ who sees this country’s mandatory helmet laws as an unjustified and unethical imposition on a healthy activity.

Here’s how he explains it:

Radio interview with Alan Todd

Alan Todd from Frestyle Cyclists talks about the mandatory helmet rule and cycling’s benefit to ourselves and to society – the player above is a three minute excerpt from a 30-minute interview in the Bicycle Show on 94.7 The Pulse in May 2017.
According to the graphs and facts you show on your website, it is even more clear that mandatory helmet laws are one of the showstoppers if we want that change to happen.

» Download and listen to the full interview in the Bicycle Show

» Follow Alan Todd on Twitter: @alantodd54

In 2012, Alan Todd did this interview on Channel 7

“If you logically follow the path and strategies of helmet laws you would need to make compulsory the wearing of gloves for protecting hands! Full length clothing for legs and arms… etc… etc. Just wrap us in cotton wool!!

Strangely no one is considering banning SMOKING, we know that cost the health system millions of dollars!!”
Mark, 28 May 2014

» Freestyle Cyclists

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Helmet and helmet freedom at the same time

Hey! – before we dig ourselves deep down in the helmet and no-helmet trenches again, take a look at what the Swedes have invented. Something which offers a refreshing new perspective on the entire debate, because with modern technology, there is now a way to enjoy the wind in your hair and be well protected at the same time:


» See more videos about this

And look what is actually happening in Geelong now:

While the development in Malop Street is the best cycling news Geelong has seen in a very long time, this year’s budget for City of Greater Geelong was bad news for the bike riders. The amount allocated to bicycle infrastructure projects was set back to $200,000 as has been happening in previous years. Less priority, not more, for bike safety.

City of Greater Geelong have a large budget bid in with the TAC to get Moorabool Street and the west corridor sorted for bike riders. This totals $6 million, so 2017-2018 could either become a ‘breakout year’ or nil for cyclists, depending on the stars aligning.

Compare that with what they have going in Ballarat now – a city not much more than a good hour’s drive away from Geelong:

Ballarat boosts bikes

Ballarat City Council has adopted a new bike plan aimed to get more people on bikes in the regional city between now and 2025.

“For the first time, cycling infrastructure planning is approached in a similar manner to public transport planning, which focusses on linking people between destinations,” Council said.

The Ballarat Cycling Action Plan (2017–2025) notes that bike riding “provides a convenient and low-cost transport option for residents and is an important opportunity to help address issues of congestion and parking. Each person who rides instead of drives, frees up the road and parking spaces for those who want to drive.”

The actions based plan will help transition Ballarat to a more sustainable transport future. The plan recognises that residents and visitors will increasingly be looking for cheaper, more enjoyable and convenient transport alternatives to move across the municipality. 

The plan outlines practical steps to be delivered over the short, medium and long term making Ballarat a more attractive and enjoyable place for cyclists, and embeding cycling as a core mode within Ballarat’s integrated transport system.

“Central to the plan is the development of a cohesive network of cycling routes between destinations, targeted at novice or everyday riders known as the Ballarat Bicycle Network (BBN). The network will provide continuous, safe, predominately off-route paths to encourage more people to cycle as a mainstream mode of transport,” Council said.

» The Ballarat Cycling Action Plan (2017–2025) – Volume 1 (PDF)

» Volume 2, Technical Report, part 1 (PDF)

» Volume 2, Technical Report, part 2 (PDF)

» Council meeting minutes

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…And take a look at what is going on abroad – for instance in Denmark:

Saving money with new network of ‘Cycle Super Highways’

The Danish Capital Region’s cyclists now have access to Denmark’s first interconnected regional network of Cycle Super Highways. Measuring 115 kilometres in total, the five new routes connect 13 municipalities without crossing any busy freeways.

It increases traffic safety for both cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers due to the more secure byways, cross-sectional improvements, new and better coatings, and extension of one-way lanes, writes State of Green.

On one of the routes north of Copenhagen, there has been respectively a 61% and a 34% increase in the number of commuting bicyclists since the opening. The total share of commuters traveling by bicycle in the Capital Region has increased from 23% in 2015 to 33% in 2016.

Saving millions
The bicycle lanes and traffic reorganisation is an investment that has been estimated to save the municipality DKK500 million, which is approximately AUS$100 million.

In addition, the Cycle Super Highways will also improve health statistics. According to a new Danish bicycle report, the increase in the number of cycling commuters will result in 34,000 fewer sick days as well as a socio-economic benefit of an annual $1.5 billion (DKK7.3 billion) in the Capital Region of Denmark.

Did you catch that, city planners of Geelong?

»

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Learn from Dutch bicyle legislation

This video provides a terrific look at the history of city cycling in the Netherlands, and how the cycling culture and legal changes grew together to become a global model for sustainable, safe, efficient and healthy transport.

The ‘presumed liability law’, for instance, puts the onus on the heavier more powerful vehicles to look out for the more vulnerable.

There is a ‘sustainability principle’ that applies across the board, and is a good example of how a change in one area can employ a principle that helps change happen ‘systemically’ in other areas.

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Belo Horizonte: Solutions Project

In Brazil, there are a number of cities that have been working very proactively on sustainable mobility solutions for many years.

“As part of the Solutions project, the city of Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais worked with partners on the implementation of several sustainable urban mobility measures, such as traffic calming, low-speed zones, and promoting cycling in the city.

While Belo Horizonte – population: 2.4 million, with 5.7 million in the official metropolitan area – has seen a seismic political shift in 2016, there is some stability in the city’s policy environment, which is building on a coalition between staff within the local government administration who remained largely in their positions and an active civil society that coordinates well among the various interest groups working on different policy objectives (air quality, safety, access, etc.).”

Stable policy environment required

“Sustainable transport policies need an agreement on the necessity for policy intervention and a strategic, coherent, and stable policy environment.

Policy interventions within the transport sector, like fuel and vehicle taxation, can be extremely politically sensitive, even more so when they are associated with only one policy issue, such as climate change that may only be relevant for some political actors. They need a powerful political commitment to appear for the transport policy agenda and to remain there ensuring that investments in cost-efficient sustainable mobility measures can endure over the medium to long-term.

Maintaining such a stable policy environment is very challenging and highly dependent on political and institutional structures.

Among industrialised countries, only the EU and (most of) its member states, Switzerland, and Norway have shown relatively high levels of stability in the area of sustainable and efficient transport policies.

Countries such as the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have experienced remarkable shifts in policy priorities and approaches, in particular when related to climate change mitigation.”

Continue reading:

» Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy – 6 June 2017:
Continuity and Change: Dealing with Political Volatility to Advance Climate Change Mitigation Strategies — Examples from the Transport Sector
By Oliver Lah

Cycling Without Age: The Right To Wind In Your Hair

Why Danes like their ‘helmet freedom’

On warm summer days, adult Danes appreciate their freedom of not being forced to wear a helmet. In the European countries adult bike riders are generally treated like responsible adults allowed to make their own decisions about when to use a helmet, and when to not to. Similar to how we make our own decisions about how we use a chain saw or garden tools.

It makes you inclined to jump up on that bike a lot more often, in particular for short distances, and in particular for shopping and going out on a social occasion. As soon as wearing that helmet is made compulsory by law, as it is in Australia, with a threat of being fined hundreds of dollars if you forget it, then it becomes a prison. And it becomes yet another factor to keep people away from using those bikes for the daily transport purposes.

But please don’t get me wrong now, because I actually like bike helmets and the protection they give. When riding in Denmark, I wear one myself when I think it is appropriate. For instance when I set off for a six kilometre fast ride in traffic through town.

What I dislike is when lawmakers remove my personal freedom to choose. The main reason why I don’t think helmets should be mandatory is the same, I guess, why some people think they should be allowed to smoke cigarettes, even though they are fully aware of the dangers it implies.

If cyclists are forced to wear helmets, why aren’t car drivers? Rally drivers do. It would improve their safety in case of a crash. Shouldn’t this mandatory safety principle apply for everyone in the traffic? What about the pedestrians? Why are cyclists being picked out? – some would say discriminated!

“It’s only Australia and New Zealand where this law applies. It’s an inappropriate law which has done a lot of damage to cycling in Australia. We are just people who want to ride an upright bike for transport like people do all over the world, and not get fined for it.”
Russell Lindsay

» The authors of the Australia’s National Cycling Strategy report write that helmet laws are having a negative effect on cycling participation.

» Here is a good comment-debate on Facebook about mandatory helmets

» Sydney Morning Herald – 22 September 2016:
Bike helmet review throws cold water on sceptics: they’ll likely save your life

» The Bike Helmet Blog – 19 September 2016:
Bike Helmets Cannot Prevent Brain Injuries

» TEDxStanford – April 2016:
Why helmets don’t prevent concussions — and what might

In a reply to a Facebook-comment, where Jim Maspero wrote: “I wonder how many people get inured because they do not wear a helmet,” VisitCopenhagen replied: “It’s definitely a great idea to wear a helmet at all times! However, only about ~30 people [annually] lose their lives in bike accidents in all of Denmark, and statistically you’d have to bike for 2,800 years to be involved in a serious acccident 🙂 See here for more facts about cycling in Denmark.

Poster for protest rally in Melbourne

“Stop fining healthy transport”

“People who choose active and sustainable transport are discriminated against by being singled out to wear helmets. For many people the helmet is unpleasant, uncomfortable and inconvenient. It stigmatises the wearer as being engaged in a dangerous activity.

Other road users are not humiliated with compulsory, ugly headwear. It would not be tolerated and powerful groups like the RACV ensure their members are not subjected to helmet requirements.

New Zealand Police have recently stated that targeting and fining cyclists for helmet crimes is now a low priority. We are calling for an end to the fining of unhelmeted Australian cyclists as well.

The emphasis for this protest is on an end to fines for the harmless cyclists who don’t wear helmets. These people are vulnerable but what they are doing is not dangerous. They should not be punished for being vulnerable. If they are struggling financially, a helmet fine only adds to their difficulties.

All cyclists are engaged in an activity that benefits the society.

Come to our ride to show your support for an end to bike helmet fines. People of all ages, with or without helmets are welcome to join us.

Stop fining healthy transport.”

“No-one is telling you not to wear a helmet when you hit your head on the kerb or fall onto the MCG. We are saying you shouldn’t be fined if you are not wearing one.”
Kathy Francis

» Here’s another Facebook take of mine on the topic…

» And here is even more on the topic

Share on Facebook:

“Cycling is un-Australian”

“Cycling is relatively unpopular in Australia. In some western European countries, 10-20 per cent of journeys are made by bicycle compared to Australia with less than 2 per cent. We’re also cycling less than we were six years ago, according to last month’s National Cycling Participation Survey.”

» ABC Triple J – 7 July 2017:
‘Road toads’, ‘pedalphiles’: Mythbusting the reasons why people hate cyclists

This study may explain a lot of the hate that’s out there:

» Treehugger – 5 July 2017:
New study looks at attitudes of drivers toward cyclists, and it ain’t pretty

“There are a lot of angry drivers out there and the angrier they are, the more cyclists they kill. But giving cyclists separate infrastructure just makes them angrier. It’s a vicious, vicious circle.”

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Mik Aidt is a committee member of Bicycle Users Geelong, and a sustainability advocate.

More about cycling

Mik’s previous blogposts about cycling:

» Centre for Climate Safety (and Road Safety!) – 29 August 2016:
What’s Geelong’s future? Here’s inspiration from Denmark

» 23 September 2016:
Safe cycle paths make a happier city

» The real value of cycling

» In a Danish cyclist’s perspective: What is wrong in Geelong

» Call for more cyclists in the streets

» Blogposts on this site which have the tag Cycling