Sydney's crazy car culture

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Bike wheelHe was the angry driver from Hell.

The green Commodore screeched to a halt, and out stepped a hulking bogan with a shaved head, wraparound sunnies and tattoos from head to toe. He lumbered down the road, stopped face-to-face with the shocked cyclist he had almost run over, drew back his fist and screamed 'I'm going to punch your head off!'

This is how Liam Crowley, the 32-year-old store manager at Abbotsford Cycles, Melbourne, remembers his encounter with a living, breathing road rage cliché in November last year.

Witnesses soon arrived on the scene and the driver backed away, but not before issuing a warning to 'stay off the road'. 'I would suggest that he believes in his world that roads were built for cars, and cars alone,' says Crowley.

The angry Commodore driver might sound like a cartoonish stereotype, but he isn't the only person who thinks bikes don't belong on the bitumen.

Before being elected NSW Premier, Barry O'Farrell described Sydney's new 200km bike network as 'crazy' and said Lord Mayor Clover Moore had 'deliberately set out to inconvenience motorists'. But given cycling's overwhelming benefits to society, what's really crazy is O'Farrell's populist pledge to keep Sydney car-dependent into the future.

The NSW capital is already one of the developed world's most hostile cities for cyclists, according to a US academic who spent a year studying Sydney's bike culture. Dr John Pucher told The Sydney Morning Herald he encountered an 'an incredible level of aggression from Sydney motorists'.

The problem seems widespread: a 2005 survey found road rage was more common in NSW than in any other Australian state or territory.

Bicycle NSW claims cycling is becoming more popular in Sydney, but the city still lags behind Melbourne. Yet even the number of people commuting by bike in Australia's 'lefty' capital is relatively small. And on a national level, the percentage of trips taken by bike is still less than 2 per cent.

Meanwhile, the costs of car-dependence keep piling up. Our rate of obesity is among the highest in the developed world, with about half the population too slovenly to stave off sedentary lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes. Research from 2004 showed that each extra hour in a motor vehicle increases the chance of obesity by 6 per cent.

Aside from making us fat and sick, car travel is an economic 'negative externality'. This means that while a driver receives a benefit in the form of convenient transport, everyone else bears the cost in the form of increased pollution, road traffic injuries and climate change. Car-dependence can have a net cost to society.

Cycling, on the other hand, can have a net benefit. As a moderate, low-impact type of exercise, riding a bike to work can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, some cancers, diabetes and stress disorders. A 2008 paper for the Department of Health and Aging found cyclists save the economy $71 million in health costs each year. And the more people who cycle, the safer our roads are for all users. If cycling doubles, the risk of transport injury per kilometre falls by 34 per cent.

Unfortunately, Australia's insidious car culture is holding us back from reaping these benefits. Driving is considered the normal thing to do, so we use the car even for really short trips. In Australian capital cities, about 50 per cent of car trips are under five kilometres — a distance most people could cycle without raising a sweat.

The habit of reaching for the car keys is reinforced by a number of things, including suburban sprawl, but one of the biggest barriers to healthier forms of transport is driver hostility.

In a 2004 AAMI survey, 46 per cent of women and 38 per cent of men agreed with the statement 'Aggressive drivers put me off cycling or walking'. The following year, a Victorian parliamentary committee found a common trigger for road violence was 'cycling on a road considered to be the "proper" domain of cars'.

Most parliamentarians understand that as a long-term transport strategy, cycling makes a lot of sense. That's why the NSW Liberals and Nationals issued a statement before the election saying that they 'strongly support cycling as a viable, active transport option'. And then O'Farrell went and shot his mouth off.

One final piece of evidence in favour of cycling is it increases the body's ability to transport oxygen, improving cognitive functioning. Perhaps if our friend Barry spent more time on his bike he wouldn't make such stupid comments. 


Greg FoysterGreg Foyster is a freelance journalist who has written for The Age, The Big Issue, Crikey and New Matilda.

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, cycling, Barry O'Farrell, bike tracks

 

 

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Existing comments

Greg, Well said.The car culture is an aberration. I once lived in a city where private car ownership was comparatively rare, where public transport was cheap and reliable, and people depended upon trains, trams, buses, and their own legs. It was Moscow in the early 1980's. Before the petrol heads say "I rest my case", I would point out that there is another, much more pleasant city, where the same applies: modern-day New York. It is rare to hear anyone complaining about living there.
Peter Downie | 07 April 2011


My wife and I spent the weekend staying with a friend who lives in Canning St in Nth Carlton. At 8 o'clock on Monday morning, I watched in amazement at a stream of cyclists down the middle of the street, cars parked to the side. Not quite Hanoi as yet, but I couldn't help thinking that each of those cyclists was one less car on the road, and in the future, as Greg points out, possibly one less hospital bed occupied. Bravo Melbourne.
Frank | 07 April 2011


I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed in this article on a number of levels; as a cyclist, mother, motorist, doctor and taxpayer. This attitude in Sydney regarding car dominance is one of the reasons my husband and I chose to stay in Adelaide after moving here from Sydney for what was intended to be a 3 year contact in 1995. We regularly commute to work, and it's even OK for our 3 children to commute to friends houses & school.
Jane Barker | 07 April 2011


I totally disagree with this new-found enthusiasm for cycling. Cyclists inconvenience road users and continue to think traffic rules do not apply to them. Crackdown on these people please!
Andrew Juma | 07 April 2011


The cycling lanes in the CBD in Sydney are impractical and plain nonsense!! They are the most stupid programme one could think of.

There are many , many other things to implement to help people keep fit.
Rob Colquhoun | 07 April 2011


The more cycling lanes, the better. If an enraged motorist could be denied access to a car for three months, chances are that (s)he will turn to bicycle riding. Enhacing one's pocket, figure, and the environment.
Joyce | 07 April 2011


I use a bike, and a car, every day of the year. We need cars, or motorbikes, because our cities are built around them - sprawling suburbs - and they enable us to do many things we couldn't do without them. We need also to encourage walking, cycling and public transport use. So we need to spend more money on making all of these forms of transport hassle free. At present cycling is dangerous and inconvenient, public transport is dangerous at night, inconvenient and absurdly crowded at peak hour. One reason drivers are aggressive is that we haven't spent enough on roads with the result that we're crawling along highways, and stopped every few minutes, for ages, at intersections. But the ideology of the last 40 years has been 'private affluence, public squalor', and it doesn't look like changing.
Russell | 07 April 2011


I am sick and tired of winging bike riders who pay no annual registration for their bikes and therefore contribute zero towards the upkeep of the roads or towards the building of new cycle ways. If they want their own cycle ways then let them pay an annual fee for bike owning, just like car owners. For bike riders it's all free all the way, why ? Are they God's chosen people ?
DAVID FIELD | 07 April 2011


Andrew Juma, You have it the WRONG way around; "Cyclists inconvenience road users" You should have said Motorists inconvenience, Maim and Kill Cyclists. Get all those Killing machines (Cars) off the roads and the road toll would dramatically decrease.
Cecil Walker | 07 April 2011


David Field: The idea that cyclists have no right to the roads because they don't pay rego is a furphy. Roads are paid for out of general taxation. Most cyclists have jobs and pay income tax, thereby contributing to the building and maintenance of roads. Also, it is likely that most cyclists also own cars on which they pay registration. So it's a moot point anyway.
Charles Boy | 07 April 2011


Australia is Redneck wonderland, full of Aggressive bogans in cars whinging because of the gridlocked traffic that they themselves create because they insist on driving everywhere, and terrorising anyone who dare ride a bike. Bring on $2 a litre petrol.
James | 08 April 2011


We lived in Hawthorn, just east of the end of the Yarra Boulevard bike-path, and don't share cyclists' opinion of themselves as ecologically-friendly. We were often nearly mown down on the footpath by cyclists speeding up the hill, and, almost as often, sworn at. And how often do you see cyclists ride through red traffic-lights?
James | 08 April 2011


To those that say that cyclists should pay some sort of rego to use the roads, I say BRING IT ON. If you really want to see everyone paying an equitable amount in relation to the road space used, impact on the community and the environment of the vehicle used then then bike riders would be paying a pittance and most motorists wouldn't be able to afford to use a car.
Tim Stredwick | 18 April 2011


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