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The politics of cycling


On Your Bike

After wearing out his knees with basketball and running, Michael O'Reilly became yet another MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra).

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Cyclists. They’re nothing but a bunch of Green-voting, latte-sipping, inner-city trendoids with an over-developed sense of entitlement.

That’s what you’d think if you believed much of the media coverage given to cycling in the past few years. From shock jocks to tabloid TV shows to newspaper columnists, there's always someone ready to have a go at cyclists.

Especially media organisations that favour the conservative side of politics.

This vilification is curious, given that Australia is a nation of bicycle buyers. Last year, we bought more cycles than cars – something that’s happened every year this century. Of course, a lot of those would be kids’ bikes … but the increasing numbers of riders on the roads and the proliferation of cycling shops should tell you that cycling is, well, on a roll.

So, if we are all buying bikes – more than a million sold every year, in a country with a population of 22 million – surely an acceptance, if not necessarily a love, of cycling should pervade the political spectrum?

And yet, cycling continues to be targeted by many conservatives as an identifying mark of the loony left. The anti-fun brigade. The sandal-wearers. The people hell-bent on making you feel like you should be living in a cave, wearing a hemp smock, eating something vegan and lentilly.

This is especially true of Sydney, with its ongoing conflict over cycleways. The CBD’s narrow, bike-unfriendly streets are slowly gaining a criss-cross of lanes that serve as safe conduits for cycle commuters into the city. Or, as 2GB talkback presenter Alan Jones describes it, “the biggest disgrace in traffic management that I have ever seen”.

Jones was having a go at Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, the bike lanes’ driving force (or should that be peddler?). The “velo vilification” continues in tabloids that slap an “on your bike, Clover” headline onto any story that concerns her. See … she’s into cycling. Bloody leftie. She’s got to go.

Moore is an independent, and the new Liberal state government would also dearly love to wheel her into obscurity. Just weeks after taking on his role as Roads Minister, and before he’d had a proper briefing by Moore, Duncan Gay was saying that if cyclists didn’t use the lanes, they’d lose them. He later denied suggesting he’d rip them up, but said: “I believe that some are in the wrong place … and should be moved.”

Never mind the massive added cost, or the question of where they would be moved to … you can almost hear the voters saying: “Well, the roads are more jammed with cars than ever before, but at least he got rid of those cycleways!”

So, are there conservatives who are in favour of cycling? One favourite global example springs to mind: Boris Johnson, the Lord Mayor of London. Dyed-in-the-wool Conservative, Eton and Oxford educated, and a fanatical cycle commuter who brought a shared-bicycle scheme to London – the so-called “Boris Bikes”.

The plan was initiated by the former Labour mayor, “Red Ken” Livingston, but did Johnson do the usual thing and ditch it when he came into office? On the contrary. A visit to YouTube will show clips of Boris riding the bike that bears his nickname. He also called for a law change that would allow cyclists to make left turns at red lights, in order to free up traffic flows. Legal light jumping for bikes – how red is that!

What about Australia? Well, it seems some conservative city fathers can sway onto the bike path. In Melbourne, Liberal Lord Mayor Robert Doyle promised to return cars to Swanston Street but instead found himself on a road to Damascus. But from the howls of outrage in some quarters over plans to improve bicycle access to the busy thoroughfare, it seems as if a backflip is worse when it’s also a backpedal. In Brisbane, Lord Mayor Graham Quirk of the LNP yesterday announced plans to have a bicycle lane running the length of George Street in the CBD. Both cities have small and, sadly, struggling bike share schemes.

And nationally? Well, there's Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who’s out on his bike at crack of dawn every day, training for his next triathlon or Pollie Pedal.

Snag is (and I’d love to be proved wrong on this), I’m not sure Abbott the champion cyclist has said anything to champion cycling since he took the top job.

Maybe he's decided there's no votes in it. Or maybe he’s worried that Clover Moore will then invite him for a trundle up the Bourke Street cycleway with her - on a bicycle made for two.

I’d give up lentils and lattes for a month to see that.

Is our attitude to cycling in Australia coloured by our political persuasion? And why is cycling seen by so many as the preserve of the lefties? Have your say.


After wearing out his knees with basketball and running, Michael O'Reilly became yet another Mamil (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra).

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275 comments so far

  • I think cycling in Australia is coloured by ignorance. Like the guy sitting in peak hour traffic going nowhere who yelled out to me "wanker".

    The question is, who is the real wanker? Him in his car going nowhere, paying exorbitant petrol costs etc. Or me, going at an average of 20 km.h, getting exercise, and I haven't put petrol in my car for 2 months!

    Date and time
    December 01, 2011, 9:03AM
    • Its classic dumb politician behaviour. There are actually more votes to be had in getting on board with cycling and promoting it in major cities but instead they would rather play to the fear crowd (the typical Alan Jones listen for example) and get people fired up over what is really not much of an issue.

      If Australian politicians were capable of addressing issues on merit rather than taking them left or right, we would be a happier nation and Jone et al would need to find a new job.

      Within 10 years, the politicians who are anti-cycling will be the same ones that were pro cigarettes more than a decade ago. Last of a dying breed with targets on their backs at the next election.

      Date and time
      December 01, 2011, 9:14AM
      • In a city congested as Sydney, where we barely have room for a bus lane cyclists are just another annoying blip on the morning radar! I'm not against cycling in itself, however right in the heart of the congested inner city have some logic! We need more room for buses that move up to 75 people at 50 knph, or light rail, NOT a cyclist moving 1 person holding up bus lanes peddling at 25kmph. Also when around Surry Hills and Moore Park cyclists ride on the road and hold up traffic when there has been millions of $ spent on a bike lanes!!! Selfish selfish selfish! And they wonder why people on the road hate them!

        Date and time
        December 01, 2011, 9:30AM
        • On study tours, surely would have obseved some of the world's best cities for commuters: Tokyo, Taipei, Shanghai, Amsterdam, Stockholm... all have many bikes, on the footpaths and no helmets. Stop urban sprawl with smarter development and get cars off the road, replace as much above ground slow-transit with underground mass transit and deregulate bikes. Everyone can still keep the car in the shed for weekend shennanigans.
          The car is already a least-preferred option for commuting but the chore and expense (and mortal danger, for cyclists) of the alternatives is just too much at the moment.

          Date and time
          December 01, 2011, 9:32AM
          • An example that underlines this article perfectly was when parking along Beach Road in Melbourne was restricted on weekends. The reason given was to make it safer for cyclists who then would no longer have to swerve in and out of traffic to avoid parked cars. There were howls of outrage from some drivers about this, even though it actually made car travel a lot smoother as well and allowed cars to not having to avoid parked cars in the left lane too. But because it was flagged as a measure for making cycling safer there was just an automated outcry from some corners.

            All that said, I'm also a bit puzzled by all those stories about armageddeon and mayhem on the roads that I constantly come across in the media. I ride at least 200km on Melbourne's roads each week and I just don't see it. I find the overwhelming majority of drivers and cyclists to be courteous and cautious and examples of bad behaviour on either side to be exceptionally rare.

            Date and time
            December 01, 2011, 9:40AM
            • Some cyclists are irresponsible andthey are the ones that give the rest a bad name.
              A few months ago I almost hit one - he was coming up a one way street the wong way, wearing dark clothing and no light on.
              I was pulling out of a parking spot and knowing it was a one way street did not bother looking for on coming traffic but what was behind.
              Then this poor excuse of a human being had the hide to abuse me for not watching out for him.
              One way streets are one way for cyclists as well as vehicles

              Date and time
              December 01, 2011, 10:01AM
              • It doesn't help that helmet laws mean you have to dress up so you look like a giant bug. Abandon all fashion sense all ye who enter here! (or ride here..)

                If cyclists were allowed to dress up like actual people perhaps it would help change people's perceptions of them.

                There is nothing about current bicycling laws that makes it an attractive alternative for the casual user.

                Date and time
                December 01, 2011, 10:05AM
                • Cyclists can be just as annoying as motorists. Too often I've ceen cyclists riding on footpaths when there's a perfectly good cycle lane, but rather than waiting for a red light they'd prefer to use the footpath and almost run people over.

                  It's great that people cycle, when work was closer to my home I used to cycle, but if they want the privilege of being treated as a car and having their own lanes, perhaps they should obey the road rules like everyone else.

                  It only takes a handful of "bad apples" to make everyone looks like self-righteous, arrogant, latte-sippers.

                  Date and time
                  December 01, 2011, 10:07AM
                  • The vitriol directed at bike riders is perpelexing to say the least. Go to Europe, its completley different. Cycling's a healthy alternate, and the less traffic conjestion on sydney roads the better.

                    Date and time
                    December 01, 2011, 10:09AM
                    • Alan Jones, last century's man wouldn't get this because its so bindingly obvious and I'm not a cyclist but, surely less cars on the road makes sense.
                      This can only be achieved by improved public transport and increasing cycling. If this slows traffic, particularly in the CBD, all the better. as complete gridlock seems to be the only way those in positions of influence are forced into action.
                      Alan - maybe you should start championing public transport to get you to and from your CBD bolthole rather than blocking the street with your vehicle!

                      Date and time
                      December 01, 2011, 10:11AM

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