Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Urban semiotics and ethical encounters

According to a recent SMH opinion article by the British transport writer Christian Wolmar:
Oddly, one of the key catalysts for the improvement in London was also one of the cheapest: painting a green area at every traffic light which only cyclists had the right to enter when the light was red. Immediately, this sent a message to all road users that cyclists not only have a right to be there, but they even have priority at junctions.
Amazingly, it was the recent introduction of new laws allowing such developments in NSW which raised complaints by the NSW Oppositions road safety spokesman:

Opposition spokesman on road safety Andrew Fraser said the tough penalties suggested the changes were more to raise revenue than improve safety.

"While we need to be mindful of safety for cyclists, these bicycle zones at lights are dangerous," Mr Fraser said.

"You are inviting all cyclists to wait in the middle of the road rather than on the side of the road where drivers expect them to be. It is putting them directly into the path of traffic."

The final sentence is worth chewing on. It states some explicit cultural assumptions regarding the cyclists marginal position on the road. It was also a strange comment to make given that:
The RTA said the laws would bring NSW into line with other states.
The assumption of one cycling on the margins is not only spoken about in the media, it is also written into the urban landscape. Meanings as well as practices of 'cycling' are communicated through urban form and symbols. For instance, in the following photo from Queen Street Wollahra, the bicycle symbol is on the edge of the road, literally under the direct domination of the 4WD on top of it. It says, 'ride a bike and you can expect to end up under a 4Wd'.

In this photo from New Farm in Brisbane, the bicycle symbol is found at a midway point between the road and adjacent row of parked cars. It says something along the lines of 'you belong on the road, but keep well to the left and don't get in the cars way'.

Finally in this photo of Redfern street, the bicycle signs are centred in the middle of the road. This symbol asserts the cyclists' right to 'take the lane' and for the traffic not even to attempt to squeeze past (note the double marked lines).

Writing "bicycle" symbols on the middle of the road (to my mind) expresses an ethics of care and recognition for cyclists as road users. In distinction, placing the bicycle symbol on edge or in the gutter reinforces a marginal position as a socially devalued road user.

Thinking about these road symbols reminded me of an essay I'd read a few years ago about the importance of pedestrian crossings. In an article entitled "The Ethics of Pedestrian crossings", the Sydney University anthopologist Ghassan Hage makes some philosophical claims about the importance of pedestrian crossings as socialised spaces of ethical interaction, giving and recognition. Hage begins his essay describing the experiences of a mentally-ill migrant (Ali) who is enthralled when walking across zebra crossings.
I developed a liking for pedestrian crossings (laughting!) I spent hours crossing them again and again. I loved the moment cars stopped for me! It made me feel important. I thought it was magical.
In a commentary on Ali's experiences Hage writes:
Ali experiences ‘magical’ time at the crossing... Magic is also a kind of buzz generated by the moment of recognition Ali gets from cars stopping for him. It is what he experiences as being made to feel ‘important’. ‘Important’ here is not linked to social status as to existential status: the recognition of one’s importance as a human being.
[The pedestrian crossing] is a space where the dominant mode of occupying and circulating on roads, driving, is requested by social law to yield to a marginalised form of road occupancy, walking. This is what constitutes its ethical component and its character as a social gift. It is social because even when it is an individual driver who ‘offers’ the pedestrian the possibility of crossing, what the driver is offering is really society’s gift to the pedestrian. Otherwise there would be no difference between a pedestrian crossing and a crossing created by a driver who chooses to stop for a pedestrian on an unmarked part of the road. The fact that a pedestrian crossing embodies a social compulsion, a social law, that says ‘drivers must stop’ is what makes it a gift offered by soceity. No conjunctural practice - short of abolishing it - can change the nature of this space. What changes within it are the modes drivers use to ‘convey’ the gift and the modes people choose for receiving it. As we have already seen, there are drivers who offer the gift gracefully and those who offer it grudgingly. There are pedestrians who receive the gift gracefully and those who receieve it arrogantly or nonchalantly... But underneath all these possible modes of interaction remains the fact of the pedestrian crossing as a structually present ethical space. A space where people can enact a ritual of stopping and crossing, and through which society affirms itself as civilised (that is, ethical), as a place where it is understood that dominant modes of inhabitance need to yield, in some circumstances, to marginal modes of inhabitance.
Reading this essay five years latter, I am challenged to think what messages it may hold for cyclists, motorists and transport policy makers in the current climate of animosity.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Sustainability fair at MQ

Most of this week I’ve been running a cycling promotion stall for BikeSydney as part of the sustainability fair at Macquarie University. It’s been a lot of fun talking about bikes with students and staff. It’s also been great to meet so many people who’ve recently got into cycling or who are interested in giving it a go. To try to make the BikeSydney stall more attractive, I borrowed this bicycle powered blender from Cheeky Transport. You can buy them online, but they’re built specifically to work with an xtracycle. Over the three days, I think we made over 30 litres of banana smoothies on the bike. This marketing ploy worked a treat as I'd pop quiz the students about their interest in cycling while they pedaled away for their smoothie.
A more depressing part of this week has been that I seem to have raised the ire of some people with a concern for ‘occupational health and safety’ in my department. More specifically, the presence of me loading the xtracycle in the hallway outside my office each morning has been identified as a ‘hazard’ and I've been offically warned about it. I find it rather funny that OH&S seems to work with some things and not others. For instance, the health costs of sedentary lifestyle diseases (heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes) don’t seem to rate a mention but they are surely the most significant OH&S issues to be concerned about. One of the Cycling Promotion Fund pamphlets I’ve handed out during the week claims that 54.2% of the Australian population are physically ‘inactive’. Australia also has the highest rates of obesity in the world. The total economic cost of this physical inactivity is $1,494,000,000 dollars per year. If only a few of these OH&S people could factor in some of these costs before giving me trouble over temporarily parking an xtracycle in the hall.

Update: I got interviewed at the fair. You can tell I've had no media training. I counted 8 umms!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Good things happen for those who bludge

I've finally got a result at Heffron. After many a stupid turn on the front, I've changed my racing tactics around and have joined the league of the wheelsuckers.

Friday, August 08, 2008

MS Sydney to the Gong ride

I've just entered in the MS Sydney to the Gong ride.

If you'd like to sponsor me, go here, or to sponsor team Dulwich Hill Bicycle Club go here.
A couple of clubmates and myself have decided to do the ride on fixies which should make for an interesting day out. Here is the course profile:

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Cycle Touring Photo Exhibition

Mystery tour: An invitation of submit images to an exhibition of cycle touring photography

Anyone who has toured by bicycle knows that it's often the unexpected encounters and unplanned detours that become the highlights of a cycle tour. At a suitable distance, even the challenge of overcoming a mechanical breakdown in the middle of nowhere, can become a tale of ingenuity and heroic triumph.
For this exhibition, we are asking you to dig a little deeper into your collections of cycle touring images (no sunsets or posing with road signs) to reveal some of those unexpected moments. We are looking for images that document chance meetings with friendly (or unfriendly) locals; bush-mechanic-style innovation in the face of mechanical tragedies and magical places discovered by getting totally lost. Images selected for the exhibition will be printed as oversized postcards with the photographer's statement on the back.

SUBMIT: UP TO 10 LOW RES JPEG IMAGES [1mb each] FOR PREVIEW. Each photograph should be accompanied by a short statement (max. 20 words) about the image.�
SUBMISSION DEADLINE: Friday, September 12 2008
EMAIL TO: fcurve@gmail.com
Selected photographers will be asked to submit high resolution files at a later date. Prints not required.

'road' - is a series of art shows tying in with the International Bicycle Film Festival, bought to you by BIKESydney and Cheeky Transport.

Just another week

Taking a week off in Queensland, I flew back to Sydney yesterday with some reluctant feelings. In Brisbane, I’d seen some significant efforts in make the city more cycle-friendly. There was better infrastructure and bicycle parking. The Queensland state government had also set some very ambitious targets to make cycling 8 per cent of trips by 2011. There was even a road education program aimed at improving motorist-cyclist relations.

So why hasn't this spread south of the border? Here is one little observation about the different fortunes of cyclists in each state. When you enter the world ‘cycling’ into the search function of the NSW’s Ministry of Transport you get 9 hits, 7 of which contain the weasel-like prefix of ‘encourage/enhance/promote'… ‘walking and cycling’. Search for ‘cycling’ at Queensland Transport and you get 370 hits including one main referral page.

Catching up on the news in Sydney this week, I felt stuck in this quagmire of negativity. During the week the British transport writer Christian Wolmar was reported in the Herald as saying:

Sydney's cycling infrastructure is 10 years behind that of London. "And believe me, London is by no means at the forefront of cycling,"

And as we all know:
"You have to be much more careful here than in London because the drivers here are so much more hostile."

Over at his blog, Wolmar tells us what he really thinks of the State Government:
The state government, incidentally, seems to be run with the same underlying right wing values that characterise New Labour, and which ultimately get exposed by the voters – it is about as popular as Brown’s government and is widely expected to be voted out of office at the state election next year, but then the opposition is also in chaos, unable to know how to respond to climate change. It is fascinating how some of the same issues as in Britain arise at the other end of the world, specifically the cul de sac into which right wing Labour (or Labor, as they write it here) drive themselves when they get mesmerised by the business lobby.

Wolmar’s earlier comments were picked up on the Sunrise morning television program where two random guests with no knowledge of cycling where interviewed on the matter.

Find more videos like this on Sydney Cyclist

As one finds in the media, this issue of driver aggression was quickly pushed to the side, then each of the guests gave us some of their clich├ęd criticisms of cyclists before moving to great heights of comedy with some original jokes about lycra shorts.

Finally this week, what we all expected happened as the more-than-dubious Pope-Fest Authority Act has been used to legitimatise the removal of the Park Street bicycle lanes. Did we expect anything to get them back? Well maybe I hoped as much, but seriously, if they really need temporary bus lanes for World Youth Day, why did they use permanent red paint?

In highschool, Howard Scullard's From the Gracchi to Nero was probably the best book I ever read. It had some memorable stories that resonate in times like these:

I need another holiday!