Monday, October 27, 2008

Mimesis, time, change

Being involved in cycling advocacy it is often easy to feel very glum about the current state of things in this city. This blog is no more than a symptomatic account to such thoughts of which I stand guilty as charged. Sydney is not a very easy city to cycle around. The NSW government is the lowest spending state government on cycling in Australia. The political culture is dominated by the twin-engines of cab-charge elitism and petrol-headed popularism. It takes a lot of personal motivation to want to cycle in this city, to overcome a fear of traffic, to create a disjointed cyclists’ street directory in your head, and to find somewhere to lock up your bike. But then once you work it out, it’s hard to imagine any other way of getting around. Cycling is a source of joy and happiness in my life, although sometimes it’s easy for me to labour on all the bad things that happen like that former Roads Minister who said cyclists should ‘avoid peak hour’, that jerk in the ute who cut me off, and that deranged Daily Telegraph reader who likes to spread hatred. In such an environment, its easy to burn with resentment and indignation if that is all one sees in the world. But is that all there is to see?

This morning I went for a ride to Centennial Park which was packed with commuters and training cyclists. Cyclists were blooming like flowers coming out after winter. As I crossed back over Anzac Parade I saw panniers galore and a mini-peloton of cyclists had formed at the lights. I ride through Centennial at least twice a week and I see the park becoming busy with more people turning to bikes. Of course, such random observations have no validity and my own exposure to seeing more cyclists could create my own delusions of progress. But then again, counting the number of people who cycle on one day in August every 5 years is a rather static and hardly rigorous methodology for measuring the levels of cycling in a society. Seeing a crowed park of cyclists, I am drawn to think more positive thoughts. While cycling numbers may slowly crawl out of that mystical and abstract 1%, small changes of which have been noted can be very significant in shifting things over time. Exposure, multiplication and mimesis all reveal the tautological truism that when more people cycle, more people cycle.

According to Don Watson indignation is a ‘tiring emotion’. For those who want to battle the 'forces of evil', Nietzsche once wrote that one has to be wary of becoming a monster when fighting a monster. As people who want to see Sydney become a better city for cyclists, sometimes its important just to take a broad perspective and enjoy the positive changes that are slowly unfolding around us.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

"You think thats a Schwinn?"

I saw Burn After Reading lastnight at the incredible ripoff cinemas at Broadway. I completely enjoyed the film (like most Cohen bros films) although the use of Pitt and Clooney didn't really ad much. Not as good as Steve Buscemi or Javier Bardem. Being a bike geek it was difficult not to notice the many little bike jokes in the film. Chad Feldenheimer (played by Brad Pitt) is a dopey personal trainer who attempts extortion against a former CIA agent Ozzie Cox (played brilliantly by John Malkovich). Anyway, I won't spoil the jokes for you but there is even a strange product (dis)placement for Kryptonite locks.

Picnic Crawl

Today I went on a ride called the Picnic Crawl organised by Jacqui @ Transport Impacts with the UNSW Bike Club. On this perfect spring day, we went on rolling picnic from Centennial Park to the Botanical Gardens and finally onto Jubilee Park. It was a lot of fun as we gorged ourselves on food, played frisbie and I had a go at using juggling sticks. There was even an impromptu bike maintenance courses by Chris from the Nunnery. The only thing missing was a rug, but a picnic wouldn't be a picnic unless we forget something.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Weighty matters

I read in the paper this morning about a new Commonwealth Government intervention aimed at tackling obesity. I don’t watch TV so maybe its been around for a while. The program is called MeasureUp. Australia is the second fattest country in the world only beaten by the US. According to the website:

In 2005, 7.4 million Australian adults or 1 in 2 was overweight or obese2, and, irrespective of your height or build, if your waistline is getting bigger it could mean you are at increased risk of developing a chronic disease such as some cancers, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
MeasureUp encourages people to measure their waistline, not check there overall weight because it focuses on measuring what is called intra-abdominal fat that is particularly problematic in terms of many preventable lifestyle diseases. The website even has a cutout tape measure which you can print on an A4 page if you are feeling very crafty.

Obesity is such a simple thing to understand yet surprisingly it is one of the most difficult things to beat. To loose weight you just have to eat better (more fruit and vegies) and exercise more. The massive weight loss industry promotes personal motivation as the key to weight loss, however I’ve always believed that it is much more about structuring habits within daily life. If you work long hours, drive a lot, and are time poor, your opportunities for regular exercise radically diminish and you'll put on weight. Add personal stress with comfort eating and obesity will be knocking at the door. As a twenty-one year old, I bulked up to a massive 115kg before deciding on a path of drastic action. I joined a soccer team and started swimming at least 5km a week and totally cut out rich foods. I lost 35kg in a year and have never gone back although I can fluctuate at times. For the last few years, cycling has been my main way of incorporating exercise into my life. I love it because I don’t have to think about being physically active, its just part of how I get around.

One of the most fascinating dimensions of obesity is its relationship with transportation systems and cultures, yet few people are aware of this. Human beings have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and for almost all of this time have been walking and physically active throughout their lives. It’s only been in the last 50 odd years that a large proportion of the population in some wealthy countries have spent their lives moving around in cars and behind PCs. Then we then wonder why there is an obesity epidemic. The relationship between levels of trasnport and obesity is so clear as this diagram points out:(Source: Pucher & Dijkstra, 2003 taken from Vote For Cycling)

The MeasureUp campaign may provoke a few people to take action, but is this really sustainable health promotion? As almost any cycling advocate will prostheletise, obesity can only be reduced by making broader cultural changes in ways most people get around and the urban forms and transport policies which make such movement viable. American's spend 35 billion dollars a year on diet products, yet they would appear to have very little to show for it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ride to Work Day at MQ

We had our second ride to work day breakfast at Macquarie Uni yesterday. The event seemed a bit smaller than last year that could have been due to the weather. I think Ride 2 Work is an important event but I'm starting to question how helpful it is in encouraging new cyclists. When I spoke to riders at the breakfast yesterday, almost everyone was already 'converted' to the cause. In this sense the event just served as a recognition or reward for continuing the activity. However, for critical perspectives on Ride to Work events, check out this article.

My sense is that new and potential cyclists need a lot more social support to start riding with the development of basic skills and confidence. Many people experience cycling as difficult for the first few weeks and will walk up hills, have a sore backsides and ride on the footpath when intimidated by cars. Single events without preparation can just confirm a false perception of cycling as hard and/or dangerous. In regards to the whole BikeEd thing, I recently learned about a new program to develop bicycle education called AustCycle:

Research carried out by AustCycle founders suggested that the Australian community was missing out on quality learning opportunities in cycling, other than in scattered pockets where committed trainers had worked very hard to meet a demand for cycling advice and experience.

As a result of limited opportunities, the level of ‘cycle-craft’ in society, that was once nearly universal, has narrowed such that cycling proficiency in 2008 is limited to a small proportion of the population.
I love the concept of promoting 'cycle-craft'.

Monday, October 13, 2008

You give me road rage

Road rage seems to be something of a perennial topic on Yellow Brick Road. Well yesterday was another incident for the record. I was riding along Ramsay St in Haberfield at around 6pm on my way home from Uni. As I was riding, a man in orange sports ute rego BCR18W cut me off at high speed with barely a foot or two between us. As he passed, the driver stuck his finger up at me, clearly enjoying this action. As is almost always the case, I caught up to him one minute later at the lights but I kept well away. Anyone who rides a lot knows that there are certain drivers that seem to be more likely to cause trouble than others and while it is prejudicial to judge a person by their car, this phenomena has been studied in the 2002 article Drivers’ perceptions of cyclists.

When prompted, all the professional drivers, regardless of whether they were carrying goods or passengers, tended to be less accepting of cyclists’ presence on the roads they were using. They felt their livelihood was being interfered with – particularly if they were held up by a cycle, which was obviously slower than other vehicles, within their lane. It was reported that being caught behind a cyclist added further to the pressure on their work schedules. ... These respondents tended to be of the opinion that cyclists should not be on the road at all.
... professional drivers and some male domestic drivers tended to blame the cyclist for not knowing what he was meant to do, apparently through a lack of proper training and the absence of any obligatory cycling test. These groups also felt that cyclists were not responsible for the consequences of their actions, as they did not pay insurance and were generally free from enforcement, and so did not care about their behaviour.
When the drivers were placed under test situations in a driving simulator, the researchers found a relationship between the size of the professional drivers vehicle and the amount of consideration they gave to cyclists.
Analysis by driver type reveals some subtle differences in driving behaviour. Professional drivers of larger vehicles were more likely than other drivers to say that they would act more cautiously (86% reported they would slow down and wait behind the cyclist). The responses of professional drivers of smaller vehicles, in contrast, indicated this group was slightly less likely than other drivers to act cautiously...
In other words, while this would suggest that buses typically slow down, drivers of smaller vehicles such as utes, small vans and cabs are less likely to concede speed or give space to cyclists.

While it’s harsh of me to stereotype and pathologise anyone who drivers a ute as a potential cycle-hater, I do see a strong correlation between utes and a lot of cultural ideas about power and masculinity. One just has to think of the ads that are used to sell utes:

But then again, ads rarely live up to reality.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Talking up bikes

I went to the Ashfield Council's Carnival of Cultures this morning to help run ASHBUGs cycling promotions stall. It was one of those perfect days where we were swamped with interest. There was no spruking, just a lot people wanting genuine advice and cycling maps. The bike love is contagious.On the topic of talking up bikes. Listen in to this great interview with Adam Spencer (mp3) on 2SER's Environment Show.

Sunday, October 05, 2008


After spending the morning trying to weight up the pros and cons of TravelSmart workplace travel planning policies, I took a few hours off for a game of bicycle polo. It can be a rough game. I had quite a few collisions and my stem is pointing in a new direction, but I never hit the ground or got wacked by a polo stick. More than anything my legs are killing from pushing a 73 inche gear round a tinny basketball court for a few hours. Clearly the regulars have designed their bikes specifically for this sport.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

"Taking the lane": Law or Custom?

I recently had an experience of road rage on Wilson Street, Newtown. Details of the event are posted over at SydneyCyclist, including comments from many other cyclists who have experienced the same thing. In summary, I was riding in the middle of the lane of this narrow one way street to avoid car-doors and to stop cars forcefully over-taking me by crossing into the oncoming “counter-flow” cycle lane. I’ve ridden down this street hundreds of times in the last few years and rarely had any problem. However, on this occasion I caused the ire of one cab driver who honked his horn at me then dangerously speed past me.

“Taking the lane” is one of the key things many cyclist needs to learn to ride in traffic. Its a way of asserting your position on the road and riding in a predictable manner so don’t get cut off or driven into the gutter. Its about claiming a bit more space for your own safety. Sadly, “taking the lane” is also one of the hardest skills to teach new cyclists because it involves putting yourself in the line of moving cars. For an explanation of why cyclists “take the lane” check out this video.

This whole road rage event got me wondering where does the law stand when it comes to taking the lane?

Firstly, in the RTA Road Users Handbook it states that:
You must ride with traffic on the left side of the road. (Page 52):
Ok that seems fair enough, but on page 51 it says:
At times bicycle riders may need a full width lane to ride safely due to rough road edges and gravel. Be prepared to slow down and allow the rider to travel away from the kerb.
Hmm… so we can only take the lane but only when there is gravel or rough edges? That's not very helpful. But then again, the handbook also states on page 51:
Allow ample room in case a car door is opened
Hmmm… seems to me that the Road Users Handbook is pretty ambiguous on this issue.

I also checked out the NSW Road Rules 2008 and I couldn’t find anything. Next stop, I headed south to see what I could find and came across document called Share the Road (pdf):
Share the Road
Are cyclists allowed to occupy a whole traffic lane?
Yes, this may be necessary in narrow traffic lanes where there is not enough space for another vehicle to overtake a bicycle safely within the lane.

Bingo, cyclists can "take the lane" when necessary… however I couldn’t find it stipulated in the Victorian road rules. Why? Why not? Finally, I headed over the sea and found the New Zealand Road Code. Here is what it said:
What cyclists would like drivers to know:
Cyclists may ride away from the kerb or occupy a lane – not because they want to annoy drivers, but to:
* avoid drains, potholes or roadside rubbish
* be seen as they come up to intersections with side roads
* discourage drivers from squeezing past where it's too narrow.
Brilliant. Applause. Rapture.

"Taking the lane" is essentially like any other traffic signal. It is sending the driver a message that they should slow down if they want to pass safely because the cyclists should not be pushed into a marginal and dangerous position on the road. However, it seems to me, that this behaviour is generated mostly out of custom or courtesy. As is seen in the NSW Road User's handbook, the laws can be profoundly ambiguous and many drivers can be affronted by what they perceived as cyclists being "arrogant" "road hogs". Positioning oneself in the lane should not be question of psychological and spatial assertion, it should also be a matter of care and legal inclusion.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Pedestrian lights or Waiting for Godot?

This afternoon I received an email from my uni administration informing all staff and students of an accident that had occurred on Herring Rd between the Macquarie Centre and the Uni campus. The email then warned us not to disobey the crossing lights for our own safety. I knew the intersection well and had seen the large number of students run the gauntlet illegally. Strangely, I received this email at the exactly the same time I was reading Vanderbilt's chapter on "Why New Yorkers Jaywalk (and Why They Don't in Copenhagen)". In one study, it was found in London only 25% of pedestrians waited at the lights while in Copenhagen, jaywalking was virtually non-existent. Vanderbilt originally thought that this must be because of some cultural factor such as the social egalitarian laws known as the Jantelagen. However, when he interviewed Jan Gehl he received a very different explanation.
When I offered these theories to the celebrated urban planner Jan Gehl as we sat in his office in Copenhagen, he brushed them aside and countered with his rival theory: "I think the whole philosophy of the city means you have good-quality sidewalks and frequent intersections. You know you only have to wait for a short while and then it gets green." By contrast, his firm had recently completed a study on London. "We found it was completely complicated to get across any street. We found that only twenty-five percent of the people actually did what the traffic planners suggested to do", he said. The more you make things difficult for pedestrians, Gehl argued, the more you downgrade their status in the traffic system, "the more they start to take the law into their own hands." ...
There is an iron law in traffic engineering. The longer pedestrians have to wait to cross for a signal to cross, the more likely they are to cross against the signal. The jaywaying tipping point seems to be about thirty seconds. (p225)
Such observations felt true with my own observations of Copenhagen. One of the most strong memories I have is of the pedestrian crossings and how they counted down the seconds so you would know exactly how long you had to wait until you cross. Knowing the time would offset any Beckettian anxiety about being stuck waiting. I did a little google search on Sydney's pedestrian crossing times and found that several people including Jan Gehl had made similar comments in this article.

The chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia, Harold Scruby, said: "If you did a trial you would start to see [that pedestrians would wait] 90 seconds and have 15 seconds to get across."

The Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, wants the State Government to allow timers in the city and stepped up her campaign this year after several accidents involving vehicles and pedestrians next to the Town Hall.

The visiting town planner Jan Gehl, a Danish architect, has been studying Sydney's pedestrians since May and says that it takes too long to walk across town.

In his home town of Copenhagen pedestrian lights count in red numerals the time before the lights turn green, then green numerals show how long the lights will stay green. The ideal car and pedestrian waiting times was 45 seconds each, Professor Gehl said.

A spokeswoman for the Roads and Traffic Authority said: "The maximum pedestrian waiting time at an inner CBD intersection is currently less than two minutes.
I'd never really thought of the significance of pedestrian lights until today, but then again if you think about it, waiting for a period of up to 90 seconds multiplied by walking 10 blocks of the city could be the equivalent of an extra 15 mins over a fairly short distance. Similarly, when you cannot cross a road but are forced to move towards an overhead pedestrian crossing, its not hard to see who's mobility is being given priority within the urban landscape. The absurdity of the contemporary situation has been perfectly captured in a picture by vished on Sydney Cyclist today.

Otesha Project (Aus) & Nunnery Bike Brunch

Via: The Nunnery Bike Workshop

The Otesha Project (Aus) and The Nunnery Bike Workshop are hosting a bike brunch fundraiser on Sunday 12 October in Newtown… $5 all you can eat… 9:30-12pm

Bring your bike for a re-tune…

Money goes to a great cause, the Otesha Project (Aus.): Cycling for Sustainability which 17 crew members are involved with. Leaving in November on a 5 week bike trip - riding from Brissie to Newcastle stopping at High Schools along the way to talk about sustainability issues and perform a play on enviromental sustainability & social justice issues. Hoping to empower and provoke thought along the way.

Hope you can make it to the FUNdraising brunch!

We would love to have your support and hang out on a beautiful Sunday!

Where: 16 Sloane St, Enmore
When: Sunday 12 October 9:30am - 12
What: $5 all you can eat brunch
Why: to fundraise for Otesha’s 17 tour members to cycle from bris-newcastle to visit schools and engage kids on sustainability issues…

All the money helps us further develop our project and help pay for needed equipment and other expenses along the tour.

If you can’t make it perhaps you might consider making a donation to our cause by checking out our goal to get enough funds to support youth after we have left communities -

Also check out the event here -

Mixed messages

Meet Mr Augustus Windsock the oldest living cyclist in the world:

"When you see an action, so gracefully, so correctly performed, you understand just why he's stayed alive so long"?

I think bike safety advertisments are a goldmine for critical analysis. Of course Mr Windsock has nothing on One Got Fat! Then again, it is funny how the oldest cyclist in the world is also not wearing a helmet.

Reading Traffic

I've recently started reading Tom Vanderbilt’s book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). (Nb: A lot of bike bloggers seem to be reading this at the moment). Vanderbilt takes his reader on an amazing journey through the world of Traffic and looks to examine many of the driving cultures from around the world as well as the social psychology behind them. Its hard to imagine traffic being such a sustaining topic of interest within one book, but then again, just think how many episodes of Seinfeld where based on this theme. To give you an idea of whats in the book, here is an outline of the chapter titles:

Prologue: Why I Became a Late Merger (and Why You Should Too)
1. Why Does the Other Lane Always Seem Faster? How Traffic Messes with Our Heads
* Shut Up, I Can't Hear You: Anonymity, Aggression, and the Problems of Communicating While Driving
* Are You Lookin' at Me? Eye Contact, Stereotypes, and Social Interaction on the Road
* Waiting in Line, Waiting in Traffic: Why the Other Lane Always Moves Faster
* Postscript: And Now, the Secrets of Late Merging Revealed
2. Why You're Not as Good a Driver as You Think You Are
* If Driving Is So Easy, Why Is It So Hard for a Robot? What Teaching Machines to Drive Teaches Us About Driving
* How's My Driving? How the Hell Should I Know? Why Lack of Feedback Fails Us on the Road
3. How Our Eyes and Minds Betray Us on the Road
* Keep Your Mind on the Road: Why It's So Hard to Pay Attention in Traffic
* Objects in Traffic Are More Complicated Than They Appear: How Our Driving Eyes Deceive Us
4. Why Ants Don't Get into Traffic Jams (and Humans Do): On Cooperation as a Cure for Congestion
* Meet the World's Best Commuter: What We Can Learn from Ants, Locusts, and Crickets
* Playing God In Los Angeles
* When Slower Is Faster, or How the Few Defeat the Many: Traffic Flow and Human Nature
5. Why Women Cause More Congestion Than Men (and Other Secrets of Traffic)
* Who Are All These People? The Psychology of Commuting
* The Parking Problem: Why We Are Inefficient Parkers and How This Causes Congestion
6. Why More Roads Lead to More Traffic (and What to Do About It)
* The Selfish Commuter
* A Few Mickey Mouse Solutions to the Traffic Problem
7. When Dangerous Roads are Safer
* The Highway Conundrum: How Drivers Adapt to the Road They See
* The Trouble with Traffic Signs -- and How Getting Rid of Them Can Make Things Better for Everyone
* Forgiving Roads or Permissive Roads? The Fatal Flaws of Traffic Engineering
8. How Traffic Explains the World: On Driving with a Local Accent
* "Good Brakes, Good Horn, Good Luck": Plunging into the Maelstrom of Delhi Traffic
* Why New Yorkers Jaywalk (and Why They Don't in Copenhagen): Traffic as Culture
* Danger: Corruption Ahead -- the Secret Indicator of Crazy Traffic
9. Why You Shouldn't Drive with a Beer-Drinking Divorced Doctor Named Fred on Super Bowl Sunday in a Pickup Truck in Rural Montana: What's Risky on the Road and Why
* Semiconscious Fear: How We Misunderstand the Risks of the Road
* Should I Stay or Should I Go? Why Risk on the Road Is So Complicated
* The Risks of Safety
Epilogue: Driving Lessons

I guess, what I really like about this book is the way it undoes many of the blind assumptions about traffic management. Rather than being a creative field of thinking about how we facilitate mobility, traffic experts appear to be remarkably resilient to change and in testing or challenging their own assumptions. One can only wonder what would happen if we let some philosophy grads into the RTA? Perhaps I should send a copy of the book to the Minister for Roads as a Christmas present.

Vanderbilt has a great blog called “How we drive” which touches on many of his findings in the book.