Time to get on yer bike!

I THOUGHT this month I would talk bikes. Because this burst of beautiful spring weather encourages anyone to dust off the old treadly and go for a ride and because I have just been to a bike conference in Melbourne called Bike Futures.

It was two-and-a-half days of being reminded why bikes are so important in the transport mix, and why not enough people choose to commute by bike.

The conference was not attended by lycra-wearing road warriors (unless they were in disguise), but by people determined to make bike commuting and recreational riding a larger share of the transport mix.

So what are the issues? First, in real terms fewer people cycle now than they did 15 years ago. Yes, in WA there has been an increase of 21per cent of people on bikes, but this has not kept up with the population increase of 44 per cent over the same period.

The conference was told the two overwhelming reasons people say in interviews they do not commute by bike are “I can’t be bothered” and “I haven’t got time”.

Well, we have to find time to be bothered, as for the first time ever the next generation’s life expectancy is shorter than that of their parents, due to the epidemic of poor lifestyle, now the most serious first world problem (as opposed to the humorous ones currently doing the rounds).

Cycling is one sure-fire way of helping to turn this around, a daily dose of modest exercise provides health benefits the medical industry simply cannot match. In WA for every 220 trips to work by car as the driver there are only 20 corresponding trips by bike.  Imagine how much less traffic congestion there would be if some of those commuters chose to cycle? Improving cycling infrastructure is the cheapest and best way to address congestion on the roads, far better by orders of magnitude than building bigger and more roads.

Melbourne has got the message: It recently turned Princess Bridge, the entry to the CBD from St Kilda Road, from four lanes for vehicles into two lanes for vehicles and two separated bike lanes.  As you can imagine there was a huge amount of pushback from motorists before it went ahead. The outcome? An increase measured in seconds in the rush-hour time taken to drive into the CBD, but a reduction in travel time out of the city measured in minutes. Cyclists and motorists alike are now congratulating Melbourne council for this initiative.

While “I can’t be bothered” and “I haven’t got time” is the response when interviewed there are two more crucial reasons here in WA for poor cycling numbers, that seem on first assessment contradictory: Lack of safety and compulsory helmet laws.

Hop onto the internet and you will find endless sites dedicated to the adverse health effects of compulsory helmets. My personal belief is that for adults, helmets should be a personal decision. Where it is having an large negative effect is with bike hire and share schemes. Travellers do not bring a helmet with them, rendering a severe disincentive to those most likely to use such schemes. It also stops anyone who, on the spur of the moment, might like to give cycling a go.

If we continue to be committed as a community to compulsory helmets then designers need to create some cool designs, and maybe a “roll up” one that is easy to carry.  One feels such a dork in those angular numbers that look like they were inspired by science fiction movies of the 1980s.

On safety, Melbourne applies the Triple-S principle: increased safety for cyclists through slower speeds and separated bike lanes. It believes 40kph offers the best balance between close to highest vehicle numbers per hour on congested streets and a huge improvement in both accident numbers and severity.

It is also removing car lanes to install Copenhagen-style bike lanes. These are dedicated lanes between the footpath and parked cars. I suspect many accidents and near misses are due to drivers simply not being alert to cyclists and the frequent response of a driver after an accident is “I just didn’t see them”. Having cycling ingrained in our community psyche is a sure-fire way of improving that, maybe increasing the number of cyclists will reduce the accident rate?

Five years ago, a few minutes after fuelling up a Landcruiser I was using for work (that took $140 of diesel) I passed Mercer Cycles near Fremantle Hospital and it had a new 21-speed Malvern Star out the front for $120. A new bike for less than the price of a tank full of fuel—that has to be good value. I still have that bike today.

I urge each and every one of you who does not consider the bike first when going somewhere to dust off the old treadly, pump up the tyres and use it for all your local trips. If you have not got a bike get into a shop or onto the internet and buy one. It will save you money in fuel and parking, it will make you healthier, it will make you a great role model for your children and it will make our city a much better place to live.

by JON STRACHAN

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