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Ride to work? You’ll need a bike barrier for that

Between 1% and 3% of Australian commuters are out on the roads today proving cycling is often the fastest transport choice in Australian cities. Why don’t more people join them? It is not for a lack of…

We’ve got to stop seeing paint on the road as adequate for cyclists. Flickr/crosby_cj

Between 1% and 3% of Australian commuters are out on the roads today proving cycling is often the fastest transport choice in Australian cities.

Why don’t more people join them?

It is not for a lack of interest. Australians have already stocked their households with an average of 1.6 bikes. The reason most of those bikes gather dust in garages is that few of us are prepared to risk our lives riding near cars, as Australian traffic and planning authorities expect us to do.

Now even the US has decided to make it easier for cyclists. Will Australia ever catch up?

In-carriage cycling - mixing it with car traffic - is the primary reason our death rates per million kilometres cycled are three times higher than in the Netherlands. We may have helmets, but the Dutch have the protection that matters: barrier protection from cars.

A study led by Anne Lusk at Harvard found what common sense tells us, that injury rates are much lower on barrier protected cycle-tracks than on comparable roads without bicycle provisions.

Another led by Kay Teschke, which interviewed injured Canadian cyclists, found barrier protected cycle tracks were one-ninth as likely to have been the site of their accident compared to a randomly selected control site on the route they were cycling.

Studies such as these highlight the greater risk of what Herslund et.al. call “looked-but-failed-to-see errors” by drivers when cyclists have to use roads, plus the well understood danger posed by opening car doors.

Many cyclists have been killed when a carelessly-opened car door has clipped their handlebar and caused them to fall in the path of the vehicle travelling behind them. Many, many, many more have been injured.

A mountain of evidence favouring barrier protected cycle tracks over painted bike lanes has caused an about-face in policy direction in the United States. In July 2013 the US Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) put an invitation out to protected cycle track experts, after 40 years of their advice being ignored by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Engineers.

The journal Injury Prevention rightfully takes some of the credit on their blog.

A sad irony in the history of bicycle transport is that keen cyclists aided and abetted motoring lobbyists, who wanted the whole road for cars.

Painted bike lanes don’t get much respect from certain motorists.

Bike store owner John Forester was a keen “vehicular cyclist”. He could keep pace with cars, assert his right to a lane, and gracefully somersault onto the grass if ever a driver looked but didn’t see him. He published these tips in his 1976 book Effective Cycling, with some good intentions, but also a hint of male pride.

By the way he opposed the Dutch-modelled cycle tracks he feared would spread to the US, you could be forgiven for thinking his secret fear was being made to ride beside women and children.

Authorities throughout the Anglosphere nations where Forester’s book was read most were happy to listen to a male voice of cycling. There was no way though that Forester’s ideas were going to have sway with the Dutch.

Too many Dutch mothers were already active in the Stop the Child Murder rallies that began in 1973 after 450 children were killed on their bikes in one year. The Netherlands was developing feminine and juvenile bike infrastructure that did not exclude men. Australia, like the US, did the opposite.

In every nation, including Australia, bicycle transport was mainstream until the second world war. In every nation, including the Netherlands, most of those cyclists were wooed, cajoled and bullied into driving during the 1950s and 60s.

But then the Dutch, closely followed by the Danes, gave bikes their own protected space in the road matrix. Each nation’s bike patronage soared and with it their economies benefited from increased discretionary movement and chance interaction, and their hospitals had less road trauma and morbid illness to treat.

With the rest of Europe, the UK, and now even the US moving to broad-appeal bike transport policies, we must ask why Australians still mistake paint on the road for bike infrastructure.

That could be changing. A few local governments are already defying state level policies by building protected cycle tracks, like the Burke Street cycle track in Sydney.

Transport economists serving the former Labor commonwealth government issued a report last July recommending protected bike infrastructure be included with every new urban road, because A$14.30 indirectly flows back to our economy each time one of us chooses a bike for a 20 minute commute.

The automatic association Australians make between cycling and sport indirectly hinders the development of bike transport infrastructure. As a competitive cyclist myself for more than 20 years, I would be the last to blame Cadel Evans, or even our MAMIL prime minister, for how things have played out.

I would blame any daring competitive cyclist though who presumed to speak on behalf of all cyclists, from their experience, without recognising that most other Australians can ride a bike too, but are rightfully scared to.