Saturday, 14 February 2015

So are helmet laws sexist or what?

Back in May 2014 when our friends from overseas were visiting for the Velo-City conference, there were a few times when it made the news. One time was when a couple of streets were blocked for the breakfast ride. Another was when Mikael Colville-Andersen said 'suck it up buttercup' :-) And then there was the time when the always awesome Sue Abbott made it to the front page of the Advertiser for ... gasp ... riding a bike. It just so happened that she also committed the cardinal sin of not wearing a helmet.

It is not hard to understand the point Sue was making. There is no doubt that the introduction of helment laws in Australia and New Zealand coincided with a fairly sizeable drop in the number of people using bikes. It is also fairly clear that the drop in numbers was disproportionate among women. We know and see every day that men on bikes easily outnumber women five to one. On top of that, other demographics have never recovered from that initial drop. How often do you see teenage girls getting themselves to school on a bike? Compare that to their Dutch sisters:

This is borrowed from this post by aseasyasridingabike. Hope that's ok.

A completely different picture altogether. Now admittedly there are other reasons for this sorry state of affairs but I don't think what Sue Abbott says can be ignored.

I came across a short video the other day called 'Der Fahrrad-Doktor' (the Bicycle Doctor) on NDR television. It's about a business owner who runs a mobile bike workshop in Garbsen, which is a little way north east of Hannover. The full length film (30 mins) can be seen here. It's actually worth a look. If nothing else, it shows a pretty good business idea for anyone looking to capitalise on an increase in bicycle use in the near future.

At one point in the film, the owner, Herr Schwetje, is seen selling an e-bike to a woman who is described later as a pensioner - the sort of woman you would rarely if ever see riding a bike in Australia. I have edited out the two scenes involving her:

At the beginning, Herr Schwetje introduces her to the white e-bike. With introductions out of the way, the conversation about helmets begins (at 0:55):

Do you have a helmet?
So you generally ride without a helmet?
I ride without.
Ok, you want to continue to doing that?
I'll continue doing that.
Ok, I can't change that but would you like to be convinced otherwise because it would be much safer? These bikes have a tendency to go much faster than the others.
I don't want to ride so quickly. I don't want help. And I want to ride far. I am really not in a hurry any more.

The good lady goes for a ride - beyond the horizon.

When she returns (2:28), she's impressed. It's windy and she's not puffed out. Being the consumate salesman, Herr Schwetje offers to leave the bike with her for the weekend so she can properly try it out. Sounds like a plan she says. But at 3:14 he has one more try. A condition is that she takes the helmet. Then he can say he has at least given her one even if she doesn't wear it.

Off she goes.

He's back the following Wednesday and is pleased to make the sale.

He begins again (4:25):

You know what I've got for you? A helmet that matches your glasses - black.
Whatever. I'm *sooo* pleased.
Promise me that when you're out in the dark alone you'll wear it.
I don't drive in the dark - not in the car, not on the bike.
But please try it out. It's for your safety and my conscious.

Seconds later, she's off again - but helmet on the wrist :-)

Now here's the thing. If the State Government of Lower Saxony were to introduce a helmet law, what might that good lady do? Maybe she'd wear one. But maybe not. Would she still be riding at her age if Lower Saxony had had helmet laws for the past 23 years? I don't know for sure but I reckon the answer is probably no. She'd either be riding the bus everywhere or driving her Volkswagen Polo.

Herr Schwetje likes to encourage people to don their helmets. There's a scene in the full length version of the video where he tells his mountain bike team off because only 5 out of 12 of them had one on. And that's fine. By all means "encourage" but it's when you mandate that the problems begin.

In Australia, we like to encourage people to share the road and to be nice to each other. But actually taking steps to protect people through engineering or safe systems? Much slower on the uptake. At the same time, we don't encourage helmet use but instead like to use the blunt instrument of the law to force it on anyone and everyone. We might have our priorities a little mixed up there.

We've seen it in Australia and New Zealand. Numbers drop. If they recover, the demographic is different. Women? A few. Women above 50? You'll be lucky. Children? Maybe but only with parents walking close by. Teenagers? Even fewer. Teenage girls? Zero. Sporty men on mountain bikes and racing bikes? Tons.

And that is what is meant when Sue Abbott says helmet laws are sexist.

Monday, 26 January 2015


Back in 2002, the famous Professor Jan Gehl was invited to make some recommendations about how the city of Adelaide could improve things for people. As part of his 83 page report, the Professor made a number of suggestions about changing the environment for people on foot. He also made some recommendations about bikes:

The walking recommendations included some that would have made an enormous difference, such as improving pedestrian connections generally and avoiding footpath interruptions by taking them across side streets. Leigh Street has since been quietened but I'm not sure what else.

Of the recommendations that were made back then, the two obvious ones that I can think of are the extension of the tramway and removing that terrible slip lane that used to be on the corner of North Terrace and Frome Street.

Professor Gehl came back in 2012 and from what I could tell, more or less made the same suggestions (and pointed out how little we had done in 10 years).

On the topic of bikes, he pointed out the lack of any coherent network and said this:

Adelaide has excellent conditions for bicycling, with climate and topography presenting few difficulties, an increased student population and more residents. The street widths in Adelaide offer obvious possibilities for integrating a superior network of bicycle lanes.

In the meantime, Professor Fred Wegman was South Australia's Thinker in Residence in 2010. He is the Managing Director of the SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research in the Netherlands, which has a pretty decent road safety record. He also produced a report and in it he too briefly touched on the issue of bikes as transport (see p57). He recommended, among other things, two major bike routes across the CBD, one north-south and one east-west, segregating the cyclist route from motor vehicle traffic and creating appropriate traffic management schemes at intersections. He used Vancouber as his example. Vancouver has since gone further and has done that on a number of city streets and beyond.

Then in 2014, a whole bunch of people came to Adelaide from all over the place and talked about nothing but bikes. The always modest Dutch were there but so were many others. There was even someone from a Canadian city very similar to Adelaide to talk about what they were doing and how, in the process, they were bringing a suspicious public along for the ride.

There was tons of information to take from the conference but an overwhelming message was No More Baby Steps:

At the end of the conference, the transport Minister, Stephen Mullighan, announced that his government would by 2018 double the number of school children taught to ride safely. Baby steps indeed.

All of that was soon forgotten and so recently the Government wanted more ideas and so instead of calling in the experts, it dragged 37 random people off the street and asked them. That became the Citizens' Jury - complete with its own hashtag.

The question they were asked to deal with was:

Motorists and cyclists will always be using our roads. What things could we trial to ensure they share the roads safely?

Members of the public and organisations were invited to send in their own submissions (with a strict 2 page limit, which the Amy Gillett Foundation shamelessly exceeded by 23 pages). My point was simple - you're asking the wrong question. Sharing the road is the problem. I said we had been asking people to share the road nicely for years; neither motorists nor cyclists deliberately tried to hurt each other but far too often, cyclists and motorists were put in positions of conflict where a simple error could be fatal - and so often was.

The Jury met about three times. They had a lot of topics to deal with which meant they had about 15 seconds to deal with each. They also had the assistance of some speakers (yours truly wasn't invited) and there was a Twitter chat too.

When the jury released its recommendations, everyone who had contributed in some way was invited so I got to go to Parliament House for an hour.

The recommendations were generally sensible but not earth shattering. A strong recommendation was for improved infrastructure (including connecting existing bike lanes), greenways and safer intersections (which meant bike boxes). That last one was a tad disappointing. Bike boxes are really not all they're cracked up to be.

It's only sometimes that you actually have a bike lane leading up to them:

Even then, accessibility can be an issue:

Another recommendation was allowing cycling on the footpath "when there is no safer alternative". Riding on the footpath is something that has been permitted in Japan for some time (as I understand it) but allowing it here I think is an admission of failure. It's an acceptance that the road is crap. And in any event, who decides when there is no safer alternative? Is my subjective opinion sufficient?

The Government thought long and hard about the jury's suggestions and then just the other day, during the TDU, came up with its answer:

The Government loved the recommendations and agreed with all but two. They will be investigated.

So it means more bike boxes, more education and campaigns, a one metre passing rule, pavement cycling and other things.

There was a bit of a do in the South Parklands to release the response. The Premier spoke as did the CEO of the Amy Gillett Foundation and the head of the Motor Accident Commission. There was a fair bit of mutual congratulation and, dare I say it, a smattering of hyperbole - South Australia is leading the way.

I suppose all of this is a good thing because the Government is at least thinking about it. If some of the adopted recommendations are indeed carried through, it will mean some improvement. At the same time though, the things that are suggested are, to use the phrase from Velo-City, baby steps, while we continue to sit in traffic that is slowly getting worse and wonder why.

Perhaps it's time to stop complaining and run for city council.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

A Useful Illustration

So I was in Melbourne again recently with the family. They do a lot of things right there. The CBD is humming, there is plenty to do and there is that great public transport system of theirs (depending on where you want to go). It makes you wonder what could be achieved if just some of the money that was earmarked for the ridiculous East-West Link was spent on improving tram and train services.

We also used the bikeshare system - complete with goofy helmets:

Most of the time it was necessary for at least a couple of us to ride like criminals without the plastic hat. They were so often not available. Quite often the reason for their lack of availability would ride past you:

(To be fair, I am sure that young lady bought her bikeshare helmet for $5 from a 7-Eleven and quite rightly kept it given that she had paid for it).

While there, we caught up with friends; two families who have moved from Adelaide to Melbourne in the last year. Both families are very similar - two children; both at school and similar ages; one boy and one girl; do different activities at different times.

As you would expect, both were two-car families when they lived in Adelaide. Unless you make a really concerted effort, it is quite difficult for a family like that to function normally in Adelaide without two cars. It can be done but as I say, it requires real effort.

In the short time they have been living in Melbourne (less than twelve months), both have got rid of one car.

Getting into the city is much cheaper, quicker and easier by tram. That means some children's activities can be reached that way. It also means the children (some of the time) can get there by themselves. Once of the dads has even got himself a year's subscription to bikeshare.

Melbourne is far from a world leader in public transport and biking infrastructure. Public transport is excellent by Australian standards but could still improve and biking as transport has massive scope for improvement. Despite that, Melbourne still offers sufficient transport choice for families like that not to have to fund two cars. Add up all of the families in that position and then work out the money they are saving and what it can be spent on. Then the wider benefits start to materialise.

Further improvements would merely improve mobility and independence, particularly for the children in each family.

I think once a city can boast that sort of choice, you know it is getting somewhere. And once we get to the point where people genuinely have the choice not to own a car, only then will be able to rest on our laurels - and then only for a short time.

Fitzroy Street, St Kilda

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Ahead of the pack

A recent article, that made it to the front page, told a lot of us what we already knew - that for some routes in the morning rush hour, it is quicker to ride a bike. The RAA tested four routes using a car, bike, bus, train and tram and on three out of the four, it was the bike that was quickest - by a fair margin.

The testing was actually quite vigorous. This was how it was described on the Adelaide Cyclists forum:

The experiment and subsequent report was produced really with the type of person in mind who has considered using alternate modes of transport for their commute into work but who has never gotten round to actually doing so. I appreciate that there is likely to be some scepticism around the results, but I can assure you all that our aim was to be as fair and objective as possible within the experiment. For instance, the start time for each survey varied to accommodate the departure times for public transport, but were generally between 8-8.15am. We picked start points according to where public transport infrastructure (train/tram) was in place, but with a distance of no more than 10km away from the city. I appreciate that many people live more than 10kms away, but one of the considerations that we had in the report was for people who may wish to consider driving to a park n ride and then cycling the rest of the way to their destination. I think that Glenelg, Mitcham and Paradise offer an ideal case in point for this option. In some cases (Mitcham and Paradise) it is possible to drive/cycle and get to the city quicker than just driving the entire journey.

Given that the bike was fastest 3 out of 4 times, the question then is why we do not have a more balanced use of the different modes available. Again, I think the RAA hits it on the head when they say:

Our official position is one that it is all well and good to try to encourage more people to use alternative modes of transport, but those options/infrastructure need to be in place in order to encourage people to use them in the first place.

Such a statement is intuitively correct. It is where the work is needed.

The newspaper report of the experiment led to a couple of interesting comments on the radio that morning. One was:

it's 80 km from Gawler to Seaford. When are people going to realise that cycling is just not viable for some?

The speaker chose the suburb furthest to the north and the one furthest to the south to make his point. Of course nobody would ride that distance but very few drive it either. I should add that both suburbs are served by trains.

Also, the presenter who said that commutes every day by car from Unley to the CBD - a distance of about 3km. Not just bikeable but walkable. He has every right to drive that distance every day - nobody is stopping him - but his neighbours might give the alternative some thought.

Progress will not come from radio presenters it seems.

I actually think, like most things, it will come from people and businesses. There is a whole movement of people quietly doing their thing to effect positive change in all sorts of areas.

We have all heard of the local company 'On The Run'. They seem to own every second petrol station in the entire metropolitan area and they load them up with all sorts of franchises so that when you walk into the shop, there is no end of things on offer.

I remember growing up when at night and on a Sunday, the only thing open was the local servo and the choice was woeful. And what little there was available was overpriced. These people changed all that with a simple and genius business model. They have done very well out of it and good on them.

I an willing to bet that they will be the first chain of petrol stations to install bike service stations of the type you find overseas where you can pump your tyres, fix a flat, oil your chain or give your bike a clean. I bet they will also lend you allen keys and tools to remove your tyres without charging you.

(I borrowed this from Copenhagenize. The picture was taken by Mads Odgaard)

The payoff for them will be more customers coming through the shops and more likely buying overpriced bottles of water. But it will also mean that like the RAA, they get it and they understand that their business comes not just from people in cars. Business owners who forget that are missing out on a lot of valuable custom and radio presenters and others who constantly gripe about changes to the use of roads are doing them a disservice.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The next few slow years

While our Dutch friends, without any fanfare at all, continue to update their already superior transport network, our Danish friends do the same and city mayors in the United States try to outdo each other in reforming the design and function of their city streets, the small burst of energy we have just seen in Adelaide, that led to the very short and really quite conservative little bikeway on Frome Street, may have just come to an end.

I moved back to Adelaide in 1997. There have been a few different State Premiers and city mayors since then. In all that time, I have never seen so much positive progress as I have in the last few years that Stephen Yarwood has been mayor of Adelaide, including the new Oval, the new hospital, Victoria Square, laneway reactivation, Leigh Street, Peel Street, food carts, RenewAdelaide, hosting Velo-City, online engagement and of course the small beginnings of a decent city-wide safe bike network.

Our new mayor, Martin Haese, made a number of promises on his campaign website but it is a little difficult to see exactly what he stands for. I suppose we will find out in the next few years.

Bike SA held a "spin cycle" for mayoral candidates to talk to cyclists about their policies. One thing Mr Haese said was that "bikeways and business do not mix" so, we were told, the Frome Bikeway has to go.

It is an odd comment and one that flies in the face of all of the evidence on the subject. If you want recent data, have a listen to New York's Transportation Commissioner, Janet Sadik-Khan, on her recent visit to Adelaide:

Just as a couple of examples, on one street corner in Brooklyn, a small car park was turned into a plaza. In 3 years, there was a 172% increase in retail sales. Since Times Square was changed and space was given back to pedestrians, 350,000 people use it every day. New York added 400 miles of on-street bike lanes in 7 years. As we have had here, every argument imaginable was raised against them. Gridlock was predicted. But things have turned out just fine. During weekends, bike ridership has doubled and on weekdays it has tripled.

All of that has been achieved on less than 1% of the roads maintenance budget. Injuries have halved and retail sales have increased 49% where protected bike lanes have been installed. And generally, travel times have improved for everyone.

That's just one city.

As strange as it is, that little bikeway on Frome Street has caused more wailing and gnashing of teeth than any other recent development. Despite all of the doom and gloom (which included Anne Moran telling us on the radio just the other day, without any irony, that Adelaide suffers from the "tyranny of distance" - this is from someone who drives to work from North Adelaide), the bikeway seems to have been a success - more so than many people predicted.

In response to requests from the Advertiser and Indaily, Adelaide City Council provided an update on the use of the Frome Street Bikeway and information on the evaluation process. It is useful to set out the information in full:

The Frome Bikeway opened on Wednesday 14 May 2014 and has been in use by cyclists for five months over winter, generally a time when fewer people ride bikes. However, early observations of the use of the bikeway are encouraging.

A survey undertaken in October 2014 indicates that up to 1000 cyclists are using the bikeway daily. This is a 50% increase from prior to the bikeway being installed. Further increases are anticipated as we head into the warmer season, noting that the full potential of the bikeway will not be realised until it is completed and forms part of a broader, interconnected network.

We have observed more females cycling, which is reflective of females feeling safer to cycle to the city now.

During the AM and PM weekday peaks, cyclists currently represent about 16% of the total traffic on Frome Street which is encouraging considering the current AM/PM peak across the city is approximately 2-3%. It demonstrates that the desire to offer alternative modes of transport is working.

From 2 or 3% to 16% in only six months on a bikeway that is incomplete and stops all of a sudden at Pirie Street just when the traffic is starting to build. It makes you wonder what we might see when it is completed and it is joined by other similar north south routes and some going east to west.

On the radio this morning, Mr Haese was asked whether he plans to rip up the bikeway. Using classic politician speak, he answer was neither yes nor no so we don't really know what his plans are. He did not rule out removing it. His priority is "safety" he tells us and if that means removing the bikeway then he will do so.

At the end of the radio programme, there was talk of the "pendulum swinging back" - a ridiculous proposition. Using that analogy assumes a starting point of equity rather than the heavily car-based and very inefficient city we have now. As for the pendulum swinging too far in favour of bikes, if one single (half-finished) bikeway constitutes going too far then we will never get anywhere. I found it hard to believe the presenter could say that with a straight face.

The futility of that thinking was brought home to me only this evening. I rode north along the bikeway on my way home. Once I got to Pirie Street it ended and it was time to ride along that narrow strip where you're trying to avoid car doors opening on the left and being side-swiped on the left. Two guys were up ahead on their bikes too - riding single file. They were doing the same thing and it meant that Mr Moustache in his Chrysler 300 could not get past until the painted bike lane appeared 6m before North Terrace. Had he caught up to them just a block earlier he would have sailed past without even noticing them.

Safe and decent biking infrastructure doesn't only benefit people on their bikes.

The figures really do speak for themselves both here and around the world. We hear a lot about "evidence based policy". Well, the evidence is there - some of it just published. Adelaide has barely started.

Saturday, 25 October 2014


An 8 year old boy's life was taken away from him a little while ago in Sydney. He was riding close to his home when he was hit by a car. He dies soon after his arrival in hospital.

His family will no doubt never recover and nor will the driver of the vehicle involved.

It happened at the intersection of Paddock Street and Capertree Street, The Ponds, in Sydney's west. This is a view of the intersection:

and here you can see where it is on a map:

You can see it is no far from the main road, Stanhope Parkway. You can also see that all of the surrounding streets are long, generally straight and open to traffic. All of them, including this one, have default speed limits of 50 km/h even though, as the picture shows, people live on them. A quick squizz on Streetview will also show you that it is a very new sub-division.

The roads are quite wide, very smooth and have long sight lines. The curves into side streets are generous and allow turns to be taken at a decent speed - despite give way rules involving pedestrians walking along the street being turned off.

The little boy was riding on the road (rather than the pavement which is on only one side of the road) and, tragically, he failed to give way.

It does seem an extraordinarily high price to pay for a simple and understandable error.

How can we have a road system that is so unforgiving of a simple mistake like that one?

In any workplace, risks are dealt with first by elimination, then by substitution. OHS manuals generally say something along the lines of "If it is not possible to eliminate the hazard, substitute it with something preferably of a lesser risk which will still perform the same task in a satisfactory manner." Something like the same intersection with a much lower speed limit? Or the same intersection on roads with traffic volume reduced because it doesn't need to be there?

I don't wish to appear in bad taste by discussing this but it is very upsetting to hear about anyone killed on our roads. Each time this happens, we should be asking why so that we (and each level of Government) can do our level best to ensure it never happens again.

There is no excuse not to. And there is no excuse to leave that street as it is with its obvious hazard that has now made itself known with such appalling consequences.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Citizens' Jury

I don't know if it is a first (probably not) but you will know doubt have read that the SA Government's "Citizen Jury" has been tasked to address the problem of cars and bike sharing the road and how they can do it safely. This is its second task. First time round it was asked to consider the issue of ensuring we have a vibrant and safe nightlife.

With the vibrancy question, in its final report the jury came back saying Adelaide nightlife is already vibrant and safe when compared with similar cities interstate and overseas. And so they dealt with making it even more vibrant and safer.

What was good was that the jury did not simply accept that the right question was asked.

I think (and hope) that will be the outcome this time.

Calls to share the road are all very well but they detract from the real issue. They assume that various road users can be divided into labels (forgetting that anyone could be a "driver", "pedestrian", "rider" or "passenger") and assuming equal responsibility and culpability to each. They forget human error and the consequences of it. Please read this excellent discussion of the problems with sharing the road campaigns:

“share the road” campaigns always fall into the same trap: the belief that if you’re sending a set of messages to one set of road users, you have to send an equivalent set of messages to another.

[They imply] that the journeys – made by the combination of the person and the vehicle – are equivalent, and thus by extension it implies that person-plus-car and person-plus-bicycle are equivalent. They are not. And this is, once more, the crucial failing. The authors of the messages wilfully blind themselves to the fundamental inequality of danger due to people’s choice of kinetic energy and base the whole campaign not on danger, but on diplomacy.

Rather than share the road campaigns, that we have tried and tried, we know how to reduce our road toll. It by using the concept of sustainable safety:

Sustainable Safety is all about prevention - preventing crashing from occurring, and, secondarily, reducing the risk of serious injuries when collisions do occur.

One of the core principles of this approach is homogeneity – equalising, as much as possible, the mass, speed and direction of vehicles, to reduce collision risk. In particular, fast objects should not share space with slow ones; and vehicles travelling at speed should not be travelling in opposing directions, without separation. Likewise measures should be taken to separate bodies of unequal mass; for instance, heavy vehicles like buses and lorries should be not be sharing the same space as pedestrians and cyclists. The basis for this approach – and other Sustainable Safety measures – is that human beings are fallible, and that the environment we travel in should respond to that fallibility, rather than expecting us to not make mistakes, ever.

This has been an issue for a long time. You would think that our representatives would have been able to work it out by now. They never do and inevitably MPs (like all of us) rely on their own biases and prejudices to make their decisions. When you leave it to politicians alone to deal with these issues, the risk is that you end up with this sort of thing:

I actually think it's a joke. That bloke looks far too much like Sir Les Patterson for it to be real.

But that is why I think handing the issue to a jury of 35 sensible women and men for all walks of life may finally provide us with some meaningful change.

I have already provided my submission. The closing date is 5 October.

Providing a submission is quite a challenge because whatever you write has to fit on two pages. Font and margin sizes can only get so small before it becomes a joke. But the information is there and with just a modicum of skill (and a few website links) the message can be put across. Indeed, in less than two pages you can probably find a picture or video and say, "er, yeah, that".

(Danish Cycling Embassy)

Have your say!