When I came to Australia to talk about cycling, I borrowed a bike and headed off to the suburbs, with the help of an experienced local rider. It was an eye-opening experience. I had no idea how far behind Sydney was compared with most European cities in terms of accommodating, let alone encouraging, cyclists.
There seems to be an almost overt hostility to cyclists not only from many motorists, but more importantly from the planners and highway engineers who create the street environment.
It may be only a small thing, but even the drains in gutters can easily catch a cyclist’s wheels because the grooves run parallel to the road rather than at right angles, as is the case in most other cities. When I was cycling on Parramatta Road, I desperately needed the safety of those gutters to have a reasonable chance of surviving the rush-hour traffic but found that I had to swerve out into the car lane to avoid being felled by the storm drain.
Sydney has the occasional bit of good infrastructure, such as the dedicated paths over bridges, the lanes laid out by more supportive local councils such as Leichhardt and the cycle parking hoops that have started appearing in the central business district, but clearly there is no overall policy supportive of cycling.
Contrast this with London, where the number of cyclists has doubled over the past five years. Having cycled in London for 40 years, I find that motorists are far more accommodating and courteous towards me now than they have ever been, quite possibly because many of them occasionally jump on bikes, too. London has a long way to go but cycling has reached the critical mass stage which makes it safer and easier to ride there.
Sydney can get there, too. Sure, there are difficulties with the number of roads with fast, heavy traffic, the occasional hill and, in summer, the climate. But despite these obstacles, cycling could easily grow as rapidly with political goodwill and concerted effort.
It is impossible to pinpoint precise reasons why cycling in London has increased so much. It is a combination of factors, ranging from overcrowding on public transport to the imposition of the congestion charge, but undoubtedly the initial trigger was a pro-cycling attitude from local authorities who in the past had been negative or even hostile to cycling, as are some politicians in Australia. Now, support for cycling is virtually universal among elected officials since they see that it combines the benefits of a healthy lifestyle with an environmentally sustainable form of transport.
To make progress, however, does not mean immediately spending millions of dollars on heavily engineered cycle routes which may, in any case, be in the wrong place or badly designed. Sure, money will eventually be needed to create these facilities, but first hearts and minds have to be won over. At the moment, it is only the hard-core Lycra-wearing cyclists who take to the roads and the first task is to show ordinary people they can occasionally jump on their bikes, even if it is just to go to the shops.
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.
To put it bluntly, Sydney is where London was about 20 years ago. There were virtually no cycle facilities and one local council, the affluent west London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, was so hostile it ripped up one of the few lanes that had been laid out by the Greater London Council on the grounds that cyclists got in the way of cars. Now that council, with the same Conservative party in control, has not only relaid the cycle lanes, but has even created special ones in one-way streets to allow cyclists priority access.
None of what needs to be done is rocket science. It can be done, as London has begun to show.