Wednesday, April 08, 2009

About a bicycle

Recently, I was a volunteer counter for Bicycle Victoria’s “Super Tuesday”. This is the day on which the organisation conducts a census of bicycle usage in Melbourne and Sydney during peak commuting times. The information is supplied to council and government planners, to “guide investment in paths and facilities for bike commuters”.
I was in a very quiet inner suburban street, from 7am to 9am.
Because it’s a quiet junction (outside the Flying Duck pub in South Yarra), the amount of traffic is minimal, so I had plenty of rumination time. I wasn’t counting cars, but there was probably one bike for every 9 or 10 cars. (Bicycle Victoria says that over 35% of all traffic on Princes Bridge – a major entry point to Melbourne city centre from the south – now consists of bicycles).
The bikes approached and passed in almost complete silence, which emphasised by comparison the unwieldiness of the motorised traffic. The cyclists themselves were commuters. Some were dressed in work clothes and travelling at a leisurely pace, some were clearly using the commute as part of a fitness program. All were looking alert and awake.
By most measures, the bicycle is a great way to travel in inner suburban areas. Noiseless, emission-free. And social – it’s common to strike up conversations with fellow cyclists or pedestrians when waiting for the lights to change.
I’m also a driver (and indeed was sitting comfortably in Gina’s lovely Peugeot 308 diesel while conducting my count), and I know that there is a tension between the two transport modes. Tom Vanderbilt, in his fascinating book Traffic: Why we drive the way we do and what it says about us quotes Henry Barnes, traffic commissioner in New York in the 1960’s, who said that “traffic was as much an emotional problem as it was a physical and mechanical one”.
However, I’ve found that Melbourne has become more bicycle-friendly since I first rode here over 20 years ago. Partly this is because infrastructure has improved – there are more and better maintained cycle lanes and related facilities. Partly it’s because people are more health-conscious and cycling is seen as a healthy alternative. Partly it’s a realisation that cycling is an environmentally sensible choice that allows individuals to have a smaller environmental footprint. For me, it’s a mixture of these, and also the fact that the suburban train system has been sadly neglected to the point that it’s an unreliable way for me to get to work and meetings, whereas I can time my bike travel accurately to within a couple of minutes to any city destination.
As more people take to their bikes, drivers become more aware of them, and cycling becomes safer. The Victorian state government recently announced AUD $115 million funding to “further establish cycling as a viable, sustainable, affordable and safe transport option”, and that should help.
Cycling is simple way to get to the local shop, but it’s also a great way for us city-dwellers to get a better taste of season and climate. Instead of going from the box we live in to the box we work in in the box we drive in, we can immerse ourselves in the smells and sounds of our city, and in the moods of the changing seasons.
 It’s clear that cycling in many cities is on the brink of a major resurgence. In places like Copenhagen it’s well established, as you can see from reading Mikael Colville-Andersen’s Copenhagenize blog, or the equivalent Amsterdamize.
And what a peaceful and poetic way to travel it is.

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