Sydney’s crazy car culture

Eureka Street

HE WAS the angry driver from Hell.

The green Commodore screeched to a halt, and out stepped a hulking bogan with a shaved head, wraparound sunnies and tattoos from head to toe. He lumbered down the road, stopped face-to-face with the shocked cyclist he had almost run over, drew back his fist and screamed ‘I’m going to punch your head off!’

This is how Liam Crowley, the 32-year-old store manager at Abbotsford Cycles, Melbourne, remembers his encounter with a living, breathing road rage cliché in November last year.

Witnesses soon arrived on the scene and the driver backed away, but not before issuing a warning to ‘stay off the road’. ‘I would suggest that he believes in his world that roads were built for cars, and cars alone,’ says Crowley.

The angry Commodore driver might sound like a cartoonish stereotype, but he isn’t the only person who thinks bikes don’t belong on the bitumen.

Before being elected NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell described Sydney’s new 200km bike network as ‘crazy’ and said Lord Mayor Clover Moore had ‘deliberately set out to inconvenience motorists’. But given cycling’s overwhelming benefits to society, what’s really crazy is O’Farrell’s populist pledge to keep Sydney car-dependent into the future.

The NSW capital is already one of the developed world’s most hostile cities for cyclists, according to a US academic who spent a year studying Sydney’s bike culture. Dr John Pucher told The Sydney Morning Herald he encountered an ‘an incredible level of aggression from Sydney motorists’.

The problem seems widespread: a 2005 survey found road rage was more common in NSW than in any other Australian state or territory.

Bicycle NSW claims cycling is becoming more popular in Sydney, but the city still lags behind Melbourne. Yet even the number of people commuting by bike in Australia’s ‘lefty’ capital is relatively small. And on a national level, the percentage of trips taken by bike is still less than 2 per cent.

Meanwhile, the costs of car-dependence keep piling up. Our rate of obesity is among the highest in the developed world, with about half the population too slovenly to stave off sedentary lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes. Research from 2004 showed that each extra hour in a motor vehicle increases the chance of obesity by 6 per cent.

Aside from making us fat and sick, car travel is an economic ‘negative externality’. This means that while a driver receives a benefit in the form of convenient transport, everyone else bears the cost in the form of increased pollution, road traffic injuries and climate change. Car-dependence can have a net cost to society.

Cycling, on the other hand, can have a net benefit. As a moderate, low-impact type of exercise, riding a bike to work can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, some cancers, diabetes and stress disorders. A 2008 paper for the Department of Health and Aging found cyclists save the economy $71 million in health costs each year. And the more people who cycle, the safer our roads are for all users. If cycling doubles, the risk of transport injury per kilometre falls by 34 per cent.

Unfortunately, Australia’s insidious car culture is holding us back from reaping these benefits. Driving is considered the normal thing to do, so we use the car even for really short trips. In Australian capital cities, about 50 per cent of car trips are under five kilometres — a distance most people could cycle without raising a sweat.

The habit of reaching for the car keys is reinforced by a number of things, including suburban sprawl, but one of the biggest barriers to healthier forms of transport is driver hostility.

In a 2004 AAMI survey, 46 per cent of women and 38 per cent of men agreed with the statement ‘Aggressive drivers put me off cycling or walking’. The following year, a Victorian parliamentary committee found a common trigger for road violence was ‘cycling on a road considered to be the “proper” domain of cars’.

Most parliamentarians understand that as a long-term transport strategy, cycling makes a lot of sense. That’s why the NSW Liberals and Nationals issued a statement before the election saying that they ‘strongly support cycling as a viable, active transport option’. And then O’Farrell went and shot his mouth off.

One final piece of evidence in favour of cycling is it increases the body’s ability to transport oxygen, improving cognitive functioning. Perhaps if our friend Barry spent more time on his bike he wouldn’t make such stupid comments.