Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Cycling in Canberra

Unless exceptional circumstances apply, I cycle to work and back every day. I am still unsure whether this increases or decreases my life expectancy. On the one hand there is the beneficial effect of the exercise I get, on the other hand there are the Canberra car drivers.

There are some, usually young couples or groups of friends, who sneak up to you with their car and then the person in the passenger seat loudly shouts at you, apparently hoping to startle you so that you amusingly crash from your bike and get run over by the car behind them. There are some, from my experience usually middle aged women, who scream abuse at you because they have to stop for you at a traffic light when you cross their road. There are friendly looking grandmothers standing in a traffic jam who see you coming and deliberately roll another half a meter forward to block your way across the pedestrian crossing. There are some who throw beer bottles or cups at cyclists when overtaking them (luckily, only a paper cup full of coke for me so far).

Although in contrast to all the rest I cannot vouch for the stories in this specific sentence personally, colleagues also told me of bus drivers knocking cyclists off the road and then blithely driving on despite passengers making them aware of the accident, of bus drivers overtaking a cyclist and then immediately turning left, and of judges deciding that the resulting injuries were the cyclist's own fault because... well yes, that is where it gets puzzling. Finally, there are pedestrians who try to bully you off a wide shared pedestrian/cyclist sidewalk next to a fast and dangerous road, and there are car drivers on extremely wide roads screaming abuse at you for being on the road instead of the sidewalk. From all that, I can only assume that the average Canberra car driver does not consider cyclists to be legitimate traffic participants - they should quite simply not exist. Certainly I have never seen the same level of abuse directed at cyclists in any city in Central or Western Europe.

It is probably also in this context that a peculiar piece of local terminology has to be seen. You see, here in Australia they do not call a bicycle a bicycle (as I learned it at school) but a "push-bike". At first I wondered where the pushing comes in because one generally, what was it?, "rides" a bicycle. But upon further consideration it is well possible that the term describes what Canberra car drivers would prefer cyclists to do: push the bike along the sidewalk and stay off the road. Of course, if they got their wish and everybody stopped cycling, the most likely consequence would be even larger traffic jams than we already have.

Admittedly, the lack of respect is mutual: Similar to how so many Canberra car drivers appear to believe that cyclists do not have a right to even exist, I do not consider most of the car drivers here to have a legitimate reason to be car drivers. Each day when I am cycling to work, masses of cars stream from places like Belconnen, Watson or Gungahlin into the inner city, forming tremendous traffic jams and stinking everything up. The first two are within cycling distance (as my own example shows) and the last has an excellent express bus connection to the city. I will cut some slack for those who car-pool, have children to drop off elsewhere or are disabled, but the vast majority of the cars I see appear to contain only one apparently healthy person.

Since about the end of the 19th century it is clear that the greenhouse effect is at a minimum a possibility to be taken into consideration, and everybody who is not hopelessly dedicated to wishful thinking will have to realize that the amount of oil humanity can burn is sharply limited. What is more, cars and petrol are expensive while my current bicycle cost $300. So why are so many people driving when they don't have to? And a good number of them probably spend a lot of time and money on a gym membership that they would simply not need if they cycled to work every day.

To end on a lighter note, this morning I saw something that was puzzling in a different way. For some time a young lady, presumably an undergrad judging from her age and the fact that she was heading towards the ANU, was cycling a bit ahead of me, and she was constantly taking off and putting on her helmet. Street ahead, on it goes, stretch of park ahead, back to her left hand. I assume she does not like wearing it but fears being seen by the police when crossing a street in between following the bicycle path across the parks (helmets are mandatory for cyclists in this country), but seriously, is this procedure not considerably more tiresome than just keeping it on your head? People can be odd sometimes.

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