An open letter to Bicycle Network’s CEO Craig Richards

August 31, 2017 at 23:15 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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Dear Craig,

For perhaps ten years, I have been involved in low-level cycling advocacy, predominantly in NSW. I’ve written to MPs, responded to surveys, made submissions to plans and proposals and encouraged people to ride. I’ve supported various advocacy groups, and even dabbled in political activism.

However, for most of the past ten years I have not felt that Bicycle network (formerly Bicycle Victoria) was an effective bicycle advocacy organisation, and have hesitated to support them. To me, they always seemed to be more intent on furthering the interests of a narrow segment of cyclists – the keen road cyclists – to the exclusion of others. It felt more about preserving cycling as a special club for the initiated, rather than presenting it as a casual everyday activity for everyone.

You surely have to see my perspective here. I mean – campaigning for higher fines for cyclists, campaigning against close passing laws and pressing heavy handed legal slapdowns of fellow cycling advocates just aren’t a good look.

However, today my opinion has changed somewhat. You have announced that you are undertaking a review of your policy on mandatory helmets. You are encouraging input from a wide range of stakeholders; from different perspectives and different types of cyclists – and non-cyclists too.

Of course, from a personal perspective, I hope that your review will lead to a change of policy. But whatever the outcome, I commend you for undertaking this review – which I am sure will generate significant controversy and heat. I truly hope it is the start of a new chapter for BN – a more consultative and open-minded approach to cycling advocacy that is prepared to look at the big picture, and make policy decisions based on a wide evidence base.

Because if this really is the start of a new approach to advocacy from BN, then I might be encouraged to join. Whatever the outcome of your helmet review.


Yours sincerely,


Invisible helmet advocacy…

August 23, 2012 at 17:41 | Posted in bicycles | 10 Comments
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Writing about bicycle helmets always fills me with a slight sense of weariness. It’s just so tiring; all those tiresome arguments, fatuous ‘a helmet saved my life’ anecdotes and calls that unhelmeted bicycle riders should pay for their own care when they inevitably end up as brain damaged vegetables . The other problem with writing about it is that it seems it be something that people use to define me. I’m known as ‘that helmet guy’ (or perhaps ‘that helmet nutter’, depending on the viewpoint of the observer), when in reality helmets are quite a peripheral question in my wider interest in active transportation and urban planning. Still, a couple of helmet-related things have thrust themselves into my consciousness recently, such that I feel compelled to write about them.

The first is the inflatable bicycle helmet that has been in the news recently. I’ve been aware of it for some time, but it now seems it is on sale. For some reason, half the people I know have seen fit to send me information about it, usually along with some kind of crowing ‘Ha! What do you think of THAT?!!’ comment. Well, actually I don’t think very much about it, to be honest. If it works, and people want to buy it, well, good luck to them. I certainly don’t want or need one, but then I don’t want arm protectors either, although I know several people who wear them. The only interesting point in the whole thing to me is that the inventors are now calling on Swedish authorities to make cycling helmets mandatory, no doubt out of selfless concerns for Swedish bicycle riders welfare, as opposed to any commercial advantage they could possibly gain by the Swedish government coercing every Swedish cyclist to buy something that they sell…

The other thing that caught my attention recently is the apparent softening towards helmet laws by some Australian cycling advocacy groups. Of course, the fact that our ‘advocacy’ groups in general strongly support helmet legislation is extraordinary, given the harm they do to cycling participation. Still, there have been a few hints that this attitude is changing – or is it?

On the surface, perhaps it is. I have seen several examples recently of groups and individuals expressing a desire to have the helmet law changed or revoked. But. And there is a but. The but in this case is that it needs to be done in conjunction with a ‘package of measures’ to improve cycling conditions – things like lower speed limits, separated cycle lanes and so on. Apparently simply making it a matter of choice to wear a helmet cannot be countenanced until we have better cycling infrastructure. I suspect this attitude is borne of the fallacy that making people wear helmets actually improves safety at an aggregate level (it doesn’t, of course, but our cycling advocates are remarkably uninformed on these matters), so in some sort of compensatory logic helmets have to remain mandatory until such time cycling in Australia is safer than it is now. This is then often linked to another theme – that getting helmet laws changed is therefore not the most important thing on the cycling agenda, so we should all forget about the helmet thing and put our energies into lobbying for better road environments instead.

Well, I’m sorry folks, but this just doesn’t wash. It doesn’t wash logically, and it doesn’t wash as a strategy. And here’s why.

Let’s look at the idea that cycling infrastructure needs to be improved before freedom of choice is granted in terms of headwear. The implication is that ‘cycling is dangerous and helmets make it safer’. Presumably under this logic the law should be repealed at the point where the safety benefits  delivered by improved infrastructure are equal to the safety benefits currently delivered by helmets. Leaving aside the point that there are no significant safety benefits to a helmet law (which is different to saying there are no benefits to wearing a helmet, although this distinction is lost on most), there are two major problems with this.

Firstly, it implies that there is some kind of absolute standard of cycling safety, and that the conditions we have right now represent that minimum. But why? Who says the current conditions are that bad anyway? Riding a bike in Australia, whilst relatively more dangerous than riding in, say, Denmark, is still comparatively safe. It’s safer, for example, than playing netball. So on that point alone, the argument fails.

However, it really falls apart when you consider the different profiles of locations and riders. A slow, utility cyclist who is lucky enough to live in an area with quiet roads and good bicycle facilities is at less risk than a fast, sports cyclist who lives in an area with no bicycle facilities and busy roads.  Indeed, our utility cyclist one imagines already meets the criteria for ‘safer cycling’ envisioned by cycling advocates. So why does she still have to wear a helmet? Apparently because the sports cyclist is unfortunate enough to live in an area with poor bicycle facilities. So we have the bizarre notion that our safe utility cyclist will only be allowed to wear a sunhat when a cycle lane is built somewhere miles away from where she lives. If the ‘package-of-measurists’ were actually consistent and logical, they would be calling for a relaxation of the helmet law now for low-risk cyclists – perhaps akin to the Northern Territory law which does not require a helmet when riding on a path or bike lane. When you consider the NT has the highest cycling participation rate in Australia you’d think the advocates would be pushing at least for this. But they are not.

Notwithstanding the lack of logic, thought, in terms of a strategy to get better cycling infrastructure it also falls down. This is because the one thing that makes it more likely that infrastructure will be built is getting more people cycling. Yes, it’s a chicken and egg thing, but there is no doubt that if there were more people cycling, cyclists would be more visible, have a larger voice and more political clout. So if getting more people riding bikes makes getting infrastructure built more likely, what can we do to get more people cycling? Well, lots of things – but the most significant one (aside from building bike lanes) is repealing helmet laws. And the harsh reality is that in the current political climate there is a much greater chance of getting helmet laws changed than there is of getting significant investment in bike facilities. A campaign to repeal the helmet law is probably one of only a few cycling issues that it would be possible to mobilise the non-cycling majority to support, given that it can be wrapped up in a number of more general memes that resonate with people. Pushing for increased spending on cycling infrastructure is an uphill task by comparison, as the majority of Australians, far from simply being apathetic on the issue, actively resent such expenditure. Thus the strategy of ‘build bike lanes and then we’ll talk about helmets’ is really back to front. Doing it the other way around actually offers the best opportunity to get more people on bikes, which then delivers additional leverage to get the infrastructure built.

I’m sure that there are some readers of this who have taken umbrage that I seem to be implying that lobbying for better road facilities is pointless. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, if a genie came down tomorrow and offered me the choice of repealing helmet laws or waving a wand to create a network of high-quality bicycle lanes all over Australia (or, more parochially, simply over the bit of Sydney that I travel around) I’d go for the bike lanes every time. In that sense the ‘package-of-measurists’ are right in that infrastructure is more important that helmets. And I shall continue to write letters to all and sundry about bicycle facilities and issues, few of which are about helmets. However, the notion that even discussing bicycle helmet reform is not important, and that there are other things to be done first is equally flawed. The reality is that we need to campaign on all fronts for improved conditions for cyclists in Australia. And pushing for helmet law reform is an important aspect of that campaign that should be tackled now.

Paying a price for a mass cycling culture

June 13, 2011 at 21:00 | Posted in bicycles | 2 Comments
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There is a great article here from by Dave Horton, a sociologist (and committed cyclist) who has been studying the barriers to cycling adoption in the UK.

One of the most interesting points in it for me was that Horton used to be a staunch believer that cyclists should be on the roads, but he changed that view whilst undertaking the research, although he acknowledges that this means giving up some of the things he enjoys about riding a bicycle:

‘We need to move cycling out from its still marginal status as an urban mode of mobility. We need to make cycling ‘normal’, or ‘mainstream’, or ‘irresistible’.

In order to to this we need to build a cycling system to replace the car system which is today dominant. Those of us who currently love cycling must recognise that cycling will change as a result. It’s therefore probably unrealistic to expect us all to embrace the necessary changes enthusiastically.

For example, I love having those high quality cycle routes which currently exist (and we have some good ones in and around my hometown of Lancaster) more-or-less to myself, and I love, too, mixing it with fast-moving motorised traffic when that’s the best means of getting where I want to go. But under a culture of mass cycling, in which almost everyone will feel able to get where they want or need to go by bike, I’ll probably lose both of these experiences’

I think this points to some of the problems with much (although not all) of the bicycle advocacy in Australia. The primary goal of many advocates is to get more people cycling like they do it, rather than recognising that there are actually very few people like them (me!), and that creating a mass cycling culture requires cycling to change.

Some time ago I remember reading a blog by an English guy who had moved to Holland; I think he may have been a bicycle messenger. He found Holland a frustrating place to cycle; too many bikes travelling too slowly on busy cycleways.

When I ride the Radish to work, loaded up with stuff, I love Clover’s cycleways. They are perfect for that slightly ponderous ride, usually with me dressed in jeans. But when I ride the fixie, I often eschew the cycleways, taking a longer way around Hickson Road in order to enjoy getting the legs flying, keeping up with the traffic and working up a sweat.

I guess it’s an interesting question. How would you feel if you had to ride predominantly on cycle-specific infrastructure and were held up by lots of slow cyclists? Is that a price you would be prepared to pay to get 25% of people onto bikes?


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