Tuesday, October 13, 2009

100th post: Bicycle registration?

I wanted to write a beautiful piece reflecting on two years of blogging for this event – my 100th blog post. But instead, I’ll get down to some nitty gritty analysis of contemporary issues with an economic and environmental twist.

Today’s topic is cycling.

After a charity ride from Brisbane to the Gold Coast last weekend, the local rag has ignited the dry tinder of cyclist resentment present in the Australian motoring psyche (remember the Rex Hunt incident?). I want to deconstruct the emotional Cyclist V Motorist debate to see which positions hold merit, and what type of government intervention could provide benefits for all involved.

Here are some for and against positions offered in the reader feedback of the news article.

For cycling
1. Health benefits
2. Decreases congestion for other road users
3. Air quality improvements
4. Low impact on roads (less road maintenance)
5. Low cost transport method

Against cycling
1. Cyclists disobey traffic laws (not licensed so no enforcement)
2. Cyclists don’t pay for roads (no rego, etc)
3. Cyclists slow down traffic, therefore increasing pollution from slower cars
4. Bicycle mafia unleashed on Sunday morning in lycra and riding in groups (not sure what the criticism is exactly – looking silly?)
5. You don’t see horses and carts on the road – get the bikes off. (I really like this one)

So, let’s take an honest look here by eliminating 1, 4 and 5 from the against cycling list. Traffic infringements by cyclist are enforced – I’ve been booked once for no helmet in my own street, and once for no flashing front light. Drivers disobey laws, cyclists disobey laws – can we leave it at that? 4 and 5 were just for laughs.

I will also eliminate point 3 by simply posting a comment from here:
Traffic this morning coming into the city was at a standstill, and there wasn't a bicycle in sight. I'm sure if cyclists started paying rego, all the traffic problems in SEQ would be solved.

So, getting serious now, first, there is no baseline situation against which to compare these for and against positions. Second, there is no objective way to say that cycling is superior to car travel – one is cheap and good for short distances, but not so fun in bad weather, while the other is more expensive, but great for long distances, carrying children, and staying dry.

There are however, a few interrelated issues – health and air pollution. Higher cycling rates might have flow on effects to healthier people, and cleaner city air.

Governments have a choice – act to create a future where cycling is a common and useful transport alternative, or create a future where car transport is the sole option for most transport needs.

It appears that the main argument against cycling is that cyclists don’t pay to register their bikes, and therefore are free-riding on the public road system. So, there we have it folks. A simple solution. Register bikes and everything is solved. We no longer have a cultural animosity towards cyclists.

For some reason I don’t think this is the case.

For starters, this approach is the exact opposite of the effective approaches to offering cycling as a transport alternative used around the world.

Additionally, it assumes that registration fees pay for roads, when fuel excise and GST are the main funding sources.

Third it assumes roads are not public goods – should we have to register our shoes if we want to walk on the street too?

And fourth, it means that cyclists would expect some designated road space. Given that at least 6% of people commute by bike, and many more have bikes for recreational use, would drivers be happy to give up around 6% of their road space to bike lanes? I doubt it.

My recommendations would be exactly the opposite. Assuming you are a government who wants people to have a variety of transport options available you need to provide incentives for cycling, and disincentives for driving (here is a fantastic paper that makes this point).

I would do the following:
1. Get rid of the helmet laws
2. Close road lanes for bike lanes on a select network of urban arterial roads
3. Link together off-road bike paths to form a useful network
4. Have street sweepers regularly go along bike lanes (what is it with Australians and broken glass on the street?)
5. Introduce the Idaho Stop law
6. Increase vehicle registration
7. Include bicycle awareness training in the drivers licence test (and make the test more difficult and expensive)
In the end, a cultural change will take time, but incremental steps by governments could help build future cities with a variety of cheap transport alternatives (if that's what they want).

1 comment:

  1. You forgot to also ban fixies. Those stupid bikes with one fixed gear that prevents free-wheeling (ie rolling while not pedalling) so that if people are riding a fixie downhill they turn into a human wobbling weaving egg-beater...fixies give all of us cyclists a bad name and only annoy pedestrians and drivers more and more (pedestrians are usually also drivers - more reason not to annoy pedestrians as a cyclist).

    fixies generally don't have brakes (or only have a "cool" front brake) and also make it probable that a rider will bottom out with their pedal as they ride around a corner - potentially falling off or swerving all over the road as they corner.

    they may look "cool" they only belong on a proper cycling track - not on our roads...