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Road Raging

Saturday morning, 8am, down the road from the Orange Grove markets in Sydney.  A driver is waiting for a car to exit a parking space on the street. He’s clearly indicating, the street is quiet and the line of sight unblocked.

Enter Subaru driver.  Guy in Subaru pulls up to the waiting car, blats his horn and, in a fit of impatience, swerves around him, mounting the raised median strip to pass. There was no reason for this – the guy waiting has been doing so long before Mr Subaru was even on the scene.

So what’s your reaction to this? A typical arsehole Sydney driver? A typical car driver? A typical Saturday morning driver? All of these maybe?

Now, what if I add to this scenario that Mr Subaru had a rather expensive S-Works road bike strapped to the roof? It changes the dynamic doesn’t it? The arsehole Sydney driver also is a cyclist.

Here’s another one…

I’m driving down the Westlink in inner Sydney at 4pm on a weekday. The traffic is moving reasonably quick between sixty and seventy clicks. In front of me is a car literally all over the shop, drifting here and there, speeding up and slowing down – the driver is either quite drunk, or drug fucked. After a few k’s I finally get the chance to pass him.  As I do so, I notice that the driver had his phone held at eye level as he texts. Seriously, the guy had his phone directly in his line of vision of the road and was texting. 

Other than the fact that both drivers were in Sydney, can you find the commonality between the two scenarios? It’s not obvious is it? There is one though…

Lately there has been a lot of hoopla about the supposed war going on between ‘cyclists’ and drivers. Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, London, San Francisco, New York; the list goes on. If you are on Twitter or Facebook, or watch the idiot box, you’ll see all sorts of stories from around the globe about the war that’s going on between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – an interchangeable term depending on which camp you sit. The media gets on like like a wild fire.  Shock Jocks rant on it, the newspapers publish opinion pieces and on it goes. The net result is that for a few weeks everyone’s having their bit – be that right or wrong, informed or ignorant.

All of it misses the point.

I’ve been riding on the road for the best part of thirty years. In that time, and over three continents, I have had one incident – with a taxi. One.  There was once a time where my riding partner had an incident with a car, so let’s call it two.  Thirty years, two incidents and by ‘incidents’ I mean an occurrence where someone was in direct danger of harm. That’s not bad.  I’ve had a lot, lot more in my car. Ultimately from where I sit this whole thing has very little to do with riding a bike or driving a car and everything to do with ‘people’ and ‘attitude’.

To actually get to the epicentre of this argument the ‘media’ cannot be trusted. Fact, or reasonable discussion, is not interesting and will hardly get people worked up. Shock Jocks (radio or TV) peddle their brand of vitriol to the lowest common denominator – those that are easily led and influenced, void of their own opinions because it’s easier to adopt those of some ranting loon rather than to actually form one of their own. Let’s face it, not everyone on planet Earth is the brightest, most informed leaf on the tree and if they can, they will always look for a scapegoat for their own life issues. So when looking at the argument of cyclists and cars in a more balanced manner, we have to remove the media factor from the equation entirely. The media neither adds, nor detracts, from getting to the core of what’s going on, rather it just rehashes the same easy ignitors time and time again to elicit the same trusted reactions from the same sets of people; all with the end aim of selling more paper, gaining more talkback/interaction and, ultimately, bumping ratings.

Back to the two scenarios I gave at the start; the point of commonality is the people in them. Not in terms of them being the same person, that they might be related, nor even the possibility of them being friends. They are just two people in the same society. The point of commonality is the attitude they express – and that attitude is one of ‘entitlement’:  “I am here and I can do what I want!”. The issue as I see it is not that car drivers hate cyclists, or cyclists hate car drivers but one where the people involved in both activities think that they are entitled to something, be it more space, more road, clear roads, whatever. The anger that stems from both sides is rooted in a core sense of self-righteousness which, in turn, breeds an overwhelming lack of respect for others, regardless of who they are.

The guy on the bike that nearly bowled me over last night when I was about to step onto the pedestrian crossing (when a car already had stopped) is absolutely no better than the person in the car who cut me off in traffic when I was driving home. In both cases how I interpret the actions depends on how I view the larger picture around me. It’s easy in such an instance for me to say the cyclist is a pest, flouts the law and is just plain rude; but if I say the same thing about the driver who cut me off, where does that put – if I had one – my theoretical anti-cyclist agenda?

Conversely, I stopped riding later in the morning as crossing back over Sydney’s ANZAC bridge against the commuter bike traffic flow was stressing me out. Why? Because I have never experienced, in my entire time on a bike, such wonton disregard for common sense and safety as I was experiencing on the shared path. ‘Commuters’, for example, would simply pull out in front of me (travelling at speed) to pointlessly overtake the person in front of them, with no foresight or regard for anyone else. 

It’s the last bit there that’s the salient point – “little regard for anyone else”.  That directly ties into attitude which is part of ‘self-righteousness’. 

These days in many societies there is an overriding power of what can only be defined as ‘entitlement’. A magical power than many absorb and which they then assume gives them the power to be better than anything and everything else around them. This is MY road – get out of MY way. I’m riding a bike, therefore I’m a better person than you. I’m this and you are not. It’s a purvasive force in society and is infiltrating every aspect of it. So when we talk about cyclists and cars and roads, to do so in the sterile vacuum of isolation is a mistake, as the elements at play are far more intertwined than the simpleton argument of US Vs THEM.

It can easily be said that in Australia the quality and skill levels or car drivers is steadily getting worse. It’s not imaginary, just drive around and see what passes for driving skill and road manners these days. But in the argument of cycling Vs driving it is reasonable to say that many of those same drivers are also the same people that ride bikes. To quote my cohort writer, Rich: “I read a very salient point recently about people who ride bikes as a mode of transport (i.e. Rather than being a ‘cyclist’ per se) in that they ‘drive a bicycle’ – basically using it to get where they want to go without a care for any other road user.  With so many ‘enthusiast’ cyclists suddenly appearing I can’t help but think many adopt that approach.” This rather interesting statement illustrates clearly the pointlessness of the current track of argument as, in many – if not most cases, the person or group in question is one in the same – i.e. that ‘dick’ cyclist is the very same ‘dick’ behind the wheel.

So with this in mind, if the issue is not US Vs THEM but one which is more societal, what is the solution?

Working strictly on observational data – not hard facts and figures – I am pretty sure I can draw a direct line between the increasing rates of what we’ll call ‘road entitlement’ and the ease of gaining a driver’s licence. In other words, attitude toward road use can be directly tied to a driver’s licence being a right, as opposed to a privilege.  In many of the arguments, cyclists like to cite the behavioural patterns towards cycling of the northern European countries. What often is not mentioned in these cases is that a driver’s licence is a privilege, not a right. In some of these countries gaining  license initially costs in the vicinity of 4 to 5,000 dollars. Read that bit again, 4 to 5,000 dollars. Now while this does not mean every road user is going to behave, the very fact that it is both difficult and expensive to get a licence automatically makes it a privilege and not a right. Remove the entitled feeling of “it’s my right to be on the road” and replace it with “it’s my privilege to use the road” and right away the dynamic changes.

Somehow, somewhere, things that should be privilege have become ‘rights’. This, in turn, feeds the feeling of entitlement many have; and that creates many of the cases of aggravation on both sides of the debate. I drive and there are a lot of appalling, scary and selfish drivers on the road. But I ride too, and the same can be said for many cyclists I have the misfortune of coming across. 

Cyclists love to cite that they ride for the freedom. Any attempt to regulate them is an affront on their ‘rights’, after all, one bike equals one less car, right? ‘We’ are doing YOU a favour (and be truthful, how many of the ‘team kit’ set are riding to save the world?). But does this freedom negate the need to learn and understand the fundamentals of road usage? If the answer is yes, then cyclists should be on specific paths clearly separated from roads . For the most part though, such infrastructure does not exist in most cities, hence cyclists must use the roads as well.

It’s all too easy for all sides to cry about the lack of this infrastructure for ‘safe riding’; the lack of it is disconcerting without a doubt. But let’s be honest, lots of people riding, to work, as a form of transport, or as an ‘activity’, is a relatively new thing in most cities. Even ten years ago in Sydney it was the exception to see hordes of cyclists at the lights. Changing infrastructure is a slow and expensive process. Yes, all cyclists want better facilities right now and yes, governments are trying to work it out but the amount of planning, consultation, time and money to make it happen means it’s not going to happen over night. Clover Moore’s efforts in Sydney City are to be commended, not only in the speed it’s happened but also against the odds – fighting with the dinosaurs at State Government. Even then, it’s taken years to happen and finally, years after other parts were finished, they are finalising one of the key connection points.

And yet, how often do you see the all too cool for school, team kit fan boy riding on the road, next to a perfectly good and empty cycle path? Or how many pedestrians do you run across (and almost over) pleasantly meandering along in the middle of a cycleway? Entitlement.

So if we say the infrastructure will happen, albeit not very quickly, what’s the next best thing?

Remove ‘the right’ aka ‘entitlement’.

It’s not your right to use the road (note I said ‘use the road’, not drive a car, or ride a bike) and if you want to do so, you should only be able to after a proper and thorough education, no matter what you choose to use. Remember, this is not about your right to be on the road, it’s about earning the privilege to be allowed to use it; it’s realigning the current way people not only think about themselves but also those around them. Education brings respect and with respect flows a safer, more harmonious environment, be it in a car, on a bike or even on foot. A lack of education delivers what we are seeing now.

Ultimately, what of the Cyclist vs. Car argument? It’s bunk and not only misguided but misdirected. Arguing about who is worse is like arguing which is more black: the pot or the kettle. If we can safely say than an overwhelming sense of entitlement is the prevalent driving force behind many road users – be they drivers, riders or drivers who also ride – then our friend Mr Subaru shows us why the argument will never be solved while it remains on its current trajectory.

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