After starting a new job in the Sydney CBD four weeks ago, I have been enjoying cycling into work every morning. My trip takes me over the Anzac Bridge into Pyrmont, after which I slalom around tourists while cycling through Darling Harbour into the city. After biking it to work for a month, and getting fined for not wearing a helmet two days ago, the time has come to share my observations.
Firstly, what’s with all the lycra people? 80% of all commuting cyclists in Sydney dress up as if they’re a team mate of Cadel Evans. The pre-9am exhibition of clean-shaven and steel-cabled calves gives me the impression that I have taken a wrong turn and have unwillingly entered a stage in the Tour Down Under. And the serious expressions on those faces! Waiting at the traffic light is like waiting for the start of an individual time trial. Believe me when I say that it is not a good look. Apart from this being an aesthetical observation, I also truly believe that this way of dressing, and the display of attitude that apparently goes with it, is keeping cycling from being accepted as a normal mode of transportation in Sydney.
Australians have always driven cars, not bicycles, which is perfectly understandable considering the vast distances in Australia; Sydney and its massive urban sprawl being no exception. Australian culture can also be considered to be quite conservative and macho, to put it mildly, although in fairness it needs to be said that Sydney can be regarded as one of the more enlightened places, even though progressiveness seems to diminish with a steady rate when travelling away from the innercity. The point I am trying to make is that the above mentioned characteristics of Australian culture make it difficult for new phenomena to become accepted. And dressing up in skintight lycra is most certainly not going to help. Neither is being all hipster about your bike. On the contrary, it will contribute to the image of cyclists being part of an odd subculture.
Of course, it’s a person’s own choice what to wear when riding a bike. And the same should be true with regard to wearing a helmet or not. It should go without saying that if you are keen to wear a helmet whilst cycling, and you want your children to wear them, then you are perfectly within your rights to do so. If you like speedy descents down steep hills and bridges, then wearing a helmet is a probably a good idea. And if wearing a helmet will give you enough confidence to submerge yourself with Sydney traffic while riding a bicycle, go for it. I am not against helmets, but I am against nanny states and finger-tutting by safety brigades. Wearing a helmet whilst cycling should be a personal choice. If you are a cyclist with some experience, and you keep to the traffic rules, then you will get by absolutely fine without one.
I would like to restate some of the arguments with regard to the mandatory wearing of a helmet whilst cycling. One could argue that making helmets obligatory for cyclists is like giving someone a bandaid prematurely and saying: “Here, you’ll need this, you are going to get hurt”. It seems like the Australian authorities are convinced that cyclists are going to get hurt, and that they therefore are obliged to wear a helmet. But why don’t other countries know this element of compulsion? What’s different to Australia? Ah! Now we are asking sensible questions. The difference is, of course, the absence of decent cycling infrastructure and the unfamiliarity of car drivers with cyclists. So the Australian government finds itself treating the symptoms, and not the cause. It is saying: “Wear a helmet, we don’t have decent cycling infrastructure and car drivers don’t expect you to be there.”
It needs to be said that the city of Sydney has invested a lot into the development of dedicated bike lanes, but too often they simply run out, so there is more work to be done. “Ha!” critics say, “Who is going to pay for all that? Surely not me with my tax money!” Well, Australian authorities might want to consider the fact that better cycling infrastructure means more commuting cyclists and less cars on the road, resulting in less co2 emission and less traffic jams. More Australians cycling also means more Australians will be getting exercise, which is very much needed with around seven(!) out of twenty-two milion Australians being overweight or obese. The Australian authorities might want to consider the benefits of less people suffering from high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and strokes. Try to offset the annual amount of trauma due to these causes against trauma caused by cycling without a helmet!
In all, in order for cycling to become popular in Australia, it needs to become a part of mainstream culture, away from the men in lycra and the one-speed hipsters, and be regarded simply as a means of getting from A to B. In addition, the Australian authorities will need to focus on the real issues regarding cycling, such as the absence of proper cycling infrastructure and raising the cyclist awareness of car drivers, instead of forcing cyclists to wear a helmet. An inspiring story about how Dutch citizens managed to get their cycling infrastructure can be seen below.