Observations by a Dutchman in Australia: Why Cycling is Not Taking Off in Sydney

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.

48 thoughts on “Observations by a Dutchman in Australia: Why Cycling is Not Taking Off in Sydney

  1. Well before the helmet laws came in i used to do several thousand km by bicycle every year but after being pulled over by the police and threatened with fines to many times i now drive everywhere.

    1.  grow some balls mate. I’ve been hit by cars 3 times and that still hasn’t stopped me from riding

  2. I Love this blog Martijn and the video.I miss my fiets. Think its a joke that in Sydney the bike path all of a sudden ends and the cyclist is expectedto merge onto the dangerous highways. Sydney is the perfect place for cycling. This video is so inspiring, you should send to the Mayor. Donna:)

  3. Hi Martijn, welcome to Sydney! It’s always interesting to get a newcomer’s view of one’s town. About the lycra thing, some possible explanations … I know a lot of cyclists who commute quite significant distances, over hilly terrain, and that’d explain why they get dressed in cycle-specific clothing. Also, although we’ve probably had our worst “summer” in a decade (sorry!) the heat in a more normal year means many people find they just wreck their work clothes with sweat if they cycle in dressed for work. So that will maybe also help explain the “lycra” thing. Sydney is certainly a more challenging place to ride than most European cities (the grim faces?), and the culture is evolving, but just so long as people are finding their way onto bikes (the uptake in the past five years has been astonishing), no matter how they dress or what they ride, I reckon we’re all winning.
    Cheers, Michael

      1. Like I said to Paul in the other comment, there is something to say for wearing a lycra outfit when commuting a significant distance, it’s more about the image of cyclists that it creates.

        I’d like to think that we are all winning, even though Clover Moore is under a lot of pressure because of her plans for cycling infrastructure around Sydney! But yes, luckily there are more and more people getting on bicycles 🙂

  4. Hey Martijn, have to agree with most of what you say except for the crack about people being more macho and conservative the further from the city you live … Not true! I live close to parramatta, which is a fair way from the city, but choose to cycle each day to work in whatever I plan to wear at work. So if I need a suit jacket and tie that day then that is what I wear. I commute only 9 km and take it slow so as to not sweat too much, but, due to Sydney’s traffic, a slow cycle commute only takes me a little longer than driving. However, if others feel more comfortable in Lycra then I say go for it.

    So … Good article, but don’t judge us all by your first impressions.

    1. Hey sydneycyclist, thanks for your comment! I wouldn’t have a crack at Parramatta, my girlfriend is from there 🙂 The statement that “progressiveness seems to diminish with a steady rate when travelling away from the innercity” is obviously a generalisation that isn’t applicable to everyone! Still, I feel that conservative and macho culture is more dominant in the outer suburbs than it is in the innercity.

      And good going with the 9km daily cycle! Which route do you prefer into the city?


  5. I have tried wearing “normal clothes” for my 26km commute (so, 52km a day!). I have almost 1000m of climbing to do per day, and in “normal” weather conditions I am sweating profusely about 5 minutes into my 1 hour ride. This not only ruins the normal clothes, but is somewhat painful (chafing), and is just not practical. It might be ok for someone taking a leisurely ride on flat terrain from Surry Hills to the city, but for anyone coming from the suburbs (particually the hilly north), it is just not an option.
    There is nothing wrong with Lycra, whether as “road kit” or as a more subtle “shy shorts” option (I do both). The only thing I don’t have a preference for is dressing up in full racing team kit when I am not a member of that team, but that is a whole different story!


    1. I can definitely see the practicality of wearing a lycra kit, especially when commuting in from further out! The point I’m trying to make is that the ‘professional’ display of clothing is creating a particular cultish image, which is permitting cyclists as being seen as people simply commuting from A to B. 

      If you commute an impressive 52km(!) a day though, I suppose there aren’t many alternatives to choose from.

      1. The “professional” display of clothing you speak of is what I refer to as the “full team racing kit”. I personally don’t think this should be worn unless you are in that team. See Rule #16 & #17 (http://www.velominati.com/the-rules/)

        I keep the commuting gear simple. Either shy shorts or regular knicks with a relatively plain jersey, all quick dry. I ride rain, hail or shine. Certainly nobody is going to confuse me for a professional cyclist on my commutes. On the weekend it is a different story, as I switch bikes and ride like the wind! That is the great thing about cycling. I can be one type of cyclist on one day, and a completely different type the next day!

    2. I am a courier and average around 80 km’s a day. I don’t own any lycra pants.

      I think lycra is fine but the myth that it is necessary is simply not true.  You can get anywhere in shorts and a t-shirt, your bum gets used to it.

  6. The funny trait of Sydney motorists that I’ve noticed is how they feel it’s their personal obligation to enforce rules on cyclists.

    Cycling without a helmet is likely to get drivers shouting angrily at you as they pass, insisting that you armour up with the foam hat.

    Go to the next level, I’m riding home talking on my phone, possibly endangering myself but doubtful at such a leisurely pace. Certainly nobody else is at risk.

    I get yelled at, then swerved at! The logic seemingly that as a citizen driver it is their obligation to administer a bizarre form of corporal punishment in the absence of a police officer!

    1. People are more likely to show this kind of behaviour when they’re in the safe space of their car I reckon. A lot of the people displaying bad manners on the road wouldn’t dear to do so whilst on foot.

  7. Agreed with all…

    I would ride much more locally if the stupid MHL was not in place, or at least had some flexibility, such as for local trips, side road riding, less than 25km/h…..etc.

    It is no wonder the number of deaths/serious injuries of cyclists went down suddenly after MHL was introduced – there were far fewer people cycling.

    Interesting to see the outrage at cyclist deaths there.  I don’t know, but am wondering how many people cycling die on Aussie roads in a year.  What is the ‘acceptable’ number?  Do we as a nation not care so much about fatalities on our roads – so long as it is not us or our children, right?

    Hopefully the inevitable fuel price hikes will help persuade people to move from 4 wheels to 2 or 3 (cargo trikes), at least for local trips.

    Now, if only we knew how to get this silly non-stop rain to only fall at night time…

    1. Thanks for your comment Andrew. 

      The latest figures I found concerned 2010, although the link mentioned on the site doesn’t seem to work. Some of the commenters posted some snippets from the report though: http://btawa.org.au/2010/03/12/cyclist-deaths-last-12-months/

      Any yes, rain is a spoilsport 🙂

  8. Hey Martijn, we need someone like yourself to take a look at Drive to Work Day. We are working on getting those exact values you talk of right through your post. To do this, we are asking for just one thing – ‘Respect’

    Please check it out, and if you are interested, get in touch, would love your insights.
    Edward Hore

    1. Brilliant initiative! Don’t own a car though, so can’t get into my car on 12 December :-/ That being said, I might own one at the end of the year 🙂

      I’ll definitely keep an eye on the FB page!

  9. Thank you, well done! All this lycra is a baffling phenomenon & you’re right, it gives the whole thing the aura of “serious sport” rather than the simplicity of “getting from A to B”. I live in Bathurst, famous for car races, but it’s actually a town with a long history of serious cycling. We have a velodrome and lots of lycra. The problem is that it is very much seen as a sport rather than a form of “ordinary” transport & it’s not doing the “ordinary non-lycra cyclist” much good. I remember as a child in a small town in Western Australia, you’d see bikes lying on the footpath – kids would just drop them outside their friends’ houses. Getting on and off a bike was seamless – no change of clothes, no helmets, no big deal. Now children have to be fully clothed and helmeted, their bikes attached to the big car which takes them to a park somewhere for an hour or two of exercise. No wonder we have our obesity crisis. (Note – I’m saying all this from my sedentary position in front of my computer, with my bike growing cobwebs in the shed.)

  10. Martijn,
    Well done.
    You probably are well  aware of the sites copenhagenize.com (and sister sites around the world that do much to promote the cycling as “normal” culture.
    Australia was not always a bike culture, in fact despite the huge distances involved many rural people covered them on bikes, including shearers.
    You might like to this link about a book written some time  ago about cycling in rural Australia.
    I will also attach a photograph of women public servants leaving en masse to go to lunch in Canberra.
    In the meantime I am trying to get a commuting bicycle culture going in Bathurst, in some ways perfect for the exercise but the ghosts of the car culture are rampant.

    1. Very insightful Patrick!

      I haven’t heard of sites like copenhagenize.com before, what a fantastic initiative!
      And I am definitely getting that book, it looks like an awesome read 🙂

      Have seen the picture of the public servants on bikes on other forums before, it’s a great photo. Hope you get the commuting bicycle culture going in Bathurst!

  11. A helmet has saved my head from more serious injury twice now. I don’t care if you wear one or not but I think you’re crazy if you don’t. What’s the argument against it? You don’t want to mess up your hair?

    1. Thanks for your comment.
      I am not advocating not wearing a helmet, I am saying it should be a personal choice. Reasons as to why this is are summed up in paragraphs 4, 5 & 6.

      1. Interesting to hear what it’s like in Sydney and I agree with a lot you say about the perception of cycling. I recently got back into it when I saw an elderly lady riding down St Kilda Rd and thought this is ridiculous, if she is doing it, what is stopping me? 
        What I remember most about the days before it was compulsory to wear a helmet was lying in hospital with, amongst other things, a fractured skull. Fast forward twenty years and epilepsy kicks in, triggered by aggravation of something that happened to my brain back then. I genuinely had no idea. 
        I understand the point you are making, but there maybe a reason it’s good to act before an event instead of afterwards.
        Thanks for the interesting posts and I’ll be sure to check out the rest of your site.

        1. Hey Tim, thanks for reading my post and taking the time to comment. As you would have read above, I am not advocating not wearing a helmet, as its protective properties speak for itself.

          Part of my point is that making helmets compulsory isn’t a proper solution to bicycle safety in Sydney, enhancing cycling infrastructure and raising car driver’s awareness of cyclists is.
          I am also in favour of choosing to wear helmet gear or not, instead of the state forcing me to do so.

          From your personal experience, I can understand your point of view. I very much respect the way in which you express yourself, as the events that you described would have sparked a more fiery reaction in a lot of others in relation to this topic.

  12. Couldn’t agree more. Maybe because I come from the UK, I find the Sydney cycle culture a bit too serious and sporty. I just wear some old shorts and  t-shirt to cycle to work and get people only half jokingly asking me when I’m going to invest in some ‘proper’ cycling gear – ie lycra. I thought Sydney drivers were bad until I started using the cycle lanes and found that many cyclists are just as aggressive and abusive – it really is a serious race for them. Cycking is no fun. As a result I no longer commute to work much any more – and also because I had a bad accident last year, hit by a car on the Pacific Highway, broke my leg and ankle. Could have been a lot worse, I suppose. The driver just didn’t see me, despite me wearing a dayglo jacket and having a flashing light on. Look forward to the day when cycling in Sydney is just ‘normal’, not a Mad Max elimination event.

    1. I haven’t found the attitude Sydney cyclist to be as bad as that of Sydney drivers, although it is on some of the cycling forums 😉 That accident sounds awful! Hope you’ve recovered fully. I did LOL at Mad Max elimination events, perhaps a bit inappropriately.

  13. I’m a lycra wearer when I ride (train) on weekends and I’ve tried wearing civvies for the ride to work, and hated it. Loose shorts move around and snag on the seat, I sit on a crease and (you know the rest), and I live in Melbourne and commute 20k each way in the wet. Civvies are not good in the wet weather, and neither is a raincoat over the top… I’ll end up just as wet inside. So I’ll stick to lycra shorts and a tee-shirt, to try and look half casual. I like what you say, and I love to see people commuting in ordinary clothes. I’d do it too, if I was riding from Richmond. Our vast distances and urban sprawl are part of this problem. Each to their own, so long as they’re riding! Except on 10th December 2012.

    1. Okay, I’ll reply to myself just to add a bit. I tried casual today. Ordinary shorts over bike shorts, and tee-shirt. On a warm and humid Melbourne morning, my shirt is sticking to me like I ran a marathon and my shorts are wringing wet after cooking underneath my outer layer. They might dry out by the end of today! It will rain this afternoon, and past experience tells me the shorts will weight about 5kg and slide half off me when they get wet. But now for the plus side….

      It wasn’t a race. Guys who see a lycra wearer have to pass them, just to make a point. Half the time, they use up all their puff just to pass me, then sit in front of me the rest of the way, but they can put another notch in their shaved legs, another person overtaken! I didn’t attract any competition today, I could just enjoy the morning, which was great. Perhaps I’ll shop around for more appropriate shorts that don’t soak up the rain. I could get used to this! 

      1. Good on you David, step one in the transformation from Lycra.
        There are many places where you can get sensible bike gear that is not the dreaded Lycra, but the most important thing in my mind is to change the attitude. If you ride in an upright posture, use low gears when you need to and think “slow” and enjoy your surroundings. Chat to fellow cyclists and walkers you pass – share the joy.
        If you worry about a bit of rain, have a look at copenhagenize.com, they ride in all weathers including heavy snow and stick to their normal work clothes, with rain and snow protection where necessary.
        Keep us informed on your progress as your story might help another lycritis sufferer heal.

        1. Lycritis sufferers, haha 🙂 For me, it had always just been the shorts for comfort, and a hi-vis shirt to be seen in some tricky places for me. I laugh at these guys in their full-on matching outfits with little logos all over, commuting.
          I’ll be looking out for some clothes that dry easily, similar to lycra. Stick with the lycra shorts with some nylon overshorts like boardies or whatever would do the trick – hard to find in Melbourne stores at the end of summer! I couldn’t ride 20k each way in work clothes. Whichever way I try it, I’ll get wet. It will have to be casuals and change at work.
          Yes the attitude is the thing. I ride one of my old road bikes and I don’t mind putting some effort in on the open road, call it a spot of training or whatever. But there are sections such as busy St Kilda Road where you just have to take it easy. Better to just look casual, one of the normal crowd and enjoy. It’s still 1.5 hours of exercise a day that I wouldn’t be getting in a car or on a train!

          1.  My commute is 20km each way also David, and I do the same as you basically especially  in winter when -2 to -6 are not unusual. Other seasons I can wear my work clothes if I like, I just pedal slower.
            If it is OK to mention brand names here, I have found Groundeffects a NZ company very good for all sorts of bike gear. Their short designs are great and they do have a Lycra insert.
            A couple of years I did the big commute – took my bike across on the train to Perth and pedalled slowly back to Bathurst and the Groundeffects gear was great for that.

            Fitness is an elastic concept, when I just commute, I think I am getting fit as especilaly going  home I have a few big hills, but when I join a bunch on my road bike, I really struggle.
            Yet coming out of Europe, cycle commuters live seven years longer than any others who commute in any other way including walking.

          2. Great recommendation on the brand! The gear looks like just the thing I’ve been searching for, Thanks :))

      2. From what I’ve gathered from other comments here and on the cycling forums, the type of commute seems to be a determining factor with regard to the type of clothes worn, so I hear what you say.

        Funny side effect that choice of clothing will determine whether you’ll end up in a ‘race’ or not. I have to be honest that I enjoy occasionally overtaking lycra riders on Anzac bridge wearing my jeans and shirt sometimes, but I would’t go out of my way to do so.
        What’s the cycling infrastructure in Melbourne like?

        1. Our infrastructure is a bit of a mixed bag. We have some decent bike lanes, which often just disappear (this is a classic… that car is legally parked: https://twitter.com/#!/MoreBikeLanes/status/182285471366389761/photo/1). We’re getting there slowly. More Copenhagen style lanes would be the way to go. Our paths along the river etc. are good, but so busy and with a few crazies that I stopped commuting on them and prefer the road! I’d rather mix it with drivers than some idiot cyclists out there, racing and overtaking on blind corners. I have to admit, Melbourne is a great place to ride a bike though.
          It doesn’t matter which way I look at it, lycra shorts are the most comfortable when I’m on a bike. I’ll get wet, one way or the other, and they won’t get heavy, won’t chafe and all that. But I’d just rather be part of the “normal” crowd. Especially because, right now, they’re tearing up a section of my commute and I walk one city block on the footpath. Walking a busy city street, in lycra, is NOT a good thing! lol.

          1. Yeah, walking in lycra is worse than cycling in lycra. Especially in a busy city street 😉

            The way that car is parked is simply shocking! I am used to bicycle lanes running out and becoming a big intersection, but I am new to a bicycle lane running out and becoming the trunk of a car.

  14. I think having better bike infrastructure would make the biggest difference similar to what they have in Copenhagen. It may help if the government ran more education campaigns similar to the amy gillete foundation ads for on meter gap when overtaking cyclists.
        I disagree that people should be fined for not wearing a helmet, yet I don’t understand why some people are so anti the wearing of helmets, surely if you have a bike accident its better to be wearing a helmet compared to not wearing one. I think research and evidence should be used to argue the case for helmets and not just because its the law. Has anyone ever had to study head trauma and all the complicated calculations? I’d rather wear a helmet when cycling a be a little bit safer. I also disagree somewhat when people say that wearing a helmet is a personal choice because if you hurt your head and are in ICU the government has to pay for all your hospital costs, which could have been avoided if you put on a helmet. What so bad about helmets anyway? Not that different to having to wear a seatbelt. I did disagree with getting fined for not wearing one, and think it would be better if the police gave random cyclists money for wearing a helmet, positive reinforcement, and used widespread education campaigns and evidence to encourage them.

    1. I think having better car infrastructure would make the biggest difference similar to what they have in Copenhagen. It may help if the government ran more education campaigns similar to the amy gillete foundation ads for on meter gap when overtaking drivers. 
          I disagree that people should be fined for not wearing a helmet, yet I don’t understand why some people are so anti the wearing of helmets, surely if you have a car accident its better to be wearing a helmet compared to not wearing one. I think research and evidence should be used to argue the case for helmets and not just because its the law. Has anyone ever had to study head trauma and all the complicated calculations? I’d rather wear a helmet when driving a be a little bit safer. I also disagree somewhat when people say that wearing a helmet is a personal choice because if you hurt your head and are in ICU the government has to pay for all your hospital costs, which could have been avoided if you put on a helmet. What so bad about helmets anyway? Not that different to having to wear a seatbelt. I did disagree with getting fined for not wearing one, and think it would be better if the police gave random drivers money for wearing a helmet, positive reinforcement, and used widespread education campaigns and evidence to encourage them.

      All the arguments for and against helmets can be levelled at any activity with an element of risk. The assessment of the risk vs benefit must be thoroughly determined. This is how we got compulsory motorcycle helmets and seatbelts, but not car helmets.
      Recent research on bicycle helmets shows that the benefits of compulsory helmets are outweighed by the lack of risk when cycling.

  15. Actually there is some evidence that in certain situations, helmets can exacerbate head injuries in the case of an accident. I will look it up and be more specific in a later reply.
    Only anecdotal I know but a friend died of head injuries in a cycling accident and she was wearing a helmet.
    Skiing also involves many head injuries, as does yachting where a sudden gybe can cause the boom to swing across the boat wildly. Another friend was killed in this way. Further there are far more serious head injuries in car accidents, so should we include mandatory helmets for all people who travel by car?
    However, for commuting cyclists and in the effort to try and induce motorists out of their cars, the main argument against helmets is that it brands the activity as dangerous. Far more dangerous to our health is obesity and development of type 2 diabetes.
    The other link is to encouraging more female cyclists. It is vanity I know, but many women are turned off cycling because of the risk of “helmet” hair. The European experience has been that by winning over women to cycling as an everyday activity. Women who cycle start taking their kids to school on a bike and more men are likely to  cycle if  they are mixing with the other 50% of the population.
    For many women (and men), they enjoy looking good on a bike. I don’t believe you will win many  converts to cycling because it is “green”. Greenies are already riding bikes. If you have a chance, have a look at the many cycle chic web sites which have sprung up around the world. Copenhagen Cycle Chic is  the oldest but there are many now, including Sydney Cycle Chic.
    I do like your point about the positive reinforcement, but I would be more in favour of it for just cycling in general as a normal everyday activity – commuting, shopping, taking kids to school and meeting friends for a coffee.
    I would also agree, that helmets are most advisable if cycling for fitness,  especially in a bunch at speed, where touching wheels is both common and likely to cause head injuries.

  16. What’s with all the lycra? Most people probably want proper cycling knicks with a good chamois. Reduce that soreness and chafing.

  17. For all you hipsters think helmets are uncool you take your own risk. I just fell off the bike and hit my head on union st near channel 10 office. after big guy ahead of me avoided a reversing car and crashed into me. Im glad I had my helmet on, we werent touring de france speeds just riding back home. Thanks to the kind cyclist who stayed with me till the medics arrived. Good karma

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