Getting Two Wheels On The Road

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Getting ready to travel from Paris to Sydney, I imagined that my days would be filled with bike rides through the sunshine. My illusions faded on the day I arrived: there weren’t that many people cycling at all and instead of separated cycleways, all I could see were huge 4WDs and overpacked buses.

No, Sydney isn’t built quite like Paris. Yes, the little lanes winding through Paris make it easier for bikes to avoid the busiest avenues and boulevards but what really makes it easier to ride through the city of light is the cycle-friendly policies of the Mairie de Paris, the city’s council.

Let’s look at what the Mairie has done in Paris. For starters, they have built some 400 kilometres of cycling paths, comprising dedicated cycling paths and enlarged bus lanes.

By contrast, the City of Sydney has committed to the construction of a 200 kilometre cycling network with 55 kilometres of separated laneways over the next four years. If that sounds small compared to the Parisian network, bear in mind that it’s partly because the City of Sydney hasn’t found an equal partner in the NSW Government as far as bikes are concerned. While the City of Sydney is spending $70 million to extend the network, the State Government has only chipped in $13.5 million for bicycle initiatives across the whole of NSW.

The City of Sydney recently announced its plan to replace the Taylor Square Hotel on Oxford Street with a bicycle hub, complete with a bike repair centre, bike shops, parking and showers for commuters.

It all sounds good in theory but Taylor Square clearly isn’t an ideal spot for a cycle hub, says Elliot Fishman, the director of the Institute for Sensible Transport: "To maximise the investment in biking hubs and end of trip facilities, the best place to locate them is in areas very close to people’s final destinations: in the CBD, it would be desirable to be close to a public transport hub." Buses roll down Oxford Street but Sydney buses don’t carry bikes, making Taylor Square a less suitable public transport hub than, say, the precinct around Central railway station.

Similarly, the promised 55 kilometres of separated laneways sound good but when the preponderance of accidents on Sydney roads shared by cars and cyclists is taken into account, it doesn’t seem quite enough.

In fact, the major factor in fatal road crashes involving cyclists in Australia between 1996 and 2004 was the failure of cyclists and other road users to observe each other on the road. Such accidents are especially frequent in Sydney: a NSW Government report reveals that NSW commuter cyclists are more likely to be in a crash than commuter cyclists in most other states and that Sydney cyclists are in greatest danger as crashes tend to cluster around the CBD.

According to the City of Sydney, clearly marked separated cycle ways could have prevented 44 per cent of cycling accidents in the City of Sydney area between 2002 and 2007.

As anyone who has ridden a bicycle down a major road in Sydney can attest, Sydney drivers can be quite hostile toward cyclists. It is widely assumed that cyclists are responsible for accidents on shared roads and indeed they’re often depicted in the media as being dangerous. International research shows, however, that drivers are at fault in most bike-car accidents. An analysis of police reports of some 2752 bike-car accidents in Toronto, Canada, found that clumsy or inattentive driving by motorists caused 90 per cent of the crashes. It goes without saying that cyclists tend to come off worse in these encounters.

Increasing driver awareness and building separated laneways are a good way to improve the safety of cyclists. Another method is to double the number of cyclists on the road. Californian researcher Peter Jacobsen argues that this brings a 30 per cent reduction in cycling crashes with motor vehicles.

More than two years ago, the Mairie de Paris decided to do just this by launching the Vélib’, a program which allows city residents and visitors to rent bikes at open-air stations around the city and to drop them off at other stations when they’re done. It’s not the first system which offers a bicycle hire system but it’s the first one developed on such a scale. There are stations every 300 metres and more than 20,000 bikes available across the city.

The Vélib’ has been a real success: two years after its launch in July 2009, more than 50 million bicyle hires had been logged, 6 million users had taken on a short membership and a further 170,000 annual memberships. Everyday, almost 80,000 Vélib’ bikes are hired. And when the Mairie surveyed 853 Vélib’ users in July 2009, it found that 75 per cent of them were "quite satisfied" with the service and 19 per cent "very satisfied".

This is all quite understandable. This system is not only functional, it’s cheap. To become a member costs €1 per day, €5 per week or €49 per year. The first half-hour of bike use is free, the next half hour costs €1, and thereafter users are charged another €2 per half hour, thus ensuring a good rotation of the bikes.

Implementation of the Vélib’ hasn’t been entirely problem free. JCDecaux, the Vélib’ contractor, certainly didn’t expect such vandalism against the bikes. Two years after the launch, 16,000 cases of damage, 8000 thefts and 3500 complaints to the police had been logged. In addition, the company undertakes 1500 repairs per day. 

Teething problems aside, Vélib’ is part of a global urban transport revolution in which flexibility is key. With the Vélib’ system, users can go to work by bike in the morning and return by bus at night. The Vélib’ ticket system is linked to other transport modes in Paris: if you have an annual Vélib’ membership, you can use the same card to withdraw your bike as you use in the subway, bus and rapid-transit rail systems.

The Vélib’ is an important element of the rise of "intermodality" in Paris. Adding new transport options to existing transport nodes — such as major rail stations — takes pressure off trains and buses and enables commuters to modulate their trips.

On the back of the success of the Vélib’, the Mairie is now planning to develop the Autolib’, a car rental system which will operate on similar principles. There are plans for 1000 Autolib’ stations, of which 700 are in Paris and 300 in the surrounding areas, which will make 3000 cars available to users.

The Parisian example has been followed by major cities around the world, including Melbourne. In November last year the RACV won the contract to provide 600 bicycles across 50 sites around Melbourne, including Federation Square, Southern Cross station and Melbourne University. The program will cost commuters roughly the same as the Vélib’: $2.50 for a daily membership and $50 for a whole year.

Elliot Fishman is certain that the City of Sydney will eventually implement a public bike system: "It is going to happen, it is just a question of when," he told newmatilda.com. Still, he points out that there are several obstacles to overcome.

First, the compulsory helmet legislation in Australia makes it harder to implement a public bike system. Tim Pallas, Victoria’s Minister for Roads, is currently searching for a contractor to provide helmets for Melbourne’s public bike hire program but he hasn’t succeeded yet. It’s likely Melbournians will have to bring their own helmet if they want to hire a bike which may reduce uptake. Fishman argues that Australia should rethink compulsory helmets as "the health benefits you get from cycling are greater than the health risks associated with riding without a helmet for an adult".

He also makes a case for a more thorough investigation of the speed limits in city centres. In Australia, cars can drive at 50 or 60 kilometres per hour on average in city centres, whereas in European cities that speed is often reduced to 30 kilometres per hour. "Above 30 kilometres per hour, a collision between a car and a cyclist becomes much more life-threatening," explains Fishman.

Finally, to get more cyclists on the road and to keep them there safely, the City of Sydney needs to commit to much stronger bicycle infrastructures: "Safety is still the paramount concern of cyclists and also of would-be cyclists," stresses Fishman. The Vélib’ system might have some problems but the City of Sydney could do worse than look to the Parisian example.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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