When cyclist Chris Moore was pelted with a battery and punched by angry drivers on King Street in Newtown this week he snapped a picture of his assailants and posted it online as a polite warning to his fellow riders. He didn’t expect his posting to become a viral news phenomenon. The incident and its media aftermath reveal the intensity of the debate around the place of cyclists on Sydney’s streets.
The issue fuelling this phase of the dispute is how to manage the ever-increasing population and traffic congestion in the CBD and to also curb the City’s environmental impact.
On one side is Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore (no relation to Chris) who takes her lead from cities such as New York, London and Copenhagen. Her plan involves more public transport, separated cycle ways and better pedestrian access, all with the view to making the city more accessible and sustainable.
The Sustainable Sydney 2030 Green/Global/Connected strategy has been in action since 2010, bike lanes being just one aspect of an extensive transport plan for the city.
Contesting the Mayor’s vision is Liberal State Premier Barry O’Farrell who is currently soliciting ideas on how transport will be managed across the whole state in the future. His government has released a discussion document outlining the scope of the plan. They also want the public to have a say in it, suggesting we consider quality customer service, economic development and — somewhere near the bottom of the list — sustainability.
The Daily Telegraph will also petition the government with "The People’s Plan", a 32-page reader-generated strategic plan for greater Sydney. So far, demands for solutions to the transportation problem have emerged as the number one issue.
Contrary to O’Farrell’s painting her as an intransigent and unrealistic ideologue, Moore insists that the City shares the state government’s objective to deal with transport issues and that they are currently being addressed by the City of Sydney’s 2030 plan. At the policy level, O’Farrell is anticipating that Moore’s plan for the CBD and immediate surrounds will have absolutely no correspondence with the NSW Government’s Long Term Transport Master Plan for the entire state, which has yet to pass the draft phase. Although the details of this plan have yet to be developed, O’Farrell insists that Moore’s powers must be curtailed and her infrastructure projects stopped.
Declaring that Moore’s constituents (that is, Sydney residents) are "holding the Sydney CBD hostage" with regard to extending bike lanes, O’Farrell has moved to exercise state power over road planning decisions in Sydney, an action Moore criticises as superfluous.
While the contested site is the CBD and its surrounds, it is worth noting that this is not the first large-scale local-government-driven alternative transport project in which the the O’Farrell government has intervened. Citing budget shortfalls, the state government deferred funding on the Green Way, a community-driven project with links to Leichhardt, Ashfield, Marrickville and Canterbury local governments that aimed to connect the Cook’s River Bike path with Iron Cove.
The question that remains is how cyclists actually fit into the squabbling and why the contention has spilled onto the streets. The state government’s pointed criticism of Moore’s cycling strategy has translated into a widespread targeting of cyclists themselves, with a substantial amount of editorialising against their interests in newspapers, on radio and online.
Everyone is chiming in: Miranda Devine would have you believe that the bike lanes themselves are causing the gridlock, as if there had never been a traffic jam in the city until Clover Moore built 10km of cycle ways. Alan Jones has long led a campaign to prevent, and then remove the Botany-to-City bike lane along Bourke Street and notoriously berated Moore on air as an illiterate who had developed "the biggest disgrace in traffic management that [Jones had] ever seen".
Jones has also taken the lead in pressing for mandatory registration of all cyclists. O’Farrell, Devine, Jones and the like know what they’re up to: they’re cynically exploiting drivers’ very real frustrations about failures on a state level to improve roads and public transport, attempting to harness their anger to undermine the Lord Mayor’s broader agenda for Sydney. Arterial roads are choked with cars and trucks, often in states of disrepair due to the burden of increasing traffic. But to claim this has anything to do with a few kilometres of cycle paths in the inner city is nonsense.
Yet, cyclists are easy scapegoats. Being slowed by cyclists is a common frustration among drivers, and some cyclists flout traffic laws. But the criticism of cyclists as a group — one with "rocks in their heads," according to O’Farrell — finds traction in a way that would be entirely unfeasible when talking about drivers. People who drive are depicted as a mostly law-abiding cross-section of society. Cyclists, though, are frequently represented as unregistered, "sandal-wearing, muesli-chewing" troublemakers. Lost is a discussion of who cyclists really are and why they are motivated to commute by bicycle despite the challenges they face in a city so explicitly built for the automobile.
There are real differences between cars and bikes, and the integration of many more bicycles into citywide traffic patterns should be some cause for concern for city planners. Proper planning would be to the benefit of drivers and cyclists alike. What remains unclear is whether the Premier and his supporters really believe that by demonising cyclists and depriving them of suitable infrastructure, they will disappear from the city’s roadways and alleviate traffic problems. Instead, O’Farrell will find that cycling numbers will continue to increase as driving in the city becomes less tenable; short of banning bikes altogether, cyclists are not going to just go away.
Meanwhile, cyclists presented with dangerous, insufficient and unclear traffic arrangements are forced to ride less safely, less predictably and on the fringes of legality. This forces drivers and cyclists into an antagonistic relationship that O’Farrell is hoping will be a wedge against his opponents in Town Hall. Some voices in the media are all too happy to whip the resentment up into a self-righteous, abusive froth like that which spilled over on King St. this week. But the present trajectory of their vitriol only promises more antagonism, more gridlock, more misery behind the wheel, and a less safe and less sustainable city.
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