Last week we were treated to the news that the Lord Mayor was canvassing the idea of banning cyclists from some streets in central Melbourne:
Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has voiced support for cyclists being banned from riding down certain streets due to safety concerns, although he says this would be a matter for VicRoads to consider.
Let's put aside that this is directly opposite to what The Herald Sun reported last year:
Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has defended the expansion of inner-city bike lanes, saying they are needed to reduce cyclist deaths…
Cr Doyle said there had been a five-fold increase in the number of cyclists using the city over the last five years, and their safety was paramount.
"If we don't want to have our time spent at the coroner's court explaining why another cyclist has been killed, we've got to actually provide for this explosion of bikes coming into the city," he said.
Talking shit about safety
We can see how ludicrous this "proposal" is—how thoroughly steeped in anecdata and half-baked arsehattery it is—by simply looking at some of Doyle's sound bites (because sound bites are all we have to go on—there's a complete absence of any supporting evidence for this):
Cr Doyle told the Herald Sun that some roads in the city grid were just not suitable for cycling.
Any data or evidence on that Lord Mayor? No, didn't think so. But if this is true, what is being done to fix the situation? (Other than the prohibition idea being discussed, which is a pretty scorched-earth approach to the problem.)
"We say there are some areas where cars can't go, buses can't go, and that's all because of safety. Isn't there also an argument about where bikes can't go?" Cr Doyle said.
Brian Negus from the RACV seemed to be singing from the same hymn sheet:
"Buses and trucks are banned from certain [streets]. It would make sense to look at the safety of particular routes for cyclists."
This is bullshit of the highest order. Trucks and buses, and yes cars, are indeed restricted from travelling on some roads. And yes, those restrictions are always "because of safety"—that is, to protect the safety of other road users, not the drivers of those vehicles. It is very rare indeed for motor vehicles to be banned from travelling on any road for the safety of the occupants of that vehicle. Such restrictions are almost always to limit the safety externalities imposed by motorised vehicles.
"We don't have bike lanes on freeways.
"Why is that? Because it's dangerous."
That sounds quite reasonable, doesn't it?
The trouble is that this is bullshit too.
For starters, the first part is only half right, according to VicRoads:
Cycling is not allowed on urban freeways. However, cycling is allowed on the shoulders of some parts of rural freeways.
So on most country motorways, that big wide shoulder is effectively a bike lane.
[As an aside, what is hidden behind this exception is the fact that outside the major cities often the only viable route between two points is via a motorway. We so utterly fail to provide safe alternative routes that the shoulder of a high speed motorway is the only option for cyclists.]
As to the danger, the road risks present on a multi-lane divided high-speed motorway do not compare in any meaningful way to the streets on the CBD grid of Melbourne, with it's mixed traffic modes and where you can expect to meet a traffic light every few hundred metres.
This line about safety reached the peak of unintentional self-satire when Cr Doyle said on 3AW:
"The funny thing is this is not anti-cycle. This is pro-cycle. This is common sense to keep people safe."
Serving canned spam with apple sauce doesn't make it roast pork.
Calling a bike ban a "system of preferred streets for bikes" doesn't make it "pro-cycle".
It is anti-cycle
Cr Doyle may honestly believe that banning cyclists from certain streets is a legitimate safety initiative. But make no mistake, the subtext of this discussion is most definitely anti-cycle.
The whole problem with the "proposal", even as a hypothetical scenario for discussion, is that (for some people at least) it raises doubt about the right of cyclists to use all public roads—doubt that simply doesn't exist.
And, of course, this is best seen in the comments, some of which the Herald Sun promoted to the lead of its updated article:
"I say keep going Lord Mayor!" Bryan writes…"Make common sense more common by banning speeding cyclists from Southbank and Yarra Promenade. They are too dangerous to pedestrians."
Laughably, Southbank and Yarra Promenade aren't even roads. And this highlights the problem: this is a snowball that gathers bulk rapidly, as everyone who doesn't accept the right of cyclists to use the roads has their view effectively endorsed by the likes of Doyle and Negus.
Disingenuously, the Herald Sun's follow-up article the next day, went under the headline "Cycle Ban Widening", which kinda suggests that not only is the ban a done deal (it's not) but that other streets are being considered for bike bans (they're not):
The Herald Sun understands VicRoads will look at several other danger spots for riders, including Chapel, Swan and Victoria streets.
VicRoads should be and probably is looking at the safety of cyclists in these locations. However each of those three streets already has bike lanes (for at least some of their length) that are unlikely to be removed, which suggests that "looking at" is a very long way from "considering banning bikes from".
And I couldn't go past this gem:
He said other cities around the world such as Copenhagen had bans in place due to safety concerns.
No. Oh no, Cr Doyle, you do not get to invoke the name of Copenhagen to justify banning bike access to parts of the road network until Melbourne has achieved even a fraction of what Copenhagen has to safeguard its bike riders and promote cycling.
Why it matters
Who cares if Cr Doyle has a little brainfart in public, the media bounces it around for a day or two, and the usual suspects line up to bray at each other in the comments section?
On all of that stuff I say, "Go for it." Knock yerself out. I couldn't care less.
But I do care when attitude meets behaviour.
Writing on a different (but remarkably familiar) topic, The Guardian's Peter Walker said:
Finally, as ever with the issue of the media treatment of cycling, we come to the sharp end: what effect does it have on real life on the roads? My own view – and I realise it's impossible to prove – is that there is sufficient evidence about poor attitudes towards cyclists translating into less safe driving behaviour, that we can say such "controversial talking points" do, in a tiny but incremental way, put people's lives and welfare in more danger.
It's highly unlikely that this "safety" initiative of Cr Doyle's will go any further than a few headlines in the press and the usual passing wave of outrage. And rather than achieving anything for cyclist safety, it is likely that it has harmed our safety, if only in a tiny but incremental way.