Go to Hell! Or Black Rock to Mt Eliza and back, fast.

I realise that this might generate a bit of controversy about a current topic, but I think that this issue is important as regards the whole future of cyclists not being pushed into corners and being given equal rights to travel on public roads, as enjoyed by motorists.

‘The Age’ has had several things to say about it over the years, here, and here, for example. or you can Google ‘Hell Ride’, there’s plenty of links there. More worrying is the “We’ll look into it” of Premier Brumby as he looks for an early, easy, vote-winning target in his first few weeks in office.

More constructive is the Route 33 project advocated by Bicycle Victoria and others, looking to reduce cyclist/motorist conflict along here.

I’m just waiting for the howls of condemnation from all right-thinking, lawn-trimming, BRW-reading rate-payers of the inner southern suburbs of Melbourne to the news of ‘Hell rider’ William Raisin-Shaw’s $400 fine for running a red light, as it gradually percolates through the ranks of golf and bowls clubs from Elwood to Portsea. Not that he ran a red light per se, but in so doing, he struck, knocked down and killed septuagenarian James Gould on Beach Rd in Mentone, almost a year ago. Where were the manslaughter charges? Where were the black-clad riot police and water cannon anywhere on the road down the peninsula?

How dare an unruly group of riders hurtle down one’s well-groomed thoroughfares without due care and attention? Somebody should put a stop to this. Someone should just step out in front of them as they run a red light and give them a good talking to. They are impinging on one’s right to use the sets of crossing lights spaced every 500 metres or so to go for ones morning constitutional along the beach. These malefactors should be punished and their activities disallowed.

The whole nature of riding bikes at speed in close order is called into question. That you have to ride close together in order to maintain speed is known by anyone who has ever ridden more than 50km at an average of over 30km/h. It may seem strange, but Beach Rd is actually one of the safer places close to Melbourne on which to do this, because of far fewer traffic entrances on the left as you return towards the city. Why do this at all? To test one’s strength and endurance, one’s skill and ability, one’s co-operation with fellow riders. To be a competent cyclist, to train for races. When it’s so important to keep up with the bunch that traffic signals are ignored, then danger escalates.

“Rolling!” is a signal amongst cyclists that when the front part of the bunch enters an intersection, it is more dangerous than not for the middle of the bunch to pull up when the light goes orange or red and cause the rear part of the bunch to pile into them by pulling to a sudden stop. The bunch behaves safely as a single entity, much as a school of fish or a flock of birds, or any other traffic phenomenon as big and as difficult to stop as a semi-trailer. It is doubtful as to whether James Gould would have stepped out in front of the latter. It is when gaps appear in the bunch and those cyclists who are in danger of being ‘dropped’ put their heads down and try to bridge the gaps, that other traffic sees an opportunity to enter the roadway. Hence the danger of collisions with pedestrians and impatient motorists. If the leading cyclists do not set an example and stop at lights as they are about to change as the bunch approaches, a herd mentality takes over and the more foolhardy behind will take a chance against the red to stay with the leaders.

This ride and others like it have the propensity to turn into unofficial races. Even sanctioned racing on quiet, country, partially controlled roads relies largely on rider intelligence and forethought to prevent crashes, which do occur. Officials, mindful of the sport’s image in the general community, attempt to enforce common road rules and cycling regulations. On a minimally-organized ride in comparatively busy areas, such as the Hell Ride, or Critical Mass, there is no one person charged with the responsibility of maintaining group behaviour to a common and generally acceptable standard. You are relying on common sense to maintain safety for participants and bystanders, and common sense lapses occasionally, as in any activity. Perhaps this is why these rides generate such fear and right-wing loathing: it is the old and ingrained fear of ‘the mob’, an uncontrolled, seething mass with no-one that blame can be legally pinned on for the ‘civil disorder’ that results from their assembly or activities, and the insurance claims that might result, unless a scapegoat can fortuitously be found in a supposedly clear-cut incidence of wrongdoing.

A point is made in relation to this: 220 cyclists have been killed on Australian roads since 2000, but there have only been 2 deaths resulting from cyclists hitting the victim. The majority of this 220 were killed by motor vehicles, yet there is no call for banning rush hour, for example. This sounds to me like a politically loaded bias, if the insurance risk is so one-sided.

Why are cars seen to be safe travelling at 50 km/h, yet bikes not? Why are roads not engineered to take account of both modes of transport equally? Why are there pedestrian crossings spaced at 500 metres on sections of Beach Rd.? It’s not due to the actions of cyclists that the roads have become the dangerous and heavily regulated places that they are today. It’s because motorists are able to kill and injure with much more despatch and much less effort than any other road user that signalized and regulated intersections and crossings are necessarily the norm in populated areas. One’s own judgement as to a safe traffic manoeveur is replaced by traffic signals making the decision for you in our current paradigm. Were the pedestrian crossing not there, it would have been highly unlikely that the unfortunate Mr Gould would have stepped out in front of a large bunch of fast-moving cyclists, whether they were breaking the law or no. Whilst it is safe, expected and expedient for cyclists to obey road signals, such signals were not designed to help or cope with cyclists, nor with them in mind, except in a peripheral way. If the road system, and especially the heavily-cycled parts of it such as Beach Rd. had more accommodation for non-motorised traffic, then James Gould might still be alive today, and William Raisin-Shaw might not be the guilt-ridden scapegoat that he is for the failure of a road to cope with its customary traffic.

Each individual has to take legal responsibility for their actions, and the law places blame for an illegal action on the head of the one(s) who caused it – that goes without saying in our society. I don’t like the semi-rational herd mentality that takes over such bunch rides, the “I’ve gotta stay with the leaders or I’m a pussy” attitude that the Hell Ride seems to foster. I used to do it, when I lived down near the beach, but stopped when I saw that the overall standard of rider behaviour and skill, even towards each other, was dropping below what I thought was safe. Lack of skill amongst riders, having to use more power to maintain a given speed, treat others less carefully and take more risks to stay in front, seemed to be the problem, as it seems by extension to be the problem in many areas of life. This maybe stems from the exodus of older competitive cyclists from general riding and club racing to veteran’s clubs and their segregated activities, with their experience of age less able to temper the impulsiveness and recklessness of younger riders. However, in a mixed training ride, this is more likely to be apparent, rather than less. The phrase “Lots of watts, no road skills” often gets muttered as teen and twentysomething young guns blaze past at warp factor five, only for them to be confronted by a stopped car or a red light 100 m up the road.

I still participate in other fast bunch rides, although the standard of riding is generally higher, due to its more difficult timing during the week, and the elevated skill level and experience of the participants. We get a bit of a response from motorists and pedestrians – largely positive, but with negatives thrown in, such as “Is this another Hell Ride?”, or impatience at being delayed by a few seconds. Certainly the behaviour amongst riders in fast training bunches seems to have improved after the fatal crash, with more regard for lights, lane markings (i.e. not taking up all lanes on a road) and give way signals than before. The more experienced cyclists seem to be more willing to set an example, and more considerate road behaviour seems to have resulted.

What I do not respond well to is the “law’n order” lobby (as Alan Watts used to call them), including several prominent members of the cycling advocacy community, using the incident to lambast all racing cyclists. The developing schism between the ‘Don’t rock the boat/incremental improvement of cycling conditions via bureaucracy’ advocates and the ‘ride where and how you choose and be proud of it, and let bureaucracy catch up when it can’ camp is a dangerous one. There are any number of right-wing demagogues who will use debates such as this one as ammunition to slag cycling in general, and attempt to restrict its ability to stake a claim for itself as a dominant mode of transport, contrary to (and I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve here) the inefficient, destructive and deadly adherence to motoring uber alles that our society has. So what’s the solution? Stick to the increasingly stifling new regulations that are introduced from on high to ensure ‘safety’, no matter how little it applies to your particularity, or attempt to force a dialogue with bureaucracies such as VicRoads, other arms of the State Government and local councils who may respond to such negative publicity with less-than-intelligent, controlling and condemnatory measures? Just install more traffic signals? Or establish a space for debate about why such incidents occur in the wider context of the dominant form of traffic engineering and rigid societal norms imposed on us by the motoring industries?

If a greater proportion of travel was by bike, fewer, rather than more traffic signals would be required. If roads were more welcoming of and easier to use by cyclists, there would be more cyclists using the roads. Chickens lay eggs which hatch into chickens, except when VicRoads and its lobbyists are sitting on the chicken. It is motorists who kill and injure other road users in much greater numbers than any other mode of transport. This is treated as normal, after 6 or more decades of 400+ people killed per year in motor crashes. Yet when one cyclist kills one pedestrian, howls of vituperation rain down on any cyclist who dares not to wear a fluoro yellow top and travels on the road (not on the bike path, how many times have cyclists been told to “Get off the road and on to the bike path”?) more than 25km/h in numbers greater than three. I smell the smell of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland somewhere near.

Whilst it might appear to be mere partisanship to applaud the magistrate’s decision in this case (even though the magistrate in his judgement despaired his own inability in sentencing to satisfy what he preemptively imagined to be community expectations) , for me it leaves open the question as to who was ultimately to blame for this accident. It could have been any one of hundreds of cyclists on Beach Rd. that or any other morning who knocked down a slow moving pedestrian. Measures could have been taken to accommodate those cycling at speed with appropriate road design. Locals and red-neck motorists reacting to this and rides like it, at the behest of tabloid media urging, in such a negative and reactionary fashion need to have an alternative, non-motorized world view presented to them, in the quest for a bit of balance in the debate. It’s not as simple as it seems. It’s not a simple question of physics leading to death, or “furious riding” or “hooligan cyclists”, as the debate carried on when cycling was new 100+ years ago, and which is resurrected repeatedly, along with the old chestnut of bike registration, on such occasions, ad nauseum. It’s my deeply held conviction that, at bottom, it’s the fault of the road system that is now designed to cope (however incompetently, and seemingly in constant need of expensive expansion and upgrade) with motorized traffic first and foremost, with all other modes of transport relegated to a distant also-ran. We have to ask ourselves why cyclists and pedestrians have to fit themselves into the fait accompli that VicRoads continues to present to us, albeit nowadays with small concessions, largely for the benefit of multinational motoring companies and we willing sheeplike car consumers. As the negatives of motorized road transport loom ever heavier over us – they were always there, but have been propagandized out of existence heretofore – we have to keep on asking ourselves: How do we get around? Why do we choose this mode for this trip? Who or what is influencing us choose this mode, and why? Is there a better way – now, in the future, for the future? What sort of world does this choice create? A world where nearly half of our public space is covered by tar and concrete, and on bad days, the air is nigh on unbreathable?

I know what I would like. I would like to be able to walk or ride my bike at whatever speed up to the speed limit that I chose, somewhere safe, as my preferred modes of transport. I would like an effective, cheap way to carry heavier or bigger loads that does not include me moving a tonne or more of metal around to do it. I do not wish to endanger any other road users, or other road users endanger me. This is becoming less and less possible in Melbourne, and even the surrounds, as cars, trucks and their proponents demand ever more of our valuable living space, for their profit, at our cost. I know what I absolutely detest: it is being stuck in motorized traffic (have you ever seen a bike stuck in a traffic jam in Australia?) for hours on end as the road system fails to cope with the slightest thing that upsets it, including rain and very light accidents. I detest having a sport that I love scapegoated and vilified by ignorant demagogues for the inadequacies of our increasingly monocultural, motorized public space in helping us meet each other and provide our human needs. I want a full and frank discussion with the motoring lobby, and see them try to defend themselves from scratch, rather than variations on the “We’re here, like it or lump it” approach they’ve used in the past. They weren’t here 100 years ago. The Roman Empire and the dinosaurs looked immutable, too, once.

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