Traffic engineers are not cyclists, Pt. II

So even though I’ve established (to my own complete, utter and irrevocable satisfaction, no further correspondence will be entered into, at all. Thankyou) that a significant proportion of dog walkers don’t really think that hard about where and why and how they exercise their democratic right to let their charges behave in an annoying and hazardous way (TdF watchers might remember seeing this – Sandy Casar hits an uncontrolled dog)

– even if they are cyclists; we maybe haven’t quite clinched the truth of high-powered family sedan-variant-driving civil engineers in the employ of road construction entities having an institutionalised, progressively-engendered and eventually ingrained animus towards any vehicle powered other than by fossil-fuel derivatives.  I present my last two points for the prosecution:

The treatment of cyclists as wheeled pedestrians. The general standard of path engineering necessary for bikes at any speed they are capable of (and in some cases that’s in excess of 40 km/h for extended periods) is nowhere near realised, let alone if there’s more than 3 of you that want to ride together. It is a rare and particular case when a bike path is graded with the equivalent quality of surface afforded to car travel on main routes. One such surface is the Federation Trail, but only after much agitation by local BUGs and Bicycle Victoria. Many paths have sudden rises and falls, turns,

uncontrolled crossings, poor, rough, deteriorated and uncambered surfaces where puddles of water collect (and hang around long) after rain. If such surfaces existed on major motor traffic routes, they would be condemned as hazardous and impediments to free movement/trade/the economy, and upgraded promptly. This poor and tolerated standard of bikepath maintenance and design probably constitutes the main barrier to turning people off cycling for more than slow speed recreation, forcing those who actually want to get somewhere at reasonable speed onto roads where motor vehicles imperil them regularly, or into their car. “Hehehehe! I have you now, my pretty, and your little dog too!” says the Wicked Witch of the Western Metropolitan Road Building Corporation to Dorothy the Cyclist, and Toto the annoying ball of fluff.

The “on-again, off-again” approach to on-road cycling facilities. Bike lanes are often installed on roads, which are even widened to accomodate them, but quite often on roads that don’t really go anywhere. There’s no need of special facilities to get people to their dispersive destinations (residential streets, parks, shops, etc.) because in low-speed, low-traffic environments bikes can make their own way safely amongst motor traffic and pedestrians. The real need, and Bicycle Victoria has been starting to push this line quite persistently (not too soon), is to accomodate cyclists on roads that actually carry  through-traffic movements, which have suffered decades of (s)carification, a situation taken by most road engineers to be the legitimate status quo. To alter them is seen as a major chore and inconvenience by road planners, and is not seen as necessary when cyclists can go along another route, even though this may take them a much longer, badly/sketchily-constructed, time-consuming and more inconvenient way around. So cycling routes are often disconnected, peter out when it gets a bit too hard, and follow seemingly arbitrary detours drawn on maps wherever they seem to fit with little reference to on-road conditions, nor fit the desires of cyclists to get from place to place – which roads were originally built to handle for all users. “That’s yer bloomin’ lot, if you don’t like it, lump it”, but said with a lot less goodwill than Peter Cundall ever does. There is even an insidious and creeping roll-back of facilities, which, after planning and inception, have chance of being used, but seem often to be isolated into segments, and then have individual segments erased by subsequent road-oriented planning. Ride the on-road Docklands Boulevard lanes (or what remains of them that haven’t been turned into taxi-stands and impromptu car parks), or look for the scrubbed-out bike symbols on Latrobe St. for examples of this.

So, what seems an obvious point – surely, seeing that bikes are a more difficult (in terms of effort required) method of transport to accelerate and keep moving, and take longer to cover a given distance (if congestion is not taken into account) that roads and paths should be built to make this as easy and rapid as possible, so that cycling becomes 1) easy to get good at, 2) pleasant to do regularly and 3) efficient in terms of time and effort expended for distance travelled.  How much effort is required to put a little more pressure on a car’s accelerator to gain speed, vs. how much effort is required to accelerate from a standstill at a traffic light on a bike? Tell me why we have an obesity epidemic, again? Why do we have climate change? Road surfaces for motor traffic are often much smoother than those built for bikes, even though bikes have much greater need of smooth surfaces to maintain a good average speed efficiently and comfortably than cars do. “To those that have (quality surfaces and expenditure on facilitating movement) much, more shall be given, to those that have little, it shall be taken away”.

Road planners have argued this, in my hearing, by saying “There’s not enough bike traffic to justify better design or more investment”, to which I replied, after choking down the words “Smug, s&%$headed chump, you self-satisfied, chubby-arsed apologist for the status quo”, “There never will be unless you get out of your two-tonne hobbyhorse and actually look where your little motoring obsession is driving us”, or at least wished I had, or maybe that was his point. He didn’t ever want there to be enough bike traffic to require any more than his cursory atttention. Chickens, eggs, chickens, eggs . . . new roads generate new motor traffic, so why not bike lanes . . . ? But why? What was/is he/they scared of? Getting their flabby arses laughed at? Actually expending some of that excess energy they consume?

I think I ended up spiking his drink, waiting ’til he was leaning comatose against the potted palm, leading him out the back and chucking him in the kitchen dumpster with the smelly, bulk tubs of old pasta sauce and 3 day old fish heads. That’d be some hangover.

All these small areas of neglect, the disconnected and discontinous nature of specific bike infrastructure, the designing of roads away from general transport use and specifically toward private vehicle use – the token attempts to ameliorate this that underline cyclists as second-class transport users, all these serve to discourage novice cyclists, and annoy, anger and endanger more experienced ones. It seems, from a more dispassionate viewpoint, that roads are built primarily for the enrichment of those in the car industry, which entraps the general population into a viewpoint and a contingent way of life that treats cars as the norm, the best possible of all possible means of transport, and that the world should be designed around them.

Well, BullShit. WIth a capital B. Capital S.

Private motor vehicles are the product of a coalescence of opinion centred around a particular world view. By their nature, they reflect values that are selfish, greedy, inconsiderate, brutal, shallow and destructive. Robber baronetcy writ large and modern, if you like. They appear to represent power without responsibility, travel(close to the French travail: ‘work’) without effort, style and wisdom by the possession of a high-priced, disposable and entropically-vulnerable artefact, and foster the perverted idea of distance measured in time taken to traverse it at maximum motorised speed, rather than units of distance. They have the erroneous and much propagandized idea of personal freedom attached to them. Costing on average $120/wk to buy, own and run, not counting the time spent idling in traffic – how free does that make you? They punish inattention suddenly, swiftly and catastrophically, they maim and murder indiscriminately, they shackle financially, they poison slowly and irritate and eventually enrage with their inefficiency. I’m sure being stuck repeatedly in traffic does bad things to your brain, and rewires your neurons to favour aggression and one-upmanship. Andre Gorz had a lot to say about this in his essay: The Social Ideology of the Motor Car. Whilst our society is held hostage by the dictates of the motor industry and its siren song, other forms of transport are held in necessary subjugation to it. Trams and trains struggle to gain the funding they need to remain viable solutions to transportation needs (after being bought up and destroyed in the 1940s and 50s in many major cities – by, you guessed it, front organisations for oil companies and the motor industry), and us cyclists are literally in a losing battle to the death (how many times has a motorist been killed by a cyclist? Do I need more than one hand to count?) with it. Economists (apologists for right-wing attitudes, in the main) will argue that motor transport is absolutely vital to welfare of modern societies – ecologists would argue that modern societies will not know true welfare, in an integrated, broad , significant manner, until we stop designing our built environment for cars first, people an ill-thought-out and distant second, and everything else back round the last corner third.

And that’s not even getting into the machinations of multinational companies involved in this gigantic ball and chain around our collective ankles. Nor the toxic residues it leaves, indirectly, and directly.

Before you jump down my throat for being an anti-motoring, tyre-spiking, duco-scratching, Critical Mass attending hemp-wearing eco-fascist,  I own a car. I drive it on average twice a week for about 70km, the remainder of my trips being by bike. I cart tools and parts and supplies in my little 13 year old station wagon – I often joke that if I didn’t fix and race bikes,  I wouldn’t need it. I’ve been without a car for big chunks of time – the only pressure I felt was that I couldn’t cart heavy things easily, and that friends more than 25km away were a bit harder to get to. I hate driving in rush hour – seeing millions of dollars worth of vehicle and billions of dollars worth of road choked to an angry standstill by the stupid and irrational desire to pretend everyone else isn’t there, or their journey isn’t important (hello the average car commercial – do you ever see those pristine examples of motoring nirvana in a traffic jam?), and that we can get where we want, when we want, in complete and insulated comfort. I know many kind, intelligent and lovely people who own cars, but I don’t know any such who think that it is God’s gift to man, unlike the average 20-odd year old male. This demographic has always been the ripest fodder for any propagandistic campaign to co-opt them to the greater glory, the young male has the arrogance and temerity (and the flipside, deep doubt about his life course and self-worth) enough to champion any cause, this time it’s a cool motorised suit of armour and the glamour game surrounding it – thankyou, you overgrown schoolboys Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May. 700 years ago you would be comparing suits of armour. Oh, you think you’re amusing? About as amusing as pulling the wings of butterflies, which I suppose you started off doing, and still do, remotely, and by proxy.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Traffic engineers are not cyclists, Pt. II

  1. warrick

    Well put; it’s about paradigm shifts. Maybe there’s going be more than one such shift needed in the next few years.

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