Students Representative Council, University of Sydney

Where are the bikes?

Looking into the pervasive negative discourse surrounding cyclists in Sydney

Art by Lauren Moore. Art by Lauren Moore.

Cyclists.

I know what you’re thinking: “Those annoying, lycra-clad things that keep dinging their bells at everyone outside Redfern station, and darting through traffic when I drive,” or “Frankly, they slow me down and I just don’t like them.”

We hear the word cyclist and all sorts of  negative connotations jump to mind. But, these so-called benign and mindless thoughts come at a great cost.   

On the 28th of March this year, a female cyclist was hit by a truck on Parramatta road, as they were turning left from USyd’s Western Avenue. This person has since passed away from their injuries. It is undeniable how horrific this would be for their family and loved ones.  

Yet, the comments underneath several news posts of the incident on Facebook tell another story. Almost all blamed the cyclist for the incident, without any indication of the circumstances at the time. There was an overwhelming level of sympathy for the truck driver — and rightly so — but of 464 comments on the 7news article, only 4 expressed concern for the cyclist and her family. Statements such as “Ride on the footpath,” which is ironically illegal in NSW, and “If the gov’t banned bloody cyclists this would not happen,” were common. And they did not stop there. “I swear to god cyclists are such a nuisance,” such a “waste of space,” and “inconsiderate bike-riders” dominated the feed. And most deplorably, “That’s what you get,” and “natural selection.” This begs the question: what has led our society to this level?

Firstly, this problem extends outside of Facebook. A joint study by Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT) Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety Queensland (CARRS-Q) and the University of Melbourne which surveyed drivers across NSW, Victoria, and Queensland found that close to half of the respondents viewed cyclists as subhuman. Given a picture of the stages of the  ape-man progression timeline, 41 per cent attributed cyclists to a creature below that of a homo sapien. And this included those who ride bikes themselves.

Such widespread dehumanisation indicates that clearly something needs to be done, but the verdict is still out on exactly what this should be. Some suggest a discursive change could help, such as Professor Narelle Howarth of QUT’s Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety-Queensland,  who argues that using “person who rides a bike,” instead of “cyclist” could help.

The Netherlands, one of the most cycling friendly nations in the world, has two different words in their language for cyclists. One, Wielrennen, connotes professional, fast riders: the sort we think of when we hear the words Lycra and bike. The other, Fietsen, is reserved for casual, slow, commuting or leisurely riders. This has helped distinguish between the forms of bike-riding, and prevent over-generalisations.

Governments, as well as individuals, reinforce the need for better infrastructure, to separate cars and bikes on our busy arterial road network. But cycling infrastructure is constantly  emerging. While the Liberal government’s re-election in NSW makes it unlikely that any meaningful active transport will be constructed; local councils, led by the City of Sydney, have transformed streets around the university into bike-friendly havens. The council is even due to start construction on a separated cycleway along Wilson Street, running along the length of our campus. The University is itself starting to invest heavily, with new state of the art bike lockers and end of trip facilities across campus. There is even talk that the SRC, led by President Jacky He’s ambitious and controversial election promise, might be establishing a university-specific bike share program.

These projects all make perfect sense, given Main Campus’ level lanes and avenues are the ideal environment for Cycling. With a limited number of steps, and the sheer distance between classes, jumping on a bike is  the logical thing to do. Yet the discourse on our campus is disproportionality negative towards cycling. Likely a reflection of the privilege built into our university, where the bike is the poor-man’s option, very few at USyd would think to take it up.

But, this is bigger than just Eastern Avenue. As a society, we appear to have created in our collective minds the view that Cyclists are an unusual, strange, ‘other’; and it makes us uneasy. It feels inaccessible, and we cannot possibly imagine changing our routines to adopt such a lifestyle.

This is the current discourse on cycling. And it is leaving our city in the dust. Our standing as a global city, and the protection of our fragile environment in the wake of climate change, relies in part on our rejection of the motor vehicle towards other forms of transport. Cities around the world have embraced the bike as one of these alternatives, and it is making a difference to both traffic flow and a sense of community.

So, the next time you hear the word cyclist… or get stuck behind one in traffic… stop and reflect on the impact your thoughts and biases are having on the development of our metropolis  and the creation of a connected, accessible campus.