Urban Bikes and Busses : Time for Dialogue

Grace Newhaven



1997/ June

It is a truism that bicycle advocacy groups are always strong supporters of public transport systems. There are several reasons for this support : 

In practice, support from cyclists is generally strongest for rail systems, which have the space to carry bikes easily when required, as they do here in Adelaide; and, implicitly, because the train does not compete for road space with the bicycle. 

It is doubtful, however, if cycling advocates' enthusiasm for public transport is reciprocated in any meaningful way. Trains appear only to tolerate cyclists at the best of times, and are sometimes directly uncooperative, regarding the bicycle as a nuisance ( as it sometimes can be, in the charge of a thoughtless owner !). Arguments from cyclists that we represent a valuable source of passengers rarely seem to be acknowledged by rail administrations - witness the discriminatory and disproportionate charges to carry bikes on many non-metropolitan systems. In short, it seems that cyclists' affection for the train is very one sided, and that the train system is yet to value cyclists as the supporters and allies we claim to be. 

In the case of busses, the lack of respect for cyclists as a group is more serious. It is true that without the bus system there would be more cars on the road ( though, has anyone ever thought , there might also be more bicycles? After all, how many bus passengers are potential but intimidated and discouraged cyclists ? ) But the bus still represents a potential threat to the individual cyclist, as a much larger, heavier, vehicle, - especially when they compete for road space in the left hand lane where the bus stops for passengers. The new articulated busses particularly can be very frightening to a cyclist even when driven by a careful driver. This threat has increased in some locations, where lanes have been narrowed and a fourth lane has been added where there were previously three, as happened recently in O'Connell St North Adelaide. With lanes getting narrower, and busses wider and longer, there is no thought for the needs of the commuter cyclist. 

This problem exists even though the majority of drivers seem to be as careful as current standards of driving skill require then to be. The situation is much worse when a few drivers sees you as " fair game", a nuisance who has no right to be on the road anyway, and needs to be "punished" for daring to use the road. 

This is not to suggest that busses are the only problem for cyclists, or that they should be "singled out" to carry the blame for other road users who abuse cyclists' right to a safe environment. Yet every cyclist will acknowledge that they have had too many close calls with busses, and that there is room for improvement . Compared to the threat from cars, bus systems also have a centralised management system conducive to rapid response and effective direction to individual drivers. Anecdotally, busses are also often cited as the reason many potential cyclists give for not cycling to work. This "perception of danger " may not be wholly accurate, yet it has the undeniable practical effect of inhibiting commuter cycling. In my own case, travelling along O'Connell Street in both peak hours each day, without benefit of any cycle lane, and with several very difficult squeeze points, it's sometimes very hard to remember how much I am supposed to value that bus that just cut me off, passed far too close, squeezed me into the gutter, startled me with a horn blast etc.

 It is also not to suggest that cyclists themselves are blameless in the situation. You have to be blind not to see examples of flagrant disregard of both traffic laws and plain common sense on the part of some cyclists. This is a result of the success of the mountain bike, which is capable of much greater manoeuvrability than old ten speeds ; combined with a harsher,more competitive social and economic atmosphere , which rewards expediency, individualism and "getting away with anything you can ".

 In the inner city area in particular, kerb hopping, cutting across footpath corners,and ignoring red lights have now become everyday behaviour for a large and growing proportion of bike riders. In the city at night especially, it is startling how many commuter cyclists have poor lights and general visibility. This anarchy must be very trying to bus drivers, who have enough to do meeting schedules and caring the safety and convenience of their passengers. It is easy to understand that bad behaviour by any cyclist is likely to give all of us a bad name. I don't really blame the bus driver who thinks all cyclists are brainless idiots, made of rubber, who deserve whatever happens to them, because they bring their problems on themselves.

 Anecdotally, but worryingly, some bus administrators have expressed concerns for the present level of direct driver/cyclist confrontation, and the potential for a serious incident to arise from a road conflict.

 I have noticed that many cycling "politicians" regard any criticism of any cyclists as "treachery" or "politically incorrect", yet it remains true that we cyclists must lift our standards if we expect other road users to do the same in relation to us.

 As far as I am aware these issues have not been formally addressed before in Adelaide.If we continue to ignore them, we may continue a dialogue of the deaf, at a time when both public transport and commuter cycling appear to be in long term decline. This can only be to our shared disadvantage.

 This situation could be reversed by a dialogue process between bicycle organisations and public transport operating companies. There may also be some positive contribution from the Traffic and Road Safety sections of the SA Police. This would be an opportunity not only to defuse conflict, but as well to raise issues of mutual interest, eg the possibility for shared bus-and-bicycle lanes, such as are operating successfully in Britain; or perhaps the potential for busses to carry bikes, as is done in some US and European cities.

 Commuter cyclists in particular should support this work of reconciliation between busses and bikes. We have nothing to lose in presenting a responsible and where necessary self-critical image to the rest of the road user community. We're all in it together...

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