Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What goes around

In order to solve traffic woes, quell the uprising of the vocal cyclist and probably, in some misguided and convoluted way, to save the polar bears, it was decided in recent history that bicycles would follow the same rules as any other road-going vehicle. ‘At last’, sighed the previously oppressed cyclist, ‘I can finally claim my rightful place on the road’. However, there was a problem. Cyclists didn’t have a rightful place on the road. The majority of roads were never designed for more than two cars to travel safely past each other at speed. Add to this equation a vulnerable meat-sack on a flimsy metal frame and it won’t be long before that place on the road that was so passionately sought becomes more permanent than one would ever have wished. So what then? The footpath? That’s not safe for anyone involved. Cyclists have become the pariahs of the transportation world, all because the government made a knee-jerk response to a growing problem. I’ve recently come across a secret that evidently wasn’t available to the government at the time. Bicycles are not the same things as the motor vehicles that New Zealand roads have traditionally been designed for. There are more and more cycle lanes being put in, and it is a major consideration when designing new roads. That’s good; I’m not saying that cyclists should stay off the roads. What I am saying is that a lot more thought needs to be put into how bicycles are treated on the roads other than just upgrading them to the status of something they are not.

For a start, motorists are tested on their knowledge of the road rules before being allowed to drive a vehicle on the road. Some motorists are still more than a bit hazy on the finer details, but at least the little card in their wallet proves that at some point before getting behind the wheel they had at least glanced over the road code. The first paragraph of the ‘Official New Zealand Code for Cyclists’ states that: “Before cycling on the road you must know the road rules. They apply to cyclists as well as those using motor vehicles”. How many cyclists do you think there are that have read and understood the road code before getting on their bike and heading off to school/work? Granted, many will have a driver’s licence, but what about all those children that adopt all the legal responsibility of motorists every time they head off to school? There should be some form of standardised testing for cyclists to ensure that the majority of them know the road code that they are legally obligated to follow each time they get behind the handlebars. It wouldn’t have to be as involved as the road code for motorists, there’s no need for an 8 year old kid to know that the load on a trailer cannot extend more than 4 metres behind the rear axle just to get his 10-speed to school and back, just as long as cyclists could carry a little card in their wallet that proved that at some point they understood the road code basics. ‘How can an 8 year old be expected to sit a test like that?’ I hear you ask. Maybe they can’t, but then how can you expect them to go out on the roads and compete for their little bit of tar seal alongside road rule-resistant bus drivers and adrenalin-fuelled couriers without demonstrating a basic understanding of who gives way to who?

The second point I wish to make is that if a bicycle is legally the same as a motor vehicle, how come cyclists don’t need to obtain a warrant of fitness or a vehicle licence (that’s ‘vehicle registration’ to those who haven't caught up with the latest lingo from the NZTA (that's the LTSA))? A bicycle frame snapping due to structural rust while a cyclist is travelling at 50kph through traffic is just as likely to end in tears as a similar fault with a motor vehicle. Again, it doesn’t need to be as intensive or anywhere near as expensive (but then neither does a WOF for a motor vehicle); it just makes sense that if the stature of bicycles is going to be promoted to big bad motor vehicle, there should be checks in place to reduce injury and prevent deaths in the same fashion. As for vehicle licensing, why should cyclists have lanes designed specifically for them and not be required to pay for them in any direct way? Not all bicycles would need to obtain these of course; if you only take your bike out to the park every other Sunday then there’s no more need to licence it than there is for a motocross bike or a farm tractor.

Thirdly, just because there is currently no cycling license, WOF or vehicle licensing does that mean that cyclists are both above the law and above common sense? Any cyclist riding without a helmet is asking for a visit to the emergency room. Any cyclist whose helmet is dangling from their handlebars is asking for sterilisation. Yet I have seen numerous cyclists riding sans helmet, recently right past a police officer, and I strongly doubt there is much chance they’ll get reprimanded accordingly. What about cyclists who ride with the flow of traffic, despite council money being spent on the cycle lane that runs right alongside them? I’ll say it again, roads are not designed with cyclists in mind; cycle lanes most definitely are. If cyclists have all the rights of a motorist on the road, then does that mean that as a motorist I have every right to drive up the cycle lane? Of course not, so surely cyclists should be legally required to use cycle lanes where provided, and be fined if caught using the roads alongside them. The point of all road rules is public safety, and if there’s a safer option for one particular road user then they should be made to use it. No one wants to hit a cyclist any more than a cyclist wants to be hit, as a general rule anyway.

Cyclists should be able to get to work without being forced to devolve into motorists. For this to be a safe option, however, a lot more thought needs to be put into legislation to protect the safety of all road users. Bikes are not cars, and it will take a lot more than a 1.5 metre bubble to bring harmony to our increasingly congested roads.

1 comment:

  1. Comparing the state of Auckland cycling potential with that of London, I find Auckland severely lacking.

    My experience of commuting via bicycle has been an extremely positive one, because it's free, fast (generally faster than public transport, or driving in central London), good exercise - and generally liberating. No more having to find a parking space, wait for a train.. etc..

    I think the future of town planning will have to take much more account of the benefits of cycling. It will have to become a more seriously considered transport option if future cities are to be successful.