Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Posture a sore point for pained pedal-pushers
I’m developing a Theory of Sydney Cyclists. It’s about the link between humour and body fat. I know it’s not sustainable. I mean, Sarah Silverman, Ruby Wax, Lenny Bruce; how many of your favourite stand-ups have a body mass index higher than, well, the atomic number of titanium? Like, none. And we know that the Friar Tuck myth of the jolly fat person is simply that, a literary hoax perpetuated by soothsayers and storytellers for their own nefarious ends. Or possibly widths.
But that’s the point really. Because if Captain Arthur Phillip had held sway, back in 1788, and Sydney streets had been built to a commodious 200 feet – or 60.96 metres – “for the proper circulation of air” – Sydney cyclists might (this is my argument) not be the totally over-intense, zero-body fat, ground-staring no-laugh zones you tried to kill on your way to work this morning.
Lycra? Forget it. Sydney cyclists would be the same relaxed, smiling, vertically-inclined, shirt-billowing hair-blowing people-on-bikes you see throughout Amsterdam, Vienna and Copenhagen. London, even. When I lived in London I cycled everywhere. Fulham to Wandsworth was nothing, back before tea. Hammersmith to Islington. Highbury to Clapham Junction. And not only because I didn’t like blowing the soot out of my nose after every tube ride. Cycling is fun. It’s even fun in pink suede stilettos, diamantes and sleet, and, yes, I’ve done that. It’s fun everywhere except Auckland (because of the volcanos) and Sydney (because of the maniacs).
And that’s kind of sad because if cycling were fun here a lot more people would do it, and then things like street cafes and walking the dog and sleeping in the city and going to work and even going to the beach would be a lot more fun too, as well as quieter and cleaner. And prettier.
Oh, and there’d be a lot less chance of us dying from lung cancer, diabetes, drowning, drought, property wars, famine, arboviruses or generalised pestilence. That’s if you trust the International Panel on Climate Change. Which I suppose you might not, any more than you trust Darwin on evolution.
But both theories, if that’s what we’re calling them, have the edge on my humour-body fat hypothesis. Because the true cause of that classic mirror-eyed outta-my-way-scumbag Sydney cyclists’ scowl is not leanness. It’s not even that all cyclists are nerds or communists, though this may be true.
The true cause is fear. Serious existential bother. Sydney cyclists know every second driver is out to kill them, and the rest are random lane-changers and door-openers, ready to skewer them by the left shoulder and fast-lane them to kingdom come. Yet cycling is on the increase. Last year, bikes in Australia outsold cars for the ninth year running and by a healthy 38 per cent, which has also increased every year since 2001. Most households own a bike, and from 2001 to 2006 cycle commuting increased 28 per cent.
In Sydney, though, that increase was only 17 per cent – compare Melbourne’s 48 per cent. Lower than every other capital except Darwin. Lower than Canberra. Right now, Sydney’s proportion of bike commutes is under 1 per cent. The Roads Minister, Michael Daley, promises to increase this to 5 per cent by 2011; 10 per cent by 2016. He’d better get on his bike.
He’d also better muzzle the Roads and Traffic Authority. The RTA likes to sound bike-friendly. It has a 10-year cycle strategy with an update due any minute (read July). But, exhibit A: Bourke Street.
One of four major separated cycleways on which the city council will spend $77 million over four years, Bourke Street is one of Sydney’s prettiest, leafiest streets – the backbone of the so-called Paris end of Surry Hills. It is also, running from Woolloomooloo to Alexandria, one of the longest. In fact, its only defect is a slight but persistent fuminess. You know, as in traffic. Which should make it a yet-more-perfect candidate for a north-south cycleway. But not so fast.
Everything was going swimmingly, despite an initial hoo-ha about tree loss (there’s now a net gain) until enter the RTA, with its 15-metre setback rule for parking at intersections. This rule suddenly ballooned the half-dozen lost parking spaces to 110 (out of 469). Plus it’ll look vile, making bland that very Paris quality.
And that’ll only make people hate cyclists more – which may be the RTA’s hidden agenda. Anyone serious about whacking cyclists should understand how evolution is working here. For this is where Darwin’s theory and mine intersect. Of all the safety devices in cycling – helmets, cycle paths, awareness – the most effective is numbers. As numbers go up, deaths go down. The Dutch make 27 times as many bike trips as Americans, but are one-sixth as likely to die that way.
But here’s the sting in the tail. For the reason, you will see at once, is less chicken-and-egg than chicken-and-sperm. A dozen recent studies show links between cycling, perennial pressure, impotence and sterility. And it’s that hell-bent, cruel-seat racing posture that does it; the scowl posture. Sit upright, smile like a daffodil and your seed – all those little cyclists-to-be – can rest assured.