Running traffic lights

image

The driver of this car almost hit my wife, me and another lady as we were crossing the street yesterday evening. That’s the junction of Tory and Courtenay, one of the busiest pedestrian areas in Wellington. If the driver wasn’t watching for people crossing, what was he looking at?

My wife shouted to be careful. The driver pointed to the pedestrian light and said, “It was red!” No word of apology for operating his heavy machinery without due care and attention.

So I’m posting the unapologetic idiot’s registration plate here.

One: INFRASTRUCTURE: Why the @#$% do traffic lights in the city go green for people and cars at the same time (of a half-second apart)?

Two: DRIVERS: Why do motorists drive according to the traffic lights (and hover around the speed limit on signs) not conditions on the street?

Three: DRIVERS AGAIN: Why do drivers never apologise for causing danger?

New Zealand’s ‘helmet lady’ cult

Not time to repeal NZ's bicycle helmet law yet?

Not time to repeal NZ’s bicycle helmet law yet?

What with Schumacher’s helmeted skiing fall in the news and this new graph (above) from Chris Gilham doing the rounds, I thought it high time to post the following.

For lots of reasons I won’t go into here, a little over three years ago I moved to New Zealand.

Along with Australia, NZ’s one of those places that all non-sporty cyclists avoid like the plague. Back home in Europe, people who ride bikes tend to be aware of these two countries’ bizarre, victim-blaming bicycle helmet laws. They tend to know that these laws haven’t worked and have allowed politicians, motorists and traffic engineers to ignore effective bicycle safety measures in favour of helmet crackdowns.

Happy New Year to all of you! To see in 2014, my wife and I went camping. The large campsite an hour from the capital, Wellington, was packed full of families with kids. With bicycles! People rarely drive much in a campsite and then at under 10 kph, so this was a very safe place to ride a bike. And almost all the kids (and some adults) were riding round on bikes. On the grass, on the tarmac road, on the gravel walkways (not easy!). Not a single helmet anywhere. (In truth, I saw one, dangling from a kid’s handlebars as her dad walked alongside the bike.) Looking around, it seemed shockingly evident that mainstream New Zealand has little firm belief in helmets.

In my three-plus years in NZ, I’ve noticed New Zealand is being increasingly exposed to images of helmet-free people on bikes through advertising too. Moreover, around Wellington this summer, the number of helmet-free riders I’m seeing is, on many days, more than the number of helmeted ones.

Are these not signs of a tide turning?

In 1994, the NZ government brought in the bicycle helmet law. The main impetus for it was one woman whose son was knocked off his bike by someone driving a car. The woman was Rebecca Oaten (aka. ‘the helmet lady’) from the university town of Palmerston North. And her son Aaron. Aaron was riding his mountain bike to school at the moment he was hit by a motorist and lived the rest of his life (until his sad passing in 2010) as a tetraplegic.

Absurdly, Oaten then toured the country for six years, driving to four schools a day (therefore probably endangering schoolchildren all over the country) to ‘furiously‘ promote bicycle helmets which are not and have never been designed for collisions with motor vehicles. Her emotive (largely science-free) crusade around New Zealand schools is responsible for frightening kids into deep fear of helmet-free cycling (and cycling itself) and ensuring parents all over the country drive their kids to school - contributing hugely to road danger during school commutes.

Oaten formed a lobby group to pressure the government to implement a helmet law. The rest is history.

Palmerston North is almost completely flat. It’s less than 10km from side to side. It is also home to a major university and a large polytechnic college. It therefore has everything to be an obvious cycling town. But it also has awful cycle lanes for the hometown of NZ’s staunchest bicycle safety campaigner. The cycle lanes are not protected from motor vehicles, are invariably on the wrong side of parked cars, and are more often than not filled with (legally!) parked cars. Percentage of people who get around by bike? 5%.

Pedestrian build-outs and car parking spaces render many of Palmy's bicycle lanes 'pointless'

Palmerston North: pedestrian build-outs and car parking spaces render most of the city’s bicycle lanes unusable.

The helmet law had the effects observed in Gilham’s graph above. No-one seems sure how much of this is due to helmets being uncomfortable, the inconvenience of having to buy/wear/carry/store one, the dangerising of helmet-free cycling, the dork factor, or simply not enjoying being hassled and fined by the police for not wearing one. All of the above?

Moreover, the demographic group hardest hit by the law was the safest bicycle riders. The remaining riders – sporty and risk-taking – now get into more crashes because they ride too fast to avoid problems (from Australia: Monash Cyclist Crash Study Report 311, 2012: 44% of cyclists who crashed were riding drop-bar racing bikes, 47% were wearing cleated cycling shoes). The effect on the ‘average’ safety of cyclists is clear from Gilham’s graph above. The safer cyclists may well still be as ‘safe’ as they were previously – despite lowered safety in numbers – but they are few compared to the racers.

Here’s what should have happened, had Ms. Oaten channelled her energies in a less victim-blaming, more danger-preventing direction. The Netherlands had a similarly emotional and hard-hitting public campaign against the main cause of road danger: cars. Stop the Child Murder.

It’s easy to imagine what the wide streets of New Zealand towns could look like with safe, Dutch infrastructure.

no caption

Wellington, New Zealand vs. Wellington, Nieuw-Zeeland

Ms Oaten has acknowledged that more people would ride bikes if they did not have to wear a helmet, “but how many of those would end up brain-damaged or dead?” For the record, my partner works in neurosurgery – that’s medical jargon for dealing with head injuries. The number of bicyclists she has seen in 4 years? Zero. Number of seriously head-injured motorists? Many. Ms Oaten says “if it prevents one injury [the helmet law] is worth it” but fails to see that making it compulsory for car occupants to wear crash helmets would definitely save far more brain injuries in absolute numbers per year. For some reason she hasn’t made that suggestion yet.

The most common cause of devastating, life-changing brain damage that my partner sees? Strokes, due in large part to inactive lifestyles.

Well done, Ms Oaten, well done.

Drop what you’re thinking

We all have long-held beliefs. Many of them are perfect conventional. The problem with long-held conventional beliefs is they’re often out of date. They’re based on information with a shelf life that has passed.

Take road engineers and their political masters with their 1950s vision of our transport future…

Wait. That’s very, very important. But…

Please let’s start closer to home: Do we, all of us who already ride, still believe we should be campaigning for better conditions for cyclists?

The average Joe or Jo doesn’t give a flying proverbial about cyclists. S/he doesn’t care about cycle lanes or cycle safety and would rather you didn’t keep harping on like you’re all that.

When we ask for investment in cycling, we get… as much money as anything that the general public holds no keen interest in.

So, what do people care about? What superordinate goals do we have in common?

There are plenty of noble and hot-button issues that unite us: freedom, equality, fairness, choice, quality of life, quality of neighbourhoods, greenery, child safety… Personally I believe the latter is paramount. The famed ‘Stop the Child Murder’ campaign in the Netherlands used this, and it is still powerful. Child safety is an issue that unites people, that can grab the attention of a large enough segment of a disillusioned and distracted public to make a difference. Think of Pudsey bear.

Our streets are massively unsafe for children. Traffic safety experts count how many people are killed or injured on our streets, but not how many children are using them. Not how many children are locked away inside for fear of being knocked down and killed in their own street. Short version: do we care more about our cars or our kids?

I’d suggest we’d do better to campaign for a wholesale ‘war on anti-child streets’ than to harp on selfishly about space for cyclists. We do no favours – to ourselves nor our children – if we don’t.

What’s your opinion?

How share the road works

Share the Road

Picture yourself driving your car along the motorway. Suddenly a massive plane, vastly larger and faster than you, WWWWHOOSHes past you. It misses by a terrifiyingly narrow breadth.

The experience leaves you shaken. You question whether driving is the best way to get around when pilots can get away with driving like that. You tell a friend later and she says, “Driving’s so dangerous. Why don’t you just take the plane like everyone else?”

There’s a good reason that car traffic is safely separated and protected from jet aircraft. Stop turning a blind conscience to this danger: write to your local representative right now and demand protected cycle lanes.

Education is not the answer

Yesterday I saw a video that shocked me. It’s a Scottish current affairs show, which first regales the viewer with (sceptically voiced) insights into bicycle infrastructure in the Netherlands, then descends into a debate (from 5:00) over whether Scotland should invest in safe bicycle infrastructure.

Representing safe cycling: the chair of CTC Scotland who (not mentioned) is an experienced trauma surgeon. Representing mockery of cycling: a ‘journalist’ (not mentioned: motoring journalist) who is (also not mentioned) a member of (anti-bicycle organisation) the Institute of Advanced Motorists.

Takeaway: willful ignorance delivered in a charismatic and light-hearted fashion wins against dull facts in a monotone.

Have you seen the (frankly excellent) film Thank You for Smoking? The debate reminded me of this scene where the highly effective tobacco lobbyist demonstrates to his son how to win an argument.

Compare (academic, scolding) anti-obesity ‘education’ with slick, we-bring-joy campaigns from Coke, McDo et al.

 

Compare tobacco marketing – pushed by ‘cool‘ friends, based on fashionable role models – with (academic, scolding) anti-smoking campaigns. “Don’t guilt-trip me! Don’t lecture me! I can make my own decisions, thank you!” (To see a good use of persuasion, cast your eyes over this guilt-free, norm-acknowledging anti-smoking campaign from Canada here.)

Compare (academic, lecture-y) climate change warnings with the emotion-based ‘common sense’ of denier literature.

Compare Bike to Work Day campaigns – healthy, fun, statistically safe! – with your average slick car commercial - freedom, status, power, control! (The Cycle Chic movement and, here in NZ, Frocks on Bikes are largely on to the right idea.)

Takeaway: ‘Education’ is largely a pointless waste of money, unless we deliver it with charm, humour, laden with meaningful human values, delivered in an entertaining way and with a single-minded focus on the benefits that will win over the audience. Hearts (as well as minds) demand to be won.

Confessions of a footpath rider

I admit I sometimes ride on the footpath. Never at more than a slow jogging pace. Never ever when I’m in a hurry. Never without the utmost attention and priority to people on foot and shop doorways. Never without a genuine smile and a thank you if people choose to step aside to let me pass. Sometimes with a polite tinkle of my little bell to let people know there’s a bike behind them. Usually at walking speed – pushing the bike takes up more space. Always striving to make a good impression. Never an issue.

Until today.

With half an hour to kill, all my errands run and no destination in mind, I decided to enjoy the sunshine and simply meander round town. I was moving at a time-wasting pace, peeping into the odd shop window and people watching from my saddle. Not wanting to get hit by a car or bus while doing this, I rode on the footpath. It was wide and only one other person was on it the whole length of the block.

Oh, wait! A middle-aged gent steps onto the footpath. He glances daggers at me and strides determinedly toward my tiny (Brompton) front wheel with eyes that say ‘I’ll run you off the road’. “It’s a footpath, you know,” he seethes, just loud enough to hear.

Technically what I’m doing is still illegal (in some countries, including here). In Japan, everyone rides on the footpath at some point. The footpath Japanese ridewith utmost attention and priority to people on foot and shop doorways – but if you want to go fast, you get on the road. Same in most countries: it’s illegal but tolerated, as long as you’re causing no danger. This is my principle.

I meander easily out of his path and ignore him. He changes direction sharply so he doesn’t continue headlong into a brick wall. 

Skateboarder

This is where I made a decision. From now on, my efforts to make a good impression of bicycle users will be a full-on charm offensive.

There are so many ways I could have dealt with him. Here are some, from least effective to (perhaps) most.

Insult:

  • “Grow up.”

Argue / Play with his words:

  • “What’s making me move – my hands?”
  • “Are wheelchairs not allowed here? Mobility scooters?”
  • “It’s a sidewalk: are jogging and skateboarding not allowed?”

Try to understand his attitude:

  • “Why do you hate bicycles?”

Help him see the bigger issue of infrastructure:

  • “Ever tried walking along the road here? There’s a good reason people choose not to mix with cars.”
  • “How safe do you consider the bicycle paths that New Zealand provides?”
  • “Consider why bicycles mix better with people than with cars.”

Build a relationship in which I listen to and try to understand him in order to build enough trust that he might listen to and try to understand me:

  • “Excuse me, hi, I’m Adam. What’s you name, sorry? Do you ever ride? …” And a productive and understanding relationship (hopefully) starts.

I might also have been able (largely in jest) to point out that he had just ‘jay’ walked across the street, which is technically still illegal (in some countries, including here), and is just as daft a law as flat-out banning all bicycle use on the footpath.