I had a brilliant week in Melbourne as a guest of the State of Design Festival. Loads of interviews and events that all culminated with my keynote speech on the Saturday.
There was, however, an event on the Saturday morning - July 26, 2010 - that was extremely interesting to be a part of. A group of citizens, rallied together by filmmaker and bicycle advocate Mike Rubbo, decided to go for a bicycle ride together on Melbourne's new bike share system bikes. A splendid idea. Melbourne's bike share system is shiny new, although unlike most cities in the world with a bike share programme, only 70-odd people are using them each day. In Dublin, by contrast, there are over 30,000 subscribers. Not to mention the cracking successes in Paris, Barcelona, Seville and most of the over 100 cities with such systems.
So, a group of people, many of them Copenhagenize.com readers, fancy a bike ride. Sounds lovely enough. They met up at the bike racks at Melbourne University. Hired the bikes without a problem. Now the tricky bit is that you can rent a bike spontaneously - the whole point of such systems - but you then have to figure out how to get a bike helmet. The State of Victoria, like all Australian states (not Northern Territory... they repealed their all-ages helmet law when they saw cycling levels fall drastically) has an all-ages mandatory bike helmet law. The bike ride was a demonstration to point out that a bike share system won't work with a helmet law and that Australia's failed helmet laws should be reconsidered.
I arrived at about 09:40, together with my son, Felix. After greeting some of the people I noticed two Melbourne bicycle cops lingering nearby. Speaking in low tones, eying the 'mob'. They had been there since 09:00, waiting for this 'demonstration' to kick off. Seriously. Two city employees lingering, doing nothing, for an hour because some people had announced they were going for a bike ride. Mike Rubbo had generated some good pre-press about the ride. Like this from the ABC and this article in The Age newspaper.
It included this poll, which signals a sea change in public opinion in Australia: Should public-bike scheme users be excused from wearing helmets? Yes... 71% No.... 29% Total votes: 13885
(it was actually Felix, aged 8, who took this shot, which makes this dad proud, but that's another story...)
There were loads of cameras and journalists present during the whole event. People going for bike rides must be big news in Australia. After Mike Rubbo did the talking to the press the group was off.
All in all, it was a frightfully well-dressed demonstration and with the exception of the recent Velo-City Global conference in Copenhagen and conferences in La Rochelle and Lleida, Catalunya, I hadn't before been with such a large group of well-informed people who knew their science about helmets and who were so passionate about promoting cycling.
Here is one of the bike racks for the bike share bikes and here's Felix joining the press corps to document the event. It was great to have him along to witness this little slice of democracy. I explained the whole situation to him as neutral as possible.
What from I understand the University of Melbourne grounds were private property so the police - and camera crews - tagged along as the group rode away.
As soon as the group hit the mean streets of Melbourne, the police moved in. Three bicycle cops and three (!) police cars were in action to tackle the 20+ well-dressed people on bicycles. Comical.
After some discussion the police informed the group that they wouldn't be ticketed but if they decided to continue riding, they would be. Six or seven of the group set off. And enjoyed it!
They were all ticketed accordingly. The fine for cycling without a helmet in Melbourne is a whopping $160. Not exactly encouraging people to cycle, now is it. Fining them for contributing to lower pollution levels, better public health, etc etc. is hardly the way to build the foundations of a bicycle culture. In contrast, Sydney is experiencing a greater boom in cycling, despite having less infrastructure, largely because they don't bother punishing cyclists for riding bicycles without helmets.
After the evildoers were duly punished, we all walked our bikes for the rest of the short route. One chap was straddling his bicycle and was told to dismount. Straddling bicycles is, apparently, illegal.
After the formalities were complete and the route was completed, the bikes were returned and we retired to a local café for a coffee. Pleased with the results, pleased that a debate, hopefully and finally, has been launched in this country. Hopeful that the work of so many Australians may finally reach a greater audience. Dr Dorothy Robinson, Prof. Piet de Jong, Chris Gilliam, Bill Curnow, et al.
John Pucher does most of the talking in the interview but renowned documentarist turned cycling blogger Mike Rubbo is quoted as well.
It's an interesting angle in the article. Mr Rubbo has gotten hold of the upright bike angle in order to differentiate what I call Citizen Cyclists from sports enthusiasts. Indeed, his blog is named Sit-Up Cycle.
In every city on the planet where cycling is mainstream transport, the majority of the people you see resemble the chap on the right, and on bikes like that. Hilly cities, flat cities, cold cities, hot cities, established bicycle-friendly cities and developing bicycle-friendly cities.
Using this bicycle design angle is fresh. It is, after all, the most popular bicycle design on the planet. Should we guess by 10 to 1? It's worked for more than a century in every country and across every topography.
The sports bike manufacturers have had free reign regarding marketing for a few decades in many countries. They may have encouraged a few people to join cycling clubs, take up recreational cycling on the weekends and maybe even inspired some cycle sport stars who we love to watch in Le Tour or the Giro. Great but hardly mainstream. Hardly re-democratizing the bicycle and re-establishing it as transport in any great numbers.
So why not focus on bicycle design in order to sell urban cycling to the masses? Upright bikes may be exotic to many in countries like Australia now, but they used to be a main feature on the urban landscape. Maybe it's time to let the 'other' bike brands have a go. The Batavus', Velorbis', Pashley's, et al. Let a whole new demographic realise that they don't have to invest in space age bicycles and all the gear. Tell them, "Um... you don't actually have to look like a 'cyclist' to ride a bike..." And pssst... it's safer sitting upright...
They couldn't do worse for selling cycling than decades of sports branding. I'll bet they'll get a lot further, a lot quicker. The results will be brilliant for society. The sports industry won't give up without a fight, of course, but a little competition never hurt. We're talking about a 'second cycling culture' after all, not a replacement cycling culture.
Although judging by many of the comments under the article, there is an uphill battle. Then again, it's the City That Hates Bikes...
Mr Rubbo made a film following Sue on the day she showed up in court, which you can see above. She lost her case, which wasn't really a surprise, but the judge didn't really take her position seriously, which really is his job. Sue has now decided to appeal, taking her battle for bicycling freedom to the next level.
Good luck to her. We haven't had bicycle 'activists' in Denmark for many years but we certainly used to and anyone fighting to ride a bicycle as they see fit gets our respect. Not least because it's also about questioning society's tendency to ignore the problem - the automobile.
Mr Rubbo was also present at a bicycle conference in Melbourne where a bike share programme was presented. With this film he explores the problems of implementing a bike share programme in a city with mandatory helmet laws. The woman interviewed calls it a 'vexing problem' and she proposes making cheap helmets available FOR SALE at convenience stores and fast food outlets that are open late.
Basically, you want a bike. Before - or after - you get a bike the idea is that you go to a shop or fast food joint somewhere [hopefully] nearby and buy a cheap helmet. Then off you go.
Kind of defeats the purpose of ease of use and accessibility. Making helmets available for borrowing doesn't work due to the issue of sanitation. Lice and happy-sounding skin diseases like Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus are among the reasons that make sharing helmets undesirable in such schemes. There is no cost efficient way to sanitize helmets in bike share programmes. Australian authorities have known this for ages and don't really know how to tackle the problem. Buying a helmet for a short trip from A to B seems a bit far-fetched.