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Photographs of the ‘old’ Parliament House in Canberra showed long rows of bicycle racks, and no private car parking. The Prime Minister of the day, a policy giant in comparison to current pygmies, rode a pushbike to work and parked it in the lobby. He’d also had an honest job as a train driver. The majority of MPs also rode bikes, as did the staff. The first shearing team I encountered in Australia rode bikes from the railway station to the shearing shed: the dropped ‘racing’ handlebars were reversed and stuck up like a bullock’s horns. At the Newcastle steel works, bike racks stretched for hundreds of yards, each one allocated, and when you started you were at the far end. Old hands were closer to the entrance gate and the Bundy. In my first library job in 1954, only the boss had a car. The rest of us biked or bussed, including the women and girls.
Two hundred years ago this month, a wooden prototype bicycle took to the road. The ride lasted for an hour, and motor vehicles hadn’t been invented. Bicycles have come a long way since then, both technically and socially and are a recognised means of transport, recreation and an avenue to physical fitness. They were a symbol of freedom for workers, women and children. Remember the utter joy of your first bike? Bicycles are not disliked by motorists for their share of road wear and tear, but for the space that they need.
Bicycles have to fight for their right to a place on the road, and for courtesy in traffic. The majority of cycle tracks in Australia are provided by local government, and that’s largely in Melbourne, Adelaide and Canberra. State and Federal governments are, simply, not interested. Cyclists always come off worse in a collision with a car, which is the form in which most serious cycling accidents occur. And in four out of ten such accidents, it is the car – or its driver – who is at fault. A random sample of more than 1,000 adults nationally has found that despite the majority of people owning or having access to a bike, seven in 10 were not considering cycling as a form of transport in the near future. Of those respondents, half said they would like to ride a bike more regularly but things would have to be different. Overwhelmingly, unsafe road conditions were the number one reason why people weren’t using their bikes as transport. The joint study by the Cycling Promotion Fund and the National Heart Foundation of Australia found 80 per cent of people would like to see more bike paths separated from
We need a presumed liability law that protects vulnerable road users. Similar laws have been introduced in Canada and in many European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and France. Under these laws, sometimes also referred to as
‘reverse onus’ or ‘strict liability’ laws, drivers must prove that a collision with a cyclist or a pedestrian was not their fault.
These laws affect civil cases only and do not remove the presumption of innocence. In criminal law, drivers in collisions with vulnerable road users remain innocent until proven guilty. It’s also not about always blaming motorists; for example, if a cyclist ran a red light and caused a collision, they would obviously be at fault and would not receive compensation. An Australian version of these laws would mean that cyclists were more likely to be fairly compensated in the event of a crash. More importantly, such laws would encourage motorists to take extra care when driving alongside vulnerable road users. Better cycling infrastructure, reduced speed limits in residential areas, and improved education for drivers and cyclists are all needed to keep our roads safe for everyone.
Tasmania, curiously, lags behind other states: the creation of bike lanes is always furiously disputed here. But imagine if a network of cycle tracks was laid across the state, with small guest houses at 100 kilometre intervals. Think of the jobs that would be needed to build and service them and feed and entertain the bikers, wash their clothes! Cycle tourists would come here from all over the world, and the tracks would cost a fraction of tourist roads and manufactured walking tracks to build and maintain. Victoria is already doing this, using former railway tracks as a foundation for bikeways, and a small start has been made in NE Tasmania.
Come back, Nick McKim. Where are you, David Bartlett?
John Fleming II
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