European style cycling in Newcastle?

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I love seeing images of European streets with streams of bicycles flowing along the street, dominating the cityscape, their riders almost ethereal in their calmness. I dream about the day when we might see such sights in Newcastle without it being a peloton of training cyclists or just a group on a social ride.
So it struck me as a little odd when recently, at a talk given by a fellow bike aficionado who had recently travelled to Berlin, when she said that riding there was too relaxing and calm, that she missed the constant vigilance that we need to maintain to ride safely here: the constant checking for cars over the shoulder, the incessant watching of the ground for obstacles: gutter ramps to ensure they don’t have unexpected bumps, potholes, broken glass and grates, all potential dangers to the unwary cyclist.
When I ride in areas that are potentially hazardous but that have a large number of cyclists there is not the same quality of cyclists all following the same line that I see in those European images. Bikes are crossing in different places, and cars and pedestrians and maybe a railway crossing all add to the confusing mix. The whole scene becomes overwhelming with so much to take in and so many hazards to avoid. There is not the safety in the numbers or in the habitual riding the same procession that occurs in European cities. It makes me wonder if it will ever be possible on Australian streets to replicate the cyclists’ nirvana that European streets appear to be. Will we ever choose to travel that same path together and to possess the assurance that will gain the respect of the car drivers that we share the roads with?

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Unusual bikes seen around Newcastle lately

photo-62Pink fixie at Bar Beach

photo 2-14E-scooter near Civic Park

photo 1-12Chopper style bike outside Town Hall

photo-63Retro styled penny farthing beside Throsby Creek

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Three road incidents have a good outcome for cycling

After the accident last weekend where six cyclists riding in a group were hit by a car in a hit and run, and the public awareness raised by that incident, the scene was set for more tolerant treatment of cyclists when two more incidents involving cars and bikes occurred, both being recorded on camera and both going viral on the internet. Luckily, none of these cyclists was killed, though some were injured.

It is rare that prosecutions are made in favour of cyclists in Autralia, in spite of the letter of the law. Often, there is little evidence or, in the case of doorings, the magistrate will feel sorry for the car driver who is often traumatised by the incident and very regretful. In most cases, a lenient fine may be given, or no sanction at all. This is hardly fair, nor does it help the cause of cycling on the roads.

In the two most recent cases, the video evidence and the subsequent widespread viewing, showing the identity of the offenders involved, meant that it was difficult for authorities to ignore. In the case of the dooring, one man even turned himself in. The other accident, where a cyclist was hit from behind, was also captured in terrifyingly graphic footage by a passing car’s camera, and it is a wonder that the cyclist was not seriously injured or worse. The subsequent $600 fine and 6 months’ loss of licence is seen by some to be adequate and a step in the right direction by the courts, and by others as grossly inadequate.

Another good outcome from all of this horror is that inappropriate comments made on the media reporting of the first incident were removed by the newspapers at the request of cycling advocacy bodies. Many of them were unrelated to the incident and were the usual bike hatred along the lines of “cyclists should pay rego and why do they always run red lights”, and possibly worse. This is victim shaming of the worst possible nature and was finally seen by the media to be so.

It is hard to see some good outcomes when such bad things happen, but so far it appears that some form of justice will prevail in these incidents and that public opinion may be swayed in favour of cyclists and their rights on the roads.

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Does the way we enact and enforce our laws shape cycling culture?

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There are many deterrents to cycling in our city, as well as across the whole country:

  • the perception of danger when riding on the roads is largely a subjective one held by car drivers who don’t ride bikes and who often hold a belief that bike riding is inherently unsafe
  • much of the infrastructure, which is not separated from cars, and which can encourage bike riders to make unsafe choices about where to ride eg when using roundabouts and riding in the car door lane
  • mandatory helmet laws, which make cycling appear even more unsafe by requiring a helmet here in Australia, whereas pedestrians and car drivers do not require the same PPE even though the risk is there for them as well
  • council taking an inordinately long time to repair or build bike tracks, preventing cyclists from using paths for up to 6 months, this would never be tolerated on a road, especially if it were busy
  • Our laws about driving slowly near schools vs Dutch laws which discourage parents driving kids to school (see David Hembrow’s blog for information on this)

What is needed is government taking the initiative in Newcastle to shape the way we move around our city, this is the only way to change these perceptions.

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Bicycle parking makes a political statement

IMG_9176Take a second look at this seemingly cute vintage car parked in Darby St. It is actually a bike rack with several bikes tied up in it, and also a number of planter boxes, making the street prettier and providing plenty of secure parking spaces for bikes at the same time. When I took this photo I did not realise that it was making a statement that one car equals ten bikes – in terms of parking spaces at least. This is a movement that is spreading, encouraging those that see it to think about the amount of space a car takes up on the road compared to a bike, and not just necessarily just parking space.

In practical matters, this piece of infrastructure also offers much better bike parking than the usual footpath located bike racks, as it does not take up space on the footpath, but it does protect the bikes from passing cars. And the styling of this one, with its retro cuteness and plantings, adds to the look of the streetscape as well.

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Riding an ebike

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Although I have written about the benefits of an ebike before, I had not actually ridden one until last weekend. It was to attend a meeting at Nobbys lighthouse cottage and, as I did not have my bike with me, this Gazelle ebike was offered to me for transport. photo 3-3I have to say it was a great riding experience and this is why: the Gazelle is a high quality bike with first class inclusions. Also, the electric motor is an experience in itself. It is totally silent, which, when combined with the newness of the bike, makes this a truly smooth and silent ride. It also does not just propel you along, because if you don’t pedal, you don’t move. The motor matches the effort the rider puts in, so you can’t just slacken off and tag along for the ride, which is definitely a temptation with a bike like this. Acceleration on taking off, however, is fantastically powerful and would be very useful at traffic lights and intersections. There is also an extra speed boost function activated via the control panel which is helpfully located near the left handgrip and merely requires a thumb press to activate or to change the settings. Additionally, there are 7 gears in an internally geared Shimano hub. I must admit that having the extra power readily available proved too tempting to me and that for most of the time I rode it I had the motor activated, though I only used the additional power boost function when riding up the very steep hill to the lighthouse. And I was able to ride the whole way up that hill, arguably the steepest in Newcastle, without walking!
I don’t have a need for an ebike, but if I had a long and/or hilly commute, an ebike could make riding to work everyday a much more likely probability. Anyone who is put off some of their riding because of those reasons would be well placed to get a bike like this one. If it makes you ride, or ride more often, it would be well worth the investment.photo 1-10A new bike shop will soon be opening in Newcastle selling these bikes, enquiries can be made via … sales@metrocycles.com.au or phone 0438 556378.
On-line sales  are coming soon and the Newcastle West shop is opening in July.

This is not a sponsored post.

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Riding the new bike path on the Pacific Highway, Merewether Heights

photo 3-2This new bike path has been open for some months now, it has attracted a great deal of attention, and rightly so. It is state of the art for a bike path along an urban highway on a stretch of road that has a fairly fast speed limit for cars (70kph), so keeping bikes separate and safe is high priority. Additionally, it cost in the vicinity of $1m, a lot for a short path. Also, and most importantly, it provides a link for riders between Fernleigh Track and Merewether Heights, leading to the beaches and/or the city.

photo 1-9I chose to ride from Fernleigh Track, despite worrying that the exit from the track to Faul Street, where the new path joins the highway, would be difficult to locate, I need not have worried though, as it is very well signposted. Riding up Faul Street and the neighbouring streets was not especially pleasant, though, as they are all so hilly, but being back streets and very quiet, there is no threat to cyclists.

photo 2-10I had also been concerned that the path would feel unsafe, being so close to speeding cars and having the inward curving rail at the top of the separation barrier as you can see. I need not have worried however, it felt very safe to ride along this path. I realise, though, that this sense of safety may be misleading: if a speeding car went out of control along here and ran into the bike path, I do not know what would happen, though the separating barrier seems very solid.

photo 4Good visual warning of obstacles is well thought out, and needed, as the track is not terribly wide. I would guess that 3 bikes could fit across this path,  allowing overtaking if a bike was approaching in the opposite direction, but it would be a tight squeeze and all riders would have to have good judgment on their placement on the path. I would definitely not recommend passing at the juncture pictured above.

My overall reaction to this path is that it is an excellent piece of infrastructure, in a relatively important part of the overall cycling infrastructure in Newcastle. Riding along it, in contrast to riding along the side of the highway as it was before, feels much safer and gives cyclists a strong sense of having a place on the road. As for value for money, it is an expensive one kilometre path, and there are other projects that would have delivered better returns for those dollars. However, this one was funded by the RMS which does not have jurisdiction over all roads here, and would not have been able to put a path in, say, Hunter Street, where it would have served a much better purpose and have had much greater use.

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