WTF?! A pro-bicycle helmet advertisement by the Danish Road Safety Council (yes, Danish!)

The idea that cyclists should share road space with drivers might sound like putting the fox in the hen house, but it’s the best option we’ve got for significantly expanding cycling in Australia.

A spokesman for the Brussels-based European Cycling Federation, Julian Ferguson, says the magic formula in Europe for boosting cycling is to “slow cars down to 30 km/h and where speeds are above this, you need to have separate, segregated paths.” (See here for other possible explanations).

I think the 30 km/h limit is good advice. It’s consistent with the recommendations of Toronto medico, Dr David Mckeown, who says a 30 km/h limit on residential streets and a limit of 40 km/h on other roads would improve safety for cyclists and pedestrians.

He points out a pedestrian has only a 5% chance of dying if struck by a car travelling at 30 km/h. However the likelihood of dying rises to 85% if the car is doing 50 km/h.

Of course a fully segregated system of paths for arterial travel is preferable but it’s going to be a long time coming. Funding for dedicated cycling infrastructure has always been limited but it’s now getting even harder to come by.

For example, the Baillieu Government in Victoria has completely stopped funding for new cycling infrastructure projects. Only a few councils – like the Cities of Sydney and Melbourne – are putting serious money into cycling infrastructure.

It’s not just lack of money though that’s holding back infrastructure. Dedicated cycle paths need to take road space away from motorists. That’s an enormously difficult task, as the City of Sydney recently discovered when the O’Farrell Government showed its displeasure and it’s power. Motorists won’t give up territory easily!

If we’re going to get reasonable cycling conditions within the lifetime of anyone reading this, we can’t rely solely on segregated infrastructure, as important and desirable as it is. The primary strategy for boosting cycling has to be use of existing roads. That requires two basic areas of action.

First, establish an arterial cycling network based largely on use of quiet residential streets. The ‘father’ of utility cycling in Australia, Alan Parker OAM, laid out the basic idea years ago.

Second, give cyclists priority over cars on the network. Make it clear the routes are for cyclists and residents; that cyclists have priority over drivers; and cars are restricted to a modest maximum speed – say 30 km/h.

The main road network is more problematic. Many cyclists will continue to use it but motorists will resist loss of roadspace and/or slower maximum speeds. It should be the priority for whatever infrastructure funding becomes available but, as noted above, that’s likely to be a slow and fraught path.

A more immediate priority should be pressing for highly visible changes to the law to emphasise cyclists’ legitimate right to the roads. I support the moves to legislate on “dooring” and requiring motorists to provide a minimum one metre clearance when overtaking cyclists. Increasingly though, I’m drawn to the simpler idea that cyclists should have a legal right to occupy the centre of the road (or the centre of the outside lane).

The same story that quotes Julian Ferguson also quotes German Cycling Association spokesman Rene Filipek arguing that Australia needs to abandon its mandatory helmet legislation before it can grow cycling seriously. According to Mr Filipek:

Most traffic experts in Germany say mandatory helmet laws will bring no positive effects because the use of bicycles will decrease and for this we always have the example of Australia, because this is what happened there.

As I’ve pointed out before (e.g. here and here), that’s not an accurate account of what happened in Australia in the early 90s. Moreover, there are many reasons to think we’ve moved on since then and compulsory helmets no longer seriously restrain cycling in this country.

We have to be careful the task of increasing cycling levels isn’t made conditional on a non-existent constraint. That’ll just deflect attention from more important and more achievable ways of improving cycling.

Freedom from mandatory helmets isn’t why the residents of Amsterdam and Copenhagen cycle in such large numbers. It’s the other way around – they don’t wear helmets because it’s safe not to.

And cycling’s safe because drivers in those cities are sympathetic to cyclists; because the law supports cyclists; and because there’re separated bike paths on many major roads.

So while dedicated  infrastructure is highly desirable, the pragmatic thing to do is to put at least equal effort into the sorts of institutional changes that will enable cyclists and drivers to share road space as happily and safely as possible. However compromises are inevitable – a 30 km/h limit is probably only plausible in the inner suburbs at this time.