Hey, Driver! Bike Riders Are People Too

Melissa Cranenburgh, former editor of Bicycle Victoria’s Ride On magazine, argues that we can learn to share the road – if we see each other as people who ride bikes/drive cars, rather than as warring tribes of ‘cyclists’ and ‘motorists’. Shane Warne, take note.

For those with preconceived notions of ‘cyclists’, let me introduce myself. I’m a short, thirty-something woman who generally rides around the city in everyday clothes (not lycra). I always stop at traffic lights and am a (frankly, annoying) stickler for road rules. I am regularly cheerful and often flash an unprovoked smile at passing pedestrians. And I always wave my thanks when the car drivers I share the road with show me unprovoked courtesy in turn. For example, when they don’t scream at me through an open passenger window or try to kill me by opening a car door as I approach at full tilt. (Incidentally: side mirrors, people. Use your side mirrors.)

So it may come as something of a shock to learn that I also, on occasion, drive a car. Confused? Let me explain.

You see, the terms ‘cyclist’ and ‘bike rider’ mean ‘a person riding a bicycle’. Similarly, ‘motorist’ and ‘car driver’ mean (bear with me now) ‘a person driving a car’. So – and this is where the lesson gets a little difficult for some folk (aka, the Australian media) to grasp – cyclists and drivers can actually be the same people.

Which puts paid to the little ‘bike riders don’t pay for the road’ argument. In fact, the average Australian bicycle commuter generally owns a car and therefore pays an annual registration fee. So … far from needing to pay a ‘bike registration’ fee, perhaps car-owning bike commuters should get a rebate for saving the road from additional wear and tear.

Bugbears aside, the main argument between these not-so-dissimilar groups – people riding bikes and people driving cars – is over the mode of transport they have chosen; each believes they should be able to use the road unhindered by the other. Crucially, though, there is still only a relatively small (if growing) number of people who regularly choose to ride bikes for transport. So, like many conflicts, this is about territory, a sense of entitlement and the rise of a paradigm-challenging minority group. It’s no accident that one of most common heckles bike riders hear is: ‘Get off the road’.

Melbourne is gradually moving from a car-dominated commuter culture to one that is slowly (slowly) accepting that this is not a sustainable option – either for the environment or for our quality of life. No one enjoys sitting in gridlock.

But the reality is that many car drivers in Melbourne just don’t expect to see bike riders – and are surprised, shocked, and even offended when they do. They are used to the concept of roads as something for cars and other motorised vehicles, not for more fragile, slower-moving, human-powered ones.

This psychological blindness is one of the biggest hurdles in good driver–bike-rider relations. It means that drivers are less likely to be on the look-out for cyclists, which makes it a potentially more volatile situation when they do encounter them. Many well-meaning drivers can even end up reacting angrily because they feel protective toward bike riders. ‘I could have killed you,’ one woman shouted at me, accusingly, after she partially opened a car door in front of me, nearly sending me into the path of an oncoming tram. (I was too shocked to point out that according to the road rules, it was her responsibility to look for cyclists before she opened her door.)

Equally, bike riders can feel personally targeted by what they perceive as car drivers’ casual indifference to their safety – but this ‘indifference’ may actually stem from the aforementioned psychological blindness to the other’s existence. For example, if a car driver suddenly comes from behind to merge in front of a swiftly moving bike rider, a hot-headed cyclist might then feel moved to wreak vengeance on the driver’s car bonnet at the next set of lights. Not socially acceptable, but sociologically explicable …

But, I think the confrontation between car drivers and cyclists can sometimes go much deeper. Cars, by totally encasing us in metal, can have a dehumanising effect. From within and without. It’s too easy not to see the person driving the car as a person, but as a ‘car’. Equally, from inside a car, a cyclist can start to look like some kind of mobile speed hump, taking up space on an otherwise nice, roomy road.

I was thinking about this dehumanising phenomenon while riding, not so long ago, when I felt a hard thump between my shoulder blades. I was momentarily winded, but managed to keep my bike under control just long enough to see a grapefruit-sized lemon roll off the road near me and a car speeding past – the sound of laughter cut short as it burned off.

Later that night, as my friend was checking out the bruise spreading across my back, I pondered that casual act of violence. I could certainly imagine a group of mates psyching each other up to see if they could ‘hit the cyclist’. But what if they’d thought of me not as a ‘cyclist’ – but as ‘a woman riding a bike’?

Melissa Cranenburgh is associate editor of the Big Issue and a former editor of Bicycle Victoria’s magazine, Ride On.

At the Wheeler Centre next Monday, we’ll be talking about Melbourne’s streets – and about transport issues in general – as part of our free events series, Ideas for Melbourne.

Transport and Movement (6.15pm-7.15pm, Monday 13 February) is the first in the series, which will be running all through next week, each weekday evening.