Does the media help whip up anti-cyclist rage?

It almost seems a rite of passage. It certainly is a staple, and an extremely predictable one at that: the opinion columnist having a go at cyclists and cycling.

Last Thursday's contribution to this crowded genre was by Jane Fynes-Clinton, who managed to tick an impressive number of the boxes so humorously described in this article.

Cyclists take up space on the road. They don't "play nice" when travelling among cars. They break the law. They ride on roads as if they own them. They look silly in their activity-specific clothing, which offends because it is brightly coloured. They clog up coffee shops. And (a new complaint, following the launch of the Australian Cyclists Party) they are seeking "political muscle", despite the government's plan to look after their interests.

Fynes-Clinton writes for Brisbane's Courier-Mail, but gone are the days of opinions being limited to one city – for better or for worse. The article quickly spread across the internet, while Fynes-Clinton perhaps did herself no favours by tweeting: "The coffee shop grouping really is a growing problem. I was stuck last weekend coffeeless as a result."

Advocacy group the Amy Gillett Foundation was quick to reply, skewering the article and its accompanying images, while Alan Davies has also responded via his Urbanist blog on Crikey.

All fun and games, some might say. A bit of a wind-up, some robust opinions exchanged, and on we go. But many cyclists were expressing their concerns about the mood they might encounter on the roads that evening ...

It's a question many have asked before. Are media reports about cycling – be they controversy-seeking opinion pieces, newspaper campaigns against infrastructure, emotive reports on tabloid TV, or the endless complaining of "shock jock" radio announcers – an indirect source of danger to cyclists?

It'd be hard to quantify any actual increase in hostility to cyclists, but stirring up people's emotions is surely unlikely to lead to calmer and more considerate road behaviour.

Melbourne City councillor Stephen Mayne tackled sections of the media in August for their "ridiculous campaign" against a new bike lane on Princes Bridge, on the edge of the Melbourne CBD. In the ensuing controversy, some councillors called for the project to be delayed, but Lord Mayor Robert Doyle made an interesting observation: the lane was a safety measure, and delaying it might carry a human cost.


Two months later, it was reported that the lane was adding less than 50 seconds to car travel times (not the 10-20 minutes some had predicted). The number of cyclists using the bridge had risen 40 per cent.

Meanwhile, tales of road rage by motorists against cyclists abound. Such acts are seldom punished, but last week a rare legal win was recorded in Newcastle, with a man fined and suspended from driving after harassing bike riders.

As always, I rush to point out that almost all motorists do the right thing by cyclists (and bless their hearts, every one of them). And I'm not saying cyclists are above criticism – every societal sub-group has its idiots. The behaviour of all road users can and should be improved.

But I've heard many people express concern that media reports portraying bicycles as the great scourge of our roads might indirectly encourage dangerous behaviour by the haters out there. The people who skim past cyclists at speed, in order to scare them. Who tailgate, who hoot, who cut them off on purpose.

I'm not sure how much influence the media has on road behaviour. Sometimes I like to think that publicised controversies actually improve average road user behaviour – people don't want to be lumped in with the angry complainers.

But when I got on my bike last week, I thought of Queenslanders like Craig Cowled and Richard Pollett, and the damage a vehicle can do to an unprotected human. On Thursday afternoon, another report of a cyclist killed near Brisbane in a collision with a motor vehicle put it all in tragic perspective.

It's fair to say I did an extra bit of glancing over my shoulder that day.

Do you think media reports that are highly critical of cycling make things more difficult for bike riders?

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