Is cycling in Australia really so bad?


That's how Tour de France winner Cadel Evans described his feelings about cycling in Sydney.

Evans cited several issues – narrow and busy roads, large distances to parklands, lack of infrastructure – but said aggression on the roads was the greatest disincentive.

"This could apply to many places in Australia but in Sydney the traffic is concentrated because the population is concentrated [so] that lack of respect and sometimes aggression is concentrated," the recently retired champion told Fairfax Media while launching his book The Art of Cycling last month.

Five days later, a second Australian cycling star used Twitter to describe his bad experiences in another state capital.

"I got abused more today in Adelaide while riding than I did all year in Europe," wrote Rohan Dennis, a former winner of the Tour Down Under.

Dennis went on to tell the Adelaide Advertiser: "Every day I ride here, I get abused more than once and come across aggressive drivers ... I had never, ever come across [that] in Europe. Today I just had enough, I didn't really want to come back to Australia to ride my bike any more."

Dennis said the issue was one of attitude, not infrastructure: "In Europe there are less bike lanes where I live and I don't get abused."

Vast and subjective question

The challenge of riding a bike in Australia is a regular topic among riders – especially those who have travelled abroad. Pretty much every rider has a story to tell.


Some have famous names: former prime minister Tony Abbott got blasted in Canberra, while then chief police commissioner Ken Lay once copped abuse in Victoria.

Meanwhile, visitors bring their own insights – such as the round-world cyclist whose Reddit post about his negative experiences in Australia went viral.

"In Denmark, everyone cycles to work and school," said a bemused Thomas Andersen. "Hating cyclists would be like hating walkers."

So, is Australia one of the more hostile places in the world for cycling? It's a question so vast and subjective, it's hard to know where to start.

Firstly, which countries are we comparing with? The whole world, the bike-loving lands of western Europe, the OECD – or maybe just the Anglosphere?

And which parts of Australia? Even cities such as Sydney are seen by some to have calm and more challenging zones. And what type of cycling are we discussing?

In the past decade, I've seldom travelled without a bike. Every place has taught me something – and coming back home will often amplify that lesson.

There are no easy answers to improving attitudes to cycling but here are a few thoughts on the subject.

Infrastructure drives change

I've watched with wonder (and envy) as cities around the world have been transformed by bike lanes in recent years.

This week, London's new mayor Sadiq Khan pledged to spend £770 million on cycling during his term in office. That's $1.3 billion – about 5.5 per cent of London's transport budget.

Such initiatives take commitment, as they almost invariably face vociferous opposition – and the effectiveness of bike lanes only becomes apparent once they are completed.

Some Australian cities are showing progress in this regard. But as Cadel Evans noted, mayoral efforts to build lanes in Sydney have been repeatedly impeded; meanwhile, Adelaide's fledgling Frome Street Bikeway has been an ongoing source of controversy.

Shared attitude

Separation is the ideal way to solve conflict between riders and drivers, but takes decades and millions to implement. If you're a keen sports cyclist, chances are you'll be sharing the roads for a long while yet.

Positive interaction then comes down to courtesy and respect. I once spent a couple of weeks riding in Norway, which has little in the way of bike lanes, and was amazed how cautious drivers were around me and other riders.

I've seen similar elsewhere in Europe and was surprised by good experiences in the UK, while even the crazy road culture of Sri Lanka appeared to contain little anger.

Laws and enforcement

Recently, minimum distance passing laws have been rolling out across Australia – with Tasmania planning to adopt the full measures, only Victoria, WA and the NT have yet to get on board.

There is controversy over their effectiveness, but the laws mark a change from one highly publicised approach to bike safety – blitzes on cyclist behaviour.

The crackdown tactic can create the impression that cyclists are a problem on our roads, despite research showing that in bike/car collisions, the latter is more likely to be at fault.

Australia also has harsh fines for helmet enforcement, which is almost unknown beyond the Antipodes.


Thankfully, one unique proposal – forcing adult riders in NSW to carry ID – was dumped last week.

Styles, trials and errors

While noting the challenges, I find Australia – and yes, even my home town of Sydney – an increasingly easy place to ride a bike.

Some of this can be down to types of riding – like many a commuter or utility cyclist, I use side streets, shared paths and bike lanes, where possible, to get to where I'm going (and I'm looking forward to using the ramps that will replace steps on the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge).

Meanwhile, through trial and error as a "roadie", I've figured out routes that work for me (while identifying roads that I never want to ride again).

I may have gotten better at anticipating and avoiding conflict situations – or maybe we're all getting better at that. Maybe the close pass laws are helping.

Mostly, I try to appreciate the majority who are doing the right thing, while doing my best to put bad experiences behind me.

The lucky cycling country

It always takes a mental shift when I return home after a cycling trip to places where the riding is easier.

And so I find it no surprise that Evans would rather fly from Sydney to his home in Barwon Heads to train, or that Dennis finds the Adelaide Hills so different to his European pedal-stomping grounds.

But here is where I live, and the alternative – staying off the bike – is just not an option. Besides, there is an upside.

As a friend told me: "We're lucky to love cycling in Sydney – because it means we'll probably love cycling even more wherever else we go."

And hopefully those differences will ease in years to come.

Have your say in the comments section.

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.

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