The five biggest cycling whinges (and why they're wrong)

What is it about cycling that brings out the fury in some people?

Whenever there's a news report on some aspect of bike riding, controversy is likely to follow.

In comments sections and on social media and talkback radio, you'll see and hear people working themselves up into a lather, as if bike riders are some dread scourge on society.

Often, the comments and complaints have little to do with the issue at hand. If it involves a bike, it's time to roll out the clichés, illogical contentions and tedious prejudices.

Here are five of the most persistent – and why they're wrong.

1. The eternal demands for rego

We'll start with the big one – the ongoing obsession in Australia about registering bicycles.

There is no licence plate system for bikes anywhere in the world, and past schemes (such as in WA) were abandoned for good reason. But for some people, it's a burning issue that they have to refer to every time the subject of bicycles comes up.

You can point out that rego doesn't, by itself, "pay for the roads", and we all contribute through general revenue; that cycling has multiple benefits, with one report showing a commuter cyclist saves the economy $21 a day; that police don't need rego to book cyclists; or any other of the more than 18 reasons why registering bikes is a bad idea. But some people just won't listen to logic.

I've also heard people say they won't give cyclists any consideration until they pay registration. Great. You're going to be hostile towards people because they don't have something that doesn't actually exist.


Crucially, the nation's authorities know it's not worth doing.

Last week in the NSW Parliament, when asked about any plans to implement registration or licences for cyclists, Roads Minister Duncan Gay said: "I rule it out."

It ain't gonna happen, people. Get over it. Move on.

2. 'They're all the same'

"Cyclists" is just a useful shorthand for people who ride bicycles, be it avidly, occasionally – even reluctantly.

But in the eyes of some, anyone on a bike belongs to a homogeneous tribe – and they don't like them.

In a previous blog I wrote that many people see bike riders as an "outgroup", defined as "a group of people excluded from or not belonging to one's own group, especially when viewed as subordinate or contemptibly different".

People on bikes become "them" and "they": "they're arrogant", "they think they own the road", "they need to earn respect".

A person with this bias might see dozens of considerate, law-abiding bike riders on their way to work, but if one does something stupid or illegal, that incident is seared in their memory. And somehow, "bloody cyclists" – as a group – get the blame.

3. 'Law-breaking cyclists'

News flash: All road user groups have individuals who break the law.

It's always fascinated me that pedestrians ignore crossing signals without much social opprobrium – but a cyclist treating a red light as a give way sign really makes some people's blood boil.

The law is the law, of course, but where does the true danger on our roads lie?

Increasingly, my biggest fear on the road is distracted driving. A bike saddle's elevation gives one a good view into cars, and it's terrifying how many people are fiddling with their phones as they drive. They are a danger to themselves and others - especially vulnerable road users.

One issue is that rules designed around cars aren't always ideal for bike riders, with one survey showing many cyclists break laws due to safety concerns. In some countries, key laws are being amended for bike riders.

Let's consider riding on the footpath.

Victoria and NSW are the last two states where it's illegal. The law was recently changed in South Australia and WA, with officials saying footpath riding would give cyclists an option to avoid intimidating roads.

But in March, the fine in NSW was increased by 50 per cent, and it's one of the largest categories of cycling fines issued.

Safety measure or punishable offence? Depends which side of the border you're riding.

4. Curious Lycra obsessions

Lycra might be the most comfortable clobber for a cycling endeavour, but of course, people ride bikes in any manner of clothing there is.

Nevertheless, cycling and Lycra have been conflated in many a jaundiced view, leading to tedious comments about "Lycra louts" and unkind observations about body shapes - and even homophobic slurs.

Shouldn't we rather be applauding people for getting active – especially if they are less than athletic in build?

Some people complain that Australia is too dominated by sports riders in bike-specific outfits, especially compared with European nations where the majority simply ride in what they're wearing.

Absolutely – but if you're involved in a collision or a near-miss, you might find yourself being blamed for not wearing high-visibility clothing. Damned if you do …

5. 'They get in the way'

Yes, it's true. Bikes can hold up cars. They are usually slower and need to be passed with care.

But in the grand scheme of congestion, how serious a problem is this? How many seconds does that add to your journey? I always find it amusing when a driver is desperate to get past me – only to be stopped by the line of cars up ahead.

Those aerial shots of gridlocked traffic snaking into a city? I've yet to see a situation where it's down to cyclists.

Meanwhile, a group of riders in a left-hand lane is often far more controversial than a car that is parked there all day.

As for cyclists "using the road for recreation": if you're driving to the beach, or to visit a friend, or to enjoy the scenery, it can be argued that you're doing the same thing.

The truth is, bikes circumvent and ease congestion – often by using backstreets and off-road paths, or sliding past gridlocked cars. A report in 2013 found the number of people cycling into Sydney's city centre each day would fill 116 buses, while across metropolitan Sydney there are more daily bike trips of 10 kilometres or less than there are ferry journeys.

Imagine what might happen if every rider gave it up.

Cities worldwide are turning to bicycles to improve commuter access, with Melbourne planning to increase bike use to one in four vehicles entering the city in the morning by 2020.

Sounds good to me. The more people there are on bikes, the better it will be for all. And hopefully, the tedious whinging will increasingly become a thing of the past.

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

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