Five contentious things people say about cycling

I know people warn against it ("don't read the comments!"), but observing what is said on social media and comments threads can provide some interesting insights into what people think about cycling issues.

Yes, there is often a disturbing amount of vitriol, callousness and even hatred, which is grimly bewildering in itself – why are some people so angry about people riding bicycles?

But I also find a lot of general misunderstanding about cycling issues – including road rules and safety concerns – with some regular themes popping up.

Here's how I would respond to five of them:

'Cyclists break the metre passing laws'

In the minimum distance passing laws in force across most of Australia, motor vehicles must give at least a metre when passing bike riders in speed zones of 60km/h or less, and at least 1.5 metres in higher speed zones.

But the rule is specifically for motor vehicles passing bikes – not the other way round. It should be obvious why this is the case: motor vehicles are large and heavy, and there is often a significant speed differential between motor vehicles and cyclists, who are vulnerable road users.

Of course, cyclists must also practise safe passing, for their own safety as well as that of others (in NSW, for example, it is recommended that cyclists when its safe and practicable to do so). But trust me – if you've ever been brushed by a high-speed vehicle while riding, you'll understand why the rule is focused on cars passing bikes.

 'Why don't they all ride in velodromes?'

How to clear the roads of recreational cyclists? Of course, make them ride in purpose-built facilities, far from cars!

Track cycling is an exciting variety of sports cycling,  but it's significantly different to the kind of riding done on the road, favouring shorter, lung-busting efforts – as opposed to the slower burn of hours spent traversing a landscape. It also involves repetitive views and a lot of left turns.

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The bikes, too, are different – fixed-gear, single-speed steeds with no brakes, which you aren't allowed to ride on public roads to get to the track without modification. And practically speaking, there aren't many velodromes, even in major cities. How are you going to fit the many thousands of daily riders into them?

 'They should only ride in bike lanes'

Some people imagine that Australia is swarming with bike lanes, but the truth is that cycling infrastructure is still in its infancy in our nation.

And while some recreational riders might seek out protected routes for stress-free cycling, what about those who use bicycles for transport?

Some riders are blessed with separated paths, others might have to piece their journey together on disjointed infrastructure, but many must take the road. And sometimes, depending on the rider, things like shared paths and are best avoided for everyone's comfort and safety.

Even the plan to build a basic network of 11 main bike corridors into Sydney's city centre will . We're going to be waiting a long time for bike lanes to take us everywhere we want to go.

'Make rear-view mirrors compulsory'

Granted, this is an interesting one.

I find it handy to have a mirror on my flat-handlebar touring bicycle, but the traditional "drop" bars on my road bike present more challenges, especially with sightlines, and I've never found anything to be useful despite trying a range of different options (including helmet attachments).

Yes, motor vehicles must have mirrors but I also ride a motorbike and I find it a very different experience. Whenever I'm cycling, I take regular looks over my shoulder (and use my ears) to maintain situation awareness.

There are riders who swear by mirrors, but I feel the main effect of making them mandatory would be to reduce cycling participation.

Most calls for compulsion appear to be from drivers who think it would help cyclists see them approaching and get out the way. But when it comes to safe overtaking, most of the responsibility lies with the person doing the passing. Slow down, give ample space, and everyone gets home OK. 

'Bicycles should be roadworthied'

The wonderful simplicity of the bicycle means I can do a lot of my own maintenance – in my kitchen, using a few basic tools. It's an ongoing process: removable lights need regular charging, while tyres and brakes that deteriorate can be easily replaced.

By comparison, motor vehicles are complex, heavy, powerful and dangerous beasts – it's no wonder we have laws to ensure they are regularly examined.

Yes, a faulty bicycle can be hazardous, too – mostly to its rider – but they're hardly equivalent. Which is why I scratch my head when I hear people say we need a green slip process for the humble pushbike.

Besides, there would have to be some official certification to show if a bike was due for an inspection, which brings us to …

Rego, two abreast and the rest

Yes, no article on social media cycling commentary would be complete without a nod to the eternal misguided clamour for bike rego and numberplates, despite there being at least 18 reasons why this is a bad idea.

Or a mention of misunderstanding about two-abreast riding, which is promoted by roads authorities as a safer way to ride in many situations.

I've also seen calls for motorbike-style protective clothing (I don't fancy cycling for hours in leathers and a full-face helmet) and indicators (I already have those, they're hanging from my shoulders).

Often, the question for me is: what problem are we trying to solve? And is the perceived outcome worth the effort and the cost? The risk with all cycling interventions is that they can become a barrier to participation, and reduce the many benefits bike riding brings to society.

Meanwhile, you can't put a price on the greatest safety measure of all: care and consideration towards fellow road users.

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

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