Driver’s Ed.

The discussion beneath Revenge and Road Danger got me thinking. Are poor deluded petrol-addicts really so difficult to reform?

We all agree, the more cyclists on the road, the better we will be. So how do we motivate non-cyclists to demand that politicians build better cycling infrastructure?

We tried pointing out the fact that cycle-friendly cities are safer, healthier, happier and more socially cohesive than those blighted by gridlock. It doesn’t seem to work.

But what if we were to appeal to a sense of national duty?

Sounds crazy, I know. But it has worked, albeit briefly, in the most unlikely of places — Australia.

You might not suspect it, but Australians hate cyclists — or at least they did when I left in the late 90s. Almost as much as they hate foreigners. Or at least it’s a toss-up.

I never quite understood why. They like to pretend that they’re sporty and outdoorsy.

I often wondered whether it was their innate fear of the wider world bleeding into a fear of sexual identity. “Get off the road you £$%@ing poofta!” was a common refrain I’d hear as I cycled the streets of Sydney (and all along the Princes Highway between Sydney and Melbourne).

And although most would be loathe to admit it, the tone of public debate in Australia was (and as far as I can tell from this distance, still is) essentially indistinguishable from that in the US. That economic progress and increased car use were the same thing was axiomatic. A state politician (I regret I can’t remember his name) responsible for transport building more roads, was bemused by the suggestion that governments should encourage more cycling, “Why would we want Australia to become a third-world country like China?”

And, surprise, surprise, Australians are among the most obese people on Earth.

But it wasn’t always, thus.

In response to the last global energy crisis in the 70s, many nations set about becoming less reliant on foreign oil by building coal, gas and nuclear power stations. Australia took a different tack — to simply use less energy.

How? With campaigns like this one:

Rather than portraying petrol as evil, they portrayed it as precious. As indeed, it is. And it worked. Along with similar campaigns to save gas and electricity, national energy consumption plummeted.

Lamentably, as soon as the crisis abated, energy and petroleum companies did there level best to redress the country’s dalliance with thrift, which has landed it in the mess it’s in today.

But, for a time, it was on the right track.

– Ed G

Author: Ed Gerstner

Senior editor of Nature Physics. Host of @BigScienceFM. Gourmand. Cyclist. Political agitator. Serial Émigrés. Itinerant code-jockey. Curmudgeon.

9 thoughts on “Driver’s Ed.”

  1. I must admit, Joe has something there.

    Still – Saudi production may peak next year, by some accounts, so now’s probably the time. I’m surprised that Hammond (not that one) et al aren’t seriously looking at ways to reduce our dependence.

    1. What has who got where? All I said was something about naked people.

      I suspect that education and encouraging in adverts, even by appealing to patriotism, would not be as effective as Ed hopes, but I haven’t bothered reviewing the evidence base yet…

  2. When it comes to cities it’s not just petrol that’s precious, it’s road space. Politicians recognise this already to some extent, hence the Congestion Charge.

    Every single private car that’s on the road when it doesn’t need to be makes life worse (and journey times longer) for the people that do have to be there. Delivery vans. Taxi drivers. Tradespeople with heavy equipment. Emergency vehicles. Even the much-maligned HGVs (well, the ones that aren’t empty, *ahem*..).

    Now if we could convince those pro drivers that making life better for cyclists (regardless of what you think the best way of acheiving it) would get more of the lazy so-and-so’s who could perfectly well bike, bus, or tube it out of their private cars – thereby leaving more room for the pro’s who actually need to be there – we’d gain some real political clout.

    I also have a feeling.. and I may be wrong on this but.. ultimately the Govt. may be persuaded to adopt stiffer regulation on professional drivers than on private individuals (certainly their environmental reg’s for businesses on e.g. recycling are very much stricter than those for homes/individuals).. so if central London becomes effectively a professionals-only zone for motor vehicles, it can be made very much safer and more courteous than it is today.

  3. This is a useful corrective to the earlier post on cycle policy and the motorist. In fact, it contradicts much of what Joe Dunckley says on this blog, and it contradicts the position of the Cycling Embassy and similar cycling lobbies. Their position is this:

    1. There is a linear relationship between cycling rates (modal split) and the extent and quality of cycle infrastructure.

    2. Low cycling rates in Britain are due solely to the lack of high-quality cycle infrastructure with a high degree of segregation.

    3. High cycle usage in the Netherlands is due solely to provision of high-quality and well segregated cycle infrastructure.

    4. If high-quality and well segregated cycle infrastructure is provided in Britain, then it will result in mass cycling.

    The assumption is that the population wants to cycle, and that they are being restrained from cycling by the current state of affairs. It is true that cycling in the UK is often objectively (and subjectively) unsafe and unpleasant. It is true that this deters cycling. However, the reverse is not true, namely that improved conditions will generate more cycling.

    Logically, the proponents of these 4 points would deny alternative propositions and explanations. They therefore reject the idea that ‘cultural’ factors determine cycling rates.

    This post indicates that cultural hostility to cycling is a major factor, in Australia’s low cycling rates. The many blog posts about negative attitudes, media hostility, and road rage incidents, suggest that is also true in the UK. And if so, then the vision of the UK cycling infrastructure lobby is wrong. That does not mean that no cycling infrastructure should be built – but don’t expect it to generate mass cycling.

  4. To be clear, although Joe and I disagree on many things, I don’t disagree with the often stated philosophy, “if you build it, they will come.”

    I just don’t consider myself to be one of ‘they’.

    More to the point, I think it’s stupid to plant your flag too close to either extreme.

    Although it’s true that you can’t expect any action to always produce a given result – just as you can never be 100% certain that the Sun will rise tomorrow – if I were a betting man, I’d happily put money on in the wager that if you built almost any cycle infrastructure London, it will be used. We’re nowhere near saturation point.

    My main beef with cycle lanes is that they are almost always rubbish. And I don’t want to end up in a situation where the Motorist lobby prevent me from using the road that my considerable taxes pay for, just because they’ve thrown me a token.

    This isn’t paranoia, Casey Neistat is a case in point.

    And, it’s not just NYC – I have been screamed at in Cambridge – CAMBRIDGE?!? – for cycling on a road that just happened to include a stretch of cycle/gormless-pedestrian path. It didn’t matter to the Motorist that the path veered off in a direction I didn’t want to go – for him the point of cycle paths is to remove cyclists from the road. That’s the thing that scares me about segregation – it could easily be construed that we’re asked to be ghettoised.

    BUT, as Richard Mann rightly points out, you shouldn’t conflate the needs of those who aren’t seasoned cycle commuters and those who are. There should be scope for my taxes to be spent on both. God know enough of my taxes are spent subsidising members of the Motorist lobby.

    London is, in my opinion, a city full of people who want to cycle, but are reluctant to because of the perceived danger.

    But I also think the danger is overstated. Compared to Sydney, London is Amsterdam in terms of cycle safety.

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