Posted by: Mike Rubbo | September 18, 2009

Biking up the Wrong Tree

My friend, Bruce and I, have got into the pleasant habit of riding our bikes around Sydney.

Since both of us are sort of retired, we do this on weekdays, wandering wherever we like, sometimes up to 40 kms.

Since my bike is power assisted, and and his is not, I’m supposed to wait. But sometimes I forget how hard it might be for Bruce to get up a hill.

Last week, we filmed our ride and and, in order to make it a bit different, a bit special, we gave ourselves a task.

We decided to count the number of other bikes we saw, and even perhaps count the various types, though we somehow forgot about that. You’ll see why.

Here’s the movie. It’s funnier than I expected it to be, not always intentionally.

I think it’s really quite tragic that this spectacular city, on that beautiful day, was empty of bikes.

As you see, even though the facilities for bikes are very poor, there are wonderful places for wheelie wandering, and one just naturally wants to share them with the world.

Going to Tourist info web sites, I made a rough calculation that there were probably about 50,000 visitors in Sydney that day, and as far as we could see, not one on a bike.

What a loss both for them and the city.

You read about the great success of the Velibs in Paris over 20,000 bikes available on the streets with just a swipe of a card.

Velibs in a row


These handsome machines are not just for tourists, but locals too. The first half hour is free, encouraging the quick ride and leave.

Many other cities in Europe and North America are getting on the street bike bandwagon, Montreal, for instance, with Toronto soon to follow.

Here are some Montreal Bixi’s, a delectable name they came up with through a public competition

Velib bixie

From a tourist point of view, they are all cheap transportation which allows the exploration of out of the way nooks, such as you see Bruce and I discovering in Sydney on our ride, a very nookish city.

From a revenue point of view, they are great too because the spread the tourist dollar like a gentle rain over the whole garden of the urban economy.

Not so at the moment, tourists are bussed around on pre arranged shopping routes, their dollars dripping always into the same pockets.

There are so many street fairs and farmers markets of various sorts in and around Sydney now. Imagine the number of tourists on bikes they’d attract.

Here’s my local farmers market on a Sunday morning at Avoca Beach

Avoca market. best

Mine, the only bike in sight. Bikes can be rivulets of good energy trickling theough the urban landscape

Avoca market 350

All the excitement and profit of the wander-street-bike-revolution we now miss out on, and will forever.

That’s because of our helmet laws. it’s impossible to rent helmets through a self help system like Velib.

Hygiene problems, legal problems in terms of the helmets having to fit properly, and….

.…and since in almost every other country, one has the choice to wear a helmet or not, that is, one is treated like an adult.

How do you think the German or Japanese tourist is going to feel being told by a machine that he or she must wear a helmet or face a fine, deportation to Xmas Island, etc.

Like the introduction of the cane toad, the helmet was well intentioned, but like that turgid toad, there have been unintended consequences, those we have to live with.

Not a totally apt comparison, but thought provoking I hope

Let’s count the ways. 30% reduction in cycling with consequential increase of obesity, and no increase in cyclist safety.

Revenue loss and a wowser image gained in the eyes of visitors.

A nation of somewhat feral drivers who’ve never had to learn to be nice to bikes, who’ve never been calmed, tamed by bikes.

A population who, using their cars to drive even the shortest trip, don’t take their climate change transport options, and obligations, seriously. All in all not a very good deal.

I actually like my helmet and might well continue to wear it. But guess what, I would like, is the choice

Mike beside his car pod.300

Like to the shops on my quiet streets with no helmet. Wrangling those blue and white buses you saw in the movie, well, yes, quite possibly with the helmet.

helmet 200

Frankly, I had not given the whole matter much thought till I met Sue Abbott, and heard about her upcoming trial.

sue in newcstle 026.jpg 330

It will be an interesting test of sorts to see whether the media cover that trial.

I’ve alerted many sections of our ABC, the conscience of our nation, to her story

Will they, do they, see the wider issues, I wonder, and will they be prepared to take them on, and presumably the lobby groups behind them?



  1. It is sad, isn’t it.

    Sydney is such a beautiful city, with good weather all year, and mostly flat.

    You would think there would be much more bicycle usage here. Not with this govt efforts to discourage cycling.

    I agree, we need to get rid of this of this pointless helmet law. It has already done too much damage. Time for lobbying and increasing the political pressure to support rather than discourage cycling. The focus need to shift to bicycle infrastructure.

    Not sure how well the bike shares would do here though. The bicycle culture and infrastructure might need to be a bit more established first.

  2. I commuted for many years on a mountain bike. I never really thought about it until I suffered some rather nasty injuries that made the quite aggressive seating position of my sport bikes very uncomfortable. There were no upright bikes being made in the US at that time, so I suffered through. Then about 7 years ago, my local bike shop guy suggested some modifications to my bike that made me upright. It was a different biking world. No more strain, no more difficulty keeping my eyes on the cars, no more pressure on my wrists and neck… It wasn’t until I had to go back to a sport style bike for awhile that I noticed the more subtle differences riding upright makes- when I am upright I am able to react to situations sooner because I can see them better, I get into fewer situations because I can be seen. Most interestingly, I deal with much less driver aggression when I am upright because I can make eye contact with drivers- fewer incidences of getting hooked at intersections, fewer doorings, less verbal abuse…..
    Now I ride a very traditional Dutch bike. Very upright, no helmet, regular clothes. It humanizes me in the eyes of those who see me riding, and it makes me feel more secure knowing that I am seen as a person, not as a speeding daredevil. People approach me about riding in the City and ask about my bike and how I get around. It makes me an ambassador, not just a commuter.

    As to why people put up with it? I think it is because riding in a city without proper infrastructure and a terribly car-centric outlook is a lot like going into battle. Riders, on some level feel they need to be aggressive and fast to keep up so they choose aggressive cycles and posture. I also think there is a certain desire to be anonymous to try to avoid backlash on the road. It does not help that many people who sell bicycles have very rigid ideas about what cycling should be. Just my theory.

    • Adrienne, you comment is precious. You confirm everything I’ve been saying and from a base of far more years of experience than I’ve had. I hope you’ll join on your blog in promoting this link we’ve identified between up-straight and happier safer, commuting.

      Let’s try and recruit more testimony along the same lines. I don’t know if Beetle Bane as I call it, (see the second last post ) is as rife as it is here. I’m convinced it’s one of the reasons we lag so far behind in Aust, in our bike utility use rates. That’s my hunch. You start me on the path to proving it

      My next move is going to be to get some physiotherapists on film. I hear they often have bike ailment patients, and may have something authoritative to say.

      Re your gazelle, I know the two nice guys who are bringing Gazelles into Aust. They’ll be pleased to read about your choice.

      Again, thanks so much for going to the trouble to leave your comment. Mike

  3. When I one day make it to Australia, I would love to ride around your town and see it the way you do! The cause of cycling has just gained a wonderful new defender! OK, 2- your friend Bruce is pretty cool!

    • Adrienne, I found your blog, I don’t know how exactly. perhaps via David Hembrow or was it copemhagenose. Anyway, I like it’s cheery feisty tone and so am very glad you got back to me. I think I linked to you also.

      What do you think about my contention that for everyday getting somewhere bike us, the sit bike is by far the best. I have to E bikes. My daughter was riding the Giant Suede , the posture I like best in the movie, Planet bike. Do you sit up like that, ever?

      I cant understand why riders here, esp women, endure so much unnecessary pain in their backs, their necks, their crotches and their wrists. They seem to think it just goes with the wheels. Mike

      • Adrienne, perhaps you have not seen, Planet Bike, and so wont know what I’m talking about above. have a look. Mike

  4. I love these movies, for their charm and wistfulness and storytelling, and for their ability to show me that the bicycle situation is almost the same everywhere among rich countries (save a few). Change the accent and put traffic on the other side of the road, and this film shows Los Angeles, my home town. We don’t have the all ages helmet law, but our streets are devoid of bicycles all the same, and like you, some of us hope that time will bring change.

  5. Nice post again Michael! Keep up the great work and know that one day the cities will cycle again!

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