The politics of cycling

Cyclists. They’re nothing but a bunch of Green-voting, latte-sipping, inner-city trendoids with an over-developed sense of entitlement.

That’s what you’d think if you believed much of the media coverage given to cycling in the past few years. From shock jocks to tabloid TV shows to newspaper columnists, there's always someone ready to have a go at cyclists.

Especially media organisations that favour the conservative side of politics.

This vilification is curious, given that Australia is a nation of bicycle buyers. Last year, we bought more cycles than cars – something that’s happened every year this century. Of course, a lot of those would be kids’ bikes … but the increasing numbers of riders on the roads and the proliferation of cycling shops should tell you that cycling is, well, on a roll.

So, if we are all buying bikes – more than a million sold every year, in a country with a population of 22 million – surely an acceptance, if not necessarily a love, of cycling should pervade the political spectrum?

And yet, cycling continues to be targeted by many conservatives as an identifying mark of the loony left. The anti-fun brigade. The sandal-wearers. The people hell-bent on making you feel like you should be living in a cave, wearing a hemp smock, eating something vegan and lentilly.

This is especially true of Sydney, with its ongoing conflict over cycleways. The CBD’s narrow, bike-unfriendly streets are slowly gaining a criss-cross of lanes that serve as safe conduits for cycle commuters into the city. Or, as 2GB talkback presenter Alan Jones describes it, “the biggest disgrace in traffic management that I have ever seen”.

Jones was having a go at Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, the bike lanes’ driving force (or should that be peddler?). The “velo vilification” continues in tabloids that slap an “on your bike, Clover” headline onto any story that concerns her. See … she’s into cycling. Bloody leftie. She’s got to go.

Moore is an independent, and the new Liberal state government would also dearly love to wheel her into obscurity. Just weeks after taking on his role as Roads Minister, and before he’d had a proper briefing by Moore, Duncan Gay was saying that if cyclists didn’t use the lanes, they’d lose them. He later denied suggesting he’d rip them up, but said: “I believe that some are in the wrong place … and should be moved.”

Never mind the massive added cost, or the question of where they would be moved to … you can almost hear the voters saying: “Well, the roads are more jammed with cars than ever before, but at least he got rid of those cycleways!”

So, are there conservatives who are in favour of cycling? One favourite global example springs to mind: Boris Johnson, the Lord Mayor of London. Dyed-in-the-wool Conservative, Eton and Oxford educated, and a fanatical cycle commuter who brought a shared-bicycle scheme to London – the so-called “Boris Bikes”.

The plan was initiated by the former Labour mayor, “Red Ken” Livingston, but did Johnson do the usual thing and ditch it when he came into office? On the contrary. A visit to YouTube will show clips of Boris riding the bike that bears his nickname. He also called for a law change that would allow cyclists to make left turns at red lights, in order to free up traffic flows. Legal light jumping for bikes – how red is that!

What about Australia? Well, it seems some conservative city fathers can sway onto the bike path. In Melbourne, Liberal Lord Mayor Robert Doyle promised to return cars to Swanston Street but instead found himself on a road to Damascus. But from the howls of outrage in some quarters over plans to improve bicycle access to the busy thoroughfare, it seems as if a backflip is worse when it’s also a backpedal. In Brisbane, Lord Mayor Graham Quirk of the LNP yesterday announced plans to have a bicycle lane running the length of George Street in the CBD. Both cities have small and, sadly, struggling bike share schemes.

And nationally? Well, there's Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who’s out on his bike at crack of dawn every day, training for his next triathlon or Pollie Pedal.

Snag is (and I’d love to be proved wrong on this), I’m not sure Abbott the champion cyclist has said anything to champion cycling since he took the top job.

Maybe he's decided there's no votes in it. Or maybe he’s worried that Clover Moore will then invite him for a trundle up the Bourke Street cycleway with her - on a bicycle made for two.

I’d give up lentils and lattes for a month to see that.

From Sydney Morning Herald