Do we vote for stupid?

Cars rule Albury

Cars rule: kerbs bar crossing roads by bike, pram and walking frame, even in the retail area. #Albury

Do we really get the governments we deserve? If true, we’re not looking too bright, based on the latest ideas from politicians about bikes and roads.

Leading from a font of ignorance of late, they’ve promised to get bikes off roads, suggested dangerous riding and confirmed a look at registration, while finding billions of dollars (during a ‘budget emergency’) for roads that will simply fill with cars. We’ve known for a long time that building roads to fix congestion doesn’t address the cause. Even Ford acknowledges this.

So the answer to more cars is simply not to have more roads. When America began moving west, we didn’t add more wagon trains, we built railroads. – Bill Ford, 2011 

In Victoria at least we can blame electioneering – that quadrennial misery of facile, ugly ads and promises no-one expects they’ll keep. But it seems worse this time, narrowly defined by the major parties and media unable to cut through the set pieces. Predictably, many polices will fall citing:

1) the empty coffers left by the last lot, the feds or the Greens (both sides blame the Greens)

2) obstruction by cross-benchers (that we put there cos we don’t trust the major parties) or

3) policy ‘development’ that appeases the party donors (besides corporates) who fund this torturous letterboxing by invisible and impotent local candidates.

We can only hope the bureaucracy, gutted of policy development skills of late, convinces Ministers it’s stupid. Precious few promises plumb quaint traditions like evidence-based policy worthy of bipartisan support. As a colleague once pointed out, the first rule of politics is to get elected.

While cycling is prized click-bait for many media outlets, it’s been virtually invisible as a campaign issue. The Liberals’ first big announcement was a bullet point about a shared path as part of a $200 million bypass. Still, it’s more than some expected from the government that killed off the VicRoads bike budget for facilities state wide in 2012 ($15 million to zero in one budget).

The big ticket item is the East West Link (billions), with a garnish of widening the Tullarmarine freetollway (another quarter of a billion). I’ve lost interest beyond that. Labor also wants to widen the Tulla. Which suits the taxi industry perfectly; the yellow ribbon of cabs with one passenger every morning and night will sadly endure, at community expense. There’s doubt that the freeway is slow or even needs widening, according to RACV. The roads cheer squad found in 2011 that the Tulla was a quick trip by car in world terms (top three, no less) and relying on cars to the airport might not work long term.

But Premier Denis Napthine has that covered, with a promise to build a rail link to the airport. Again. The airport rail link is a staple of Victorian elections. Labor Premier Brumby promised one in 2008, but reneged in 2010 and then we voted for the Coalition which promised it then, and again in April and May this year. (And let’s not forget the Libs’ rail line to Doncaster that’s going nowhere.) That’s almost as much announcing as a certain bridge for bikes. It hasn’t been built either.

Labor’s Daniel Andrews opened the bike promises with $150,000 to ‘kick start Wandong to Bendigo rail trail‘. It’s actually for a ‘a planning study’ so no shovels will be harmed.

The grand gesture came a few days later with news of $100 million (over six years, according to The Age) to woo cyclists and ‘reduce road trauma’. It sank without trace, and that’s a problem in more ways than one. Dan Andrews was offering a new authority to promote active transport, link up bike networks, suggest road rule changes and so on. That’s quite a big job. There was a kicker, of course. This new authority would get $3.3 million over three years – which buys you a CEO and an office. But the total $100-plus million is within the ballpark of restoring the old VicRoads bike budget under Labor, so things should get done if they win.

But Andrews is quoted as saying that Labor would “build the paths to get the bikes off the road and out of the traffic, making life easier for cyclists and motorists alike”. Huh? Labor is only one term out of office, where it had an entire bureaucracy at its beck and call to educate Ministers about obesity, congestion, particulate pollution and cycling safety, and Dan wants bikes out of the traffic? Dan, we ARE traffic!  We have excellent routes for getting from A to B and they’re called roads. And we need them as well as off-road routes; they do different jobs. The thing that makes the roads scary is the aggressive, unskilled, impaired, speeding and distracted driving, which increases the crash trauma for car occupants as well as everyone else. The answer to dodgy driving is to fix the driving, not to banish the unprotected road users. Dan’s idea is like banning women from streets, rather than addressing violence towards women.

Let’s put it down to ignorance. Cos the alternative – stripping cyclists’ road rights in favour of a Mary Poppins meander along the Yarra on sunny Sundays – is far more worrying. Copenhagen is widely cited as cycling nirvana, but education and legal protection for cyclists were critical to its success. Bike infrastructure is a one-legged stool without education and legal backup. As it is, the road rules are designed around cars being piloted into each other, so cars crashing cyclists and pedestrians cop a traffic offence rather than reflecting the damage inflicted.

Victoria doesn’t have a monopoly on bike-blindess though. New South Wales and Western Australia have likewise excelled in both deaths and stupid responses. (NSW is leading the cyclist road toll nationally with 10 cyclists to the end of October but Victoria, Queensland and WA are tied for second place with eight deaths apiece.)

NSW has offered the Smart Helmet, a misnomer of international proportion. This contraption was presented to Mosman Council where it gained at least one supporter. Poor Mosman. Not only is Australia in the mandatory helmet wilderness, but we aspire to new heights in helmet dorkiness to discourage activity. You’d need a rugby neck, installed in the ASADA off-season, to hold it up for a start. The Dumb Helmet was a speculative response to a light-bulb policy moment of NSW roads minister Duncan Gay. Dunc’s solution to drivers running into cyclists is to register/licence the cyclists and get them off the road. For clarity, drivers are at fault 87 per cent of the time and he wants to licence the victims. Wouldn’t it be smarter to fix the cause, rather than make everyone else withstand the impact? Dunc, we need to get cars off the road by mode switching to active/public transport, so that the cars and trucks that really need to be here can get around.

Even the level of stupid in the premise of cyclist licensing by policy-makers is difficult to comprehend. Registration and licensing hasn’t turned drivers in to angels. Far from it. The Victorian Attorney General’s Attorney-General’s annual report on the infringements system 2008–09 says “traffic-related offences (transport, parking, excessive speed / drink and drug driving) add up to 88 per cent of all infringements issued during this financial year.” Even then, they don’t pay the fines. The Sheriff is chasing $1.5 billion in unpaid fines – mostly speeding, tolls and parking – in Victoria alone.

But it’s probably WA Premier Colin Barnett who takes this week’s Bike-blind Award. The minimum passing distance of 1m (being trialled in Queensland with growing support elsewhere) has been suggested in response to the spike in cyclist deaths in WA. Surely asking drivers to pass cyclists safely isn’t onerous? It is in WA. Mr Barnett’s response was that cyclists could make a start on their own safety by riding single file. By dismissing the idea of safe passing and blaming the victims, he has just given drivers carte blanche to skim closer. Sigh.

Riding two-up is acknowledged world wide as being safer than single file. Why? Because it increases visibility. It’s a way of helping drivers to see us. Cos too many are too drunk, drugged, texting, disqualified, speeding, impatient or incompetent to notice. Riding two-up also encourages drivers to change lanes when overtaking, as they would when passing a truck or a car. Do our drivers lack the skills to change lanes?

I don’t expect these guys to understand the intricacies of a gate in a working bunch, Cadel’s sublime descending or the beauty of Joachim Rodriguez out of the saddle (or in the saddle for that matter). But with an enormous roads and safety bureaucracy at their beck and call, are we not entitled to to expect legislators to ‘do no harm’ as a minimum? And decry the carelessness on our roads? Even better would be competence in the subject before commenting on road safety. Or are we accepting the right to ignorance trumps the duty to be well informed in charge of transport policy? Comments on news websites demonstrate ignorance daily. I haven’t seen a convincing defence of it in public policy.

To be sure, cycling is a minnow in the Victorian election so it will be interesting to see how the new Australian Cyclists (sic) Party polls. A strong primary vote would at least encourage the major parties to take cycling seriously in the interests of survival, even if they don’t grasp the potential. A seat would be better of course, forcing education within the House every day. Shooters and drivers have succeeded electorally so why not cyclists?

In Victoria, the baby kissing ends tomorrow, but the cost of narrowly defined, stupid policy will last far longer. Cycling to work has almost doubled in metropolitan Melbourne [PDF] over the past 10 years. Doubling rider numbers again would take 30,000 cars off the road at low cost, with enormous benefits to health and congestion. ‘Build it and they will come’ works for both cars and bikes. Mode shifting to active and public transport pays dividends while roads just fill with cars, going nowhere.

* Bicycle Network has been tracking cycling-related election promises here.

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