Cycling in Newtown, Sydney. Flickr/Steven Lewis, CC BY-NC-SA
Image reused to connect articles. Cycling in Newtown, Sydney. Flickr/Steven LewisCC BY-NC-SA

Last week, Associate Professor Craig Fry regaled us with his latest offering in The Conversation entitled, ‘Here’s why the recent changes to NSW cycling laws may be a good move’: https://theconversation.com/heres-why-the-recent-changes-to-nsw-cycling-laws-may-be-a-good-move-55654

Well, that’s his opinion. Here’s why he’s wrong.

Things start out on a bad foot: it’s impossible to ignore the associated image of ‘cycling in Newtown’ featuring four fully-kitted MAMILs. So, is that now ‘cycling in Newtown’?  Isn’t ‘cycling in Newtown’ a dreadlocked arts student riding to the Green Iguana for a smoothie during a break in classes at Sydney Uni? No, not according to Fry. Cycling in Newtown looks more like Team Sky preparing to climb Mont Ventoux. It’s not hard to think that things might not end well in this article.

Fry is right on one thing: the passing law is not a bad idea. It puts a measurable figure to an existing safe passing law. No problem there…

… but then he constructs an elaborate rationalisation of why the whole package of laws (which include mandatory identification and massive increases in fines for existing laws) might be a good thing. In summary, the outcomes are dependent on one thing: ‘hope’.

We have previously heard the wishful thinking of Bernard Carlon of the NSW Transport Ministry who tried to convince us that people will now feel so much more legitimate on the roads that they’ll take up cycling. It’s not clear if Bernard really ‘hopes’ this will happen or he ‘hopes’ that we will have ‘hope’ too. Well, he seems to found a comrade in Fry.

Fry, however, is not totally silly; he knows that hope alone is a dubious thing. So he asks for evidence (based on research) to review the outcomes. Firstly, he asks for a study of participation – particularly in city areas. It’s not clear why participation in the regions is less important. Rural areas might not suffer the same congestion problems but have far poorer health outcomes. He has chosen to ignore the impacts of these laws in tighter communities where policing is done very selectively. History shows us that helmet laws caused a much greater effect in country towns. Higher fines have greater effect in poorer communities, and the regions are poorer. This is a strange oversight by Fry. Secondly, he asks for evaluation of driver attitudes. This would be sensible – but the motorists who throw bottles at people or inflict ‘punishment passes’ aren’t likely to render honest responses even if they did participate in a survey. Lying is normal behaviour for a psychopath. So, getting a reliable account is near impossible. In practice, the haters are only going to be sated for a millisecond before they move on to the next issue and recommence baying for blood. You don’t have to look far on social media to find them moving on to calls for insurance and registration plates. In fact, the closer they get to making us into motorists, the louder they will shout. For this reason, the false hope that cycling can, or should, be likened to motoring should not be entertained. Thirdly, Fry asks for the details of the number of fines and the revenue raised. Why? It doesn’t matter if the fines and revenue go up or down because either outcome can be used to justify the policies. Fry then actually reconstructs the money raised as a potential revenue source to build infrastructure and deliver promotion. Yes, he is seriously proposing a form of corporate governance that acquires funding through fines to fund infrastructure. This is not a sound basis for governance and subject to great risks. Setting aside whether this is an appropriate use of revenue, let’s consider if his ‘hopes’ come to fruition: is it possible to imagine that the funds will go into building infrastructure? More likely it will be absorbed by bureaucratic salaries and any meagre amounts remaining will continue the scare campaigns to tell us all how dangerous cycling is.

Fry’s next section launches into an explanation of ‘public perceptions’ of cycling. No reference to any of the great work done by the many sociologists of cycling such as Rachel Aldred, Zach Furness, Jen Bonham, Jan Garrard, John Stehlin or Dave Horton. There is no reference to the many traps of cycling advocacy that they have previously identified. It begs the question of whether he has ever read these authors. Fry’s bio refers to himself as an Associate Professor in the Centre for Diversity and Wellbeing at Victoria University. He is not positioned in a department of sociology, mobilities or even transport geography. His biography presents him as an expert in cycling sport and drug policy and certainly not as an experienced transport policy analyst. It’s as sensible as reading the views of a motor racing fuel expert discussing motoring policy.

Fry falls quickly for the trap of ‘Hell is Other Cyclists’ as identified by Skinner and Rosen (2007) – also known as ‘in-group’ critique. He launches into the in-group / out-group discourse of motorists versus cyclists. Cyclists must appease motorists for our position in the commons. Again, he invokes ‘hope’: ‘My hope is that the strong message around the new laws in NSW has already set in motion some subtle attitudinal shifts that help take the heat and prejudice out of the public debate…’ This is surely just wishful thinking. The ‘strong message’ is that we are rogues who must be controlled. This does nothing to build empathy but simply begs traffic violence. For example, the carrying of ID cannot be seen by other road users. Such a policy only highlights the fact that outraged motorists can’t easily report misdemeanours to the police (even though our valiant Transport Minister has done all he reasonably can to reign in those ‘rogues’). In the mind of the vigilante, there is now only one thing left to do – take violent action themselves at the site of their perceived injustice upon the next victim who appears to be one of these villains. Fry is also assuming that following laws is the way to garner the sympathy of a psychopath who might take violent action against you. He states, ‘you are being tooted for the rider who ran that red light yesterday’. This doesn’t account for the other possibility: psychopaths are psychopaths. They will find any reason to hate someone from an out-group. It doesn’t have to be a law, it could be wearing lycra.  In fact, psychopaths often romanticise law-breakers. What they need to justify their violence is the belief that they have the support of the rest of society. It is not breaking the law, but difference underscored by societally-supported derision that drives violence and, considering the quality of leadership provided by the NSW Transport Minister and the shock jocks, a psychopath doesn’t need to go far for approval. The only way to overcome the problem of this violence is to build empathy. This can be done by encouraging participation, by educating people about the benefits of cycling and by promoting cyclists as champions of the community. It is not done by highlighting the many (read: ‘few’) and heinous (read: ‘victimless’) crimes cyclists allegedly commit.  Fry doesn’t realise it, but he’s actually fuelling the trolls. Notably, Fry (like the NSW Transport Minister) provides no data on the actual number of offences or injuries caused by cyclists. He never contests that the reality of this problem seems to have no basis other than a media construction.  Fry thus overlooks a key responsibility of academics: to examine the evidence. Fry also overlooks Australian folklore which abounds with criminal heroes such as those at Eureka or the very real rogues like Ned Kelly and Chopper. Instead of embracing some peaceful expression of deviance by bicycle, he presents it as something that validates our punishment by vigilante motorists. With friends like Fry, who needs enemies?

Of great concern is Fry’s continued construction of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cyclists. Those who comply with the law are ‘good’ and those who break the law are ‘bad’. He states, ‘the fact that “some” cyclists break the road rules doesn’t necessarily reflect the riding behaviour of all cyclists.’ There are apparently some perfect cyclists who never break the law. We are being judged as possessing ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters – not just behaviours.  Fry is not only perpetuating the constructed cyclist ‘scofflaw’, he is also establishing its opposite: an archetypal ‘perfect’ cyclist – one who never breaks any law. It is difficult to believe that Fry has never broken a law himself. Even the most pious have maybe sat up and ridden no hands or slowly cruised the last 50 metres of footpath to the racks out the front of the supermarket. Fry’s one-tracked argument never considers to defend illegal riding as sensible survival or reasonable behaviour (as found in a University of NSW study: http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/cyclists-break-the-law-due-to-safety-concerns-study-says-20141008-1138cn.html ). Fry never suggests the potential to reform or repeal laws to allow footpath riding, ‘rolling stops’, ‘contra flow’ or most importantly, helmet choice as a means to reduce the criminalising of cyclists.  No, such thinking is too advanced, he simply reinforces law-breaking as the behaviour of ‘rogues’. Fry establishes an effectively unattainable Platonic form of the perfect cyclist. This sets us all up for eventual failure. There is no cyclist who has never committed an offence. Someone who claims to be the ‘perfect’ cyclist and that they have never broken a law is more likely to be a well-rehearsed liar.

Then Fry launches into a defence of ‘Rules are Rules’. Hannah Arendt was seen rolling in her grave. We now have a highly qualified fellow cyclist in academia not explaining to the reader why our legal or defensive behaviours are reasonable but blindly defending punitive laws because the law is an end in itself. He never mentions that many motorists don’t even know the rules and believe we are breaking laws that don’t exist (such as riding two abreast). He states, ‘if you ride a bike on Australia’s public roads in traffic there is no excuse for cycling outside of the road rules.’ This statement omits that cyclists, as a minority, are highly visible, highly scrutinised and easily captured by a motorised police force. It omits the poor understanding of the law. It omits that the law is applied with ‘discretion’ that inevitably privileges those for whom the police feel sympathy. It omits that a bicycle is the transport of those who are neither competent enough nor educated enough to always have every detail of their lives in order. It omits that we probably all break or bend the law at some time. It omits any discussion of the overwhelming auto-centricity of the cycling road rules, which need to be questioned as a first step in any competent discussion of the politics of cycling. The bicycle is exactly the best place to practice imperfection because it is a good way to learn consequences for errors.

As a final concluding statement, Fry announces with authorial certainty: ‘In Australia today, if you are a cyclist who insists on ignoring the road rules, you are actively making the roads worse for other cyclists.’

No, you are a good person. You are trying to survive and do something healthy, maybe to help reduce congestion and emissions and to humanise our streets. Keep riding people. By riding you are not making it worse for others, you are helping them feel supported. The people making the roads worse for other cyclists are those who construct us as villains and are using their vehicles as weapons. The cyclists who are making it worse for other cyclists are those who want to exclude others from cycling.

Hence, we announce with authorial certainty: in Australia today, if you are an academic who constructs the cyclist-villain and sets us up for failure you should know better and you are making the situation worse for other cyclists. Craig Fry – we ‘hope’ you get on your bike, it’s the best place for you.