Those of you who have read my stuff will know by now I have some fairly strong views about not only cycling issues, but also about car infrastructure, public transport and alternative transport in general (which includes cycling, pedestrian access etc). This post is not necessarily specific to cycling or its infrastructure, but to compare and contrast my perception of the approach to public infrastructure in Japan and Australia and more specifically to Tokyo and Brisbane. I have been lucky enough to have visited Japan twice in the past 18 months or so and both times I have gone there I have been struck hard by the massive differences between that country and our own. Not just the culture of Japan (although I would say that this has quite a bit to do with it too) but also by the way that the Japanese have catered for their citizens. And not just by providing for the car driving citizens. In fact I would say they have done a great deal to try and ensure that alternative transport options are very attractive options over driving a car.


Tokyo has an estimated population of 13,230,000 and is the largest Metropolitan area in the world. During peak periods trains leave every few minutes and during non-peak times they leave only slightly further apart. The 7km trip between Shinjuku Station and Tokyo station costs $1.90 and trains are incredibly punctual with annual delays quoted in seconds. If you want to travel outside of Tokyo to another city you have the mighty Shinkhansen trains which can whip you the 890ish km between Tokyo and Hiroshima in 4 hours for $114. These trains are immaculate and have more leg room than any domestic flight that I have been on. Direct trains between Tokyo and Hiroshima for example travel every 10 minutes in peak times and every 30 minutes in non-peak. On top of this there are other indirect trains which require you to change trains along the way.


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Emotion, Reason and Mandatory Helmet Laws at the Nanny State Inquiry

Reform of Australia’s mandatory helmet laws (MHLs) came one step closer to a ‘Castle’ moment last week in Melbourne.

It was just ‘the vibe’ at the Senate Inquiry into Personal Freedoms and Community Impacts – also known as the ‘Nanny State Inquiry’.

A day of testimony from expert witnesses saw strong representation from academics, advocates and activists supporting reform of the laws. Opposed to reform was a selection of academics, road safety bureaucrats replete with legal advice.

The hearing was chaired by Democratic Liberal Senator David Leyonhjelm and ably assisted by Senator Matt Canavan of the Queensland Liberal National Party.

The day was clearly won by those recommending reform. A broad spread of experts of various ranks (representing public health, road safety and actuarial studies) argued on both sides. Reformists made up the majority of the attendees. However, it was the pro-law group who came in for the most uncomfortable scrutiny. As questioning exposed the cracks in their arguments and evidence, the egos of MHL supporters faltered and we witnessed the emergence of emotive rhetoric.

Three key emotions surfaced: fear, frustration and pride. Supporters of the law exhibited deep fear of cycling as a dangerous activity. Frustration emerged upon finding that their arguments had not won over either their opponents or the Senators. Finally, they retreated to a narrative of pride to avoid admitting to legislative over-reach. Outside the chambers, the by-play confirmed that they were definitely rattled.

It was clear from this hearing that the foundations of the MHLs are shaky. Australia’s example has not proven worthy of widespread replication globally. Resistance to reform is not dead yet, however, it seems likely that this law will be reformed, it is a case of when and how far – complete repeal or modifications such as adult exemptions or geographic exemptions? While this was a federal government inquiry, it is the state and territory governments which are responsible for administering the road rules. The process is not exactly clear, perhaps changes to rule 256 in the Australian road rules would provide the impetus for states and territories to come into alignment.

It was tempting to counter the bluster of some MHL witnesses with a retort of ‘suffer in yer jocks’. However, reasoned reform would suffice. 




Q. For those people who would like to ride their bicycle, what prevents them from riding on the road?

A. Fear.


It's not a fear of sunburn, or fear of a sore bum.  It's not even a fear of falling off.  They fear that one of the heavy lumps of machinery that populate our roads will smash into them, causing unimaginable injuries or death.

Is it a rational fear?  Are they right to be fearful?  Well, according to statistics, probably not.  


Riding a bicycle is said to be generally safer than walking for transport, and the health benefits outweigh the risks of inactivity, but statistics are cold comfort when some hooligan screams passed within a hairs breadth.  At that moment, you feel threatened and in danger. You have been assaulted by someone driving a motor vehicle.


Sometimes what people fear becomes reality.  It doesn't take much.  The people who ride regularly have been there.   A failure to give way, a close pass that sees us bouncing off the side of a car, the left hook, or worse being hit squarely from behind by someone who was more concerned with the mobile phone in their hand than paying attention to the road ahead.  Then there's the really intimidating angry driver, who hangs on the horn, passes close and hauls on the brakes right in front of you.  You can't stop in time and crash into the back of their car. These people have no courtesy.  They do not take a moment to assess your speed properly before pulling out.  They don't wait patiently behind you for a safe time to pass.  They barge through and push you out of their way.  To them, you're a nuisance. To them you shouldn't be there.  To them, they are more important.


So let's take stock of the situation.  Around Australia, every year a few people get bitten by sharks while they swim in the ocean.  Some survive, and some don't.  I read we lost 7 people in 3 years off the WA coast to sharks.  Our response?  Culling.  Sharks don't have number plates or registration stickers.  We don't know which ones did the killing. We just target those we think might be responsible.  A few different species of sharks, greater than a certain length.   Crocodiles take even fewer people, but never the less, in the Northern Territory a boy was taken and at least three crocodiles were shot in response - though no one could be sure they were the culprits before they were dispatched.


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Most people familiar with the topic of bicycle helmet laws knows what a stir it creates. But the same people, on either side of the argument, would also know about the common fallacies that gets brought up when discussing the topic. And the same ones comes up again and again. People advocating for helmet freedom have heard them all and have explained them again and again. And at the same time, people defending helmet laws, certainly don’t want these fallacies to be mixed up with concrete arguments.

There are scientific studies available, both for and against. If you really serious about getting involved in the conversation, do a bit of research - there is plenty of good material out there and there is no need to fall for the logic traps.

Although I wrote this piece from a mandatory bicycle helmet laws (MHL) repeal point of of view, it’s primary purpose is not to convince anyone that MHL’s should be repealed and it also doesn’t focus on evidence for repeal. Instead its purpose is to point out the numerous fallacies brought up when talking about MHL’s. It is also not aimed at addressing all the arguments against the repeal of helmets, but only concentrates on the most often mentioned fallacies and flawed arguments.

Once these fallacies are put aside, a real debate can happen.

1. Riding without a helmet? That’s crazy. Darwinism at work!

The thought of riding without a helmet sounds farfetched to Australians who have been living under helmet laws for more than 20 years. The sight of someone without a helmet is very uncommon and most people came to believe it is the norm and that you face certain death.
Australia is one of 2 or 3 countries in the world with an all ages, nationally actively enforced bicycle helmet law. In all other parts of the world, with or without proper infrastructure, it is very common for people to ride without helmets (or ride with helmets in the abscence of a law). Actually, even in Australia there exists an exemption. In the Northern Territory people 18 and older are allowed to ride without a helmet on segregated paths and footpaths and there is no evidence that they are worse off.
Part of the problem is that when people are confronted with the idea of wind in their hair, they have a picture in their head of a rider on carbon fiber bike, swerving in and out of traffic and dodging potholes.

That is not the only type of bike riding though. When getting involved in an MHL discussion, picture a person riding on an upright bike, at a speed similar to a runner, along the beach on the esplanade.

2. If we get rid of helmet laws, we might as well get rid of seatbelt laws

This statement seems to imply that anarchy is going to follow if we start repealing laws that are in place to protect us from ourselves. But seatbelt laws are implemented in all countries, while MHL in very few and some countries without helmet laws have fantastic cycling safety stastics.

A few more points to add:

  • No country that repealed their MHL did the same for seatbelt laws

  • Motor vehicles mostly travels at speeds where seatbelts are likely to have a benefit in a collision, while cyclists travel at a far greater variety of speeds and conditions. Thus there is no real case to leave the choice to motorists to wear seatbelts or not, but there might be for cyclists regarding helmets

  • Seatbelt laws' net public health benefits are not disputed, while MHL's are.

  • Helmets don't provide the same level of protection as seatbelts and the way they offer protection is totally different

3. Your brain is more important than your hair

While this statement is totally true, it implies other false statements

It's all about helmet hair

This argument seems to imply the objection against helmet laws are only based on people's concern with their hair or similarly unimportant factors. As Alan Todd of Freestyle Cyclist said the reasons why people don’t want to wear a helmet is not important, but the fact remains is that they don’t want to.

Helmet repeal advocates have a variety of reasons for supporting repeal and it is not all in the name of beautiful hair. The biggest concern is that helmet laws leads to a decline in cycling and that the health benefit loss caused by this is much greater than the gains made by the safety offered by helmets. It may sound silly that people in general ride less because of helmet laws, but there is research supporting this. This statement might be disputed, but the point is still that helmet hair is not the main driver for helmet freedom campaigns. For more details, see Appendix A: The real reasons why there is a call to repeal helmet laws.

The safety benefits offered by helmets are so great that individuals choosing not to use helmets are irresponsible by putting their preferences ahead of their safety

This is based on the assumption that riding without a helmet is very dangerous and irresponsible. It also disregards the fact that not everyone rides at “Tour de France” speeds and conditions. Helmet repeal activists would say riding without a helmet in safe conditions is a very safe activity and the Netherlands safety record is proof of that.

4. A helmet once saved my life

Helmets does indeed offer some level of protection during a fall or collision under certain conditions. 

photoThere are some that dispute the level of effectiveness, but more importantly the objection is not to helmet wearing, but the law. People can still wear helmets if they feel it is the safest thing to do under the conditions and changing the law doesn’t mean people should be discouraged from wearing a helmet.

Most helmet freedom advocates recognizes that people cycling at high speeds or less than ideal conditions should wear helmets and they possibly offer some protection when falling.

Also note the fact that if your helmet cracked or broke into pieces doesn’t necessarily meant it saved your life. Helmets do their job by absorbing the pressure through the compression of polystyrene. A cracked helmet means the helmet wasn’t able to absorb those forces.

5. If people choose to ride without helmets, they should not have access to Medicare

People participating in a lot more dangerous activities on a daily basis are not denied Medicare. This includes smoking, drinking, not getting any exercise, sport activities and even driving. More people get serious head injuries from driving than people riding bicycles. The medical system simply doesn’t work this way and if it ever did, cycling without a helmet will be very low on a list of ‘dangerous activities’.
An alternative version of this is "your family is going to have to feed you if you become a vegatable". Again, people overestimate the risk, especially when compared to other everyday activities.

6. Ever been to ED? Doctors knows best...

Emergency Department personnel will tell you the sight of a person having a serious head injury will have a great effect on anyone. Not only the immediate results of it, but also the long term effects. Someone who has ever witnessed this will be greatly influenced by such an experience. This argument does raise the emotional levels by putting a very emotive image into the discussion, to the point where people can be scared into an position on the matter.

But we have to look at the bigger picture.

We have to put our emotional reactions aside and look at statistics that would support either position for the greater good. Helmet repeal advocates claims the low risk of getting such an injury is outweighed by the disadvantages of the law.

In the Netherlands, the SWOV claimed that 5 children and 5 elderly people’s lives would be saved each year if helmet laws was brought into effect for those groups, but the Minister still rejected the request to introduce the law.  

The introduction of Australian helmet laws were strongly supported by the Royal Australian College of Surgeons. They and other doctors and emergency department personnel are quick to point out the possible protection a helmet can offer to an individual. Certainly doctor’s voices does carry some weight, but there are professionals more equipped to deal with science of the issue, called Health Experts. Health Experts would look at the broader implications of the law on society and not just the possible effect of an individual in the event of a fall.

Note that there are Health Experts for and against MHL.

7. What about the children?

Not a fallacy, but an argument that is used to greatly influence opinion by eliciting an emotional reaction, similarly to the previous argument. Again it is important to approach the subject scientifically, not emotionally. photo

Granted, there are statistics supporting the fact that children are more prone to cycling-related head injuries than adults. It is possible that most Australian helmet freedom advocates supports only partial repealing of the law (for people over a certain age) to avoid the emotional component childrens’ safety brings into the debate.

8. How hard is it to put on a helmet?

Not hard at all, but again this is not about helmet wearing of a single individual, but instead about the side effects of the law on society as a whole, including that people are put off by riding a bicycle (for whatever reason) when being forced to put on a helmet.
When riding a bike is a planned activity, for example going out on a fitness, recreational ride or a long, daily commute with a shower afterwards, part of that planning would be making sure you have a towel and a helmet. But when someone wants to quickly ride down to the shops, it is more spontaneous and helmet laws takes away that spontaneity.

A more clear example of this is the bikeshare schemes. Most bikeshare schemes around the world does very well, but Melbourne and Brisbane bikeshare schemes are struggling compared to cities that doesn’t have MHL. In Melbourne there was initially no option other than using your own helmet. Later on you were able to buy a helmet for $5 and most recently complimentary helmets are made available. The latter option was somewhat successful, but it still has issues including people worried about the cleanness of helmets.  

If you use a bikeshare system overseas, you simply swipe your credit card and jump on the bike.

9. Cyclist go fastslow fast

Once again true, but a generalization. Cyclist ride at a great variety of speed, sometimes as slow as someone running. In Australia, cycling is usually associated with fast group rides on weekend mornings, or assertive commuters dodging in and out of traffic while riding 15+ km to work.
Some say that this association we have can partially be blamed by helmet laws and that also that this style of riding became more dominant because of helmet laws.

Back to the issue of speed - as mentioned before, most helmet freedom campaigners would argue these riders riding under these conditions are best of wearing helmets and most of them will say that they will continue to wear helmets in the absence of a law.

There are however other groups of riders as well, mums and dads riding in the park, upright cyclist going for a stroll on the esplanade or ordinary people running down the shop in a pair of jeans. These people don’t ride at fast speeds and are a lot less likely to come an incident on a bicycle. One can say ‘you can never be safe enough’, but if we apply the same thinking in all other aspects of our lives, we would be wearing helmets for most of our daily activities.

To get an idea of a riding culture without helmet looks, have a look at this Dutch video:

10. We have to get the infrastructure right first

This argument has been going around for a long time. Our infrastructure is continually improving and there are a lot of places where it is safe to ride without the presence of motorised vehicles. What will the reaction be if people start riding without helmets on busy streets? "Look how dangerous! We need more bikelanes!"
Helmet laws should not be a substitute for better infrastructure and this statement gives the impression that helmet laws does offer an amount of protection in the same order of magnitute, which is not the case.

There are a lot of countries that are, like Australia, improving their infrastructure, but doesn’t have helmet laws. This includes the USA, who’s bikeshare program (where people are unlikely to wear helmets) had zero fatalities after 23 million trips.

Appendix A: The real reasons why there is a call to repeal helmet laws

Here is just a sample of reasons given why bicycle helmet laws should be repealed.

  • It leads to a significant decrease in cycling participation
  • It affects the style of riding and marginalized certain styles
  • It unnecessary impedes in people's personal choice
  • It creates the impression that cycling is a dangerous activity that requires special equipment
  • It creates a problem of 'risk compensation'
  • It creates the impression that something is being done about cycling safety
  • The benefit of helmets laws doesn't outweigh the problems it creates

“WWBD - What Would Bicycle Do?” - Actor Network Theory and Bicycle Advocacy

Written by Jai Cooper

slow fast

In the classic Menippean satire, ‘The Third Policeman’, author Flan O’Brien lampoons the somewhat obsessive relationship some people have with their bicycles. It is as if the bicycle has a personality. The novel explores the very nature of existence and leads us to the consideration that a material object can have sentience.

We might not accept that a bicycle can think, but in sociology, an approach to social theory is ‘ANT’ (actor-network theory). It can be applied to commodities such as bicycles. Actor-network theory is an approach to social theory in which the material relations between people are studied as the social relations between those material things.

A similar perspective was proposed by the Situationist movement that predicted the ‘death of the subject’ and the commodity wars. The ‘war’ between motorists and cyclists is a contemporary manifestation of this phenomenon. These avant-garde philosophers identified a trend in society in which commodities were the central focus. The automobile was the pilot project for this society. In this ‘society of the spectacle’, power would be contested by material objects vying for dominance. Examples include brand competition such as Ford vs Holden or communications technology such as Apple vs Windows. Tribes of people align themselves to the commodity and tie their very sense of identity to the object. Commodity wars differ from other wars such as resource wars between nation states. They are also different to civil wars about what ideology is chosen to manage the economy or religion has dominance. Further, commodity wars are very different to contests of physical characteristics such as race or gender. The fundamental difference is what the Situationists referred to as the ‘death of the subject’ because the characteristic over which the conflict is fought is not deeply internalised. Commodities can be more readily abandoned than nationalities, ideologies or physical traits. The people no longer matter, it is the primacy of the object that is of concern. So, how does this relate to the ‘war’ in which we find ourselves?

The death of the subject may be understood as the blurring of identity we witness between tribes in which the use of the object (in our case – a bicycle) attributes us certain assumed characteristics. At the macro level, governments and businesses objectify people by measuring them as statistics. This is part of a dehumanising process for individuals. The analysis applied to statistics in quantitative data is a process of making generalisations. It often misses counter-effects which can occur from practices of social engineering. There is always some ‘ghost in the machine’ which evades prediction.

On a micro level, the death of the subject translates into a reality that constructs people within separate tribes, not heterogeneous groups. For example, all cyclists are assumed to be ‘scofflaws’ or ‘fitness freaks’ or other generalisations. Further, we are requested by others who are not cycling enthusiasts to be able to change the behaviour of all other cyclists. Of course, this is unreasonable: as if we would expect one motorist to pass the message on to all other motorists to change their behaviour. The tendency to assume all cyclists are part of a homogenous group that all think and behave the same and all possess telekinetic powers with each other is, of course, unreasonable. However, this is the challenge we often face. It is something we can suffer through or, alternatively, it can be an opportunity for us to grow by recognising our common ground.


In an era in which we see the media ‘war’ of ‘cars v bikes’ it may be worthwhile to return to actor-network theoretical perspectives to understand and improve upon our advocacy. Firstly, we can reflect that we are a broad church with a range of divergent networks. There are people with many different skills and perspectives involved in cycling. You can reasonably expect as wide a demographic as most of Australia, possibly with some leanings towards environmentalism and leftist thinking. Cycling advocacy has a long association with socialism, environmentalism, feminism and anarchism. However, there are plenty of conservatives who are avid cyclists, as exemplified by our former Prime Minister. For those on the political right, cycling can be a way to exhibit the health achieved with the blessings of financial advantage or a form of individual self-reliance. The bottom line is that we need to be inclusive. You might not like Tony Abbott or whoever on the political spectrum as a person but, regardless, if we have more people riding bikes then that is simply a good thing for our cause. Many people with different views will build a stronger movement. They will have a wider range of strategies at their disposal to address the rhetoric of our critics. Further, if we take a view that human nature is predetermined: there is a spectrum from good people through to bad people in the world. If we look at life that way, then maybe we should be rejoicing that bad people are riding bikes – because we’d rather have them feeling empathy for us and also not to be occupying themselves with other more dangerous commodities (like guns or cars). In a social movement such as cycling, it is important to recognise that there is an inherent problem that comes from expecting everyone to behave as virtuously as yourself: eventually, you will find that no one else rides (or even advocates) in exactly in the way you would in all situations. If we had the expectation that everyone would be as good as oneself and, if they weren’t, they shouldn’t be on bikes, then eventually we would be the only ones left on bikes - and that would be a very dangerous situation. Therefore, embrace the incompetent cyclist.

If you’re worried about in-fighting amongst cyclists, here’s another perspective: it’s a good sign because it means we are a broad and active group with different ways of doing things. It means that we are not in an ‘echo-chamber’ in which we are regurgitating the attitudes of our peers. A strong and robust debate over strategy is a sign of, exactly that, a strong and robust movement. Further, accept the possibility that not everyone is going to be happy with your behaviour. Do not let that necessarily sway you from your position. To use the adage: if you’re not pissing someone off, you’re not doing anything. It’s also worth remembering that if you are worried by people who are more extreme than yourself in their opinions, be grateful: you need them to make you look moderate. This is the principal of ‘radical flank’ theory. Fortunately, cyclists are generally not prone to violent uprising. It doesn’t really go with the territory for being a cyclist. If we were that way inclined, we might be more prone to being motorists. The bicycle is not known as the weapon of choice for violent revolutionaries. It is essentially an object designed for low impact mobility – a peaceful object.

Think about that: a peaceful object. If you genuinely consider yourself a ‘bicycle advocate’ then think what that means. For a moment, let’s take the subject (the human) out of the equation. Stop being yourself and consider assuming the identity of the bicycle. Think about it from this perspective: your bicycle knows what to do. Go and ask your bicycle, literally the ‘ghost in the machine’, what it wants you and everyone else to do. Listen carefully for the answer and, if you trust your bike, share that message far and wide.

Lastly, remember never to take things too seriously. The bicycle is just a commodity. A beauty of a commodity-struggle is that you can set the commodity aside and go surfing or something else sometimes – that’s okay. Hopefully, you won’t be a fair-weather advocate and abandon the cause wholly – that’s not cool. Remember the importance of dedication as a virtue. Alternatively, if you can’t stop thinking about it and it gets too serious sometimes, there is always humour. Laughter is our best weapon. Make it funny for both yourself and your combatant. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘if you’re going to tell someone the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you’.

Happy riding, comrades.

I've been a bicycle rider for many years, for transport mostly. It used to be something that wasn't particularly remarkable, but in more recent years it became almost demonised, in the media in particular.
I wanted to be able to talk to other people, about my experience as a bicycle rider and user of our road infrastructure, and also my experiences of our changing road culture.
But where could I do that? The answer was no-where that I could find. The choices seemed to be organisations like Bicycle Network who kept conversation so tightly capped that no-one could discuss anything. Or other organisations and the media who didn't seem to moderate at all and where a truly intimidating culture of abuse seemed to be developing.

I used to make the comparison with vegetable gardening. If every time a person tried to talk about growing vegetables they got a torrent of abuse, how much discussion would there be? "I saw a vegetable gardener once who let their lettuce go to seed, they're all irresponsible".
"Vegetable gardeners seedling punnets are taking over, they think they own the nurseries".
"Vegetable gardening is dangerous with all those garden forks and they should get back inside where it's safe or what happens is their own fault".
I'm making a joke of it, but the level of hate out there was astonishing. Things had to change but no-one seemed interested in doing the hard work of turning it around.

This is when Cycle started, and it has truly made a difference in my opinion. They provided a space where conversation is possible. It's a space where people can have a voice and talk, and where there is moderation so discussion can't be shut down by a few. 
For the first time there were other people I could talk to, share information and opinions with, and discuss ways to improve conditions to encourage more people to get on a bicycle. It's one thing to tell people "ride a bike, it's good". But to throw them out into an environment where there is often poor infrastructure and a car centric culture with no support is a recipe for what we have. Cities being choked with cars, and too few feeling safe to use their bicycles.

In my opinion, Cycle did the hard work of turning the dialogue around, and it is making a difference. As an information sharing organisation, they have succeeded in doing just that. Providing a flow of information from a wide range of sources, as well as from ordinary people who can now have say.

Join Cycle today

Cycle is run with the love and time of an amazing group of individuals that come from all across Australia to make your Cycling life a little bit better.