The funeral was a very full house and hard. You may have even seen it on Campbell Live; The Herald gave it front page this morning. Now comes the hard part, surviving the aftermath, the years with a hole in your heart, the family with a missing part.
We never really had a cycling culture in this country; for a very long time it was marginalised as a way of getting kids to school or a fringe sport for guys with shaven legs. That’s changed. There are now thousands of people cycling in various forms, but the rest of New Zealand hasn’t caught up to this and as a result we kill about 10 cyclists a year and seriously injure hundreds. This is going to change. That’s why this tragedy for this family has seen so much attention.
I must add that the family is pretty ambivalent about this. It’s not at all comfortable having your grief and pain made public like this. They certainly do not want to be seen to be attention-seeking. That’s an anathema to them.
I spoke with several of Jane’s companions, those who were there at her brutal end. One of them told me how he spent six weeks in France on roads just as narrow and busy as here … and felt safe the entire time. The difference was simply that in much of Europe drivers and cyclists are understand each other. Drivers stop, and give cyclists space, and share the road with respect.
In France the driver that killed Jane Farrelly would likely have held back, waited 20 or 30 seconds until he had the visibility and space to overtake safely. Instead of squeezing past as he did with no room for anything else to go wrong.
We understand that pedestrians and cars need different spaces, different infrastructures and different rules. But we get it wrong when we pretend that bicycles are just slow cars. They’re not. While of course it’s obvious that cyclists are exquisitely vulnerable to tons of car and truck, their primary defense is their ability to manoeuvre and avoid danger while they are still moving. This means they behave differently to cars on the road.
A stationary bicycle is effectively a pedestrian with shackle on his legs … a sitting target. This is reason why cyclists instinctively avoid stopping wherever possible, it’s simply safer to keep moving. Especially at intersections where they’ll find all manner of devious ways of doing so. Which rather offends motorists who have to stop for a red light.
The other crucial areas of vulnerability are “squeeze points”; places along the road where the shoulder narrows and forces the cyclist into conflict with other traffic. Squeezes can be caused by bridges (one of these came within millimetres of killing me decades ago), roundabouts (which killed a senior police officer at Petone last year) or parked cars (which killed Jane Bishop on the Auckland foreshore three years ago.)
Experienced cyclists deal with this by “owing the road”; they move right out into the traffic lane and force the vehicles behind them to slow down and wait until they’ve passed the squeeze. By doing this they remove the opportunity for other traffic to overtake unsafely. Of course while this is the safe thing to do, New Zealand drivers are infuriated by the inconvenience of being slowed down like this and respond badly.
And of course there is the ever present risk of being ‘doored’. My rule is that if you can see someone in the driver seat you have to assume they’re just waiting for you to get into range before they spring their door into your path. Unfortunately the design of modern cars makes it’s almost impossible to reliably see if there is someone sitting in the driver’s seat; this means that when cycling past a row of parked cars you need to be riding in the traffic lane. More conflict and aggro results.
We need to start sorting these issues out. While the lycra-clad sports crowd are the most visible segment of the cycling community, there are the mountain bikers (who use roads too), and the long-distance touring community who’ve all been either hurt or know someone who has been. And the biggest change in the last few years has been the massive rise in commuter cyclists who are now by far the biggest portion of new sales in the industry. More exciting still is the new wave of efficient and effective electric cycles on the horizon which hugely extend the scope and range ordinary people can use bicycles for.
And you only have to look at the new wave of entirely new high-tech personal vehicles that sit very neatly in the gap between bicycles and cars. All of these have the potential to revolutionise our city traffic problems and substantially reduce fossil fuel consumption.
But when people see how Jane died they’re going to say, “too dangerous for me”. And this is pretty much the point where the self-defeating ‘Remuera tractor’ syndrome kicks in.
Cycling in this country is emerging from the ghetto it’s long inhabited. Many of us want to cycle more often for many reasons. We have many visitors who know New Zealand as a terrific cycling destination, with a rapidly developing network of highly popular cycle trails and tourism related activities. But we’ve got a very dirty reputation for safety that is diminishing and tarnishing this potential.
There are two political aspects to this we need to be thinking about. One is a review of the road-code to take proper account of the realities of using a bicycle on modern roads. The other is lifting the priority we place on walking and cycling infrastructure. Even painting green strips on the shoulders and sweeping it clean of debris regularly is a useful starting point; at the least it would lend a symbolic visibility to cyclists, demonstrating to motorists that they have same status and right to be on the road as they do.