I live in Canberra quite close to Lake Burley Griffin, and the easiest road to the city, at least in my view, winds around a part of the lake. It’s really an old-fashioned country road, not very wide, and full of little hills and curves. It comes complete with a single unbroken line for about 2 of its 2.5 kilometres. So it’s slow, but it’s pretty, and there’s not a lot of traffic on it. I guess I use it once or twice a day. Between the road and the lake is a kind of park, not manicured, but kept tidy, and winding through that is what in Canberra is called a ‘shared path’ — one for the use both of cyclists and walkers. It too is pretty and fun. If I still had a bike I would use it myself, and did once use some of it to go to work when I was heavily into cycling.
But not all the cyclists use the shared path. Some prefer the road, and of course they are entitled to do so. If I see a cyclist ahead I drop back and wait. There are two or three spots where cyclists can move slightly off the tarred road onto another tarred stretch, to let cars pass. And they always do. Until last time. I dropped back behind the cyclist, and waited. Up came the parking area, but to my surprise he didn’t shift his line at all. So I moved gently past him, keeping inside the unbroken line but keeping clear of him, and was saluted with a yell for my trouble.
So I pulled up ahead, and waited, with my window wound down. I wasn’t able to get out ‘What was the yell for?’ He said to me, with the voice of a headmaster, ‘Obey the road rules!’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Do you know what the road rules are?’
‘Yes, I do,’ I said without explaining that as the Chairman of the Road Safety Trust, I had a certain familiarity with them.
‘You are obliged to give me a metre’s clearance!’
I thought I had given him plenty of room, and to the best of my knowledge, there is no such measured requirement in either the Australian Road Rules or those of the ACT, but both are very large documents. I also thought it was my turn to say something.
‘Why didn’t you move a little into the parking space? I waited for a couple of hundred metres for you to get there.’
‘Thank you for waiting,’ he said, in a voice that carried little of any thanks. ‘But I am entitled to ride anywhere on this side of the road that I choose.’
‘Indeed you are,’ I said.
‘And you could have passed me easily,’ he said. ‘There was plenty of room.’
Indeed there wasn’t, without my going over the line, and I couldn’t see around the corner, and said so.
He changed his style. ‘Do you realise how vulnerable I feel? Your wing mirror seemed very close to me.’
‘Yes,’ I said. I feel vulnerable myself, whenever I am a pedestrian on a footpath. And I did when I was a cyclist, too. But he could only have seen my wing mirror after I had passed him.
I felt our exchange had reached an end. ‘Anything more you want to say?’ I asked.
‘OK. You ride on and I’ll wait.’
And off he went, and I stayed well away from him.
I was cross about the whole incident for some time, mostly with myself. Of course, he was absolutely right. I should properly have waited for the remaining two kilometres and then passed when when the broken line appeared, always supposing the lane to be empty. I had enough sense not to ask him why he didn’t use the shared path. As he said, he was entitled to use whatever legal path he chose. And he might have responded, had I asked that question, that the shared paths are more dangerous for cyclists than the roads (more accurately, that more serious injuries are caused to cyclists on the paths than on cycle-lanes on the roads). I know that because the Trust commissioned some research that produced that result.
But at the same time, I was irritated by what seemed to be an attitude on his part that I was to give him every courtesy, while he could take advantage from the rules, as though bikes were virtuous and cars sinful. I may be doing him a disservice, in which case I would apologise. But I do come across that attitude from time to time. The ACT Government plans that thousands more of us will be using bicycles in the future to go to and from work. I once did that, and it seems a fine goal to me. But more than a little culture change will be needed. The Government is also slowly turning the city into a more bike-friendly environment, and again that seems sensible to me. A little recognition from some cyclists that co-operation on both sides would be helpful will also be a useful improvement. I add the last line because, apart from the roads, I am also surprised at the number of cyclists using the shared paths who don’t indicate well ahead of time to walkers that they are coming, often quite fast.