‘Sharing the Road’ isn’t always easy

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.



Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Ken Taylor says:

    It was probably a mistake to be fixated on “keeping inside the unbroken line” as this article http://www.governmentnews.com.au/2015/09/new-metre-minimum-rule-for-motorists-overtaking-cyclists-in-act/ on the recently introduced requirement for a 1 metre clearance indicates, though of course you must be able to see far enough ahead to do this safely for the small amount you need to cross the line.

    As an electric bike enthusiast I’m wondering if the comments attributed to you in the ABC article “Electric bikes a safety risk as some cyclists flout regulations” http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-06/electric-bikes-pose-safety-risk-expert-says/7224270 have been well thought out. As your are quoted as representing the NRMA – ACT Road Safety Trust, I visited their website to discover the basis of the opinion but failed to discover the relevant documents. I was also told you were on TV with strongly expressed anti electric bike views.

    Mounting the counter argument would be easier knowing the basis of the opinion expressed and the purpose behind it but it looks like it is to be the justification for some new legislation, aimed at making cycling more difficult. Perhaps it is the registration of electric bikes, which would be as destructive as registration of non electric bikes in my view.

    The technology associated with electric bikes has improved their usability but the fundamentals are unchanged, they remain very different to motorbikes for reasons associated with physics, which doesn’t change. Air drag increases with the cube of the speed. Air drag consumes about as much power as all other sources of friction at 18km/h and hugely dominates thereafter. A good cyclist can manage about 32 km/h and the hour record on an indoor velodrome is 54 km/h, requiring a huge effort in optimising aerodynamics. To get an electric bike that can “keep up with cars on the open road at speeds of up to 80 kilometres an hour” as stated in the article requires more than the 1,000 Watts stated. There are electric bikes that can do this but they don’t look like a regular bicycle. As an example the F37 electric bike manufactured in Melbourne http://www.stealthelectricbikes.com/stealth-f-37-fighter/ advertises 3.7 KW and a top speed of 60 km/h. This is their least powerful model because anything less powerful than that is too unsatisfying compared to a motor bike which will always have more power than that. I have occasionally seen these and similar on the road but a casual glance is enough to tell you they are no bicycle. One person I met who had one told me the police had told him if they saw it again he would be dealt with. You don’t need any new legislation or special rules to spot them. They have pedals but if the rider pedals hard the 200 Watts or so the rider can produce doesn’t make a noticeable difference so they never do, except perhaps for show. The bikes need stronger frames and wheels and they look like small motorbikes with pedals. Being electric they are at least quieter than the petrol models but they are a different class of vehicle to a bicycle.

    There is a step change between the monster electric bikes and normal electric bikes. The 250W limit in the legislation is a nominal continuous rating and almost all electric bikes produce more power than that, sometimes approaching 500W under particular circumstances. There isn’t much to be gained by going bigger unless you go a lot bigger. The riders input is still significant at these power levels and it feels like a bicycle. 1000 Watts would be particularly unsatisfying, a big pedalling effort makes little difference to the bikes behaviour, the bike has to be heavily built, rips through the batteries and as a powered vehicle it is pathetic and unsatisfying. So there is a natural gap between electric bikes that most people use and those that can be “ridden faster and dangerously in heavy traffic”. This difference is easy to spot visually and is not allowed in the current legislation. So why the negativity and demonisation of electric bikes?

    I’m wondering whether the anti electric bike case has been well thought out because superficially it looks like a beat up. If it has been well considered, hopefully you can point me to the relevant documents at the NRMA – ACT Road Safety Trust web site.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Ken, Thank you for this thoughtful piece. It was three years ago when the incident I wrote about occurred, and indeed the ACT has now mandated a metre’s distance when passing a cyclist, and one may go over the unbroken to do so if it is safe.

    The media you refer to had me as a commenter. I said a number of things in the interview but not all of them were reported. It is the case that cyclists and motorcyclists in Canberra have the same kinds of injuries (there is a commissioned Trust report saying so), though cyclists have not (yet) been killed in their collisions. I made the simple point that faster bicycles would cause more injuries, and that it would only take a bad collision between an e-powered bicycle and another, or a pedestrian, for the ACT Government to say that ‘something must be done’. I did not know what that would be and did not speculate. As I understand it, e-bikes are likely to become stronger and more powerful — that is just a matter of time and improving technology. At some point their use on shared paths and roads will need to be regulated further. I have no view about what that regulation might involve.

    Finally, the Trust has been wound up by the ACT Government, though it continues to manage projects that have not been completed. And I remain its Chairman.

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