Cyclist Deaths Expose Culture Clash on Crowded Sydney Roads

The force of the collision launched cyclist Hans Dean onto the car’s windscreen and hurled him to the ground, his spine broken and face so bloodied he could barely see. The Sydney rider is thankful he’s alive.

Cyclist deaths jumped to a 16-year high across Australia last year and doubled in New South Wales, the most populous state. In Sydney, renowned worldwide for its harbor bridge and beaches yet criticized by locals for inadequate public transport, motorists and cyclists are locked in a cultural clash and a competition for space on crowded roads.

“It’s definitely at breaking point,” said Dean, 48, whose back is splinted with metal rods after the March 16 crash near Sydney’s airport that hospitalized all seven riders in his group. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

With the motorist charged over the collision appearing in court today, cycling groups are campaigning for legislation to compel drivers to leave at least a 1-meter gap when passing. The state government is instead considering becoming the first in Australia to force riders to obtain a license.

Tired of being squeezed off roads or hit by soda cans and other objects flung by motorists, many cyclists complain they are being intentionally targeted by a minority of drivers.

“I don’t think the government is aware of what’s actually going on,” said Frank Conceicao, 62, the former manager of Australia’s national cycling team who now runs the Albion Cycles store in eastern Sydney. “We’re just waiting for someone else to die before they do something.”

Death Toll

Nationwide, cyclist deaths surged 52 percent to 50 last year, the government-backed Australian Bicycle Council said. In New South Wales, the toll of 14 was the highest since 2007 and eight more have died so far this year, according to the state government.

Cyclists account for 2.9 percent of Australian road deaths, surpassing the 2 percent in the U.S., according to the World Health Organization’s global road safety report for 2013.

In Sydney, where more than half of a planned 200-kilometer (124-mile) network of cycle lanes is complete, the number of riders has more than doubled in three years, according to the City of Sydney council.

Respect for cyclists among drivers hasn’t kept pace with bikeriding’s popularity, said Stephen Greaves, associate professor of transport management at the University of Sydney.

“I still speak to people who primarily drive cars who see bike lanes as taking up their parking spot,” said Greaves. “When there’s a guy or a girl wobbling round on a bicycle, they almost see a target. There’s definitely more animosity towards cycling here than there is in the U.K.”

Sharing Europeans

In London, where motorists pay penalties for driving into the city center, Mayor Boris Johnson is spending almost 1 billion pounds ($1.7 billion) over 10 years to improve cycling in the capital. He introduced a cycle hire program in 2010 which has a fleet of 10,000 bikes. It’s one of 535 bike-sharing programs worldwide, most of them in Europe, according to the European Cyclists’ Federation.

Meanwhile, sipping coffee in a cafe in eastern Sydney after their regular Saturday morning ride this month, John Buckton and his cycling clubmates list the missiles thrown at them from passing cars: liquids, soda cans, rubbish. And one phonebook.

‘Just Vermin’

Drivers in some areas in the south of Sydney are so aggressive the club daren’t ride through them, said Buckton, president of the Randwick Botany Cycling Club. Two weeks earlier, a passenger on a motorbike pushed over two cyclists in the pack in an attempt to topple the entire bunch, he said.

To some drivers, “we’re just vermin,” Buckton said. “All we want is motorists to realize we’re entitled to be on the roads.”

The motorist, charged with offenses including dangerous driving occasioning grievous bodily harm after the collision with Dean, didn’t enter a plea in a Sydney court today. The 27-year-old is scheduled to reappear on Sept. 16.

Cyclists also need to learn to share the road, Kyle Loades, president of the Sydney-based National Roads & Motorists’ Association, said by phone.

“It’s not one side that’s at fault,” said Loades, who represents 2.4 million members. “There’s a small minority of drivers and cyclists who perpetuate the ‘us-versus-them’ mentality. Most of the time, the right thing is being done.”

Some elements of Australia’s media have inflamed the standoff.

Journalist and broadcaster Derryn Hinch last year described riders who flaunt road rules as “cockroaches on wheels.” In May, a column in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph criticized the erratic behavior of some cyclists and said they should be grateful motorists go out of their way to avoid them.

‘Stop Labeling’

Such attitudes feed a divisive culture that dehumanizes drivers and bikeriders, said Sophie Bartho, communications director at Bicycle NSW, a Sydney-based lobby group.

“Let’s stop labeling,” said Bartho. “We’re not just motorists and we’re not just cyclists. Those people are our husbands, our wives, our sons and our daughters. We have to show mutual respect.”

Bartho’s organization is promoting campaigns including ‘a metre matters’, which calls for a minimum legal overtaking distance nationwide, and “It’s a two-way street,” which reminds drivers and cyclists they both have responsibilities.

Like many riders, Bartho said a licensing program -- currently being assessed by the New South Wales government -- would be a costly deterrent to cycling, and “a distraction from the real issues.”

Cycling Manners

There are now so many cyclists in Australia that their interests can no longer be ignored, said Rob Berry, general manager of BikeWise, which offers cycling skills courses in Sydney. About 3.6 million people, or 17 percent of the population, ride a bike in Australia each week, according to last year’s National Cycling Participation Survey.

“The big message is cycle graciously,” said Berry, 28, who racks up more than 12,000 kilometers by bike every year. “If you go out thinking there’s a war on the roads, you’ll start believing there’s a war on the roads.”

Hans Dean, who still runs his own business specializing in property taxation, says his accident made some fellow cyclists question the benefits of the sport. He now wants to see a forum set up for all road users to find common ground.

Meantime, on his way to his next physiotherapy session, he’s staying positive.

“I’m walking,” he says. “That’s what keeps me going.”

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