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Culture clash

The Nelson Mail: Culture clash

MARTIN DE RUYTER/The Nelson Mail 

Find a cyclist and you’ll find a war story – a tale of an unhappy encounter with some motorist, recounted with lingering disbelief and indignation.

Anne FitzSimon, one of the organisers of the Bicycle Nelson Bays lobby group, recalls being passed so close by a car in Vanguard St that it left a scraping of paint on her handlebars. Recently, she heard of a young guy, a serious cyclist, who was riding home from work, who somehow so enraged a man in a car that the motorist chased him all the way home, trying to run him down.

Mike Fouhy, a keen recreational cyclist from Stoke, speaks with bewilderment at the worsening antics he sees from his bike-seat – much of it, he’s convinced, deliberate and often abusive – including a woman who hit him as she cut him off pulling into a dairy on Tahunanui Drive, then denied being aware of the collision when he confronted her. He sees road rage directed at cyclists all around and getting worse, for reasons he can’t fathom.

Margaret Parfitt – Nelson City Council’s transport and road safety co-ordinator, and a "confident" cyclist – had an ugly experience in St Vincent St a couple of weeks ago, involving a male motorist outraged that she wasn’t riding near enough to the edge of the road (she had pulled out from the kerb to avoid glass and debris). "He cut me off and wound down his window and abused me, and forced me up on to the footpath – I thought he was going to get out of his car and hit me," she recalls.

Wednesday afternoon, and cycling in what seems to be its most fashionable, certainly prominent and most controversial form, is taking shape outside Village Cycles in Richmond. A group of Lycra-clad men on expensive road bikes, young to middle-aged, are preparing for a regular group ride through the back roads of Richmond, Hope, Wakefield and beyond. They have their war stories, too, many of them about behaviour that has become almost routine – abuse shouted from passing cars, things thrown or squirted at them, being deliberately cut off in the traffic.

One tells of a recent near-death experience on the Brightwater Bridge, after he chose to ride in the main vehicle lane because of debris on the cycle lane. A passing truck-driver, he is convinced, made a point of overtaking him as closely as possible, despite having plenty of room for a safer pass. He was so shaken at how close he had come to ending up under the wheels that he pursued the truck as it pulled into a nearby depot, and wound up in a shouting match with the driver.

As the group takes to the road, they form up into their bunch, the dozen or so individuals quickly coalescing into a tight, fast-moving, bright-coloured swarm – a familiar sight on rural roads these days, reflecting the boom in cycling as sport and recreation, but also the bane of many a motorist who has ended up behind such a pack.

Some in the Richmond group argue that motorists should see it as no different to encountering a slow-moving tractor on the highway – slow down, wait until it’s safe to pass, then give the group a wide berth. Deal with it. Easy, surely?

Apparently not. Both the Nelson police and the local Automobile Association say bunches of riders are one of the most common cycle-related irritations for motorists. "Some motorists – I don’t know if they feel threatened, but they feel that these cyclists get in the way and create an additional safety hazard," says Gary Stocker, the chairman of the Nelson branch of the Automobile Association. "It’s difficult to know whether they [the cyclists] are arrogant, or just unaware of the vehicles around them."

While Phil Wooding, the police sergeant who heads the Nelson Bays traffic unit, strongly believes that both motorists and cyclists have to look at their own behaviour before criticising others, when it comes to bunch cyclists he is forthright: "I think they, in particular, need to look at their behaviour and the negative influence it has on motorists’ perception of cyclists. That’s one area where we do get a lot of complaints, about cyclists riding in bunches."

Some cyclists don’t want to share war stories. Fears of stoking a them-and-us rift with motorists are widespread, only heightened in recent weeks after a near-fatal collision between a group of cyclists on Auckland’s Tamaki Drive and a woman driver who apparently went through a stop sign. Blogs have been dripping with anti-cyclist and anti-motorist bile and venom. Some in the Richmond riding group think that the cyclists quoted in a recent Nelson Mail story, advocating for a compulsory 1.5-metre passing gap between cars and bikes, should have kept their heads down, to avoid stirring more ill feeling.

The national collective of cyclist groups, the Cycling Advocates Network, felt compelled to put out a press release last week urging "a stop to cyclist-bashing on the roads and in the media", with the group’s spokesman, Stephen McKernon, complaining of "extreme views ... that cyclists deserve to be injured or killed".

Only slightly more sedate has been the latest round of cyclist v motorist letters in the Nelson Mail, this round triggered by the 1.5m gap campaign.

Given the recent history of the debate, the latest outpouring could just have easily been arguments over how cyclists ride too fast on the pathways they share with pedestrians, or some cyclists’ lax attitudes to stopping for red lights, or motorists who drive in cycle lanes, or any of a dozen other sore points (see panel).

Sometimes, the arguments can seem like stupid, trivial stuff – one party guilty of dumb, inconsiderate behaviour, the other throwing a tantrum in return. Such sniping can obscure the real stakes, the ones readily cited by the likes of Bicycle Nelson Bays and Mrs Parfitt, about the striking vulnerability of cyclists.

While Nelson has an unusually high proportion of people who go to and from work by bike – about 6 per cent, double the national average, Mrs Parfitt says – cyclists are also cleaned out in crashes on the region’s roads at an alarming rate. About a quarter of all injury crashes in Nelson from 2004-08 involved cyclists; no-one died, but 24 suffered serious injuries, 109 lesser injuries. Almost all happened on urban roads, the vast majority were in daylight, most happened at intersections where someone failed to give way. The most dangerous road was Waimea Rd, site of 20 injury accidents over the five years.

Nationally – and this is a statistic brandished by cycle advocates – the Transport Ministry says that cyclists had the prime responsibility for only 27 per cent of the accidents they were caught up in, and in 64 per cent had no fault at all.

But Mr Wooding is sceptical about such statistics. He sees all the "plain English" reports filed by police from crashes across Nelson and says it’s clear to him that "a very large number" of accidents result from fault on both sides.

His key advice to the two groups?

Motorists, stay out of cycle lanes, whether driving or parking; cyclists, don’t ride at speed up the inside of a line of slow-moving traffic, given the danger of being hit by an unsuspecting motorist trying to make a turn into, out of or across the queue. Those two measures alone could make a real difference, he says.

It might seem like New Zealand has seen a sudden dam-burst of frustrations about the place of cycling on the road; Mr Wooding for one isn’t so sure. Some of it, he suspects, is self-perpetuating, the sense of an outpouring being fed by recent media attention; some of it probably comes down to busier roads generally.

From cyclists, in particular, a couple of popular themes come through. New Zealand drivers’ attitudes to bikes on the road is far less tolerant, far more hostile than in most places overseas.

Mike Fouhy recalls cycling down a narrow lane in Europe, being followed patiently for 2km by a truck driver who, when there was finally room to pass, gave the cyclist a cheery toot.

And cyclists aren’t backing down, certainly not those who are street-wise about their rights.

Even for relatively sedate riders, being assertive about the right to occupy lane space is non-negotiable. Ms FitzSimon is one who enjoys cycling for its social element, and isn’t about to be mistaken for a testosterone-soaked, Lycra-clad, carbon-fibre warrior, but she’s unapologetic to those motorists who get wound up about cyclists riding out from the kerb, arguing that the crucial point for cyclists is being visible.

"They [motorists] think we’re somehow being arrogant, but ... they can see us, it’s good," she says.

Ms FitzSimon says much of Bicycle Nelson Bays’ energy is going into encouraging ordinary people, particularly children, into cycling after its years of decline – first, when parents became spooked about the safety of children riding unsupervised to school, then after the introduction of compulsory cycle helmets. Cycling needs to be "normalised", she says, which means breaking down the antipathy with other road users, including pedestrians, and making sure it is safe, especially for children.

Until recently, that has also been official policy of the city council and, in turn, central government, both of which have spent much of the past decade investing heavily in making roads safer and friendlier for cycling.

The city council has pioneered various projects, ranging from 0800 numbers for cyclists to report problems, to high-profile, share-the-road campaigns that have been picked up nationwide; as well as increased spending on cycle lanes.

It was about to launch the next stage of its campaign, working alongside employers to encourage staff to bike to work (such as providing secure storage facilities, staff showers and the like); the Nelson Marlborough District Health Board was signed up for the first such partnership.

But, Mrs Parfitt says, that and other initiatives have been put on hold with recent funding cuts imposed by a new Government that is both cash-strapped and not, apparently, as cycling-enthused as the old Labour-led administrations.

Still, "compared with a lot of places in the country, Nelson is doing really well", she says. "We have a reputation ... for doing some really good stuff for cycling."

Some motorists may not appreciate it.

Mr Stocker says that other than complaints about bunches of cyclists holding up traffic, the principal gripe he hears is from "the more diehard motorists" bridling when they see cyclists continuing to ride on the road when a purpose-built, off-road cycleway is nearby.

But, like Mrs Parfitt, Ms FitzSimon and some of the cyclists heading out for a Wednesday afternoon bunch ride, he readily accepts that what might look like a war is really only a skirmish.

"The AA wouldn’t see it as one of the biggest issues on our roads, put it that way," Mr Stocker says.

THE SORE POINTS

Cyclists riding out from the kerb.

Transport authorities say this is allowed – for example, cyclists may be avoiding rubbish or drains, wanting to make sure they are clearly visible to traffic as they come up to intersections, or discouraging drivers from squeezing past them and forcing them off narrow roads.

Cyclists ignoring traffic signals. There’s no excuse in the eyes of the law – if a bike is being ridden on the road, the cyclist has to behave as a motorist, including stopping for red lights. Riding on to the footpath and across pedestrian crossings is also illegal.

Cyclists riding on the footpath. Only allowed for posties, newspaper deliverers and the like; or if the footpath is a designated cycleway (such as on part of Vanguard St).

Cyclists riding in a bunch. If it’s part of an organised race, a traffic management plan will apply and the bunch will probably be escorted. On informal rides, cyclists argue it gives them safety in numbers. The law says cyclists are only supposed to ride a maximum two abreast, and in single file when they are impeding other traffic.

Cyclists riding at speed on shared pathways. Mostly just dumb or selfish. Nelson City Council road safety co-ordinator Margaret Parfitt points out that, with such a wide variety of people using pathways like the one to Atawhai or the Railway Reserve, cyclists intent on riding at speed would be better off using the road.

Cyclists swerving across traffic without warning. Again, dumb. The road rules require cyclists to give at least three seconds warning by way of a hand signal before stopping or turning, and advise checking behind to make sure the signal has been seen and understood.

Vehicles passing within centimetres of bikes. The recommended space to leave between a bike and passing vehicle is 1.5m. If the road is narrow, motorists should wait until it is safe and clear ahead.

Vehicles passing cyclists, then making a left turn directly in front of them. The rules require motorists to hold back if they are following a cyclist as they approach a left turn.

Vehicles mis-judging cycle speed. Cyclists can be moving at 40kmh. Don’t assume they are slow moving and will have time to react to unexpected behaviour by another road user.

Vehicles ignoring cyclists at intersections. Almost two-thirds of accidents involving bikes happen at intersections.