Since its inception three years ago, The Zone has promoted ideas for change across a wide range of issues. Ahead of the looming federal vote, it will be focusing on policy ideas; think of it, if you will, as The Election Zone.
Transport policy involves all three tiers of government – federal, state and local – and is a pressing issue. Every morning and afternoon of every working week in every city in the country, millions of hours are wasted as car commuters sit in traffic jams, frustrated and fuming amid the fumes.
Debate rages over whether to invest billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money in more roads or in rail or in both. But one mode of transport is not being given due attention as we head to the ballot box. Today’s guest in The Zone is here to put the case for the bicycle.
Bojun Bjorkman-Chiswell is a filmmaker who has been on a journey, literally and metaphorically, to investigate how cities around the world are incorporating the bicycle into their transport systems. After a year filming, photographing and conducting interviews in 62 cities across 32 countries, she found Australia is woefully off the pace and is missing an opportunity to improve the quality of life for millions of people.
‘I would like to hear from politicians a willingness to actually listen. Australia is an anomaly; we’re the rarity when it comes to bicycles around the world. It is mind-boggling how poorly we’re doing when we have beautiful examples around the world. This is why I went on this trip. How is it that this rich nation of clever people cannot deal well with the bicycle?’
Australia is the nation with the highest proportion of its population living in cities; as many as four in five of us live in urban areas. With that population growing rapidly, it is a propitious moment to ponder how best to facilitate transport and infrastructure needs.
You can read the full transcript of our interview here.
Bjorkman-Chiswell’s overarching proposition is the bicycle is a simple and inexpensive solution to multiple problems – and policy failure in Australia is depriving people of that solution.
Here are some of the problems she has seen ameliorated in cities in countries where politicians and policymakers have introduced bicycle-friendly measures:
1. Cities, she says, are reaching the point where they can fit no more cars on the road, and unless people, goods and services can move efficiently, cities fail or underperform economically.
2. Urbanisation – throughout the world, more and more people are concentrated in cities, adding to the demand for, and stress on, transport systems.
3. Health – cars cause people to be sedentary, contributing to the obesity epidemic and other health problems.
4. Pollution, energy and environment – cars are one of the biggest users of oil and so are a primary source of the air pollution marring life in many cities.
5. Mental health and relationships – the stress caused by the time lost in commuting, let alone sitting in stalled traffic, has been shown to be so detrimental to happiness that it contributes to marriage failures.
Bjorkman-Chiswell distils all this into the notion that people who ride bikes have better lives – they are happier and healthier. But that lifestyle dividend is being denied to people by their elected representatives.
‘Politicians need to understand they are actually curtailing people’s freedoms.’
Melbourne lord mayor Robert Doyle and former Victorian premier Ted Baillieu recently asserted Melbourne is a bicycle-friendly city. Bjorkman-Chiswell rejects this, and says Melbourne and Australia’s other cities are failing miserably to facilitate bikes.
The main policy change required is to give equal space on the road to bikes, cars and public transport.
She says whenever governments have created space for bikes, they have been embraced by millions of people.
‘How do you create a bike city? You simply just make it safe to use a bike and people choose it. It has been discovered all over the world that if you have parity – real parity, democracy on the road, a lane for the bikes which is equal and safe and wide and as sufficient as it is for cars and trams – 50 per cent of the time people choose the bike.’
She cites numerous examples of cities reaping the benefits of policies that give proper recognition to bicycles. In Berlin, a geographically big city, the authorities are splitting the city in 12 economic zones, which means people do not need to travel long distances to access shops, services and their workplaces.
The target is to have a quarter of all trips made by bike. In San Francisco, councils have collaborated to create bicycle routes that circumvent steep hills and provide a quick route throughout the city.
In Copenhagen, politicians have committed to creating the world’s most bicycle-friendly city. As the city is physically small, it cannot follow the Berlin model of economic centres. Instead, it has increased space on the roads for bikes. It has also dedicated entire train carriages to bikes.
Bike patronage, Bjorkman-Chiswell reports, is surging. In London, one in 10 people now rides to work.
She says Australians who argue it is currently impractical to rely on a bicycle are correct. ”The distances are long. The cities are completely unfriendly to bicycles. We don’t have bicycle cities.
‘The lack of dedicated space for bikes makes riding in Australian cities particularly dangerous, she argues.
In the past year, there have been more than 100 cyclists admitted to hospital after crashes in Melbourne alone, and four cyclist deaths this year in Victoria.
Bjorkman-Chiswell’s love for the bike began in an unlikely way, and her subsequent film project has a poignant genesis; she financed her trip with the money her father left her after he was felled by a heart attack while riding his bike 15 years ago.
About a decade ago, when she was 23, she contracted chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating illness she struggled with for five years. The eventual treatment included, paradoxically, a two-year gym program. After the first year, patients are permitted to substitute other exercise, so Bjorkman-Chiswell, who had started part-time work in public relations, decided to experiment with riding.
‘I thought too, if I ride to work I can ride slowly so that I don’t work up a sweat and I can wear my heels and a suit. And I can put on my Lycra and ride like a demon home and get my exercise. And it worked beautifully. I got home fast. I got home exercised.
I didn’t have to go to the gym. I saved money. And I fell in love with the bike. I loved getting around on it. I had had a car ever since I was 18. I sold my car and never looked back. I was delighted to get on my bike every single time I did. I delighted in everything about it.’
Well, almost everything. She found it terribly dangerous, and was involved in a number of accidents. One day, she made a discovery that led to her voyage, which she has chronicled in film, photography and words – www.bicyclempire.com
Not wishing to arrive at a function with her copious curls messed up, she rode without her helmet.
‘That journey was life changing. I stopped traffic. People changed lanes to get around me. Previously, when I had been a helmet wearer, I had been nearly killed multiple times … This trip, people changed lanes, people slowed down, people stopped at the traffic lights and were concerned for my wellbeing.’
She then did the research and found that Australia is extremely rare in mandating the wearing of helmets.
Bjorkman-Chiswell says nations with more experience of the bicycle know helmets create a false sense of security, causing riders to take undue risks and drivers to fail to take adequate care.
She argues that governments mistakenly see the helmet as the first line of defence for riders, and that genuine safety is created by giving appropriate space to bikes on well-maintained roads.
She has been fined numerous times, and even been physically threatened by a policeman, but is convinced by her research and experience that she is safer without a helmet.
After she abandoned her helmet, she made the decision to undertake the year-long investigation into what makes a city truly bicycle-friendly.
‘It is the definition of madness that something that is as delightful and improves life and makes it magical and free and easy and cheap and economical and fun is not promoted in Australia.’