The Breaking point of Commuting by bike in Sydney

Sydney You Suck

There I said it. I’m now going to have a whinge and be a complete sook. grumpyUsually I’m a confident city rider, but the last year has been tough, and a series of incidents has broken my commuter spirit.

I’m going to start with, I don’t ride my bike to piss people off. I don’t even ride for training most of the time. I don’t take main roads, and I don’t set out to brake the law (although I may run the occasional  red or jump on the footpath when I feel unsafe).
When I first started riding in Sydney 10 years ago, it was scary. Busses were my biggest concern, they seemed to pass with millimetres to spare. And cars, although careless and usually unaware of my presence, were not on a war path to see me off the streets. In the last 10 years, I have seen a lot of change. Numbers of cyclists have increased, cycleways have been built, new laws for my safety and protection have been put in place. But now, even more than never, I feel more vulnerable and fragile every time I ride to work/patrol/shopping/whatever.

canada

I know I’m not wearing a helmet.  But I’m in Canada, and you don’t have to wear one all the time.

I ride my bike because it is the best form of transport for me. I don’t have a drivers license (I have had my learners, so yes I know the road rules) and because money is normally tight, I prefer to save cash and not jump on public transport.  Riding is also faster. To all the car drivers out there and public transit users, you’re welcome.

In reality it’s not that rosy. Sydney is weird, there is a general hatred for cyclists. The war on our roads is getting worse, not better. There seems to be a culture where everyone is that tightly wound and set in their ways, no one wants to give an inch of ground and the result is a simmering tension that is sitting at a rapid boil.

In NSW there are 3 main regions (according to me) The city of Sydney council area, the rest of Sydney an then outside of Sydney.

I’m just going to look at the two Sydney areas.

City of Sydney, cycleways education campaigns good signage. Here although traffic is heavier, I feel safest riding. In general drivers have improved. There is awareness of my presence. They look before crossing the cycleways and car v bike incidents seem less frequent. On the flip side the angry and aggressive drivers are worse. I get passed aggressively. I have been called a whole array of names, that if yelled at anyone but a female on a bike would be completely socially unacceptable.

commute

This brings me to the first incident that made me loose faith in Sydney. So I was riding home from a hot day on patrol. I didn’t take my usual route, that day I decided to take the shared paths. I was tired, my legs hurt, and a just wanted to cruise slowly home in the shade. Then, as I was passing Moore park I came across 2 guys walking in my direction, I waited for a bike to pass before changing lanes to go around them. As I went to pass, one dude put his arm out, so I swerved more and he lunged and collected me across my chest. I stopped and angrily said ‘you just f’en punched me! Why would you hit a girl?!!’ And he escalated it to how he would not respect me until I got a license and paid road tax. A few more expletives and he wished I would get hit by a car and die. It was a rapid escalation to a situation I needed to leave. First, the dudes mate was laughing at the situation, second, there was another group of guys, who saw the incident and choose to walk by.

This was a low point for me and cycling.  As I sat on the side of the path in tears talking to the cops, not one person asked if I was OK.  no one who witnessed the attack offered help.  I was tired, shaking, and a week out from the new  cycling laws in NSW, I felt this is it, this is how people feel, this is how I’m going to be treated.  The cops were called, and this is now a statistic somewhere in some report. For me, it’s sad, this incident shook me up more than I thought it would. When people asked me what happened I would break into tears remembering it. On the road I get twitchy whenever I hear an engine rev. Makes me wonder if that person is another person willing to act upon the hatred of cyclists.  Will that reeving engine be used to remove me from the road.  my hear rate goes up.  I’m scared.

What’s stopping that car from running me down from behind…A harsh connection, but this brings me to my second incident.

bourke

Bourke St

My commute to work has changed from 10km roll into the city, to an 11km dash into the inner west.  Going into the city I had a clear run along the Bourke St cycleway then the bus lane on Oxford st.

cooks

Cooks river cycleway

Now I have a green leafy meander up the cooks river and marked cycle ‘friendly’ backstreet’s to Strathfield. These supposedly friendly back streets coincidentally end up being rat run routes for drivers looking for alternate routes to the congested main roads.  And at 6:30am you would be surprised at the aggressive drivers on the horn in residential side streets, just to get to a red light that little quicker.

croydon

Croydon Ave

One road (Croydon Ave) in particular is uphill with a red light at the top. It is 1 lane, with cars parked on one side and a curb and gardens on the other. In the morning people are getting into the parked cars and flinging doors open. It is also not possible for me to ride in the door zone and a car pass me with 1m space. So, I take the lane. I do not do this to piss people off, I do this because I’m scared and I want to save myself from an accident. Then one day, this car was revving behind me. So I moved further into the lane to let them know I didn’t feel safe. At this point the car moved right inched closer, and hit me from behind while blasting me with the horn. It wasn’t enough to knock me off, but it was enough for me to wobble and move out of the way.  100m later at the red light I knocked on the window to ask ‘what gives’ I got a mouth full about how I always hold her up on her way to work and I needed to share the road and move out of the way. She said she wouldn’t have hit me if I shared the road.
The cops were called again, they had a chat with her, and in the follow up I was advised that she was now aware of the law (although grumpy that she was at fault)

As I ride these back roads it’s a mixed bag of interactions.  Some drivers wait patiently, others let you know they are there and they want you out of the way.  Maybe it’s because there are less cyclists along these routes, maybe the education campaigns aren’t there.  The City of Sydney is amazing with the billboards, bus shelter, and poster advertising.  The campaigns have made city drivers more aware of my presence.  The only stuff I have seen outside the city of Sydney is train stations.  The go together campaign lets cyclists know to give pedestrians 1m cars to give cyclists 1m and lets everyone know fines have gone up and cyclists will be punished.  The last poster is all that is getting attention.  Cyclists break the law and there is a zero tolerance policy for that.  the news laws should be followed and cyclists finned.  that will make them safer.

in reality it only adds to aggression and negative feelings.  It doesn’t make the drivers more aware of my presence or my right to be on the road.

And then I ended up under a truck.

Yep you got it, I was cycling along one of the cycle friendly back streets bright clothing, reflectors, lights (and my bell) indicating I was turning right round a round about, when a truck failed to see me, I couldn’t stop fast enough, so I decked the bike and thank god, ended up between the wheels, under the truck.  I saw the truck before the incident.  I saw him slowing down, I thought that he saw me.  In reality he was slowing for the turn, and was accelerating through the roundabout before he realized I was there.  He said he didn’t see me. I reckon he didn’t eve look.  He scanned for a car, and didn’t register that I was there.

That has ruined roundabouts.  I’m timid when I approach them now.  I look both ways, slow down, and even stop mid turn until I know the car has seen me and is stopping to give way.  And to the car revving behind me, no I’m not doing this to piss you off.  I nearly died and I’m genuinely afraid.  No amount of revving/horn blowing behind me will make me speed up into oncoming traffic(that may or may not stop to give way for me)

In general Sydney sucks. There is a level of anger that is so bad I describe to my non Sydney friends as the dark ages of cycling.
candyapple
I do not ride my bike to piss you off. I’m just trying to get places alive. I’m sorry if I hold you up. It’s not my goal to add to the traffic. I actually go out of my way to ride cycleways, and when I’m not in them it’s because it’s safer (not in the door zone) or doesn’t exist (collage st). I don’t want to share the road with you. People who drive cars text, speed, drive tired, all these seemingly harmless activities can and will kill someone. Me being on a bike makes me more vulnerable, and with all my experiences I’m normally scared on the roads. I work so hard to fight it, but Sydney you got me. I have lost faith in the Sydney sider commuter humanity. I’m a confident commuter but I don’t know how much more I can take.

Another huge thanks to the City of Sydney, you are doing good things. To the state government and Duncan Gay; Please, I invite you, come for a commute with me. You need to ride, just once, it’ll help you understand what would really make me safer.

38 thoughts on “The Breaking point of Commuting by bike in Sydney

  1. I applaud your bravery to keep riding. Whether you see it as having no other option or not, it’s still a brave thing to do in the face of what you’ve been through.
    Until you’ve been a target on the road, it’s hard to know how it feels. The impression my fleeting encounter left was that it must feel similar to being threatened with domestic violence… and if that’s the case, it should be treated just as seriously (now that we’re finally starting to take domestic violence seriously!).
    Thanks for sharing your experiences. Safe riding Lizanne. 🙂

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  2. If even you, with all your riding experience, are feeling scared on the road, I can only imagine how new commuters must feel. This city/state is a mess and Gay/Baird need to get their shit together and start moving us towards the 21st century, not back towards the 50s!

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  3. Hi Liz, this is unbelievably awful, I encountered a similarly hostile road environment when returning to cycling just on twenty years ago. While I’m not launching into Sydney vs. Melbourne polemics, the emerald city has, to my observation, socially regressed since my regular visits in early 1990s. It’s basically shitty road privilege compounded by current policies pursued by Duncan Gay, Mike Baird, vested interests and unpleasant dose of unreconstructed attitudes towards women. All power to you and please keep doing what you love, keep riding

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  4. Please don’t stop riding. Sydney could be a good place to ride when it gets it’s act together. I used to ride with Dulwich Hill Bicycle Club when I was living in in Sydney. They had some incidents but things weren’t that bad. It sounds like things are getting worse. That said don’t stop riding it’s what Duncan Gay wants. If you and others stop riding then things will go backwards.

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  5. I’ve seen you on the track and I’ve seen you on the road, Liz, and I’ve nothing but admiration for you.
    I’ve crossed all my fingers hoping the ‘dark ages’ in Sydney will transition to a cycling renaissance. If you’ve better ideas on how to make things change more quickly, please share.

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  10. Great piece Lizanne. I also commute by bicycle, for similar reasons and, yes, it has got substantially worse. I have found the new laws meant that the drivers who were always reasonable follow them and give you a decent berth, but the level of aggression from everyone else has increased exponentially.
    I’ve commuted by bike most of my life and I have to admit I am considering whether it’s worth the risk

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  11. Thanks for the writing. So sorry it’s been awful. I also commute, like Ngaire says, the lunatic brigade has launched lately. I keep hoping that we’re at the low point, and things will start turning.

    I recently read an article on bullying (can’t find the link, sorry) which talked about how bullies pick their targets because they see someone acting outside the accepted social norm. The behaviour of some drivers lately seems to spring from the “accepted social norm” changing in some media outlets. The article talked about how bullying flourishes in an environment where authority figures (teachers etc) back up this notion of social norms. Thanks, Telegraph!

    I also read something about changing people’s minds. How talking and facts doesn’t do much, but personal stories do. The “hey, my cousin rides a bike” kind of stuff. Which is what keeps me riding in Sydney – just trying to be that “cousin”, so other people’s thinking stays balanced.

    Also, bikes are awesome.

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  12. This is so sad, and also SO true. I’ve seen the violently abusive attitudes of some motorists towards cyclists myself – probably decent people when not behind the wheel but resembling Nazis out for Jews on our roads.
    And I don’t say that lightly.
    I feel my son and husband have yellow stars pinned to their chests when they dare to brave Sydney roads on their bikes.
    And I find this so sad. I never thought my beloved city would develop into the kind of place where my family could be violently abused on the streets – and good people would look away. Others would cheer. Death threats would be made on open forums, violence against and targeting of cyclists would be encouraged and justified – including on main stream media – and not taken down, corrected or apologised for.
    In effect, ‘Sydney’ has decided that it’s ok to do this.
    But when is it ok to abuse someone with words or violence?
    When is it ok to target a minority?
    When is it ok to call someone – our sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, friends, neighbours – a ‘speedbump’?
    I weep for Sydney.

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  13. I’m sorry for your experiences.

    Thankfully, none of my road rage incidents have resulted in assault. I have been doored twice and lucky to survive the dooring on Parramatta Road. Twice in one week, taxi drivers didn’t notice I was next to them as they changed lanes.

    Although I take a different path from you, there’s a lot I relate to such as drivers using the back streets to elude traffic. I’ve encountered my worst road rage incidents on a small stretch of Wilson Street, Newtown. (This particular stretch of Wilson street has a dedicated separated bike lane only for the up hill direction, a parking lane for cars and a shared downhill share path for cars and bikes. All of this is marked by paint on the road). A lot of people take it to avoid the perpetually busy King Street. In my worst incident, a passenger in a ute shouted “Just run him down” even before I got to Wilson Street. I got in front and went extra slow. When they begged “please”, I gave them the finger because at that point, they had exhibited extreme rudeness already. When they finally passed, it was aggressively close.

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  14. Hi, we were all really sorry to hear of your experiences riding your bike in Sydney. So glad you are still riding your bike and be assured we are doing everything we can to try and improve conditions for people on bikes just like you in NSW. If you would like to talk to us about how we can help please contact us.
    Cheers.

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  15. Hi Liz,

    I Bicycle commuted for a number of years before I left Sydney. Did the inner west & cooks river run and also spent some time doing the run from Sutherland through Mortlake and onto cooks river. I moved to the Gold Coast in 2012 and it took me close to 6 months to get out of the habit of looking for the next vehicle trying to take me out. Cycling for me is now stress free and fun, have only had an orange flung out a window at me so far which thankfully didn’t connect.

    I agree, I had multiple bad experiences and even after 20 years of riding I still felt nervous when I got on the bike. I don’t know what the answer is mate. I went back to Sydney last year and did a commute run for old times sake and OMG how did I ever ride to work.

    All the Best

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    • To be safe in Sydney, just assume you are invisible. Forget about road rules and signs. Bicycles are at the bottom of the ‘social’ order on the streets. Wait for everybody, give right to everybody, and look three times. It is a bit slow, but that is the only way to survive in Sydney.

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      • This morning alone, three pedestrians walked into my path on the road without looking first. We’ve invisible and produce very little noise pollution. On a positive note, we’ll be healthy and be able to get around more easily once the zombie apocalypse comes.

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  16. I’m sorry to read about your bad experiences, but I’m sure there are some good ones as well (although I certainly understand these being overshadowed by finding yourself under a truck). If it helps, at the end of each cycling day I try to think about the huge number of motorists that I encountered that day that didn’t intimidate me, that did give me the space I needed, & were generally courteous & respectful towards me. When I think of it this way I realise that the number of motorists who don’t behave this way is very small. I might be angry about them for a while but then I put them back into perspective so I can keep enjoying my cycling. It works for me.

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    • thanks, and i do. i scribbled this rant friday afternoon (not realizing how much attention it would get) after a s**t commute. I’v just started a new job and i’m back on the side streets. i miss the city of sydney cycleways, but there are so many good drivers i’m drafting a response to my original blog that’s a little less sinical. but i still recon sydney sucks (sometimes)

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      • I know how you feel. I’ve been know to hurl the odd piece of abuse at careless & arrogant drivers (& similar pedestrians) but I eventually calm down (or report them to the police even though they never do anything). Then I try to refocus on enjoying my ride & thinking about the small minority of drivers they actually represent. Sometimes I think I should have been a Zen Master!

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  17. Sydney sucks. It does. I cycle everyday from North Sydney to Marrickville. It’s a horrid commute. I’m one less car, one less public transport commuter but no one thanks me.

    The roads are a nightmare. Massive gaps in the tarmac around the fish market, Enmore road has massive gaps between the asphalt and the concrete roadway.

    Now I have to watch not only for massive gaps but for police who are actively targeting cyclists (on Sunday morning at Bondi I witnessed a hwy patrol car book a cyclist for not having a bike bell and for not wearing a helmet).

    It’s horrid.

    Mike Baird will do everything in his power to shaft Clover Moore and then cyclists are doomed. In the past month I have been to Brisbane and Melbourne. Both cities appreciate cyclists. Both places still feel Australian. Sydney has no poetry, no soul, and if Clover Moore is shafted, it is doomed.

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  18. I guess we all just have to keep going. And the funny thing is that its middle aged men (like myself) who are heavily into cycling, and also making the laws. You’d think cyclists would be getting looked after.

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  19. Your safety always comes first, but please do not let a few jerks ruin what is a wonderful pastime.

    Sydney does suck, there is no other way to describe it. In 1988, while riding to work I had a chap accelerate at and then brake behind me for 5 km on from Five Dock to Broadway on Parramatta Rd, then pull across two lanes at Broadway, jump out of his van to take a swing at me. Because I was on a bike.

    In 1996 I had an old guy point his volvo at me and aim it straight at me a Vaucluse when I was standing next to my bike on the side of the road.

    I took some time off, 15 years, and it was the biggest the mistake of my life, I am back on now, but I regret that time.

    Best of luck what ever you decide.

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  20. The radio megamouths (that seem to have such a powerful hold over Sydney’s collective consciousness) have made bikes the target, but the problem, I think, is ultimately with the drivers themselves. There is such a lack of respect for everybody else on the road, such an aggressively selfish approach to road use that is not seen in other cities. Driving in Sydney is stressful beyond measure because of the other drivers. Everyone seems to want to get in front, get somewhere a few seconds earlier and everyone seems to do stupid shit on packed streets all the time. As a result divers are mentally juggling too many balls just trying to keep track of other idiots while looking for their own opportunity to be a dickhead. That’s why cyclists are invisible and why when they are seen too late they are that one ball too many and poor little brains explode.

    I moved from Hobart last year, I had aggressive incidents and abuse there but still generally felt safe on roads and enjoyed riding. I didn’t have my bike in Sydney and probably wouldn’t have ridden just because of the volume of traffic. But we came to the central coast in October and I thought I’d try the bike again. Two minutes until aggressive idiots tried to drive me off the road yelling abuse all the time. It was not a pleasant ride – an hour of abuse and aggression – and then the new bike laws really took the shine off things so I have lost my main form of exercise and transport.

    I hope this ridiculous and dangerous situation can change. I hope that some small fraction of the massive amounts spent on roads can be used for bike paths. But its a deep seated culture here and now its come to be seen as a wedge by political opportunists. A sad and stupid situation.

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    • It’s not just the talk radio conservatives who have made bikes the target.

      When I decided not to renew my car insurance with NRMA ever again, I told them that I was sick of their anti-cyclist stance. The NRMA have long acted like a defacto political lobby group.

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  21. I’m sorry to hear of your awful experiences. I have many of my own bad experiences with aggressive drivers-most being in the past few months. I’m considering ditching riding my bike to work any more due to the attitude of drivers. Yes, Sydney sucks for bike riders. Cars have ‘won’.

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  22. Riding a bike is such a wonderful experience that in many ways is the superior way to travel in Sydney – in combination with public transport. I sincerely admire you Lizanne and all your wonderful supporters; and am very optimistic that cycling in this bad arsed city of ours is, despite the challenges and setbacks you’ve highlighted, on course to becoming an established social norm.

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  23. Thanks for sharing Lizanne. As someone else has mentioned, don’t let a small number of idiots put you off, but do stay safe. I’ve ridden through Moore Park dozens of times and have not had so much as a tut from pedestrians, your incident sounds truly bizarre.

    I’ve been a commuter for over 6 years (inner west and into the city) and am fortunate to have a mostly stress-free experience, thanks in large part to the investments into separated bike lanes made by the City of Sydney and what seems to be a more accepting attitude towards cyclists (at least, responsible ones) by the inner city dwellers. I started doing rides with a cycling club about 6 mths ago and I can’t say I remember anything serious apart from the odd yob making a cat call. It is possible to have a great cycling experience in Sydney … it’s a shame that so many don’t.

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    • I think it’s very easy for us to let our negative experiences overshadow our positive ones. We’ve been conditioned by the media to look mostly at the bad things that happen to people & to overstate the amount of ‘bad’ people in our society. My tip is don’t watch the TV news unless you have to & the same with the newspapers. Definitely don’t listen to any of Sydney’s shock jocks! I know it’s easy to say & difficult to do but we should at least minimise our exposure to the ways in which the media colour our views of the world.

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  24. It looks like it’s time for a revolution in Australia. The auto industry is probably using it as a testing ground to try out ways to remove alternatives to their product. It seems to be working.
    It needs to be stopped before it spreads.

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  25. “shared the road” is code amongst those angry drivers of motor vehicles for “get the fuck outa my way, can’t you see I’m more important and have things to do and places to see?!”

    Don’t stop riding. More of us out there will be the way that change happens.

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