The Power of Peer

Admittedly, The Innocent Bikestander has been a little quiet of late. However, this doesn’t mean that the author of this blog has been resting on their laurels and not really doing much. I think about biking and planning way too much and if my Manager actually knew how much time I devote my thoughts to this, I would surely get, well, not fired, but ‘talked to’. I imagine, at any rate. Having said that, can you get into trouble for thinking about something constantly that is completely un-work related, whilst at work? Isn’t that what people do who fall in love? Their thoughts are hardly “on the job”, are they? Anyway, I digress…

This week I spent some time watching cyclists at points where they intersect with pedestrians. Whilst entirely dull to the vast majority of the population, I found it fascinating to view how cyclists’ behaviours changed depending on if they were in a group or cycling by themselves, and there was also a noticeable difference between the way men and women approached these intersections.

The first point I stopped at was on Swanston Street in Melbourne’s CBD, near City Square – this was at one of the ‘ride over’ tram stops where the cycle path is really an extension of the tram stop platform. My initial observations became compounded the more that I sat there. What tended to happen was that if a lone cyclist approached a slowing tram, they would generally sit behind it, as they are meant to, until the doors closed or there was a perception of no further pedestrians, and then ride off. What was interesting was the behaviour of that initial cyclist was repeated if others had seen it. In short, the person at the front of the pack would essentially dictate how others behind them would behave. If the leader stopped, everyone stopped. If the leader waited until the tram started to move before starting again (which is legally what is meant to occur), so would the others.

However, sadly, what would also happen is that if the leader of that pack broke off and started to ride before the doors of the tram had even closed, the chances were quite good that others would follow suit, and the little biking bubble would start to weave amongst pedestrians trying to board the tram. Not good.

I know myself that it is actually hard to stick to your guns and sit patiently at the rear of a stationery tram when cyclist after cyclist overtakes you. The power of the peer plays out on the bike path just as much as it ever did in the school yard. There is something in this for urban designers and planners, I’m sure, along with behavioural scientists.

And this leads to my second lookout point, St Kilda beach. There is a very good bike path that runs along just about the whole of the bay area in Melbourne and – fortunately – it is extremely well utilised by bikers, dog walkers, joggers, stollers and alike. As I was sitting there, the time was approximately 5:30pm so the majority of cyclists were heading south, in the direction of the arrows. I was sitting where the red circle is, and behind me were showers, drinking fountains, and public toilets. Due to the four sets of lights, this is a main access point for pedestrians arriving at the beach from St Kilda itself, and surrounds.

St Kilda peds and bikesAnyone with half a brain can tell what I’m about to say. The cyclists come streaming (streaming? Screaming would be more accurate) down the cycle path, entering the same space where there are pedestrians and beach-goers ambling about, either approaching the beach, and therefore surveying where to set up a towel, or they’re slowly making their way back to the toilets/showers/drinking station/traffic lights – all of which lay ahead. The point is that pedestrians crossing the bike path have no incentive to look either left or right as regardless of whether they are arriving or leaving the beach, their focus is straight ahead.

Sadly it would appear that the cyclists entering into this shared public space hold little regard (or knowledge) for the necessary changes that are needed in speed and attitude at this juncture, and I repeatedly witnessed cyclists tearing down the bike path and pedestrians oblivious that they were even on a bike path. Whilst I did not witness an accident, I certainly saw pedestrians scared and startled. In my head, that’s just as bad as the narrative of “F***ing cyclists” was no doubt conjured up.

After studying the movement of cyclists in both the city and at the beach, I made other observations. The number of men cycling still outweighs the number of women, vastly. Sadly, the more aggressive riders, and those less likely to stop for pedestrians or trams (or even to slow down) were…you guessed in: men in lycra with what I refer to as ‘loud bikes’ (when they’re just rolling along and not being peddled, you can hear them before you see them, which is strange given that these bikes are lighter than oxygen). This is not a good thing and some serious training or education needs to be done for, dare I say it, MAMIL’s (Middle Aged Men In Lycra). I hasten to add that there were all sorts of people not slowing down on all sorts of bikes, (and yes, some were hipsters) but by far the majority were men on fast bikes.

The City of Melbourne recognises speed as an issue in it’s Bicycle Plan 2007 – 2011 where it states under Clause 56:

“The main issues that may lead to conflict between pedestrians and cyclists are: 56.1 reckless or thoughtless behaviour.  This usually relates to cyclists riding too fast. ”

Both City of Melbourne Bicycle Plans for 2007 – 2011 and 2012 – 2016 can be read here

Again, I think peer education needs to be implemented somewhere along the way for cyclists everywhere.

We can change, we can do it better. One of my further blog posts will be on the psychology of cycling, of which – as you may imagine – I have a lot of thought (er, opinions) on. Happy cycling and don’t scare the peds.

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