With great power comes great responsibility

Riding a bike in the city is like being a superhero. Faster than a speeding bullet, the cyclist runs red lights, pops up on the pavement, goes on the wrong side of the road, rides between the tram tracks and scoots past cars in the gutter. We have total freedom and maximum convenience. With our moral righteousness, high speeds and vigilante contempt for the strictures of society, our 21-speeds feel like the batmobile.

But it’s dangerous. The cyclist is nearly killed every second day. Trucks get in front of us and jam on their brakes; insidious cars edge gently left and pin us against the gutter; bike lanes turn unannnounced into cobbled gutters; hoons toot us; pedestrians try to throw themselves under our wheels.

The cyclist is made vulnerable not only by the infrastructure, but by the rules of the road. Maximum speeds for cars are much higher than is possible on bikes, which means traffic is streaming past centimetres from the handlebars. Cyclists don’t have their own lane, which means motorists are not looking out for us. We are forced close to parked cars, which puts us in danger from opening doors. Yellow lights aren’t long enough on big intersections, which means we sometimes gets stranded out in the middle…. etc, etc, …

So what happens when you dance with the traffic in the pale moonlight? According to the Medical Journal of Australia (Sikic et al, 2009) over 10,000 cyclists were admitted to hospital in Victoria between 2001 and 2006. Crash! Emergency department presentations were up 42 percent and major trauma rose 76 percent. Kapow!

Census data shows a 42 percent increase in cycle commuting in Melbourne between 2001 and 2006. Is cycling getting more dangerous? That’s not evident, but the argument cycling will get safer as more people participate certainly looks wobbly. The accommodation of cycling that you see in, for example, the Netherlands is obviously a function of not only participation but preparation for the cyclists presence.


Cyclists are demanding more infrastructure and more respect. We are saving the world from pollution and traffic, and so should be provided for. Bike lanes, bike paths, bike racks, bike hoops, bike signage, showers at work and cultural change. Cyclists know how much they spend on cars. We want some of that pie.

But it is here in the rant, citizen cyclist, that the cognitive dissonance can stand no longer. Our wheels are running into the ever-deepening rut of … The Social Contract. A dead white man called Rousseau is whispering in my ear: You want rights? You will pay with responsibilities…

Do we want to abandon the mask and cape? Become integrated into the society of traffic? Wait to turn at the lights? Wheel our bikes across a pedestrian crossing? Do we really do we want to forego lane-splitting, wrong-side running and corner-cutting? There are many good and committed cyclists who have been flying the flag of responsibility for a long time. In reality, the law-defiers are probably a highly-visible minority. But to get respect from the people with the purse strings, we will probably need to shape up.

Cycling is not skateboarding. It is a viable solution to a lot of urban problems and it is growing fast. As it does, there’ll be less and less space for having it both ways. Just like anything that ceases to be niche, (hi to ‘the Black-Eyed Peas’, if they’re reading) it will need to be toned down and have its socially unacceptable facets tucked away. It needs a day-to-day face people can like. Like Clark Kent.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

3 thoughts on “With great power comes great responsibility”

  1. My memory of first year Uni links Rights and Responsibilities to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty from 1859, an auspicious year for publishing a book…


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