Opinion: We can all learn from the misguided single-file cycling petition

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Four months ago, a petition quietly launched on Change.org, calling for ‘Compulsory Single File for Cyclists’. So far, so unremarkable: at the time of writing the website hosts over 400 petitions related to cycling, from all corners of the globe and from all manner of road users. But, as is sometimes the case, the spark of this petition got a waft of air which turned it into a flame and then a media inferno.

The petition now has in excess of 105,000 respondents and has generated considerable mainstream media attention through local and national newspapers, national TV news, talkback radio and more.

The group behind it, Drivers For Registration of Cyclists, “respectfully call on the Transport Ministers of each and every State in Australia, and each State Cabinet, to implement Compulsory Single File for all cyclists who ride in groups, regardless of whether a bike lane exists or not”. This request is ostensibly tied to new minimum passing distance laws which are in place Australia-wide (excluding Victoria), claiming it’s harder to give a metre if riders are two abreast. But the grievance is broader than that alone.

The petition text flits from frustration with spending on cycling infrastructure to the alleged impracticality of cycling in Australia to the issue of cyclist registration. A sample paragraph to highlight this: “We are tired of taxpayer dollars being lavished on expensive road systems with designated bike lanes, only to see cyclists continue to ride 2 or more abreast, spilling into main traffic lanes and impeding traffic flow. We are tired of the safety hazards such cyclists present, and we are tired of being we’re [sic] told we’re bad drivers if we complain about this problem.”

In short, the usual shouting into the void – but this time the void was listening.

Sentiments like those expressed in the petition aren’t uncommon, and at CyclingTips we normally wouldn’t engage with something coming from a community built on a hatred for cyclists (see this video and the comments on it). The called-for change is already being shot down by those the petition is addressed to and there’s nothing to indicate that it will force any change. But the level of support for the petition is somewhat striking, and suggests that its content has touched a nerve in the non-cycling community.

The sheer numbers feel threatening for many cyclists, leading to accusations (such as by the Bicycle Queensland CEO, Anne Savage) that the petition is filled with bot responses – a claim that has since been refuted by Change.org. So we have this – more than 100,000 faceless strangers that dispute the legal right for cyclists to ride two abreast, with more still joining the cause. It’s easy enough to feel the weight of those names, those little drips, forming a flood of anti-cyclist resentment.

But let’s park that depressing thought for a moment and ask this: why has this petition had such support? And is it an idea with merit?

Why we ride two abreast

Riding two abreast on the road is legal around Australia and in many other jurisdictions globally, and with good reason. In broad strokes, it’s both safer for cyclists, and more efficient for the flow of traffic.

For cyclists, it’s beneficial because riders two abreast are easier for motorists to spot. It also stops drivers from trying to overtake when there’s no room, squeezing riders off the road. On roads with poor shoulders, it’s a way for cyclists to maintain their position on the road and encourage drivers to provide ample space when passing.

It’s also beneficial for drivers, because a condensed clump of cyclists is shorter (and therefore quicker to overtake) than a long single line.

So riding two abreast makes sense. End of story, right? Well, not quite.

Where it gets complicated

Laws by their nature need to be black and white, but reality is made up of shades of grey. It’s no different here: cyclists can legally ride two abreast on any road they’re permitted on, but should they? We can claim an entire lane, too, but is that the right thing to do?

The first clip in the video below, from Mulholland Highway in Los Angeles, illustrates this point. A camera pans along a slow moving trickle of cars and motorbikes — perhaps a dozen in all — before the grand reveal: a single cyclist riding in the middle of the lane. Is he riding to the conditions and with consideration to the other road users? Most people would have to concede he’s not.

In narrow, twisting roads such as those in the clip, creating space for other road users to pass (whether by going single file or moving over) seems the more courteous thing to do. We’re bombarded with signs and safety campaigns telling us to ‘Share the Road’, but we’re at risk of being selective in how we interpret that and forget that sharing goes both ways.

So what about when it comes to big group rides, such as those that fly down Melbourne’s Beach Road most days of the week? There is of course nothing wrong with riding two abreast, effectively claiming the left of the two lanes. Traffic can still pass by and after all, cyclists often outnumber cars on Beach Road.

More problematic is spilling across into the right lane, often holding up traffic in race-like rides that might be great for training but aren’t so good for relations between cyclists and non-cyclists. The sight of riders spread four or five wide across the road, with seemingly little regard for those behind, has a way of sticking in the minds of aggrieved drivers, further adding to negative perceptions of those of us on two wheels.

You can see this in the petition text – it’s ostensibly about riders two abreast, but it’s also about registration and infrastructure and more. It’s merely the clothes that anti-cyclist sentiment is dressed in today. The real issue is perception of the legitimacy of cyclists on the road, what we do (or don’t do) on the road, and how that affects those around us.

Perception is reality

The reason the single file petition has garnered so much support is that it’s an outlet for existing frustrations; frustrations built upon anecdotes of law-breaking, inconsiderate, entitled cyclists. It’s not hard to imagine your average cyclist-frustrated driver, flicking through Facebook, seeing the aforementioned petition and being reminded of that time they were slowed down by a group of cyclists. They’ll feel they can make a difference (and vent their spleen) by adding their signature to the list.

Social media helps to spread the message among like-minded individuals and the mainstream media amplifies it even further, often fanning the flames of outrage in the process. “The war on our roads” — cyclists vs drivers — is mass media paydirt, an unending source of content for tabloid newspapers (particularly online), commercial TV networks and talkback radio. Such content stirs up frustrations and prejudices, becoming a wedge that drives cyclists and motorists further apart.

An image accompanying the Change.org petition.

As cyclists, we then feel embattled — we see the signatories stacking up and the column inches stretching out, and we bristle. The more anger and frustration directed at us — both on the road and off — the more we dig our heels in. We start exercising our rights beyond what might make sense, as much a stubborn “screw you” to drivers as a way of protecting our safety. We don’t keep as far left as we could; we don’t single up when we really should. We forget to acknowledge that some cyclists can do more to be respectful of drivers. We lose the grey, and become the black and white.

Ultimately, we’re less inclined to share the road and that only exacerbates the problem. Just as many motorists allow existing frustrations about cyclists to affect the way they behave on the road, so do we with our frustration towards drivers and the way we are portrayed in the media. Quite simply, if you’re told enough times that you’re in a war, at some point you’ll start believing it and acting like it.

None of this is to say that cyclists should forego their rights, or that we should give a free pass to those who put us in danger or drive aggressively around us. Should riders take the lane when safety is in play? Absolutely. Should riders be allowed to ride two abreast? Absolutely. Are cyclists inconvenienced, wounded or killed as a result of careless or inconsiderate driving? All too often. There’s an unambiguous responsibility that lies with drivers to show patience and consideration and not hit cyclists.

But there are also situations where some cyclists could do more to accommodate other road users, and it’s not victim-blaming to acknowledge that. As idealistic as it may sound, surely all of us — cyclists and drivers alike — can and should try to be the best, most considerate versions of ourselves, rather than doubling down and becoming ever more stubbornly one-eyed.

The road ahead

The good news is that the petition seems unlikely to achieve what its founders had hoped. But it has acted as yet another flashpoint in the so-called “war on our roads”, riling up those on both “sides” and increasing tensions and frustrations. That doesn’t do anyone any good.

But while the core premise of the petition is flawed, there is something we can take from it. A reminder that sometimes it does make sense to ride single file when the conditions demand it. Ultimately, all road users can do more to share the road in a friendly, considerate manner. For us cyclists, it means the following: Ride courteously, which might mean that you’re riding two abreast and might mean that you go single file when it makes sense to. It might mean riding defensively, and it might mean claiming the lane to protect your safety when it makes sense to do that too.

For as long as cyclists and other vehicles have coexisted, there’s been conflict of one sort or another. It hasn’t always been an easy relationship; there’s been squabbling and tantrums and hurtful things done in moments of fear or fury. But we have a finite amount of space on the roads to share, and if there’s a better way to share it, then surely we should do so.

Like it or not, we have to get along. It matters too much not to.

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