Four Reasons Australian Cities Might be Overthinking Cycling

cycling copenhagen

On his blog post ‘Cycling in a broad church,’ @GregVann recently wrote, “Danes don’t consider themselves cyclists – just as they use vacuum cleaners, but don’t consider themselves ‘vacuum cleanerers’!’ This got me thinking. Are we overthinking cycling in Australian cities?

I think we are. There are four trends allowing overthinking:

1. Choices

We have so many choices available to us today. We can choose where to live, where to work, where to send our kids to school, and even where to spend Christmas.

When I was growing up there was one state school and everyone went to it. Almost all the Dads worked at the chipboard factory and the mums got whatever job was available close to home. As for Christmas, no one dreamed of a beach vacation. You went to Granny’s; that’s just what happened.

We now overthink everything while popular media tells us to value being ever richer and more successful.

It’s the same with cycling. Aussie cities want to be like Copenhagen and Amsterdam. We want leaders like Boris Johnson and Janette-Sadik-Khan. We want our public bike shares to be as successful as those in Paris and Dublin. We desperately seek advice from ‘successful’ cities in Europe, but then we get confused with all the conflicting ideas and we end up ignoring our ‘cultural literacy’.

Choice has made us overthink everything and as a result we’ve ended up doing very little.

2. Entitlements

We have developed an extraordinary sense of entitlement. Most Aussies feel entitled to have lots of money, to drive to work, and to have their opinions listened to. When these expectations are not fulfilled, as they often are not, we refuse to accept it and begin overthinking why we are not getting what we deserve.

In the world of cycling it’s the same:

– Motorists think cyclists should pay registration;

– Sport cyclists think slow riders should move out of the way when they yell “bike back”;

– Cyclists think pedestrians should walk in single file on shared paths.

Admittedly these are slight exaggerations, but you get the gist! The entitlement obsession has led to too much overthinking. Too much time is focused on arguing, being angry and trying to get what we think we deserve while too little time is spent on dealing effectively with the real problems in our cities.

3. Instant fixes

We have developed a compulsive need for ‘instant fixes’. Sometimes the ‘quick fixes’ are the right choices, but if they are done out of dissatisfaction, they tend to accumulate into a string of failures. My friend John likes to tell the Council exactly what he thinks, but his well-intentioned actions mean people who are trying to make change are instead diverted into solving his endless dissatisfactions.

It’s as though his overthinking of current issues makes them bigger than they actually are.

If we really want our cities to be cycling cities, we have to do the slow and difficult work to identify the real problems and then design long-term solutions to alleviate them.

4. Navel gazing

We have developed a ‘belly button’ culture, chronically analysing every twist and turn in life. We hyper-analyse everything: the two extra people who cycled last week and the predicted mode shares for 2050. In cycling we seldom consider simpler explanations:

– Perhaps people don’t cycle because they prefer the bus;

– Possibly it’s just the fact that the majority of everyday Australians have never been to Copenhagen and so have no idea what all the fuss about bicycles is all about!

If we really want cycling to be mainstream and normal, we need to stop being hyper-vigilant and start finding out what people really want their cities to be like. Maybe then Aussies might just use their bicycles like they use their vacuum cleaners, at least once a week!

What do you think? Are we overthinking cycling? Should we just stop thinking, stop looking for change, and accept what we have?

I acknowledge the amazing work of Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, whose work on thinking at universities across the U.S. has inspired the content of this blog. Thank you, Susan.

Rachel Smith is a Principal Transport Planner with AECOM in Brisbane. She is the founder of Cycling Super Highways, creator of We Heart Cycling, co-founder of Lazy Sunday Cycle and part of the BMW Guggenheim Lab.

Image via Kieran Lyman

This post is available in: Spanish, Portuguese, German

  • Tom Moloney

    I strongly agree with points 2 & 3. We’re so into instant fixes that well intentioned people have built “walls” between cyclists & cars. The resulting concrete blocks & curbs are more dangerous for cyclists especially in the dark. As point 1 illustrates, this is not the Copenhagen way where small rumble strips, coloured surfaces etc differentiate between areas for cars, cyclists & pedestrians. Culture & attitudes are more important safety wise. Point 4, we have a tendency to ask people who have never ridden a bike how the road system should be designed rather than educating or taking them through a gra dual process of sensible assertive riding.

  • Temo Rodriguez

    Google “bicycling in india” and look at the images. They get it!

    I visited India and the road experience for all types of vehicles is way different then here in the U.S.!!