Calling time on that whole “bell” thing

“Bike coming through. Keep to the left please”

I called out in a bright cheerful voice this morning

The reply came back

“Where’s your bell?”

That exchange happened this morning as I rode down the Cooks River Cycleway on my circuitous but somewhat pleasant commute to work.

Now before I get to the meat of the post, I’d like to first address the unspeakable stupidity of that response.

In no possible universe does “ding ding” convey more safety-related information than a bright and cheerful “keep to the left please”. “Ding ding” does not convey, for a start, that the right thing to do is to move to the left. “ding ding” is, in fact, considerably less safe, and less polite, than a cheerful “keep to the left please”. You’d have to be breathtakingly dense to think that was the case. One certainly does not need a PhD in Information Theory to understand that “ding ding” is a low information density phenomenon, whereas verbal communication of the “keep to the left please” variety conveys an order of magnitude more.  Ten thousand years into the future, when this blog post is retrieved by some far-distant digital archaeologist, people will be seen to remark “Fuck me, that was a really stupid response. People were sure thick back in the 2010s, eh?”. The kind of person who would make that response would be incapable of thinking his or her way out of a wet paper bag if that wet paper bag was open at both ends and clearly marked with the words “exit here or here“. The person who said it probably believes that she is a crusading figurehead for pedestrians’ rights, standing up to an evil, law-breaking cyclist. What she actually is, is a moron.

That pleasant little rant out of the way, let’s address why I do not and will not fit my bike with a bell.

Let’s start with the obvious.

I am not Mary fucking Poppins.

I am a bike racer. A weekend warrior who uses his commute to stack up valuable training time. I’m capable of propelling  my bike  at well over 50km/h in a flat sprint. I spend inordinate amounts of money to ensure that my bike is a light, streamlined, minimalist racing weapon. I will not fit it with a bell any more than I will fit it with spokey dokeys and a pair of stabilisers. I will fit it with lights, though, because lights are a safety feature.

And on the subject of safety, there are actual safety-related reasons why I won’t use a bell. And to examine those, we must go back into the mists of time.

When I was but a young whippersnapper, thrashing a Raleigh Grifter around the streets of my home town, I used to ride, on a semi-regular basis, along the seafront from Swansea to Mumbles. Nice path, that. A typical shared path not unlike the Cook’s River cycleway I was on this morning. My Raleigh Grifter was fitted with a bell, as well as a playing-card-and-clothes-peg affair that rubbed against the spokes and made a vroooooooom noise as I pedalled. I was a kid. Shut up.

Now, when I approached pedestrians, I would ring my bell in a clear fashion, announcing my presence. “Ding ding” it would say. “Ding ding”.

And one of four things would happen.

1. The pedestrian would move slightly to the left, allowing me, the cyclist, to pass safely to his or her right

2. The pedestrian would continue on in a more-or-less straight line, allowing me the cyclist to pass slightly less safely but nevertheless safely to his or her right

That’s two things. Two safe things. Two nice outcomes to an interaction. So far so good. But I said there were four things, right?

3. The pedestrian would panic or become confused, wavering uncertainly between moving left or right, forcing me to brake and/or take evasive action

4. The pedestrian would move unexpectedly to the right, into my path, causing an unavoidable accident

Depressed lemming just wants to be left alone with his pain

Now the proportion at which these events would occur is pretty much in the order stated. Mostly, people moved left. A few other people would just carry on. A small but non-trivial number would panic – though small groups of people tended to show this behaviour most often – and a still smaller, but still non-trivial number would blindly leap under my wheels like a lemming with a brain chemistry problem who’s just been through a really bad breakup and just can’t go on any more.

So I started calling out to people to keep left instead. And it seemed to help. I seemed to get higher proportions of 1 & 2, and less of 3 & 4.

And of course, if we still lived in the utopian 1970s and 80s of my childhood, that would be what we’re looking at now, too. A small but definitely non-trivial number of people reacting to a bell in a dangerous fashion, causing me sufficient concern that I would never – ever – want to use a bell again.

But in the early 1980s, Sony released the Walkman.

That should have been the death-knell of the cycle bell.

Suddenly, walkers, joggers and rollerskaters were walking, jogging and rollerskating in a private soundscape of their own choosing. The universe outside their flimsy, spongy over-the-headphones no longer existed, acoustically speaking. The proportions of responses to a bell or a friendly shout began to morph. The dominant paradigm became people who don’t move at all, with unpredictability becoming probably the second most dominant. More importantly, it is possible to hear a bell through headphone-induced noise, but only from much closer quarters. So reaction times are shorter and the number of potential accidents leaped. The numbers of people in group three increased sharply as panic at a nearby “DING DING” took over from considered responses to a distant “ding ding”. It became depressingly common to have pedestrians throwing themselves under the wheels. And cyclists stopped using bells in response, the bell began to die out, and the effect of the few remaining bells was further diminished by their very scarcity.

But I was growing up and tending not to ride on shared paths as much any more.  I was out playing in the traffic and town planners didn’t much give a crap for cyclists anyway, so my time on shared infrastructure was vanishingly low. I pretty much didn’t notice and didn’t care. And anyway, you could see the old over-the-head walkman headphones from behind and ride accordingly.

Nowadays, of course, it’s not just the humble walkman we have to contend with. On Pyrmont Bridge on a typical morning, upwards of 75% of people will be either listening to, talking on or fiddling with a smartphone of some description while walking. And this bridge has been designated a shared zone by the City of Sydney, who I have to admit, didn’t have much choice in the matter, geographically speaking.

So what happens on Pyrmont Bridge and the other shared zones scattered around Sydney? Well, cyclists do their best to weave amongst the oblivious masses. Some ding bells, to little or no effect. Others shout instructions, to little or no effect. Most just muddle on through. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s also not a situation that’s helped in any way by pedestrians acting  unpredictably when something goes “ding ding” or not reacting at all to the world around them. What is clear is that a bell does not help either cyclists or pedestrians in any measurable way.

Basically, the era of the cycle bell is gone. It’s expired and gone to meet it’s maker. It’s dead.

Yet still, there’s a rule on the books in NSW that says I must have a bell.

What exactly I must have a bell for is, given the reasons outlined above, something of a mystery. But there you go. There are probably rules on the books that say I should give a Bushel of best barleycorns to the poor on St Swithins day too, and I ain’t doing that either.


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