Bike Lane Cassandra, or Why I’m Tempted To Hang Up The Bike For Good. A tragedy in several paragraphs

Sydney is in the midst of a crackdown on cycling at the moment. Yes, I say cycling. Cycling as a whole and in general. It’s not just genuinely dangerous cycling infractions. It’s trivia.

NSW Police are fining and cautioning riders for not having bells or reflectors fitted – ignoring the fact that bells are largely obsolete following the release of the Sony Walkman, and that reflectors… well… haven’t really kept up with the march of LED light technology, which is now cheap, stunningly bright and extremely long-lasting. The NSW Government is hiking fines for pretty much every possible infraction, from not having your chinstrap done up right to the splendidly ill-defined and subjective “riding dangerously”.

Police have also reported fining a number of riders for ignoring red lights in the last few days. At this, my ears pricked up. Because I’ve talked about this before.

You see, back in 2012, I wrote a series of blog posts and spent quite a chunk of my time riding around and observing the Union Street bike lane in Pyrmont, one of the Operation Pedro locations during Thursday’s crackdown. And what I found raises worrying questions about the cynical nature of Operation Pedro.

Back through the mists of time we go, to March 2012. I’d been commuting to work a bit and starting to get fit again after having been off the bike for quite a few years.

First, innocuously, I noticed that the Union Street bike lane traffic control lights weren’t very reliable. You couldn’t guarantee you’d get a green light when you expected to get a green light. Sometimes, the bike lane light would turn green as the parallel pedestrian crossing changed. Other times, most times actually, the pedestrians would get a crack, while the bike lane was left stationary.  This led to some investigation and a blog post, The Green Light and Why You’re Not Getting it.

At this point, I thought I’d figured out the bike lane lights. I was moderately concerned about how word would filter out on this, as the blog post says. But I figured things would sort themselves out in time. The bike lane was still relatively new, after all.

Then a day later, NSW Police mounted an ‘operation’ at the Pyrmont Bridge end of the bike lane, and declared they’d caught about thirty cyclists running reds or not wearing helmets, or, presumably, both.

This I found a bit worrying. I hadn’t seen people leaping across the red against cross-traffic, but I had seen people gingerly cross the red when it should have been their turn but the red light was still showing. And because I’d looked into how the sensors work, I knew why this was happening. They hadn’t figured out the sensors, and were clearly working on the assumption that the bike lane lights were broken.

Basically, NSW Police had just found a free buffet of riders to levy fines against. And in a highly populated area, too, where a lot of onlookers would be able to see these naughty lawbreaking cyclists getting their comeuppance, thus driving a perception that cyclists are all lawbreakers. Even though all these people are doing is trying to work around what is to them an obviously broken system.

So I updated the blog post, and spent an appreciable chunk of the next morning observing the behaviour of riders and lights, and I took pictures and highlighted things, leading to another, more detailed blog post. At this time I also emailed NSW Police to get a statement, and emailed City of Sydney and RMS. NSW Police, for the record, ignored my request. I was also ignored by an officer conducting a sting operation, who was uninterested in the fact that the lights weren’t working correctly, and simply turned his back on me as I was explaining to him that yes, if he booked that cyclist for crossing at the same time as the pedestrians, what he was actually seeing was a sensor failure.

I was very concerned that what I’d found was broken infrastructure leading riders into bad patterns of behaviour, which had been spotted by police, who were circling in the water like sharks around a drop of blood. After all, before I took a chunk of time out of my day to figure out the sensors, I’d begun to think the light system was fundamentally broken. Now, I was of the opinion that the sensors were dodgy, but also of the opinion that they could be saved, if RMS would come to the party. I even looked up RMS’s own guidelines on the fitting of these sensors – thanks to a friendly commenter on the blog –  and found that two of them clearly breached RMS’s own guidelines on how close they could be to large ferrous drain covers.

Unfortunately, RMS didn’t really get the point I was making. I was trying to tell them that the sensors didn’t work, but that I thought it could be fixed. RMS’s action was to send out an engineer equipped with a cheap bike rim. This rim, without a tyre and without an attached bike, was hovered just over the centre of the sensor, and the sensors were declared working.

Well, yes. Obviously they work if you’re an engineer who knows the specific trick to triggering them, and use a bare metal object and don’t actually do a real world test by, oh, I dunno, rolling a carbon fibre mountain bike with superlight rims and 2.5cm tyres over the sensor and see if that works. I did that myself a few times in the following few days and got really patchy results. Never mind. RMS had proved their point, and dismissed mine.

A little while later, someone from the Sydney Morning Herald picked up on the fuss I was making. I spent a morning with Amanda Hoh, filming, being filmed and observing rider behaviour. When the piece arrived, the spin wasn’t quite what I’d tried to put across. I’d tried to explain that the sensors were inadequate to the task, that they could probably be fixed or replaced. The spin of the piece de-emphasised that point, and led with the idea that one should position one’s bike just right.

So where was the education campaign? Where were the signs explaining how the sensors “worked”? Where the hell were the diamond patterns in the lane to indicate where to line up? Oh, yeah, that had worn off and has never been adequately replaced. There’s a few lines on the back of CoS’s City cycling map about the diamond patterns (which are worn off), and that’s about it. I think there’s something on the Sydney Cycleways website, too. But nothing, surprisingly, in the lanes themselves where it might be, you know… useful.

I began to think of Cassandra, of Greek Myth, who was gifted with the power of prophecy, but simultaneously cursed so that no-one would believe a word she said. I’d given warnings, called out for help, wheedled, harangued, written emails, sent tweets and facebook messages, and still there was this bike lane, with sensors which nobody understood how to use, and which failed even for expert users. But the authorities concerned had carried out their “tests” and were satisfied that I was talking rubbish.

I was pretty much defeated.

I stopped using Union Street altogether.

Aaaaaand… the sting operations continued. Every so often, I’d repost the blogs, pass messages around, try and get people interested, try to talk people out of using Union Street, even walk up to people waiting for the light and try to tell them that if they moved a few centimetres, they’d trigger a green light. But in fact… nobody really gave much of a shit. The public had cemented the view we were all lawbreakers. The riders just wanted to get to work without a load of bullshit. The police were overjoyed that they could rake in fines every so often for little to no effort. It got to the point that a pedestrian blithely standing right on the sensor on the pyrmont bridge side – yes, where there’s a bloody big picture of a bike – and obstructing riders from triggering it at all, told me to my face that I was obviously a lawbreaker, because all cyclists are. I laughed in his stupid face.

NSW Police had joyfully fed into the myth with their regular sting operations on petty offences, always emphasising that they’d caught x red light runners and x non-helmet wearers. I wonder how many of those riders,having got their first ever fines for rolling through on the pedestrian light without their chinstrap done up tightly, hung up the bike for good.


NSW Police and Duncan Gay had STATS. Huge numbers of people were running red lights. It was an epidemic, clearly, worthy of further action. Definitely not a statistical outlier caused by broken infrastructure. No way. Ominous rumblings came from Macquarie Street.

And every time I walked past the Pyrmont Bridge Hotel, I’d look across and look where the waiting riders were positioned, and I’d look up, hoping the green light would appear, and over and over  and over, the green light would fail to appear, but the riders would roll through anyway, because the pedestrian light was working and there was a “cross now” noise coming from it. And I’d be sad. Because this all could have been fixed.

Well, now four years on we’re approaching D-Day for Duncan “don’t confuse me with facts” Gay’s massive fine hikes, and his frankly weird ID card scheme and I can guarantee that NSW Police will again be shooting fish in a barrel at the still fundamentally broken Pyrmont Bridge Hotel light sensor, with the added bonus of higher fines and more revenue. And they’ll gaze upon the numbers of red light fines issued, and verily they shall thunder forth: “Damn, what a load of filthy criminals those cyclists are” and I’ll rend my garments and yell “THE SHITTY, BADLY-INSTALLED, UNKNOWN-TO-ALMOST-ANYONE CRYPTIC RANDOM NON-WORKING FUCKED-UP POINTLESS LIGHT SENSORS MADE US THAT WAY”.

I will finally hang up my bike forever, and stay at home, where I won’t be fined $500 for doing something that every other country in the world – save one – thinks is a perfectly normal activity suitable for eveyone. Men, women, children and families.

And still nobody will fucking listen. Because Sydney is now convinced that we’re worse than Hitler because we don’t dab our feet on the ground at stop signs and because we don’t have fucking bells on our bikes.

Here’s the bottom line.

I am now of the opinion that the sensor solution cannot be saved. Something else needs to happen. If these lanes are not fixed, riders will keep running the reds. Because the lights are broken.

Replace the sensors with a nice big push button, and paint “press here to cross” in the lane. The epidemic of red light infractions will stop. Overnight. I GUARANTEE IT.

Now, finally, for the record, the statistics show that in 80-85% of bike crashes, a driver is at fault.

But you wouldn’t know it. Because obviously we’re all lawbreakers, right?

QLD bike stats

One Thought on “Bike Lane Cassandra, or Why I’m Tempted To Hang Up The Bike For Good. A tragedy in several paragraphs

  1. Colin on 8 March, 2016 at 10:49 am said:

    No need for a push button. Cyclists should get a green phase as a matter of course. There’s plenty of intersections where people in cars get green phases despite a lack of sensors; why not the same for people on bikes? They outnumber people in cars on Union St anyway.

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