Daniel Oakman, National Museum of Australia, 21 February 2015
FRANCES BALDWIN: Good morning to all of you. Thank you for coming on this beautiful morning for Daniel’s talk: ‘Is cycling normal?’ As I am sure you will agree, it is a beautiful place to come on a Saturday morning, whether you cycled or walked or rode here. I know there is a peninsula regatta on this morning so again thanks for coming.
Some of the Friends here know me. My name is Frances Baldwin, and I am looking after the Museum Friends. If you are not familiar with the Museum Friends, I encourage you to take a brochure and learn about the benefits of the Museum Friends. It’s a vital part of our program and we endeavour to provide engaging and unique events, such as today’s talk.
To introduce Daniel today, Daniel is a senior curator in the People and the Environment team here at the National Museum of Australia. He has been at the Museum since 2004 and manages the Landmarks: People and Places across Australia gallery. He is also a regular contributor to the blog and YouTube channels and has recently overseen the Freewheeling: Cycling in Australia exhibition, which is currently on display at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane. Please join me in welcoming Daniel this morning.
DANIEL OAKMAN: Thanks, Frances. I notice that the Director of the National Museum of Australia is in the audience, my boss. So if you are happy with what you hear today, please make sure you let him know. If you’re not happy, just leave quietly and forget I mentioned it.
Thanks again for coming along to what is a slightly different talk that we do here at the Museum - at least from the kind of work that I have been doing - where we are looking to link our historical work, our curatorial work, with contemporary issues.
You may or may not know that last year we launched Freewheeling: Cycling in Australia exhibition, which is about cycling in Australia. That is currently in Queensland and will be travelling on to Townsville, Ballarat, Wagga, Albury and Melbourne before coming back to the National Museum in 2017. But it was during the research that I undertook for that exhibition that I really became interested in linking that historical story with the contemporary debate and bringing the Museum’s particular perspective into those debates. Our research into material culture and the lived history of objects can, I think, deepen our understanding of vital issues that affect us today.
The inspiration for this talk came from all places - Family Feud. You don’t get to say that very often. Last month you may remember that, in this long-running game show, they posed the somewhat provocative question: ‘What is something annoying cyclists might do?’ You could argue with me about whether Family Feud is an accurate barometer of community opinion in Australia, but with some trepidation I suspect that it just might be. Of course, the implication of this particular question and the responses that the contestants had to predict is that cycling is a fringe activity, that it’s illegitimate, dangerous and faintly ridiculous - certainly an activity that isn’t normal. My particular favourite response is ‘everything’.
I thought it was worth taking a longer view of some of these issues here and unpack some recent debates, not just to see where we stand now but also to suggest a way forward beyond simply calling for better roads and better infrastructure. How can we move the debate from the polemical, entrenched and often hostile argument that it has become.
Firstly, I will have to declare my bias. I am a cyclist. I identify as a cyclist and I ride quite a lot. I ride all kinds of bikes: mountain bikes, road, recumbent, single speed - although I lack the beard so I don’t qualify as a hipster. I do commuting, touring, cycle touring, long distance and racing. Slightly outside my formal role here at the Museum, I would probably consider myself a bicycle advocate in that I encourage and support ideas that lead to more cycling that encourage people to drive less and urban design that reduces the dominance of cars.
The main point I want to argue today is that in many ways cyclists have always had a very complex identity in Australia, an identity that has waxed and waned over the years. I think it is in part because of that cultural complexity that has led to some of the misunderstandings and conflict that we experience today.
Whether bicycles and cyclists have been normal is a vexed question. Normal is a terribly imprecise word. Of course, it is a relative concept and depends on your perspective. When I set off on some of my long distance Audax rides, my partner insists that it isn’t normal to spend eight to ten hours a day cycling. I suggested that perhaps sitting at a desk for perhaps eight to ten hours a day isn’t really a normal activity either, yet most of us endure that for decades.
I want to talk about the way the bicycle has been transgressive. It’s an object that has broken boundaries and exceeded expectations. It has transformed perceptions of distance, time, our landscape and, of course, our own bodies. In different arenas, cycling has cut through and transformed ideas about what is possible physically, the shape of our cities, how we live socially and culturally. Of course, the bicycle has had a lasting impact on women’s political enfranchisement and mobility, and I will come to that in more detail later on.
One of the reasons I find the bicycle so fascinating is that, in many ways, I think it is an inherently paradoxical object. Yes, it revolutionised the way people got around, worked and socialised. Yet its simplicity, economy and reliability meant that cycling very quickly became an unremarkable feature of Australian life. In many ways, it was something of a quiet revolution.
So let me try and unpack the bicycle’s contradictory nature a bit more. It is difficult for us to imagine the excitement that swept the world when bicycles became affordable and more widely used from the 1880s. The world went bicycle mad and so, of course, did Australia. The fundamental reason for this revolution was that the bicycle was a technological marvel. For the first time, a person, expending no more energy than walking, could travel at about the same speed as a trotting horse. What’s more - you didn’t need to feed your bike, it didn’t get tired or stroppy, and it didn’t poo on the floor, which was a considerable advance.
Contrary to popular opinion, the arrival of the motor car in the early twentieth century didn’t diminish our enthusiasm for cycling. In fact, the First World War re-energised opinion in favour of the bicycle and its role in developing what was known then as the ‘national physique’. Social reformers, religious leaders and suffragists all embraced the bicycle as a conduit to a more vital, healthy and disciplined life. In a literal sense, the bike had quickened the pace of modern life and human physiology.
So this kind of dual identity emerged. On the one hand, you had people performing extraordinary feats of human endurance on the bicycle, cycling across the continent and between the cities - people like Hubert Opperman and Francis Birtles using the bicycle to explore and settle the continent. And there were plenty of female stars - Sarah Maddocks and Joyce Barry - all setting fabulous cycling records.
On the other hand there was this matter of fact acceptance of the bicycle with huge numbers using their bike as their main form of transport. The period of what I have been calling the quiet revolution really extended from the 1880s until the Second World War. So for at least half a century, the bike was the dominant form of transport.
The important point here is that cycling was also supported in the broader culture. It was normalised and valued as an activity at all levels from the elite to school boys and school girls. Newspapers were full of stories about cycling, cycling products, accounts of cycling holidays, record-breaking rides and racing. Particular cultural value was placed on physical and mental stamina, hence endurance riding remained very popular in these decades.
This is an idea I will keep coming back to: the idea of broader cultural acceptance and promotion.
[slide shown of quote: ‘The true spirit and charm of cycling are best exemplified by the army of quiet riders who have found the wheel the open sesame to a wider, brighter life, but who pass almost unnoticed in the rush and bustle of modern life.’]
This is a terrific quote which I think really captures this idea that there was a very gentle revolution going on in Australian society. But this is not to say that the spread of the bicycle across the country was without conflict. As cycling was taken up, I think we can see there were starting to head for a cultural crash. And it wasn’t with the motor car, as I mentioned earlier, it was with the dominant form of transport of the time - the horse.
I will tell you a story that I came across during my research. It was the story of a doctor from Melbourne [Dr Thorne] who in 1889 found himself with a spare fortnight. He was a keen bike rider and he decided that he would take his bike on the train to Sale in east Gippsland, Victoria, and from there he would cycle to Sydney following the coast as closely as possible. These kinds of journeys were not unusual in the late nineteenth century.
On the first day of riding, when he approached Bairnsdale, a horse-drawn buggy approached from the opposite direction. He noticed that the horse was appearing to grow restless. The woman driver of the buggy yelled at Thorne to get off his bicycle. He dutifully did and slowly approached the horse, leading his bike past it. As he did so, she shouted at the good doctor in what he described as an absurd manner. ‘The government’, she raged, ‘should not allow those things on the road.’ Thorne retorted that she should learn to drive before taking charge of a horse. He then left the scene, as he said, to be ‘followed by a torrent of abuse’.
Further on into his journey, Thorne quickly realised that his bicycle was faster than riding a horse. This was something that many dedicated horse riders around him found difficult to accept. After crossing into New South Wales and going up a particularly steep and rocky section of path, a party of horsemen overtook him and chuckled at him on his strange contraption. But once Thorne reached the summit, he decided he would let his bicycle rip and charged past the horses, startling them in a way he believed they would not soon forget. It seems that our respectable doctor did have something of the lycra-clad weekend warrior in him after all.
But you can see in this tale the seeds of a bigger clash, one that is with us today, that road rage is nothing new and just another incarnation of a complex cultural debate about who has legitimacy on the roads and more deeply a debate about the way humans should move that has been going on for a very long time.
Despite these particular altercations, bikes and horses coexisted for over half a century in cities and country towns. Indeed, it wasn’t really until the 1940s - and then more seriously in the post-Second World War economic boom - that mass car ownership really took off. It was then you started to see a more direct - and in many cases literal - clash between cyclists and cars.
I have been endeavouring to do some statistical research on this history, but it has been extremely difficult to find those figures. But I did recently discover, by looking at some objects in our collection, that in 1940 over 80 cyclists were killed in New South Wales alone in that year. Even allowing for the larger proportion of cyclists – [image shown] this is the little book that I was looking at - that were active in those days, the population of New South Wales was obviously much smaller and there were far fewer cars. So it was clear that something dramatic was going on.
This little publication [The Highway Code for Bicycle Riders, 1940] is quite interesting. It largely sets out the road rules but within it are numerous comments about the ensuing clash between bikes and cars, and the responsibility for those collisions was laid very firmly on the backs of the bicyclists. It was in fact a polite warning that they needed to learn to control their bicycles, that the age of the motor car had arrived and they had better watch out.
Assessing the place of the bicycle in Australian life can’t really be complete unless we explore something about the arrival of car culture in Australia. I think we have been culturally conditioned from this very early period in the 1940s to see the car as somehow a natural and obvious advance on the bicycle. This is a kind of technological determinism: we simply accept the next piece of technology and reject all that went before it.
So why did the motor car exert such a profound influence, rendering the bicycle a seemingly anachronistic curiosity - a relic of the previous century? One reason, I suggest, can be found in the broader cultural changes that came in the mid-twentieth century. A term that scholars and cultural theorists use is the idea of the cultural imaginary - the images, words, literature, advertisements, language and behaviours that support a particular way of life or a dominant behaviour. As I said earlier, cycling had been supported by a whole array of cultural practices: advertising, sporting events, stories and, of course, everyday behaviour.
So too has car culture. The dominance of cars in Australia is not somehow natural; it was supported by a complex range of factors. But it was also triggered, supported and sustained by an extraordinarily sophisticated range of commercial and cultural products. We can see today we are surrounded by images that speak to the rightfulness, power and legitimacy of the car on our streets.
Where did it all start? Here I have drawn on some work done by a colleague of mine at the University of Canberra, Professor Angelina Russo. She has suggested that a key moment in the arrival of car culture in the twentieth century came in New York. This is a great example of the kind of cultural frameworks that developed in the mid-twentieth century. Cars were central to this particular vision that was advanced in this World Fair. [slide shown] Perhaps it is unsurprising given, as you can see, that the World Fair was sponsored by General Motors.
At this World Fair there was a particular vision of the world that was being promoted. It was sleek, efficient, clean. It was also divorced from the natural world making mankind a passive but also a master of their domain. Enormous models were created to map out this particular vision of the world. [image shown] You can see the people sitting on these lines of seats. They were actually motorised. You didn’t in fact have to walk to explore this world, you sat and observed it passively and like a train it moved you around this fabulous world.
In this world, science and technology would do the work, would keep us alive. We didn’t see much of this kind of thing in that vision - although the traffic was very free flowing and effective - but the vision reared up again in the 1960s with the Jetsons. [image shown] Again this is a hermetically sealed, labour free environment. George Jetson didn’t even have to brush his own teeth.
Human power was redefined as backward, unnecessary and a marker if not of poverty certainly of lower class. Waiting for public transport or being slow labouring over a bicycle is not what we expect in a modern, Western society.
If you take a look at any car ad, they revel in the fantasy that the car opens pathways, seemingly uses very few resources and doesn’t require a vast and expensive infrastructure that has become central to our economies.
My point is that cultural meanings are critical to the way we see objects, the way we understand them. The kind of thoughts people have when they see certain objects are shaped by broader cultural values and conditioning.
In some ways we still live in a technologically elitist culture - we do look to science and technology to deliver solutions to all manner of problems. The vision that was propounded at the New York World Fair I think in many ways is still with us. We do have this expectation of continuous technological improvement and that again the older technologies are simply cast aside.
I have a couple of examples of car culture. These are from Holden who were I think one of the best makers of commercial car advertising in Australia from the terrific sandman advertisements from the 1970s, which definitely embraced the kind of local Australian cultural identity and associated that with the car. But more recently they are moving to a more generic but I think equally powerful kind of advertising. [image shown] This one is particularly fascinating because the car seems to have disappeared. It is this god-like vision, this array of light appearing over the horizon sort of like a cosmic apparition - I don’t know. Again it feeds into these very seductive fantasies about car travel.
What chance for the bicycle in all of this when the bike is materially and culturally anchored in the nineteenth century? I don’t think it has fared particularly well. Representations usually follow a certain pattern. If the bicycle is used by a professional sports person, it is generally considered quite a legitimate expression of bike usage. But often we see bicyclists defined in ways like this [image shown] - they are either geeky individualists who are unable to function as adults, probably virgins. I don’t know if you have seen this film The 40 Year Old Virgin, which is a fabulous film except for its presentation of the principal character as a cyclist. When I am watching TV or looking at mainstream movies there is always some kind of jab at people who don’t drive. In this film, the film-makers indicate the main character’s incompetence at being an adult, along with his virginity and his penchant for collecting toys through the fact that he rides a bicycle.
But I think Australia’s contribution is probably better than all these. [image shown] This was only from a couple of years ago from South Australia with their campaign to reduce the number of people drink driving. It doesn’t get any worse when you are forced to ride your bicycle.
It is amazing to me that people can be tainted and defined by their mode of transportation. On a serious note, I think this can result in a kind of dehumanisation. I am sure I am not the only one in this room who bristles at reports on the news of the death of a cyclist as simply an ‘accident’ or that ‘cyclist has collided with motor vehicle’. The power dynamics are reflected in this language, and the death is somehow an acceptable part of mixing the outdated inferior technology with the fast and the modern.
I will take a slightly lighter note now with another contemporary example. I am going to go out on a limb and try to defend MAMILS - middle aged men in lycra. I’m going to try to defend them not because I think the kind of over-competitive behaviour is out of place and rude and occasionally dangerous, but I think the term is another in a long history of language that is used to put cyclists in their place. The phenomenon of the MAMIL has occurred for a few reasons. One of them is simply demographic: you have large numbers of men and women who have reached a certain age, who are dealing with health issues and weight control - and cycling is now embraced as a great solution to those.
Cycling has always been a commercial and image driven industry, so it is also a great way to show off your social status, your financial status and perhaps assert something of a fading physicality. What I really mind is that by and large it’s a bloke attempting to get fit and perhaps not looking to just keep working and eating their way into an early heart attack. Ridiculing them is another way of saying that they should get back in their box, follow normal social patterns and not assert their physicality.
This has a clear historical parallel. Female cyclists were similarly attacked and vilified for daring to challenge the acceptable social mores. They were lampooned as fast women, modern women and much worse. They were ridiculed for dressing like a man, risking their fertility and their very womanhood for daring to get out on a bicycle in what was called then ‘rational’ clothing. Rational clothing was, of course, the lycra of the nineteenth century. My point here is that language is a huge signifier of what is normal and is used to control behaviour. It’s been critically important in shaping perceptions of cycling and its place in society. Of course, women continued to face these challenges into the 1960s and 1970s.
During my research for the Freewheeling exhibition, I spoke to a lady called Margaret McLachlan. [image shown] She began riding in the 1960s. She was a great talent in the 1960s and started winning scratch races against the men of her club in Dulwich Hill in Sydney. When she organised a women’s only race, the blokes from the club all dressed up as women with wigs and participated in a mock race in order to ridicule their female counterparts.
In 1966, McLachlan became the first Australian woman ever to be granted an open racing licence, enabling her to compete in official events. A year later, the New South Wales Amateur Cycling Union revoked her licence, without explanation – but presumably because she was winning - and she was again restricted to club races. Seeking to be recognised as a serious cyclist, she had to take to doing long distance riding, which women had been doing since the late nineteenth century. She broke Joyce Barry’s almost 30-year-old Sydney to Melbourne record, which I believe still stands today. I think we have come a long way on that front even though for the profile of women cycling there is a long way to catch up.
What are the hot button issues for cyclists today that we see in the media? Cyclists break the road rules, they run red lights, obstruct the traffic, injure pedestrians, they are unlicensed and they don’t pay registration. It’s really the Family Feud state of affairs. The actions of a few are used to define a larger group. I have been struggling to unpack and understand why this has been occurring.
Cyclists, it seems, are one of the few groups still vulnerable to over-generalising and stereotyping. They are vulnerable to the demonising tactics that have been employed forever to attack all manner of groups: welfare recipients, Asian drivers, corrupt politicians, Muslims or any other ethnic or national group you can think of. Something makes it okay to speak about this group in a way that would be unimaginable in describing any profession, ethic or gender group.
It’s a tough problem, but I think some clues can be found in areas that I’ve already canvassed, particularly the embrace of technological and mechanised progress. The person on a bicycle can be portrayed as outmoded and irresponsible as someone taking their donkey drawn cart down a highway. It’s an annoying anachronism that impedes the lives of busy, working people. As a mode of transport, it therefore looks cultural legitimacy and is not deemed worthy of respect.
The danger argument is a little bit more perplexing. Speeding bikes seem to produce an inordinate amount of fear and anger. The real killer, of course, is all around us: the car speeding around us and our children every day. The road toll is in the thousands. Around 40 pedestrians are killed every year by cars, but we have become immune to the grim reality of car driving.
We are conditioned to accept it as normal, safe and natural. Hundreds of thousands of drivers get speeding fines. The courts are full of people charged with DUI offences. But we have been conditioned since infancy to ignore fatalities, to normalise and dismiss traffic violations. Car dominance has become the devil we know. Yet if a cyclist goes through a red light – this happens [image shown] - it is the end of civilisation. This is actually the kind of disproportionate responses that were popping up in the media in the UK. These signs were put up all over London.
By contrast, the vision of a human body pedalling a bicycle dressed with less protection than a pair of pyjamas, easily producing speeds of over 25 to 30 kilometres an hour, is as unsettling to us as it was 100 years ago. There were huge debates in the 1890s about cyclists knocking people down and upsetting the pattern of city life - that it was unnatural to move at such a speed.
In the last part of my talk I want to suggest a new way forward - a way we can counter the aggressive, negative stereotyping and how we can begin to redress the imbalance and modify our obsession with private motor transport. In some ways, it might be helpful to think about generating or perhaps re-discovering the cycling imaginary that sustained bicycle culture for over 50 years in the early twentieth century.
What might this cycling imaginary look like? When you think about it, riding a bicycle is an almost universal experience. Except for countries suffering extreme poverty, almost every child learns to ride a bike. In the Western world, it’s deemed a rite of passage, it is something we graduate from into our car-driving adulthood. The bicycle and all its freedoms have been relegated to a childhood nostalgia. Unless we get back into it, we can often associate cycling - or just not driving in general - with a kind of adolescence.
We know that the rates of children riding to school are particularly low at the present time. Here [in Australia] we see a similar pattern of uncertainty: the perception that the journey is too far, it is too dangerous, there are too many cars and the individual is too exposed by riding their bicycle. Some communities in Australia have countered in really creative ways with things like the cycle bus which involves a group cycling around and collecting children on their way to school so they can ride together.
It is also important to support this idea of a cycling imaginary with better research and data. As I mentioned with my struggle to find statistics about cycling fatalities, there is a real dearth of good quality analysis and statistics about cycling. This, in fact, plays back into the cycle where politicians and developers who can cite low participation rates as a reason for not adopting active transport policies and not adapting their designs to take into account pedestrians and cyclists. Good information is very helpful in breaking these stereotypes.
Forthright advertising campaigns and techniques, just as they were used early in the twentieth century, are also important. We might co-opt the strategies that have been used to sustain car culture for decades in order to propagate a different vision of the world.
This next thing I am going to show you - you will have to forgive the slight digression from cycling but I haven’t been able to find a better example of a very artful way of changing the dominant transport patterns. It’s from Denmark, of course.
[Video played https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2G50cBQ2AOE]
DANIEL OAKMAN: It is fantastic, isn’t it? There is a sequel to that, but I will leave you to find that one yourself. In the sequel it’s a little bit more radical in that there is a fellow actually torching his car in order to take the bus. These kinds of things are absolutely fabulous, and I would love to see them in Australia but I think we may be a little way off that yet.
Another component of the cycling imaginary is tradition. The great cycling cultures of the world like the Danes are supported by much more than good infrastructure. They have a deep sense of the virtue and significance of their cycling histories. This image is of the Eddy Merckx metro station in Brussels. Once you get over the slightly weird fact that the metro station is named after a cyclist, it was fascinating to me that millions of people were walking past this bicycle that is from an absolute icon of world cycling. It remains ungraffitied; it is an object of reverence in Belgium. The bicycle was actually used by Eddy Merckx to break the 1967 world hour record. He is an absolute national hero in Belgium.
With the Museum’s Freewheeling exhibition - at least when I was thinking of it - I wanted it to be inspired by a kind of celebration of the Australian cycling tradition. This is an image of the exhibition as it is in Brisbane [image shown]. It explores different modes of riding but also explores how others in the past have searched for the same kind of engagement with the world around them that many of us are seeking today. It traces our rich cycling traditions, which I would argue are as rich as Europe’s. This is probably a controversial thing to say, but I think we have tended to suffer a bit of amnesia. One of the purposes of this exhibition was to reconnect people with our history and remind them that Australia has very long history of racing as well. The Melbourne to Warrnambool race is in fact the second oldest one-day classic in the world. The only older race is the Liege-Bastogne-Liege, which is in Belgium. But I don’t think those kinds of things are widely understood.
For me this show reminds Australians that cycling is not a recent phenomenon, it’s not a fad or a minority activity that will peter out and go away. It reminds us that Australia has always had a vibrant cycling culture and is very much a part of our history, as much as football and cricket. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s an activity that intersects with the major cultural and political challenges of our time. It affects the way our nation is represented overseas, our approach to improving national health, how our cities are designed and how we respond to climate change.
This is why museums can play a critical role in shaping these ideas and facilitating a vibrant, informed debate.
Another dimension to the cycling imaginary that I have been outlining is architecture. Another colleague of mine Steven Fleming, who is an architect at the University of Tasmania, takes his inspiration from the act of cycling in his designs. [image shown] He looks at particular cycling modes and then attempts to develop forms and building shapes that actually respond to those. Here he has the idea of the velodrome and that cycling up gentle inclines might be building a way of living that directly embraces the bicycle not sees it as an adjunct to design. Here he has taken this concept of the velodrome and turned it into an apartment block which you can actually cycle to the top of.
At first you think this is just a utopian fantasy but again, as we turn back to Denmark, they have already built one. [image shown] This is known as House 8. It is eight stories high and you can cycle up or down to the very top. It has a lift of course so you can take the lift up to the top, but when you are leaving for the day you can go down a series of aerial streets down to the bottom. It is connected by metro to Copenhagen City or it’s a 15-minute bike ride. [image shown] This is another image of it being constructed.
This is another development that is taking place at the moment in Minneapolis in the United States. [image shown] It is known as the midtown Greenway, which is actually a disused railway corridor that bisects the city. It has been turn into a double lane bicycle path with a pedestrian path as well. It has become a real focal point for developers who are responding to the usage of this particular area with buildings not quite as radical as Denmark but they are building townhouses and so forth that will make this a very vibrant part of town.
Another thing we perhaps should be asking questions about and encouraging a more widely understood perspective of is the subsidies that are offered for car usage in most countries around the world. Most workers can salary sacrifice to purchase a car. Business kilometres are tax deductible. This not only reinforces the driving culture but also deprives the government of revenue. But those things are not really spoken about in our political debates.
In 2004, the UK government introduced a salary sacrificing option for people to purchase a bicycle, which was a major step forward. The French government have been trialling a system where cyclists are paid per kilometre to ride to work. That would be a fantastic thing to see here.
I am not really outlining a comprehensive blueprint for change but I think we can see that a culture that privileges cycling and pedestrian public transport and moderates the use of the car will need to be a blend of cultural imagery, history, social programs, economic incentives, new architecture, cycling infrastructure, commercial strategies and education.
In summing up my argument today, the bicycle has fascinated me as an object for a long time and, as I said at the beginning, it is a complex and paradoxical object. It contains many links to our past but also to our future. At the centre of all the contentious debates we are having today, I think there is a nagging question about how we imagine our physical lives. The seductive mid-century fantasy of a world without labour is still with us. The working body seems to clash with the fundamental concern of the modern world to make machines and science do the work to protect us from exertion and fatigue. Yet it seems that those machines and the kind of resource consumption and passivity they have enabled may in fact be endangering our very existence, not sustaining it.
Perhaps as we continue to reconnect with the bicycle, and I think we can see this happening not just in Australia but also around the world, we might finally grow restful with the bicycle and our own bodies. As transgressive as the bicycle has been, it has also been one of the most resilient devices. Over 150 years the basic principle and design haven’t fundamentally changed. The kind of experiences we look for on our bikes would be immediately recognisable to our cycling ancestors. Bicycles are symbols of freedom and hope today just as they were 100 years ago, and especially for women in the 1890s. They are such adaptable and resilient symbols, I think, because they are fundamentally an extension of ourselves. It’s a simple mechanism designed to amplify our own capacities and experiences. It does that in extraordinarily diverse and poetic ways.
Given the entrenched nature of Australia’s car culture, the extraordinary resurgence of cycling that we are seeing in recent decades is perhaps even more remarkable, and I think this should be celebrated. The rediscovery - or normalisation of the bicycle, if you will - is already under way. Importantly, using a bicycle allows us to rediscover our physicality and our place as part of the natural world not somehow outside of it. I can’t think of another device that is more appropriate to many of the challenges of our time. Thanks for listening. [applause]
FRANCES BALDWIN: Thank you very much, Daniel. We have some time for questions if anybody would like to ask Daniel anything about his talk.
QUESTION: Thanks, Daniel. That was a very interesting talk. There is one point I wanted to make about the photo of the exhibition in Brisbane - it has heaps of people in it. It looked empty in the photograph. Going back to the 1940s road transport booklet, that was actually saying that the onus was on the bicycle to avoid the car, was it? That is the first example that you can find that it was officially sanctioned or trying to make that change in favour of the car?
DANIEL OAKMAN: Yes, it is quite unambiguous really. There are little stories about the cyclist who have wobbled across the road and into the path of cars. It’s absolutely that kind of framework which puts that responsibility on the cyclist to kind of get out of the way. Whether it’s the earliest, I am not sure, as I have really struggled to find statistical evidence of what was happening, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s when I think there was a really big shift. Of course, the car road toll in the 1960s and 1970s was at the peak - it was nearly two to three times what it is today. I am surmising that that had a pretty devastating effect on the amount of cycling that was going on.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Daniel, a fascinating history of cycling in Australia and thoroughly enjoyable. Just a quick comment and then possibly a question. My wife and I have just returned from three years living and working in Copenhagen, Denmark, a fabulous place to live and work. We couldn’t afford a car when we were living there, because the tax on cars was 180 per cent. So a $30,000 Kia would cost you $88,000 or so dollars in Denmark and then if you add a few bucks a litre for petrol you can’t really afford to run it. So we rode our bikes for commuting and got hooked on cycling.
What I was interested in, as I became more and more fanatical about cycling, was that in the 1970s Australia and Denmark had roughly the same participation rates in cycling, roughly about 35 per cent cycling participation and in Australia a lot of that was kids riding to school. As both Denmark and Australia wanted to look after people who were cycling, Denmark tried to create separated infrastructure for cyclists to protect cyclists. In Australia we went the other way. We asked the cyclist to be entirely responsible for their safety by mandating that they wear helmets and high visibility gear. As a result, especially once mandatory helmet laws came into effect in the early 1990s, cycling participation plummeted, especially for those people who just were jumping on it to go from point A to point B and not necessarily those MAMILS who were using it for recreation. I just wonder where do you see cycling participation - of course it’s a complex subject - in terms of building cycling participation in Australia for just general load share? It’s urban design of course but what other possible things Australia might do?
DANIEL OAKMAN: Great comment. As a friend of mine says, in the 1970s Europe got bike paths, in Australia we got helmets, and that in some ways sums up the level of concern there was in this country. Again, it is what I come back to: it’s changing that cultural framework which is incredibly difficult. Someone did point out to me – and I have cycle toured in Belgium and France myself – ‘When you get out of the cities there isn’t the infrastructure,’ which is very true, ‘but what actually is different is the way people approach you or the way they see you on your bicycle.’ You don’t often experience the same kind of fear. Certainly they don’t get the same amount of aggression and hostility. That, I think, is the first step. In Australia we probably need an outbreak of civility on these kinds of issues but actually effecting it will take a long time.
One thing that can change that perception is actually seeing more people on bikes. That is the kind of thing that breaks stereotypes when people actually see and experience one on one people riding: A lot of bicycle advocates very excited about big group events when they close down streets and everyone comes out on their bikes. We are seeing that happening in a lot of places in Europe but also in places like Bogota and Medellin in Colombia, cities that have essentially ground to a halt so they have had to do something. So they have Ciclovias days on Sundays where they shut the streets and everyone comes out on their bicycles. Those kind of cultural events, I think, have the potential to be really powerful in breaking that cycle and getting people to think differently. But it’s a long-term strategy. You could say we have only had mass car ownership for 60 years, that’s not really a long time. It may take that long to change it again - to change it back.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for a very stimulating presentation that I hope will be widely seen. You have only just shown recumbents and there is quite a bit of discussion about those. But for older people in particular going into electric bicycles. I wondered whether you might like to comment on the possible directions technologically one might be going in the future using the bicycle as a means of transport.
DANIEL OAKMAN: It’s interesting you mention electric bikes because there is a bit of a tension within the cycling community about electric bikes. I think we are still trying to understand what they mean because there is an introduction of a motorised mechanised component that we haven’t really associated with bicycles. It’s been all about human power. It is going to be interesting how that develops. I don’t really know. Part of it is about speed. When I rode to work yesterday I was overtaken by a guy going about 60 kilometres an hour on his - homemade, it must be said - electric bicycle. At that moment I thought, ‘I am on a road and this is a motor bike’ - something about it changed it in my mind. I am still wrestling with that.
I am a recumbent bike rider myself, amongst other machines. I really encourage diversity in bicycles. That is breaking down the idea that there is a particular way to ride a bike. There is certainly a bit of tension between your sports racing cyclists and recumbents where they like to make fun of the recumbent riders because it’s different. But that’s the diversity and the kind of thing we should be celebrating which encourages people to see this activity. They don’t have to be a certain way to engage in it. There is an element of it that we can all respond to.
QUESTION: Daniel, following on from the Freewheeling exhibition, I haven’t seen it in many years but there used to be a wonderful bike exhibition at the Tradies in Dickson, including that beaut fantasy bike.
DANIEL OAKMAN: Indeed. It was a sad day when the Bicycle Museum closed down. The Museum acquired a couple of bikes from that collection. You probably don’t know that nearly half that collection ended up with a bicycle collector in Toowoomba. He actually raised his house in order to create space underneath it for this collection of bicycles. I went up and saw him. There is a terrific little film made about James McDonald on YouTube [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1zt7aVsmVE]. Sadly he passed away last year. Wouldn’t it be great - a bicycle museum.
QUESTION: A question about cycle touring, especially organised touring. You mentioned a few people who did long distance tours on their bicycles. Today there is quite an industry in cycle touring, at least in Europe and in New Zealand especially. They are not just one-off events but you can book a tour and they will arrange your bicycle for you, and transport your goods and things from A to B. Has that been part of Australia’s history too?
DANIEL OAKMAN: You mean in terms of an organised mode?
QUESTION: Yes, companies, and are there routes in Australia where overseas visitors or locals can take bike rides together?
DANIEL OAKMAN: Those kinds of developments have been huge in Australia, probably in the last decade or so. There are tours that you can take across the Nullarbor and around the country. That’s been a huge growth area. I often think about that. When people look at statistics, which are usually poorly compiled about cycling participation to work, they say, ‘It’s only a minority.’ But that doesn’t reflect the growth. Those kinds of industries are having a profound effect on cycling participation. You can almost go anywhere now on an organised cycling tour. There are ones that cross continents. There is a tour to Africa where you can ride from Cairo to Cape Town, and similarly there is one that goes around Australia. It’s terrific to see it. But it is also part of a longer tradition of people in Australia just getting out there - with far less, it must be said.
QUESTION: Daniel, thanks for your talk. As others have said, it was stimulating. I would like to give you some feedback on one of those little bits of stimulation. One was the stability of the design and how good it is. To me, that means something for trying to develop sustainable lifestyles. If we have a sustainable design that has been proved over 100 years or so, maybe we can build on that. My favourite bicycle would be one with a titanium frame. The objections to it is that, if design changes or fashions change, you don’t want to spend that much money. But if we could build in real sustainability into bicycle design, and recycling of bits and pieces from ones that fall apart for one reason or another, titanium might be worth thinking of as a good input into that.
DANIEL OAKMAN: Absolutely. One of the interesting things about the bicycle, certainly about its image, is of being sustainable and all these kinds of positive values. But we need to look at where those bikes are produced. Often they are produced by far less sustainable methods, particularly if they are coming out of poorer countries with lower regulations around labour and environmental standards, the bicycle might not quite look like the symbolic projection it’s looking to project. We should explore all those kinds of technologies with bicycle design but, as you say, the essence of it is a classic.
QUESTION: My question is about gender and cycling. Just a comment first on the fact that the cycling machine itself has changed very little over the years. I would actually like a few changes. My black hands today testify why I am late. I am not very good at maintaining my bike. I am not very skilled at it. And today the chain broke on the way to an ‘Is cycling normal?’ seminar, which is rather tragic and we had to come here by car. I hate changing the tyres. I find it really tedious. I would love someone to make a bike that is much easier to fix.
But I am aware that, of the some 4,600 people who cycled to work on census day, of those 28 per cent of them were women. So women are less likely to cycle in Australia. I think you have covered very well some of the reasons why that will be - the issues of physicality, comfort and so on. Do you have any other kind of tips of how we can start to enhance the participation of women in cycling?
DANIEL OAKMAN: Part of it is, as you say, addressing the factors that stop people from doing it. One of the ones that people cite in surveys is fear. I am less convinced by the argument - it’s a terribly sexist argument – that it’s because women have to wear a helmet. That does bubble up from time to time. I think there are much more substantive reasons why women in particular - it is a belief that they are more vulnerable on a bicycle and with things like you have just experienced with your chain breaking, what do you do?
If I can hearken back to an historical example: when bicycles first started taking off, in every town and country there was a blacksmith that doubled as a bicycle shop. There was a tremendous array of services. Even though people were covering big distances, they didn’t actually feel as vulnerable as we might feel today because there was this broader framework that supported their activities. Whether that is something that hopefully will develop so there isn’t that sense of isolation - if I don’t know how to break a chain I am not going to get on my bike. Maybe there needs to be like an NRMA but for bicycles or something like that. There are all sorts of ways we could develop.
QUESTION: I am interested in your ideas on normalising bicycle culture. I noticed in Europe you often see men and women of all ages and in street clothes cycling quite regularly. I wonder if the bicycle industry itself here in Australia is part of the problem because they are marketing gear to gear freaks. So the MAMILS syndrome are actually men who like buying snazzy gear, expensive equipment and the latest thing. That image they present is not of normal people using bicycles, it’s of high-tech sports people demonstrating their prowess and the cycling industry actually benefits from that.
DANIEL OAKMAN: Absolutely. We are a long way from where we were 100 years ago where there was a much more sophisticated trade in how you dressed for cycling. In some ways it came out of the debate about women and what they should be wearing. It led to lots of niche markets about what you would wear - the particular gloves, what they were made out of. It was quite sophisticated. You are right. We have seen a huge growth and interest in sports cycling with the Tour de France, the Cadel Evans factor and all these kind of things. In some ways it’s fantastic but it has encouraged commercial operations to say, ‘That’s what people must want. They must want to look like all these cycling heroes,’ when of course the rest of us know that is not the case. We don’t want to ride like moving billboards; we want other options. I know for myself, because I object to wearing gear heavily advertising products and so on, I am often looking overseas. That’s where we are going. Maybe the market will respond as things improve - I hope so.
FRANCES BALDWIN: This will be the last question and then please join us back in the Friends Lounge and we can continue to debate this. Likewise, if you have suggestions about more talks like this, please talk to either Daniel or me and we will organise some more for you.
QUESTION: Thanks, Daniel, I hope these talks continue. One of the comments about cycling and sustainability for me when I was commuting to work was being able to shower when I got there, because it was 20 kilometres up and down hills. So that made a big difference for me in the workplace. That is maybe something that developers could think about when they are designing office works.
But also on a personal level now I am retired I do the Tharwa loop occasionally - 40 kilometres door to door occasionally - and I make a point of waving to every car once I am out of Tuggeranong and on the country roads. It’s amazing how many now are waving back. I don’t do it at a regular time or a regular day but trying to humanise the interaction between me, the tradies, the four-wheel drive farmers, trucks and things like that - and they really do wave back, which is great.
DANIEL OAKMAN: I do exactly the same thing. But I can see them in my rear view mirror and I wave to them before they come to me.
FRANCES BALDWIN: Thank you again. Could you please join me in thanking Daniel and join us down in the Friends Lounge. [applause]
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007-19. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 05 March 2015