Are we overthinking cycling in Australia?

Last week in his blog ‘Cycling in a broad church’ my Twitter colleague @GregVann wrote “Danes don’t consider themselves cyclists, it’s just part of their daily life; just as they use vacuum cleaners, but don’t consider themselves ‘vacuum cleanerers’!’

This got me thinking. Are we overthinking cycling in Australia?

I think we are.  I reckon there are four cultural trends which allow us to overthink cycling – Choices, Entitlement, Instant fixes and naval gazing.

1.         Choices

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

When I was growing up, in the depths of rural Devon, there was one state school and everyone walked or got the school bus to it. From what I remember almost all the Dad’s worked at either the local chipboard or the aircraft factory and the mums got whatever job was available within walking distance of home. As for Christmas, no one dreamt of a beach vacation. You went to stay with Granny; that’s just what happened.

As a result, we now overthink everything; where to live, where to work, where our kids should go to school, whilst popular Aussie media tells us to value being richer, more successful, more beautiful, more healthy and more popular than the next person.

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

Choice has made us question and overthink everything and as a result we’ve ended up doing nothing or very little

2.         Entitlements

We have developed an extraordinary sense of entitlement.

Most Aussies feel entitled to have lots of money, a six figure salary, a big house plus at least one investment property, to get a ‘free’ house through their super fund, to live far from work, to drive to work, to never get stuck in traffic congestion, to have cheap fuel and low-interest car loans as well as salary sacrificed car parking, to be able to claim next to everything in their annual tax return and to have their opinions listened to…

When these expectations are violated, as they often are, we refuse to accept it as a normal part of life and begin overthinking why we are not getting what we deserve.

In the world of cycling it’s much the same

  • Motorists think cyclists should pay registration
  • Sports cyclists think they own the road
  • Car drivers think lycra clad bike riders should ‘get off the road’
  • Sport cyclists think slow bicycle riders should instantly move out the way when they yell and scream “bike back”
  • Bicycle riders think pedestrians should walk in single file on shared paths

Admittedly these are slight exaggerations, as not everyone thinks this way, but you get the gist!

The entitlement obsession has led to too much overthinking and manifested the explosion of blame and confrontation that characterizes the readers’ comments of tabloid press forums and consumer affairs  TV shows.

In reality what all this really means is that too much time is focussed on arguing, being angry, whinging, whining and trying to get what we think we deserve and too little time is being spent on dealing effectively with the real problems in our cities; like obesity and safety.

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 which inevitably makes everyone overthink their merits.

Take my friend John. He has time on his hands and likes to tell Council exactly what he thinks. But what it really means is that people who are trying to lead positive behaviour change are diverted into solving his endless dissatisfactions.

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

If we really want our Australian 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.         Naval gazing

We have developed a ‘belly button’ culture chronically analysing every twist and turn in life.

We hyper-analyse everything. The extra two people who used City Cycle last weekend; the predicted car and bicycle mode shares for South Brisbane in March 2050 and; the number of people who might get into the fourth carriage of the third train to the second day of the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

In the world of cycling we seldom consider simpler explanations.

  • Perhaps people don’t use City Cycle because they prefer the City Glider bus?
  • Maybe it’s the Australian three acre block land use pattern that means the distance between origins and destinations are just too far to make cycling a realistic way to get around for most time-poor middle-aged women with kids?
  • Possibly people drive their BMW or Alfa to work, rather than cycling, to simply ‘show-off’ their excessive wealth? 
  • Or possibly it’s just the plain fact that the majority of everyday Australians have never been to Copenhagen or Amsterdam – and never will – and so have no idea what all the frigging fuss about riding a bicycle 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, their transport, their roads and their streets to be like.

… Maybe then Aussies might just use their bicycles like they use their vacuum cleaners, at least once a week!

Thank you for reading.

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

Please do create a debate. Can’t wait to hear from you!


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