Happening on Mansfield Street

The author on Reynolds Street, Rozelle. From ‘The Trip Across Town’ (2016), a short film by Ben Rushton.

IT’S 7:45 IN THE MORNING and I’m cycling on a short stretch of road on Mansfield Street between Rosser Lane and Mullens Street, Rozelle. Once I cross Mullens, I will navigate way-finding signs and bicycle stencils on a designated cycle route as I slowly climb up the valley towards Darling Street.

I see a male driver approaching in my side mirror. I take the centre of the lane. He beeps his horn and overtakes me less than a metre away, running me off the road. He hasn’t broken the law, because he hasn’t been caught. It amounts to a risky manoeuvre that precipitates an unnecessarily dangerous situation.

A few seconds later, we will meet at the stop sign on Mullens. He rolls down the window. I think to myself, ‘this will be interesting, they usually speed off.’ He says sorry; that I was in the middle of the road and that he had to use his horn to move me out of the way of danger. He was trying to ‘protect’ me.

He comes across quite sincere, earnest, evidently hoping to draw a sympathetic response, some kind of acknowledgement of his concern for my well being. I say nothing. Instead, I glare at him, not because I am angry but because I am steeling myself. I am about to negotiate an arterial road and need to regain composure and focus. Now is not the time for chatter or resolution.

With his display of magnanimity rebuffed, his face crumples into resentment. He is one of those men who expect to be excused for behaving badly simply because it wasn’t their fault. I search his face for a second and wonder whether he victimises his wife and children and then blames them for making him angry in the first place.

He will eventually reach his destination, order a coffee, chat with colleagues and may even mention, in passing, the guy on the bike who was doing the wrong thing and the corrective action he had to take. He is the exception though. Not the norm. In my experience only one out of every hundred drivers I encounter on the road mimic his stupid behaviour behind the wheel.

In Sydney, at least, the cyclist and the motorist regard one another as a menace. The cyclist views the driver as a potential killer which they must defend themselves against, given their governments have abandoned them to the mercy of drivers.

For the driver, the cyclist is a self absorbed beast, selfishly intent on slowing their motor vehicle to a crawl and creating a dangerous situation for them both. The driver’s objective is to pull away from the cyclist as soon as possible, to overtake at the earliest instance.

The cyclist comprehends this impulse and if experienced and confident in the arts of cycle craft will, in the absence of a safe passing distance, do everything in their power to reduce the risk of collision by taking the middle of the lane. Most drivers will respond cooperatively and decelerate. But the ones who don’t will blast their horns, rev their engines, tailgate, and in worst case scenarios run the cyclist off the road.

The irony in all of this is, of course, that many folks who ride a bike also drive a car. These cyclist-drivers tend to be more sympathetic road users simply because they have an experiential understanding of the handicaps cyclists face in terms of size, physical protection, power output and acceleration.

Concerning the happening on Mansfield Street this morning I have to take issue with the guy driving the car, not driving itself, nor the car he was driving. The antipathy he displayed towards my rights as a vulnerable road user is probably the kind of behaviour he displays towards all road users alike – drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. He’s a bully, short and simple.

To conclude on an upbeat note, there are so many wonderful things to say for cycling. There are far more pros than cons, which in my opinion makes travelling by bike the safest, healthiest and most efficient form of transport in a city like Sydney. Far too often though, opinion pieces written by cycling advocates are negative, gloomy and one-eyed, polarising and alienating swathes of curious and sceptical members of the public, who might otherwise get on a bike to see what it’s all about.1

While I prefer to dwell on the many enabling aspects of cycling, I feel that as the balance of power shifts away from drivers it’s equally important to take care with the type of language we use to address and manage emerging tensions and antagonisms between road users.

Rather than framing the debate using a ‘cars versus bike’ dichotomy, perhaps we should employ more inclusive and positive language such as, for example, speaking in terms of a ‘multiplicity’ of road users practising safe, responsible, caring and patient behaviours towards each other. ✏️

  1. As this piece was inspired by being railroaded by a monster, I appreciate it’s not exactly reassuring to readers who are convinced riding a bike is inherently dangerous. But, two brief points: This incident opened up a productive thought space in which to reflect on the small-p politics of sharing the road. Second, what happened to me is a rare occurrence. Most people who drive a car are thoughtful and considerate of their fellow road users. 

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