Percent of total trips by bicycle (data from Pucher & Buehler, 2008)

The key issue highlighted by Shane Warne’s spat with a cyclist last week isn’t mandatory registration of bicycles or any need to crack-down on “lycra louts” running red lights. No, despite what the Spin King and many observers would have us believe, the key issue is who “owns” the roads.

Cycling offers environmental, energy and local amenity advantages over other forms of transport. It’s also cheap and provides the sort of on-demand, private and direct travel usually only available with a car. With increasing traffic congestion, journey times by bicycle can be competitive with other modes, especially in inner areas.

But if cycling is to become a major form of transport in Australian cities (as distinct from a recreational pursuit), cyclists will increasingly need to share the streets with cars, buses, trams and trucks. Completely segregated cycling infrastructure will be part of the solution, but it’s unrealistic to imagine a majority of cycling kilometres in cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide would be on the bicycle equivalent of freeways.

Even if it were politically feasible to construct an extensive network of dedicated cycle paths by taking street space away from motorised vehicles, riders would still come in to frequent conflict with drivers, for example at intersections. Amsterdam and Copenhagen are as close as it gets to cycling nirvana, but even they only have around 400 km each of completely separate bike paths and lanes – most of the network is still shared with cars.

So drivers and cyclists in Australian cities will need to come to a satisfactory accommodation in order for cycling to grow as a major transport option.

A key reason our streets are dangerous for riders is that multiple generations of motorists have been brought up to believe streets are their exclusive territory. This wasn’t always the case – prior to the advent of motorised transport, streets were largely the province of pedestrians at large and children at play. Motorists effectively took over by force of arms as streets became too dangerous for foot traffic.

We’ve all been brought up with the implicit presumption that streets belong to drivers – even pedestrians are guests on the street, as exemplified by the curious offence of “jaywalking”. But at least motorists are pedestrians for some of the time. Unfortunately, very few are also cyclists (although most adult cyclists are also drivers) so they’re less likely to accept that bicycles have a legitimate right to be on the streets.

The inevitable consequence is the streets are less safe for riding than they would be if drivers adopted a more accepting and sympathetic attitude.

If cycling is to win a significantly larger share of the urban transport task, the conventional view about who owns the streets needs to change. That will probably take a generation or more, so now’s the time to start sending a new message.

The message is that cyclists have the same right to the streets as drivers. Moreover, because cyclists are infinitely more vulnerable, motorists need to extend them special care and consideration. There need to be highly visible changes in the law to emphasise drivers’ duty of care toward cyclists (even if amendment isn’t strictly necessary at law, the symbolism is important).

According to Rutgers University academics, John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, motorists in Dutch, Danish and German cities are assumed by law to be responsible for almost all crashes with cyclists, with special protection for children and elderly cyclists. This is supported by strict enforcement of cyclist rights by police and courts.

The idea that streets are shared spaces should be promoted vigorously by governments, for example in the driver licensing process, in schools and in the media. It’s also essential that adequate police resources are provided to enforce the law when drivers behave carelessly or aggressively toward cyclists.

Changing attitudes to who owns the streets is a necessary pre-condition for introducing on a large scale the sorts of tactical policies used in many European cities. These include 30 kmh speed limits in residential streets, traffic calming works and the re-allocation of street space from motorised vehicles to bicycles. These are unthinkable in a culture which implicitly assumes streets belong to motorists.

Registration of bicycles as suggested by Shane Warne might seem at first glance to be a way of increasing the “legitimacy” of cyclists on the streets, but there is a host of practical and political reasons why it’s a silly idea. In any event I doubt it would do much to change motorists’ attitudes.