The Protagonist #Bikeshopeat

Last winter, Melbourne Crank told me about the blog Behooving Moving. It was my first introduction to Dr. Steven Fleming. Written in an academic tone, it grabbed me by the brain and didn’t let go. Consequently, I contacted him and we started a conversation via social media.  Steven suggested joining forces which I took as quite a compliment.  However, nearly a year would pass before we would have the opportunity to meet in person.

The planets aligned and when it seemed that we would be in Newcastle at the same time, we arranged for a #bikeshopeat. When the day came, I was staying at a lovely Airbnb cottage in Merewether. My impression was that I was the sole bicyclist and pedestrian for kilometres. Living in inner-city Sydney, which is well-lit in comparison, it was evident that I was in a place where the car was king.

Fortunately for me, Steven came to meet me in Merewether with his cargo bike as I hadn’t yet worked out the best roads for bicycling in Newcastle. I met him on the street as I was acclimatising to a borrowed Brompton. We traded details of ourselves while I followed him to Market Town. We discussed our work. I learned more about Cycle Space and its growth in Europe. 

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Steven’s proposal for grocery shopping, as banal as it may seem, is revolutionary in Australia (and a few other countries).

Steven, with his shopping list in hand, and I, with Brompton neatly folded in the trolley, crisscrossed paths at Woolworths to buy the food that keeps ourselves and our families humming along. An elderly man stopped to admire the folded Brompton. He said, “I like your bike.” His wife retrieved him and pushed him along to continue grocery shopping together.

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The elderly gentleman in yellow liked my bicycle and was quickly relegated back to his tasks.

This was my second trip to Newcastle.  I had set aside the morning to #bikeshopeat with Steven and then planned to finish a speech that I was giving on the power of social media at the Bicycle NSW conference.

I find it very easy to bicycle around the city of Newcastle. The terrain is very flat in comparison to hilly and congested Sydney. We finished our shop and ran into a friend of Steven’s who owns several bicycles including a Yuba Mundo like my husband’s.

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Chatting about bicycles!

Afterwards, we bicycled to Aldi which was the true purpose of the shopping trip. Coffee beans were in short supply in the Fleming household.

Outside Aldi, I hung around and watched over the bicycles in case someone decided to make off with a Brompton and a half-full-of-groceries cargo bike, ex-coffee beans. Several people walked by and stared at the bicycles and at me. Newcastle reminded of the homogeneity of Minneapolis in my youth.

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Primarily a car-bound city, we stuck out like sore thumbs which was brilliant!

Steven returned quickly and we bicycled to his house not far from the beach. This was the start of a three-hour-long conversation complete with home-cooked lunch.

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Steven calls Newcastle home despite a hectic travel schedule. I would later arrange the start of periodic meetings with him at Sydney Airport’s International Terminal, 45 minutes by ebike.

We discovered that we are both attempting to grow bicycling around the world. My approach is at the individual level. With the use of social media, this blog, my presence on the streets of Sydney, Newcastle, Melbourne, Brisbane and beyond, I seek to show that people can incorporate the bicycle into their lives, not to adapt their lives to the bicycle.  Meanwhile, Steven’s approach is at a macro level. He proposes a bicycle utopia –  a Velotopia where the design of buildings and terrain include the bicyclist as resident. And then things got a little weird. Steven explained that his soon-to-be-published book Velotopia has a protagonist who is a “mum with kids who cycles around in her box bike. [She cruises] at 15kph, and can reach the centre from the outskirts in 30 minutes. She doesn’t need machines. She needs machines out of her way.”

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We like to think of ourselves as the protagonist of our own stories. The cast of characters include partner, children, family, friends, parents, colleagues. Various plot twists arise amidst the everyday routine of our lives or in the lives of the people with whom we are engaged. In the background, structures serve to provide us with shelter, community, safety, recreation. My moment of shock and recognition was discovering that I was the protagonist in someone else’s story.

My life is embodied in Steven’s proposals of his upcoming book, Velotopia. We don’t own a car. We live in a small two-bedroom, two-bath low-rise apartment in the inner-city. We have a car space full of different types of bicycles (some with electric-motor-boost) in our shared garage space which is accessible via lift. Bicycling thirty minutes from our neighbourhood takes us to the Inner-West/Newtown. We used to travel to Stanmore for my daughter’s violin lessons for several terms. Now it’s a 15 minute ride to Paddington and a 15 minute ride to the Conservatorium for my son’s piano lessons. No traffic to slow us down and no problems with parking. All of our grocery shopping is a 10 minute ride away. School is a 10 minute walk away.

More importantly, I use several bicycle-friendly “corridors” which are a combination of dedicated cycleways and quiet streets to gain access to the Sydney CBD, the Eastern Suburbs and beaches, the International Airport/Inner-West/Newtown, the North Shore via Kent Street and the Harbour Bridge.  While cycleways are a brilliant proposal to encourage more of the “interested but concerned” to bicycle to work, to school, to shop, to eat, NSW has a Roads Minister who is the “greatest bicycle sceptic.”  As present, it will be difficult to further the cycleways network in the City of Sydney.

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The Newcastle Foreshore putting on a show!

What then might be a solution to encourage more to bicycle? I think it is embodied in the quiet revolution that is College Street. The beloved College Street Cycleway that was destroyed in the winter of 2015 is still used by many bicyclists in peak-hour traffic. Bicyclists often travel in packs to take the left lane. Motorists have altered their behaviour and now share the road with bicyclists. I have seen this in action and have bicycled on College Street safely when I have been running late. In comparison to the aggravation that I encountered a few months after the cycleway’s destruction, traffic is calmer and drivers seem more willing to share the road.  Is it as simple as more people deciding to ride and riding together safely to a shared destination? Could it be as simple as individual bicyclists encouraging one person at a time to try bicycling somewhere together? Is bicycle evangelism an answer?

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Don’t let anyone in the Netherlands see Steven in his photo (with helmet). Is it photoshopped on, or not?

After lunch, Steven and I took a ride together to the beach to enjoy the pleasure of the Australian winter. Alas, the speech beckoned and I had to cut short our time together, the trading of ideas, the sharing of information, the Dialogue. No doubt the first of many!

Happy #bikeshopeat Everyone!

X Sarah

Have a look at Steven’s blog Behooving Moving and follow him on Facebook.

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9 Comments

  1. Hi Sarah,
    Your observation of behaviour on College St is really interesting. In the old documentary The Return of the Scorcher about cycling in China a contributor notes that motorists and bicyclists had an “understood” method of negotiating intersections without signals. Traffic would queue up at these intersections until the backlog reached a “critical mass”, at which point that mass would move through the intersection as a big block together at once.
    I don’t know if it makes for a relaxed and care free ride which will encourage others to join in, but it is fascinating how these little trends develop.
    Loved the photos by the way!
    Mark

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    1. Hi Mark! Thanks for your comment. My husband first told me about this phenomena a few weeks ago. I had been assiduously avoiding College Street for months and recently found it to be much calmer. So much better than being shoved off the road by a coach bus last autumn or heckled by tradies offering to be my saddle. To which I said, “I have better than you could ever imagine.” 😉

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      1. Safety in numbers… Encountering a single bike rider to slow you down – infuriating. Encountering a big bunch of people on bikes, and you’re one of a few cars – I feel out of place.

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