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Words by Hamish McKenzie
Photography by Alice Fane

We Melburnians dwell in what was once a humble village. Perched on the edge of the world, we are protected from the violence and overpopulation that plagues many cities beyond our shores. And the world has noticed. In 2013 we won, for the third year in a row, the much-vaunted accolade of world’s most liveable city.

But when one digs a little deeper, the picture left of our metropolis gives less cause for celebration. We are growing at over 1000 people a week. We have had no major expansion of our rail network in what feels like a century. Our metropolitan area covers 8,000 square kilometres, larger than Tokyo, New York and Delhi combined. With the combination of a backyard-obsessed population and a road-addicted political culture, we are left with an expansive and unmanageable system that creates chaos at peak-hour.

And in the face of a looming social, environmental, and economic struggle, the Victorian government in 2012 made the decision to cut all funding to bicycle transport programs. Only months after, the $8 billion East-West Link was announced.

The future development of liveable and prosperous cities will be reliant on the prioritization of pedestrian, public and bike transport. Building freeways to solve congestion is akin to loosening one’s belt to solve obesity. It doesn’t. The fat must be shed.

The Copenhagenize Index is a biannual ranking of the world’s top cyclist-friendly cities. The 2013 ranking lists cities like Rio

The benefits of bicycle transport both to individuals and communities are well documented, but given our battle to accept the bike, they warrant redressing.

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Economically speaking, spending on bike projects is a lucrative investment in productivity. A 2009 study found a benefit-cost ratio for cycling projects to be five-to-one. That is, for every dollar spent on bicycle infrastructure or programs, society accrues five dollars’ worth of benefits. Road projects often struggle to hit one- to-one, and by way of example, the East-West tunnel has a benefit-cost ratio of 0.7. That equates to a net loss. This is perhaps because freeways cost 100 times more to construct than off-road bike paths.

In many cases, bikes are actually faster than cars. 50 per cent of trips in urban Melbourne are less than 5kms, and under this threshold, cycling is usually a faster option than driving. For trips of between 5-10kms, the difference is negligible. A 2010 study found that average car speeds in the inner Melbourne morning peak were just 22.2km/h, compared to an average cycling speed of 20km/h, equating to a 1 minute difference for a 10km trip.

Single occupant vehicles on roads occupy 20 times more space than cyclists, meaning that transitioning to a bike-centered society could massively reduce the congestion that will cost the nation $6 billion a year by 2020. Furthermore, evidence from bike-centered cities overseas has shown that bike riding in segregated lanes to be significantly safer than driving, meaning we could cut into the $27 billion annual cost of road accidents in this country.

Catherine Deveny perhaps says it best: ‘It’s faster than walking, safer than driving, cheaper than public transport and it’s the closest thing to flying’.

And cities around the world have caught on to the fact.

Last year, London’s mayor Boris Johnson announced a 900 million pound policy to revolutionise cycling in the British capital. The plan involves a 15 mile bike highway through the middle of London, an expansive network of back-road ‘quietways’ for timid cyclists to gain confidence, and the creation of three suburban ‘mini-Hollands’ where concentrated infrastructural spending aims to completely transform car-dependent communities into Dutch-style bike-centered ones. London’s boroughs are now aggressively competing to be one of the chosen three areas for transformation.

More radical still was the January announcement of plans to construct SkyCycle, a network of elevated bike-paths across the metropolis, involving ten entirely car-free routes stretching a cumulative 220kms. Accessed by 200 entrance points, SkyCycle could transport 12,000 cyclists per hour, away from the danger of cars, and cut half an hour off journey times. Most significantly, the network would be suspended on beams above existing railway lines, meaning no new land would have to be acquired to construct it.

Meanwhile, on the world’s busiest cycling road, Copenhagen’s Norrebrogade, used by 38,000 cyclists daily, the council has instituted a fast lane, and a special ‘conversation lane’ allowing casual cyclists to chat and ride at leisurely pace. The strategy sees positive social interactions and increased cycling patronage as mutually reinforcing. It’s a far cry from Hoddle St road rage.

Additionally, Dutch planners have proposed the notion of a cyclist friendly ‘bio-mall’ where shoppers circulate on bikes. In the same way that the automobile encouraged the growth of the Chadstone-style malls, the idea is to reconfigure urban spaces that encourage bike access which would in turn encourage a more bike-friendly environment.

So what are the possibilities for Melbourne?

A SkyCycle Melbourne could be built over our radial rail network to construct bike-exclusive routes into the city from all directions. A SkyCycle network could enable trips from Footscray, Northcote or Hawthorn into the city in 10 minutes, without risking life and limb on the roads, with no traffic lights, no carbon emissions and no need for touching on or off.

The creation of ‘mini-Hollands’ in inner city areas, in suburban hubs like Dandenong, and in new developments on the city fringe, could shift the structure of our city away from its unexamined assumption that private car ownership is a desirable and indeed inevitable prospect.

The construction of a safe and continuous network of dedicated bike lanes along major arterials, but also the provision of quietways through the backstreets may encourage entry-level options for less confident cyclists. One study shows that only 8 per cent of Melbourne’s population feels confident to ride on the roads, whereas 59 per cent of people are ‘interested but concerned’. This massive potential cycling demographic must be accommodated. Quietways might be the way.

Furthermore, Melbourne is on the verge of developing massive swathes of prime inner city land into major new mixed-use developments.

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Fishermans Bend/Grant Wyeth

The Fisherman’s Bend redevelopment is set to house around 80,000 residents by 2050 in a high-density area of 240 hectares just south of the CBD. The E-Gate redevelopment is a 20-hectare site over the West Melbourne rail yards earmarked for redevelopment into a mixed-use development for 10,000 residents by 2030. Both of these large scale urban renewal projects give the City of Melbourne and the state government a clean slate to design people-centered urban spaces by prioritizing bike transport. Who knows, in the same way today’s suburbanites drive to Docklands to hit up Costco, by 2050, we may see Melbournians flock to Fisherman’s Bend to shop in the bike-friendly bio-malls.

In 2014, the liveability of the world’s darling city lies at a crossroads. We can either pursue expensive and inefficient road options or invest in cheap, lucrative bicycle transport to maximise the social capital of city and stimulate sustainable economic growth. The Melbourne of today is still riding high on the good planning and heavy investments of the city founders, and we must now decide whether to emulate this example for our children. At this most important of crossroads, Melbournians, by which I mean all those, newly arrived and nearly departed, must vote with their wheels.

Words by Hamish McKenzie
Illustration by Mahalia Lodge

The global gay rights movement has just entered a dark new chapter with rising economic giant Nigeria snatching the limelight as Africa’s new poster child of homophobia. On 7 January, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act which not only criminalises gay marriage, but carries penalties of up to 14 years imprisonment for all organisations and individuals that support the LGBTI community, and open displays of homosexuality.

The fallout has been gut-churning: arrests, allegations of torture of homosexual men, death by stoning in some areas of the country, and one police unit declaring it was ‘on the hunt’ for homosexuals. And Nigeria, where homosexual sex and relationships have long been outlawed, is just one of 38 African countries that actively persecute LGBTI people. When defending the Nigerian law, a government spokesperson argued ‘this is a law that is in line with the people’s cultural and religious inclination… Nigerians are pleased with it’. He is not lying. One poll suggests that Nigeria is the most homophobic country on the planet, with 98% of the population opposed to homosexuality.

Proponents of homophobic laws in many parts of Africa, Nigeria included, defend their position by claiming that homosexuality is the latest in a series of Western cultural incursions, that have served to disrupt and denigrate African cultural values since colonialism. In this antagonistic framing, homosexuality is posited as alien and incompatible with African culture. Moreover, in its current guise, homosexuality is framed as a reason for the plethora of social ills which plague many of these countries. President Mugabe in Zimbabwe has claimed that gays literally “destroy nations” and that they must be wiped out. This is the kind of logic at play. Homosexuals are imbued with the full threat of pernicious Western modernity.

It is widely acknowledged that these claims are a smokescreen for incompetence, scapegoating LGBTI people, and deflecting attention from inept governments. Nigerian commentator Udoka Okafor argues that “the Nigerian government seek to ingratiate themselves to the Nigerian people and the only way to do that is to give them a common enemy, one they can condemn together”. As President Jonathan faces an uncertain election in 2015, this latest move is seen as a “distraction from their political, social and economic failing as a governing body”. We see a similar scapegoating of LGBTI people when they are accused of causing natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or Black Saturday. This is not some exotic African quirk to be safeguarded. It’s very human, and it is very dangerous.

Moreover, the notion that these laws merely reflect an intrinsic African cultural preference and should therefore be respected is untenable. Most African countries, Nigeria included, inherited their anti-sodomy laws from their colonial occupiers. In the decades since decolonisation, the missionary work of the Western Christian right has unconscionably exploited this legalistic and cultural conservatism with the zealous propagation of an ultra-homophobic brand of Christianity in many parts of Africa. American evangelical Scott Lively has been one of the worst culprits, and is currently on trial for crimes against humanity for his support and indirect authorship of Uganda’s ‘Kill the Gays’ Bill. These homophobic revivals are the result of a confluence of factors, in which a corrupt government’s desire for political expediency dovetails with the agitation of Western religious extremists. This is no noble stand for the protection of African culture; this is cynical, Machiavellian realpolitik, meets religious bigotry.

The temptation is to respond with aggressive punishment in proportion to the crime. The UK has already threatened to withdraw aid to Nigeria, which would follow Germany’s similar move with Uganda last year. Gay rights activists across the world are seething, but to follow through on that rage could be catastrophic.

If we respond to these homophobic laws with punishment, derision and militant activism, then that very notion that homophobia is a Western conspiracy to infiltrate and denigrate Africa, which is clearly false, starts to seem legitimate. By reacting angrily, we risk transforming a chimerical delusion into a real threat, and the bizarre and demonstrably false justification for homophobic laws becomes at least superficially plausible. In doing so, we fuel the very flames we sought to quell, and do nothing for our LGBTI sisters and brothers who can least afford our moral indignation.

What then, can be done? The advancement of LGBTI rights in Nigeria can only take place within a broader human rights agenda. So long as there is poverty and social dysphoria, there will be a witch-hunt against the marginalised. LGBTI people are scapegoated because it is easy, not because it is right. The homophobia that is sweeping many parts of the world—Russia, Uganda, India—must be considered, taken seriously, and redirected towards the true perpetrators of human misery, be they dodgy governments, exploitative companies, corrupt NGOs, bigoted religious groups, or unpropitious socio-economic structures.

In this sense, we could take heart from what we see in Nigeria. People are willing to mobilise against agents of injustice. The task is to correctly identify those agents, and to unleash the human urge for self-improvement towards them, and away from the disgraceful crimes to which we instead bear witness.