top of page

Many Strangers. Civic Engagement - Pedal Power Campaign Launch, Northbourne Ave

Image: Waldemar

Bicycle bicycle bicycle

I want to ride my bicycle bicycle bicycle

I want to ride my bicycle

I want to ride my bike

I want to ride my bicycle

I want to ride it where I like

The morning is sunny, and warm when not in the shadow of the tall buildings along Northbourne Ave. There is a cool breeze in the air.  The trees showing the beginnings of autumn colours.  People with push bikes of all varieties: old and new, electric, recumbent and with trailers, parked up against poles or balanced on their stand.  The owners of the bikes standing around outside the main doors of Access Canberra.  Some cyclists in lycra, many just in day clothes. Pedal Power CEO, Simon Copland, not in Lycra, but a flowery shirt, chatting to an ABC reporter.  A local Greens Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), Jo Clay, is also in attendance with her bike with the Greens signage and wearing a helmet and flouro vest. Members of the Pedal Power staff handing out posters, flyers and corralling people into a tighter crowd for photos and as a backdrop for the press.

Pedal Power is a membership based lobby group based in Canberra.  (Full disclosure: I used to work for them, so I do know a few of the assembled people.) The membership is made up from keen cyclists, who take their bikes on holidays with them, to those who love to pootle round the lake when the weather is right.  They offer insurance as part of the membership for those who get injured, courses on how to fix bikes and how to ride them for both children and adults but they also advocate for better roads and paths for cyclists.  The many cycling and shared paths in the ACT are a testament to the work carried out by a few dedicated people over many years.

The collection of members and hangers on, like me, outside Access Canberra is supporting the launch of a new campaign to get a dedicated segregated cycle path along Northbourne Ave, the busiest and most direct route into the city from the north. There is a cycle path to one side of each of the three lanes allowed for cars, indicated by a painted white line.  (I have never understood why such a small city of 400,000 requires three lanes, in each direction, on the major road going directly to its centre. This road can be  crossed with no oncoming traffic within at least half a kilometre at most times of the day without having to wait for the lights.) 

Despite the law that restricts motor vehicles from coming within 1m of a cyclist, Image: Nothbourne Ave heading north taken at 10.15am

the road is often the site of near misses and crashes.  Joanne Pybus, wife of a survivor of such an incident, is attending the launch and giving her family’s story as weight for the campaign.  It is clear from her speech she will hold the Chief Minister and Transport Minister responsible for any further deaths or near misses because it is in their power to do something about this.  The reason, on record, the Territory government has given for not segregating cyclists is that Northbourne Ave already has too much disruption on it with new apartments being built and the work around Vernon Circle to raise London Circuit. Not much of an excuse. It does not make me feel safer as a cyclist.

Civic participation comes in many forms: membership, advocacy, social interaction.  All contribute to the multiple facets of social capital.  Robert Putnam in his statistic rich, and sometimes dense, book, Bowling Alone, (2000) describes the many ways civic participation leads to better outcomes for everyone.  The book documents social capital and its decline, mapping social interaction in America from early colonial days to the golden age of the Progressives and into the decline that has accelerated since the end of the 20 Century.  Putnum only looks at the American context but the same is true in countries across the West including Australia.

What is social capital?  

First coined by a Progressive Reformer, L J Hanifan, in 1916 who urged social engagement in rural schools in West Virginia as a way of improving the success of the schools and the communities.  He argued that individuals were useless if left to themselves and only good will, fellowship, sympathy and social interaction would satisfy social needs.  

‘If he comes into contact with his neighbour and they with other neighbours, there will be an accumulation of social capital…which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of the living conditions in the whole community.’ (Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1916)

Now the term refers to ways we interact with each other:

Bonding: connections we make with people with whom we share ideas, values or like-mindedness, (sociological superglue)

Bridging: making the connection with someone not like you,  (sociological lubrication oil)

Being part of a non-government, volunteer led organisation is in decline in Australia.  Memberships across the country, from U3A, Pedal Power, hospital auxiliaries to sports clubs have declining memberships and therefore declining participation for the work that they do.  Volunteer organisations struggle to find new recruits to do the work.  Covid is often given as the excuse for this but it was on the wane before 2020.

Robert Putnam lists the reasons for this decline and documents how they all make a contribution:  pressures of time and money, mobility and sprawl of urban settings, technology and mass media, generational change with how people engage.  His suggestions and well researched conclusions do not come up with any one definite thing that has led to this decline but the many small changes in different communities and segments of communities.  Putnam puts percentages on the declines, the biggest (over 40%) for generational change, but is at pains to point out that while this is true in some sections of communities (religious groups) it is not true of visiting friends, suggesting the way we interact is changing and still declining.

But Putnam is very clear that social capital, in its many forms: family, groups, sports clubs, social interactions and protest, is beneficial to individuals and communities alike.  The more we participate as individuals the safer we feel, the more we feel we belong, the more we trust both individuals and big institutions and the better our health.  Crime rates also go down.  Not to mention the measurable benefits many of the organisations bring to communities: foodbanks, donations of clothes and food to be passed on like The Ngunnawal Street Pantries, civic improvement like Rotary fund and lobby groups like Public Transport Canberra who advocate on behalf of people who use public transport.  Pedal Power is advocating for safer roads for cyclists encouraging more people to use their bikes which in turn means fewer people driving cars on Northbourne Ave; everyone, including the environment, wins.

Outside Access Canberra I have a chat with Jo Clay MLA.  She is conversational but lays out the Greens policy about electric cars, cycle lanes and what the Greens policy is.  It is an election year. I would not expect anything less.  She also gives me a potted history of her father riding the bus to work, her family owning one car and her daughter riding her bike to school.  I have met Jo Clay before at a dinner for the Conservation Council so it is not true to say she is a stranger, but we have never exchanged anything other than polite small talk.  I know she rides her bike as her main means of transport but I did not know she had a daughter or was born in Canberra.  

What role does protest play in social connection and talking to strangers?

Protest in a democracy is important because we realise we are not alone.  Just one voice, in a wilderness, is not heard, but many voices coming together for a shared goal, whatever background the people come from, means that voice is more likely to be heard and a debate started about the change.  This can also be of organisations representing different segments of a group.  Pedal Power and PTCBR have many common issues they lobby for.  Cyclists also use buses and trams.  

In a small place like Canberra it is likely that social circles overlap and individuals will bump into each other.  Standing in front of the government building, with my bike, it is more than likely I will encounter people who are like minded, share the same values and have similar opinions to me.  There is something else going on as well: by being there, being present, we are showing we do not agree with or acquiesce in to the status quo.  If not change we want a debate.  In this case about cycle lanes, but it could be anything, large or small.  Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, Critical Mass all bring people together who do not know each other but believe in the same things.

To pass the time as Simon Copland was interviewed I struck up a conversion with Jeff, long time Advocate for Pedal Power.  I spent half a day a few years ago staffing a stall for Pedal Power with Jeff in a tent at Floriade. Jeff’s yellow sweatshirt dates back to past Pedal Power campaigns.  We chat about a class he does at U3A and discover we know people in common.  The class is about music, run by Tim (see post about the Vinyl Lounge) and his brother.  Jeff tells me how amazed he is by the knowledge of these two men; how much they know about music.  Finding things in common; love of music, cycling safely, or miniature trains, these are the things that connect us.  It does not matter what it is, finding the connection is the magic.

In 2006 the ABC made a documentary series about a choir for people who were homeless.  A collaboration between the production company, Fremantle Media, Reclink, an organisation that offers and organises art and sport opportunities for people with low incomes, and the ABC.  The Choir of Hard Knocks is still running today for people who would not be able to attend any other community choir. 

The episodes follow the participants from the moment they turn up to the first session to meet their new choir leader, Jonathan Welch, to the sell out performance they do at the Melbourne Town Hall. Welch, one time singer with Australian Opera, had a background in working with people of disadvantage both in Canada and Sydney.  He brought the skills he mustered with him to engage with the 40 or so first participants.  He expected great things.

Through the series we see, up close, what the effects of drugs, bad diet, and constant uncertainty do to someone, and the effect being with people, on a regular basis, who care about the same things has. The choir busked on the streets of Melbourne to raise money to make a CD.  This was then sold so the profits could go to more people being included in the choir and to pay for the things they needed like travel expenses. The expectation of both Welch and the other participants who now relied on each other changed lives.They gave performances and they had to show up for weekly rehearsals, busking.  They had to learn things, work towards something and connect with people.  More than anything they had to be there.

This choir has gone on to perform at big venues like the Sydney Opera House with the likes of Judith Durham, Jimmy Barnes.  They perform  a huge range of music; carols to rock, jazz to the national anthem.  While the participants are learning new songs and techniques they are also engaging in an act of protest.  It is a mild one, not so in your face, does not stop traffic or disrupt people’s days, but it is saying to those of us who don’t live on the edges: “I am here. Look at me.”

On Northbourne Ave, outside Access Canberra the number of cyclists is diminishing, people leaving to go to work or do other things.  The reporters have packed up and gone.  One last set of photos to be taken for Pedal Power’s own use and then the rest of us will disperse.  This is just the start of a campaign.  There is an election this year: we are all urged to write to politicians and the media, and to go on the organised protest ride down one side of Northbourne Ave, round Vernon Circle and back up the other side on Saturday 27 April.  I ask Jeff why a Saturday was chosen, why not a weekday to maximise disruption.  His response, “We are not as radical as Critical Mass or Extinction Rebellion.  We want to disrupt, but not too much”.  This strikes me as very Canberra.


bottom of page