Melbourne, I love you, but you’re hopeless at winter

Melbourne, we need to talk. Not about your tedious obsession with sport or your own perceived cultural superiority (whatever that is). No, we need to chat about the elephant in the room, the thing that people from other parts of Australia make fun of. Your utterly hopeless approach to winter.

Stop, stop. Don’t argue or protest, you know it’s true. I know Melbourne summers are far worse than the winters in terms of climatic extremes. And I also know that winter in Melbourne is nowhere near as cold as North America, Europe or that big village in the island south of Sorrento. But there’s an issue and we need to tackle it. Admitting you have a problem is the first step.

First thing’s first. Accept the fact that although we’re not in Toronto, winter is cold. It’s rarely freezing, but it’s often that shitty kind of cold weather that makes you perpetually chilly, inside or out. You’re always either under-dressed or over-dressed. Despite the plethora of arctic-grade puffer jackets out on the streets it’s just annoyingly cold rather than actually dangerous. A hundred and fifty ducks worth of coat is one thing, but you’re kidding yourself when you can pair it with black lycra leggings. It’s cold, but it’s not proper cold, so stop whining.

That said, proper building design is a problem. You know the difference between Melbourne and Stockholm? In Stockholm they build for the weather. Everything is double and triple glazed, heating is built in rather than tacked on as an afterthought, and weatherboard will never be an acceptable building material. Build your houses better and they’ll be much nicer to live in, winter or summer. Canada has miles of underground shopping centres because it is simply too inhospitable above ground in winter.

And yes, before you ask, I am sitting here shivering as I write this in a weatherboard house.

The other thing we could learn from the Europeans about winter is that getting the temperature right is only half the problem. The other issue is addressing the perpetual greyness. The gloom of a Melbourne winter is a legitimate downer, and comparable to England. Sure, it doesn’t go on as long, and we’re not sitting in a lukewarm bath cutting ourselves, but months of grey skies and asphalt is bad for the soul. There’s a reason that Scandinavia have high rates of depression, and it’s not because they’ve run out of things to do after designing a just social security system. It’s the grey.

How to fix it? If you’re the kind of person who reads interior design magazines you’ll be familiar with the Danish word hygge. This is loosely translated as “cosiness”, but is probably more accurately described as “how not to kill yourself and others between October and March”. We need to inject a bit of hygge, a bit of winter culture, into how we live our lives. I’m talking candles, blankets, open fires, big pots of stew, whisky, and cuddling. See if you can get lucky too, that’ll help with the endorphins.

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Legitimate therapy

The idea of hygge basically accepts that humans are essentially bald tropical monkeys, and that we need to be kind to ourselves during the cold months. Even Melbourne with it’s scorching, brain-melting summers is cold compared to the cradle of the human species in Africa. Winter hardly bears thinking about. We need to do a better job of acknowledging that winter basically sucks arse and built in some psychological support.

So there you have it Melbourne. I’m not judging you. But you need to get with the program, this has gone on long enough. I’m here to help.

Why people in cities can’t walk properly

Do you ever get frustrated with people around you in the city who don’t seem to pay attention? People who can’t walk? People with no apparent peripheral vision? This concept from wild navigator Tristan Gooley may illuminate this problem.

“A study by the US Military found that soldiers of equal military experience did not see the world in the same way. Most criticallt, some soldeiers were markedly better at spotting dangers, like improvised explosive devices and other ambushes. The two groups that stood out in this research were those with a hunting background and those who came from tough urban neighbourhood.”

Tristan Gooley, How to Connect with Nature

The hypothesis that he draws is that these soldiers are practiced at paying attention to their environment because their life or next meal may depend on it.

My complementary theory is this: We live in a world that is utterly overloaded with high intensity but low consequence stimulus, and this similarly shapes our behaviour. The problem in a big city is not paying attention, it’s how to filter out all the extraneous information. The car horn two blocks away, thousands of nearby conversations, advertisements, street signs – it all takes cognitive effort to understand. Perhaps the reason that many people seem oblivious in large cities is that it takes all their efforts to stay focussed on what they’re trying to do. Paying attention to and anticipating another person’s needs may be a bridge too far.

I’d even go a step further and say that this may be one reason why so many people wear headphones in the city.¬†They may unconsciously be trying to block out the random, intrusive noise of the city and replacing it with predictable, familiar noise (music that you already know). This reduction of stimulus is also the reason why you turn down the radio in the car when you’re trying to find your way in an unfamiliar neighbourhood.

The human brain can only take so much input. I suspect that the challenge for most people isn’t in the seeing, it’s in the discerning. After all, there’s a lot of worthless input out there, just waiting to distract you and sell you something.

Oh-No Bikes

It’s hard to be opposed to the idea of people cycling more, especially for ordinary urban chores. It’s good for the environment, it’s good for health, it’s good for communities, it helps reduce dependence on cars and it’s generally a virtuous thing to do. So I viewed with interest the appearance on Melbourne’s streets of hundreds of bright yellow shared “O-Bikes”.

O-Bike is a bike-share program originating in Singapore. It’s a competitor to Melbourne’s indigenous blue-painted share program which has been plagued with problems and, I suspect, low utilisation. O-Bike is up and running in several cities around the world and claims impressive utilisation in Singapore itself.

The main selling point of O-Bike is that the bikes self-lock and that you can leave them basically anywhere. There’s no need to find a docking station – just unlock one with your phone, ride it, and then lock it again when you get where you’re going. It saves on infrastructure, and the bikes will tend to follow the movements of the people they are meant to serve.

Naturally I was interested, so I thought I’d give it a try. One day last week I happened to be at one end of the CBD and I needed to get to another. Ten minutes of cycling for $1.99 seemed pretty reasonable. So I downloaded the app and looked for a ride.

I didn’t have to go far. These things are like locusts, but they consume footpaths rather than crops. I didn’t even need to fire up the app to find one because I could see about a dozen from where I stood on a street corner.

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Wheely attractive location

The first one didn’t have a helmet. Victorian law mandates helmet use, and given that I work in emergency medicine, this seems very sensible. The blue bikes have a complicated system where you have to buy a helmet from a shop, but O-Bike have just given up and attached helmets to each bike’s locking mechanism. But not this one – whether someone forgot, or just pinched it, I don’t know.

So I found another. This one seemed to have all the bits intact, so I unlocked it, put on my helmet and prepared to ride.

Melbourne is a fairly flat city, and so should be perfect for cycling. That’s been my experience riding my own bikes – you can get around pretty easily without working too hard.

Sadly O-Bike seem to have done everything in their power to make these bikes difficult to use. I don’t know whether it’s poor quality components, or whether each bike has to be extra robust, or whether there’s a stonking great dynamo inside the frame, but this bike was an absolute nightmare to ride. After one block up a modest hill I was puffing and panting. After two I was ready to take a break. I’m not unfit, and I’m not inexperienced bike-wise, so this seemed very hard.

 

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When your handlebar doesn’t point the same way as your wheels… that’s a problem.

I tried to adjust the seat to give myself a more advantageous riding position. I yanked the quick-release lever. Nothing. Sticky? Welded shut? rusted? I dunno, but I couldn’t shift it. I also confirmed what I’d noticed while riding – that the handlebar was wonky relative to the wheels. I had to turn the handlebar about 15 degrees to the side to go in a straight line. I couldn’t straighten that up either, despite my best efforts.

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Is this a dynamo? A lock? Half a ton of bricks?

I got back on my horribly munted steed and suffered for a few more blocks. By the time I got where I was going, I couldn’t even be bothered crossing the road to get to my destination, so I just locked it and walked away.

I wanted to like O-Bike, I really did. The concept is great and the intention is impeccable. But my god the bikes are shit. There is no way they’re going to attract the casual cyclist looking to run a few errands, they’re just way too hard to ride. And as for getting non-cyclists on board? Forget about it. How on earth do people do this in humid Singapore? They’d combust from the effort inside a block, surely?

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Finished, thank Christ.

I hope O-Bike can improve their gear, because I think their model definitely has promise. Bikes are great, and more people should be riding. But this over-engineered monstrosity isn’t the way.