In car-dependent Australia, cycling is an ugly duckling waiting for its time. Motorists feel annoyed by delays measured in seconds caused by a bike, and angry if a bicycle courier fails to stop at a traffic light. Pedestrians hate bikes whizzing past them on the footpath, and there must be something about a bunch of training cyclists in lycra that invites derision or insecurity from on-lookers.
Logically, and from a policy perspective, more people riding bicycles is a positive thing. The personal health benefits are unquestionable - maintain healthy weight, lower blood pressure, prevent diabetes. Research clearly shows that those people who ride 30 minutes or more a day are less likely to die from our major killers, cancer and cardiovascular disease, and this is over and above general recreational and other physical activity.
Bicycles generate no greenhouse gases, are quiet, do not damage the roadway and even help reduce road congestion by taking up less space on the road. By all accounts, we should be doing more to encourage people to ride bikes.
Australians want to cycle. Data from the Australian Sports Commission indicate that cycling is the fourth most popular form of recreational activity in the country, after walking, swimming and jogging. The proportion of households in New South Wales with a bicycle has risen to 42 per cent, and bicycle sales in Australia have been greater than new cars each year for the last eight years. Whatever figures you look at, the inevitable conclusion is that the Australian public likes to cycle and would probably be likely to cycle more if conditions for cycling were better.
Despite this popularity, very few Australians cycle for transport. Despite a 22 per cent increase in the journey to work by bicycle between the 2001 and 2006 censuses, on average, only about 2 or 3 per cent of the population ride to work. Some of the barriers are obvious, such as no shower at work, or no secure bicycle parking.
Other barriers are around the failures of urban planning and lack of mixed land use zoning, leading to greater distances workers need to commute. The main barrier usually raised is the lack of bicycle infrastructure, bike paths or even on-road bike lanes, and the consequent safety concerns.
Australia has designed its transport system for motor vehicles, with some thought for pedestrians, and very little regard for people riding bicycles. As such, the system works as it was intended, with most people driving where they want to go. Some cities, mostly in Europe, but also in the US (such as Portland, Oregon), have made conscious decisions to encourage cycling, and have up to 30 per cent and 40 per cent of trips made by bicycle. Many cities are introducing inexpensive bicycle hire schemes (even Washington DC is considering this and Brisbane City Council is currently seeking expressions of interest to run such a scheme) as a convenient and people-friendly way to move people around.
Some people say that the distances are too great to cycle in Australian cities, but transport data does not support this. About 50 per cent of trips in Sydney are under 5km and about a third are under 3km, distances that are easy to cycle. Others say it’s too hot, or too cold, or too hilly, but the underlying motivation is that most people will use the transport mode that’s easiest for them. For most people this option has been the car.
However, the “car is king” era may be coming to a give way sign. Congestion has slowed traffic to the speed of a bicycle, and inner city land scarcity means parking is becoming more expensive.
Soaring petrol prices make the car trip far less attractive for some. This is already evident in the greater patronage of public transport in the capital cities. Petrol prices will only go up as we hit “peak oil” - that point where half the world’s oil reserves have been used, and the remainder is harder to reach and will be used ever more quickly because of increasing demand, particularly by major users such as the US, and now India and China. Some oil industry observers say we have already reached the tipping point.
A plausible future scenario is that it will only be the rich that can afford to drive. Mortgage stress in the outer ring suburbs of our capitals already talk about rationalising their car use. Governments will have to provide better transport options for those who don’t have a car (younger people, older people, people with disabilities) or who cannot afford to run one. Better public transport and bicycle infrastructure will allow people to make choices about how they travel. This is an important and powerful social equity strategy, because those people least able to afford to drive would still have independence and safe mobility.
The cost of building bicycle paths is trivial compared to the amounts spent on roads and tunnels ($1.8 billion in 2003-4 across Australia). In general, less than 1 per cent of the roads budget gets spent on bicycle infrastructure, less than the current mode share.