CYCLING SERIES No 5: If we’re serious about reaching net zero emissions from our cities by 2050, then we need to have some serious conversations about how we get about. 

According to the CSIRO, just under one-fifth (17.6 per cent) of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels for transport – especially petrol-based cars.

It’s Australia’s biggest source of carbon emissions after burning coal and gas fossil fuels for electricity (33.6 per cent) and stationary energy (20.4 per cent).

On the surface, the answer is simple. We need more active transport, public transport and electric cars. 

But, as we’ve discovered in this series, there are some big roadblocks in the way of building a best practice Dutch- or Danish-style low-risk cycling network in Australia

They include car-centric planning and transport policies that lead to suburban sprawl; planning budgets; and a lack of experience with building great bike lanes

Asking the questions about our priorities 

In this final instalment of the series, we’ll look at some ways these issues can be overcome. And they begin with making sure we ask the right questions.

It’s a point emphasised by Rick Cole, who was one of the first elected officials in the US to embrace medium-density walkable neighbourhoods, and is currently the executive director at the Congress for the New Urbanism.

“Planning for climate change, planning for specific districts or neighbourhoods as well as transportation and mobility planning offer openings to raise questions about cycling infrastructure as part of larger visions of evolving, resilient and equitable communities,” Mr Cole said.

“If it’s ‘the car lobby’ against ‘the bike lobby’, cars win. That’s why it is critical to frame the issue as not cars versus bikes, but community priorities (safety, sustainability, health) versus the status quo.”

Changing the question on how we get around

A good starting point is changing the questions we ask about mobility. That’s as simple as changing one word, “cars”, to a different word – “people”.

Instead of asking how many cars we can get to their destination as quickly as possible, we should be asking how we get as many people to their destination as quickly as possible.

At an average of just 1.1 persons per car, cars are an incredibly inefficient use of our public space. Self-driving EVs are likely to make that problem worse by pushing that average below one person per car.

Image courtesy Cycling Promotion Fund.

Changing the questions on how we design our cities

In Australia, we’ve tended to treat town planning as if it’s separate to transport. Our state governments have tended to manage them through separate departments and separate agencies. 

But in practice, the two go hand-in-hand – just like freeways and car-dependent low-density suburban sprawl with detached single-family homes in single-use zones.

So what would happen if we changed the question from “how do we do town planning” and “how we do transport” to “how we create great sustainable cities”?

A recent Committee for Sydney report showed there’s a $16.3 billion windfall from building medium-density mixed use developments near train stations – in Sydney alone.

Dr Tony Matthews, senior lecturer in engineering and the built environment at Griffith University, it’s exactly this type of mixed-use medium-density development that works best for cycling – as long as there’s good infrastructure.

“The federal government has had this priority of 30 minute cities for a few years now. This idea that all of the things that you would need in an urban setting should be within 30 minutes. This is basically breaking our larger cities up into sub-cities. 

“That’s the kind of the pattern that you need in order to promote neighbourhood cycling. You also need to provide other opportunities to keep people in the area – things like work opportunities, recreation opportunities and all the retail that they need. 

“Density is not enough because it just increases the number of people living in a place. So if you want neighbourhood cycling, you need medium density plus neighbourhood opportunity – especially around employment.”

Changing the question on cars and sustainability

Instead of asking whether we can afford cycling or public transport infrastructure, we should ask can we afford cars?

There are costs to having 1127 people killed on our roads last year alone. That figure includes the 134 pedestrians, 234 motorcyclists and 39 cyclists killed in collisions with cars – in other words, cars make almost every other mode of transport less safe, according to the federal government Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics data.

You know that costly obesity epidemic you keep hearing about? A growing body of research  directly links obesity to car-dependent suburban sprawl. 

Then there’s the cost of pollution from petrol-based cars. The estimated health costs from deaths in Australia caused by diesel emissions from cars is around $166 per kilogram.

That’s without factoring in the costs from climate change.

Or the costs of building new freeways like the North East Link in Melbourne, which will cost $15.8 billion, but will be inefficient at getting as many people to their destination as quickly as possible because it will induce more people to drive more often.

There is also a long list of expensive subsidies and handouts for cars, as pointed out by Professor Matthew Burke, Transport Innovation and Research Hub (TIRH) chair at Griffith University’s Cities Research Institute. They include:

  • Australia’s unusual novated lease tax arrangements 
  • fuel excise rates that situate us in the bottom four of the OECD 
  • our $7.8 billion fuel subsidies to the resource sector  (42 cents per litre, which also discourages all those who obtain them from switching to electric vehicles) 
  • very little road pricing 
  • no congestion charging 
  • terrible fuel-emissions standards 
  • low or zero tariffs on almost all car imports 
  • free car parking for most employees outside central business districts

By comparison, the next step in building out our low-risk cycling network is cheap.

“Much of the low-risk cycling infrastructure networks in cycle-friendly cities like Malmo, Odense and Groningen is formed by the low-speed local neighbourhood streets, which are all posted at 30 km an hour. Only on the larger roads where the speeds are 50km/h or higher do they put in cycle lanes,” Professor Burke said.

Change the questions on active transport – and EVs

Finally, when we talk about electric vehicles, we usually have an electric car in mind. And when we talk about active transport, we often tend to mean walking or cycling.

But there’s another emerging category that brings together the best of both worlds, but often gets left out of the conversation – e-bikes and e-scooters. 

And in recent years, their sales have been booming across Australia

“We now have more e-scooter riders than cyclists (that’s bikes and e-bikes combined) using the bicycle lanes on the Victoria Bridge to enter Brisbane’s CBD,” Professor Burke said. “E-scooters are becoming a major component, if not the dominant traffic flow, on active transport networks in those cities where they have been encouraged. 

“This is actually good for cycling, as it is increasing the demand for more cycling infrastructure, and usually e-scooters and cyclists get along just fine together.”

In short, better cities with more sustainable transport really are possible in Australia. It all comes down to asking the right questions.

This is the final instalment of our series on cycling. Read the rest of the series here:

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  1. Andrew an excellent series of articles except it does not explain why there is so much actual resistance and verbal endorsement. In Lake Macquarie there was a draft plan prepared for a cycleway along a disused coal rail line in 1997…….we are still waiting. Its only about 2.5km long but would connect to schools and a north south cycleway – the Fernleigh track .

  2. Cant help thinking that e-bikes are a huge opportunity (a lot safer than scooters, and providing some useful gentle exercise as well as low-noise and low-carbon local travel). Would be great to see the planners taking the lead and requiring developers to provide the infrastructure for these and say a minimum of 2 e-bikes per new apartment. If they come with the apartment, they are likely to get used.