Can Australian cities ever become “bike cities” like other places in Europe? There’s a need: cycling is cheaper than other forms of transport, an important point as the cost-of-living rises. It can be faster and healthier and slash carbon pollution and congestion. So, how are Australian cities doing?
According to the Australian Bicycle Network, the industry is valued at $6.3 billion and deserves more funding to reap the benefits, including travel tourism stimulus.
City authorities certainly desire to get more commuters on bikes, and there’s evidence that bike traffic is rising. Melbourne, Perth, and Brisbane all have strong policies to encourage cycling.
In Sydney, according to the City of Sydney, more people than ever are riding bikes, and there’s been good investment in the infrastructure to encourage this.
Research by the City shows that bike trips across the local government area increased by 18 per cent during peak hours to June 2023 compared to the previous year.
The City has responded to this with a budget of $69 million for bicycle infrastructure-related works over the next four years.
This will add to its existing investment since 2007 of 25 kilometres of separated cycleways, 60 km of shared paths and 40 km of other cycling infrastructure across the region.
According to the data collected by permanent 24-hour counters, key cycleways such as along Bourke Street in Surry Hills recorded an average of 1616 daily bike trips in the past year over the year; a 41 per cent increase in total daily bike use compared to the previous year. Along Castlereagh Street cycleway, bike commuters are up 47 per cent for the year, with an average of 862 daily bike trips.
The busiest intersections during peak six hours each day over the 2022–2023 period were:
- Oxford Street/Flinders Street/Bourke Street, with 2701 trips
- Oxford Street/Lang Road/Moore Park Road/Queen Street, with 2378 trips
- Pyrmont Bridge Road/Murray Street/Pyrmont Bridge, with 2,057 trips
Other notable increases in the use of bike paths compared to numbers in 2010 include:
- Campbell Road and Euston Road intersection, up by 609 per cent
- Kent Street and Druitt Street intersection, up by 602 per cent
- Castlereagh Street and Goulburn Street intersection, up by 449 per cent
A changing trend
However, the rise of active cycling in Sydney has complex data attached. A recent report from a cycling and walking association in Australia and New Zealand says cycling – and walking – rose during the pandemic when there was less traffic, and people felt safer on the roads but fell when traffic returned to normal.
Fiona Campbell, manager for cycling strategy at the City of Sydney, confirmed that the level of cycling is related to infrastructure.
“Numbers goes up and down over time from various factors, but when we build a separated cycleway, we often see a doubling of people riding on that street, and then it doubles again in a year or two,” she said.
“Over COVID – a lot more people bought bikes, but people were commuting less often whereas now, there’s a larger number of people who ride cycles – there’s just a change in the patterns of trips.”
According to Campbell, counters are now recording numbers that are the “highest we’ve ever seen on cycleways.”
She added that people also flock to active transport when fuel and fines increase.
“We’ve reached the crucial point where there are now enough cycle connections that it’s comfortable to ride – there are increasing numbers of children riding on the paths with their parents when they get the chance to explore, and that’s the kind of joy I wish would last forever.”
Good design is key
According to GroupGSA, which participated in designing the Bourke Street cycleway and several other cycleways across Sydney, there are several reasons why more people ride their bikes. These include people rediscovering local areas after the pandemic, higher petrol prices, congestion, climate change, and the desire for healthier lifestyles and cities.
Steven Hammond, the company’s principal landscape architect, said that good design is critical to innovative cycleway designs, which are mostly retrofitted into existing street environments and that reorganising car-centric cities to separate traffic is no easy feat.
“A major challenge our cities face is how to mobilise an increasingly urban population,” Hammond said. “Now, more than ever, people are scrutinising their means of mobility, where they go, why, how, and the impact it has on their lives.”
Retaining a “people-scale” on thoughtful, integrated design for bicycles has become crucial as active transport to revolutionise future mobility across Greater Sydney.
“Strategic placement is always important. There’s no point picking a busy road and trying to slow that down.”
It’s picking where you do the integrated design and linking uses to key facilities, such as linking schools to recreational areas.
State government jumping into the opportunities
The City of Sydney has led the charge on cycling infrastructure, but the trend is now becoming embedded in policy and being taken up by other local and regional councils, which have been getting more access to funding from the state government, Hammond said.
“The state government has released a toolkit which will become embedded into briefing documents and expectations for new developments. Cycling infrastructure has moved from a fringe concept to being entrenched into transport to how roads and cities get designed.”
Riding your bike can often be faster
“In dense parts of our cities, journeys under five kilometres made by bike are usually faster than driving,” Hammond added. “When you consider just under half of all car trips in metropolitan areas are less than three kilometres, there’s an obvious opportunity to encourage more people to adopt cycling.”
Completed in 2011, the 3.2 km Bourke Street Cycleway project has been credited with enforcing “street calming” by slowing down the speed of cars. The cycleway was also designed to act as a green boulevard’ to protect existing street tree planting, street verge planting and rain gardens to improve stormwater quality.
“We take what we call a place-based approach, examining how to make separated paths fit into the urban environment in ways that are sensitive and nuanced to fit with the locality,” Hammon says.
“The key to cycleway design is to do it in ways that most people do not notice, so it feels like a very natural integrated part of the street environment.”
Despite this, Hammond said Sydney’s bike path development has just started. Australia has a long way to go compared to Copenhagen’s architecturally famed cycling networks, with that city’s innovative bike parking, bikes and intersections priority, wide cycle lanes, car-free bridges, and connection to public and private spaces.
“With the rise of e-bikes, you don’t even have to be super fit to get around town; you can just jump on and ride, and you won’t get too sweaty or need a change of clothes – it has changed from being something hard to do to something easier.”
The transition to bikes in Copenhagen and Amsterdam was long-term.
While cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam are seen as the standard bearers, they were also previously car-ridden, Hammond said
“At the moment, Sydney is building its network. Until we get critical mass, maybe in 30 years, we won’t need cycleways anymore because our streets [will be] cycle friendly.”
What’s happening in other Australian cities?
The City of Sydney isn’t the only city to jump aboard the cycleway improvement train. The Australian Bicycle Network submitted a pre-budget report for the 2022–2023 federal budget, claiming that Australia’s bike industry, as of November 2021, was valued at $6.3 billion.
The network called on the federal government to invest in a travel tourism stimulus package, a national bike incentive scheme, a safer national vehicle fleet, and behavioural changes in the younger generation.
In 2020, the City of Melbourne adopted the Transport Strategy 2030, which established a long-term vision to develop more space and infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists and greening. So far, the council has delivered more than 19 km of bike lanes, leading to a 22 per cent increase in cycling.
According to its website, the council has completed the development of 18 cycleways, with another seven currently underway. The Salmon Street to Lorimer Street cycleway is due for completion between 2022–2023.
The Victorian government has also announced the development of a network of a Strategic Cycling Corridor that will connect the City with neighbouring cities. Bike lane upgrades have already started, with the council pausing the development of unrelated bike lanes for 12 months to prioritise lanes connecting to the corridor.
“Melbourne is not as active, but there is a similar push in the city for cycle trails,” said Steven Hammond. “Sydney might have been a little ahead of the game, but cities are now bouncing [ideas] off each other.”
Brisbane is another city developing its bicycle infrastructure.
The city’s transport plan for Brisbane, Strategic Directions, was enacted in October 2018. This outlined a 25-year framework for a smart and sustainable transport planning and network to ensure the city stays “connected, liveable and prosperous”.
In the past two years, the city has completed two projects, which involved installing real-time bike counters across the city and rebuilding the deck Kangaroo Point riverwalk in the city centre. Eight projects are underway across the city, including a trial of the CityLink cycleway, which would provide more opportunities for active travel into the city centre.
The Queensland government also intends to incentivise more development of cycling infrastructure, with two key policies outlined in the Queensland Cycling Strategy 2017–2027. This includes the Cycling Infrastructure Policy and the Active Transport Investment Program.
The state government claims that every $1 invested in cycling infrastructure returns almost $5 to Queensland in health benefits, reduced traffic congestion, and other benefits. State and local governments both receive funding under the investment program.
In the 2022-2023 budget, the Western Australian government announced its intention to invest $347 million into expanding the existing 150 km of cycling and walking paths created since 2018 over four years.
Under the scheme, the local government can access funding covering up to 50 per cent of total project costs for walking and cycling infrastructure.
The WA Transport Minister Rita Saffioti also announced $9.6 million in grant funding to support 47 new active transport projects across the state, with more than $4.5 million allocated to 17 projects across Perth.