Time for Sydney to take cycling seriously
Cycling in New York

As the world’s list of cities undergoing a cycling revolution continues to grow, you wonder when Sydney will finally reach a tipping point and take cycling as a mode of transport seriously, writes landscape architect Jason Packenham.

Cycling for transport has been shown to have so many societal benefits that governments around the world are rolling out bike lanes faster than motorists can say “sorry mate, I didn’t see you”.

Not so long ago, it seemed like we were heading in the right direction. In 2010, the Australian Bicycle Council published its Australian National Cycling Strategy 2011-2016, on the back of recent and ongoing growth in cycling participation. At the time, it made sense for the strategy to set a goal of doubling the number of people cycling in Australia. But since then, things have changed, and we’ve fallen woefully short of that target.

So short, in fact, that we’ve gone backwards.

The most recent National Cycling Participation Survey (2017) shows that participation has decreased across the country since 2011. It’s reasonable to suggest that at this rate, Sydney’s own cycling revolution is a while away, despite the fact that we’re already well-aware of the latent demand for cycling as a form of transport.

National cycling participation (source- National Cycling Participation Survey, 2017)

A national survey of the 50 largest US metropolitan areas found that about 50 per cent of people are interested in cycling for transport, but are concerned by a lack of high quality, safe, and convenient infrastructure. These findings have largely been confirmed by multiple levels of government in Australia, and yet our efforts to provide safe and convenient cycling infrastructure is dismal when such a large portion of our population clearly wants it.

National survey of 50 largest US metropolitan areas (source: Jennifer Dill and Nathan McNeil, 2016)

The NSW government’s Road Safety Plan 2021 highlights how short we fall in providing adequate facilities for those who are brave enough to cycle our streets, with pedestrians and cyclists both disproportionately represented in road trauma statistics.

The plan also confirms just how many Sydneysiders are interested in cycling as a mode of transport, with bicycle paths, separated bicycle lanes, and slowing traffic in areas where cyclists are prevalent, all receiving significant support during the NSW government’s own community consultation and survey.

Road trauma statistics in New South Wales (source- Road Safety Plan 2021, NSW government)

And it’s no wonder our community want those facilities. A recent report, from the Australian Automobile Association no less, shows that over the 12 months prior to the report cyclists deaths jumped a staggering 80 per cent. And while the NSW government now aims to achieve Vision Zero – that’s zero trauma on NSW’s transport network by 2056 – serious injuries per year haven’t declined in the last decade.

Sydney, just like any other city, will always have a group of “anti-cyclists”, but our government’s own evidence shows that these people are a minority, albeit a loud one. When you take the emotion out of what is often a heated debate around cycling, particularly in dense urban areas, the pro-cycling argument begins to sound like a good one.

Consider the traditional cost-benefit analysis that governments undertake when reviewing investment in transport infrastructure. When it comes to positive returns – that is, benefits that outweigh costs – nothing beats cycling infrastructure, which brings with it a huge windfall in economic, social, and environmental benefits for all of society, including motorists.

Research from the Queensland government shows that the state’s economy could expect almost $5 of economic benefit for every one dollar invested in cycling infrastructure. That’s a return on investment for transport infrastructure that easily beats anything else, including public transport.

And one of our peak national infrastructure planning and investment advisories, Infrastructure Australia, recognises this.

In its Infrastructure Priority List from back in February 2016, Infrastructure Australia included active transport access to the Sydney CBD as a High Priority Initiative. Two and half years later, the same initiative remains on the most recent update to that list (November 2018), as a Priority Initiative with a near-term delivery timescale of 0-5 years. Yet, NSW’s yearly budgets continue to ignore requests from the community and professionals alike for more bicycle infrastructure. It’s time for the state government to action those recommendations and commit to a metropolitan-scale investment in cycling that can truly change the way Sydney moves.

As is often the case in Australia when it comes to infrastructure, we have the benefit of others showing us how it’s done.

In 2014, the UK’s Department for Transport found that every $1 of public money invested in cycling infrastructure provided $5.50 worth of benefits to society. So, naturally, London began investing heavily in cycling infrastructure, most famously in their bicycle superhighways.

The success of London’s cycle superhighways is evident any peak hour (source: European Cyclists’ Federation)

These superhighways are dedicated, protected bicycle paths on some of London’s busiest streets. They’ve been so successful that London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, is pushing ahead with continued expansion of their cycle network as a key measure in fighting the city’s air pollution and congestion problems, as well as creating healthy and liveable streets and working towards their own Vision Zero strategy.

Recent research out of Transport for London also shows that travellers not in cars – that’s walking, cycling, and public transport users – spend 40 per cent more within the local economy, because “adapting our streets to enable more people to walk and cycle makes them cleaner, healthier and more welcoming, which encourages more people to shop locally” says Will Norman, London’s walking and cycling commissioner. And yes, they’ve got a commissioner just for that.

Khan is promising Londoners over $300 million a year in cycle infrastructure over the next five years. If Sydney was to mirror an investment like that, we’d see our urban lives change dramatically for the better, but instead we continue to ignore the evidence and refuse to consider cycling for transport as an important part of our urban future.

In New York City, during her time as commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013, the now well-known Janette Sadik-Khan transformed cycling in NYC with cheap, quickly-installed bike lanes.

A bike lane installed on 8th Avenue, Manhattan (source- J Sadik-Khan, Twitter)

Since then, cycling has become an important part of NYC’s transportation network, more than doubling in little more than a decade and outpacing population and employment growth in that time.

The 2015 closure of the popular College Street cycleway highlights the NSW government’s attitudes to cycling for transport (source- author)

Back in Sydney, a key factor in our battle with congestion is the number of short or local trips taken by car. Government investment in bicycle infrastructure would remove a significant number of these trips from our roads, freeing up road space for those that need it, like tradies and delivery drivers.

We can also get people of all ages moving again, addressing the growing public health issues that our communities continue to battle. Walking and cycling can contribute to minimising risks of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and osteoporosis. It can also assist with managing obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Mental health benefits have also been identified, as physical activity can improve self-esteem and confidence, and reduce stress, anxiety, fatigue, and depression.

While the beginnings of a regional bicycle network are taking shape within NSW government planning circles, we need more. A lot more. And quickly.

We need to increase transport choice at a time when Sydney’s population continues to surge upwards. We’ll do that by delivering bicycle infrastructure across the regional metropolitan area and in every neighbourhood within it.

We can be quick and efficient in how we deliver it and can use trial periods to test options and outcomes within the local community.

We’ve got a growing list of issues that cycling has been shown to help solve, and now, all the evidence and community support we need to make that happen.

Jason Packenham is an associate landscape architect at ASPECT Studios working in public space and urban mobility.

The Fifth Estate invites other thinkers to contribute to this topic. Send articles or flag ideas to editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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  1. As a woman, new to adult cycling, and nervous about cycling in the city, I would honestly say that the MHL doesn’t affect my decision to cycle in the least. I grew up wearing a helmet to cycle, it’s perfectly normal in my life to expect to have to wear a helmet. I have no illusions about its protective abilities, I just know it’s mandatory and therefore if I want to cycle, I wear one. To me at least, it would be like questioning the two-licence-plate law for my car – what’s the point of arguing?

    The main reason I don’t cycle to work, or longer distances from home, is infrastructure. I am terrified someone is going to startle me, swerve into me, not see me etc. I live near Parramatta and believe me, if I could cycle to work in North Sydney safely, I would. As the infrastructure stands though, I don’t even like cycling to Parramatta Park, ten minutes away, because of the few major roads I would encounter. It can be terrifying, and after a few scary experiences, I now walk my bike along. It’s slow and frustrating, and if there were dedicated cycleways, I would go off my usual route just to use them. Unfortunately, they are few and far between, and for all the reasons listed in the article, that makes me sad.

  2. Agree completely with Nathan. For all the money flowing and pro motorist zeal at state government level, the state of the roads is post-Soviet.

  3. It’s the helmets – the rest of the World have very closely watched our mandatory all age helmet laws and they have not followed – and now after 30 years Australia’s bike use is bottom of the World table and our bike injuries are top of the World table.
    The rest of the World are not so stupid as to follow proven failed public health law.

  4. To respond to comments by Thomas and Jane…

    Bicycle helmets must meet australian standards but these standards produce helmets which are very limited in their effectiveness against the most common cycling injuries, including major organ trauma, spinal injuries, most notably concussions. Bicycle helmets are not designed protect heads against concussions and there’s a body of research literature which backs this up. To be compliant, bicycle helmets are tested but are only rated for compliance if they are a) correctly fitted, b) never been dropped, c) never weather damaged (i.e. left in the sun). In all reality, only a minority of casual cyclists wear helmets that meet these criteria.

    Clearly bicycle helmets are potentially benefical only as a last line of defence against a collision with a motor vehicle travelling at 60 kph. However Australian governments – and many commentators – regard them as the *first* line of defence. This is despite evidence that most effective ways of preventing road trauma to cyclists are: segregated infrastructure, removal of conflicts at intersections, reduction in motor vehicle speeds to 30 kph in zones with a high % of vulnerable road users. Despite evidence from European cities that these measures will save lives, Australian governments persistantly and willfully avoid these potentially life saving proposals.

    So strident are the dominating voices in Australian cycling debate (people who vigorously defend mandatory helmets laws) anyone objecting to the current situation is immediately, and sometimes viciously, denounced as advocating unsafe cycling. These strident voices pay no attention to the full argument or are prepared to consider alternative ways of protecting cyclists from collisions with motor vehicles.

    I am a committed cyclist. I will continue to wear my helmet but I consider myself educated about what a helmet is excellent at doing – preventing police fines. I wear my helmet and ride my bike in full awareness that safety experts cannot guarantee my helmet will save me from death or serious head injury. How many other cyclists can say the same thing?

  5. I think the clear reason people are not cycling is because of the lack of separated cycleways / bike lanes – not mandatory helmets. In cities where separated bike lanes are being prioritised participation sky rockets. Helmet laws (or lack thereof) irrelevant.

  6. I cycle to work 3-4 times per week, a short 8km but what constantly amazes me is the poor quality of our roads in general. Even before we look at dedicated bike infrastructure, I would love to see the quality of our roads improved. The number of dangerous potholes, cracks, and the ridiculously poor quality of the repairs that are done amazes me for a “global city”…

  7. This is an excellent article and I entirely agree with the issues you have mentioned along with a few solutions that can be implemented.
    It is quite surprisin however that you would write a rather long article talking about the reasons why cycling is not attractice to people in Australia while mentioning Mandatory Helmet Laws (MHL)

    Australia is the only country in the world with NZ to have MHL for adults, and the negative impact on participation in cyclcing is proven. No serious planners argue for MHL.

    At least a mention of that debate would have been good.
    Getting rid of MHL is a simple, costless measure, that would (re)normalise cycling and increase participation in particular for women.