CYCLING SERIES No 3: Under-investment in cycling infrastructure leads to fewer Aussies cycling – which leads to less money for bike lanes. Here’s how to crack this chicken and egg problem.

In the first part of The Fifth Estate’s ongoing series on cycling infrastructure, we looked at the current best practice for building a high-quality cycling infrastructure, known as a “low-risk network”.

But while there are great examples of cycling infrastructure in place across Australian cities, particularly Canberra, we still fall short of the high-quality low-risk networks found in Denmark and the Netherlands.

As we explored in part two, one culprit is car-centric planning policies, including how we measure traffic. And while self-driving electric vehicles might help reduce emissions, they are likely to make congestion worse. 

Contrary to popular myth, cyclists do pay for roads through council rates and developer levies. 

However, when it comes to state planning budgets, cyclists are short changed. In recent years, funding for cycling infrastructure was just 1 per cent of road funding. It was even lower in NSW (0.6 per cent) and better in the ACT (14.3 per cent), but still well short of where it needs to be.

It’s time to take a deeper look at the related issues of transport planning budgets and cycling participation rates.

A nation of recreational cyclists

The biggest issue is that it’s not that few Australians ride – it’s the kinds of trips we tend to make.

According to the 2019 National Cycling Participation Survey, well over half of all Australian households (57.2 per cent) owned at least one bike, and around one-third (35 per cent) of Aussies have cycled in the past year. 

The problem is that an overwhelming majority of trips (81.9 per cent) were for fitness or recreation, while only 31.7 per cent were for transport.

“It’s a false economy to say that investing in roads [for cars] over cycling infrastructure is a better investment.”

Ian Ross, PEDAL POWER ACT

What that means is that, unlike the Netherlands, the number of Aussies who use bikes for their everyday trips around the neighbourhood – perhaps to pick up some groceries from the local Woolies – is incredibly small.

Likewise, a tiny percentage of Aussies commute to work by bike each day. Before the pandemic, just 1.1 per cent of commuters rode their bike to work, according to the 2016 Census. That compares to 9.1 per cent by public transport and 73.8 per cent by car.

The chicken and egg problem

Dr Tony Matthews, a senior Lecturer in engineering and the built environment at Griffith University, describes low daily ridership and low investment in cycling infrastructure as a chicken and egg problem.

“The numbers of people cycling on a daily basis in Australia are abysmally small. Therefore they don’t constitute a particularly large or powerful bloc in the social or political discourse,” he said.

“If you’re spending tens of millions of dollars to put in infrastructure for a couple of thousand cyclists, it’s not a very attractive cost proposition, either from a political perspective, or from the perspective of a stretched local authority that has huge budget demands in all directions. 

“Now, you might say there’ll never be more cyclists without more investment. And that might be true. But equally, policymakers might say, we’re not investing more money until we see more evidence of people wanting to cycle. So it’s a chicken and egg thing.”

Which projects get priority

There’s a second chicken and egg problem that cycling faces in Australia. 

Because most Aussies who ride tend to do so either as a weekend hobby or to commute, rather than for neighbourhood trips, the cycling infrastructure our governments build tends to favour those kinds of trips.

This leads governments to favour recreational or commuter cyclists by building longer bike paths through parks or along waterways, rather than a low-risk network that will promote the kinds of everyday neighbourhood trips that are common in Europe. 

“But universally, money is allocated to things that matter – so if a community decides that safety and alternative mobility is important, the money will be found to build cycling infrastructure.”

RICK COLE, Congress for the New Urbanism executive director

In turn, this leads to more people cycling as a weekend hobby or commuting, rather than making everyday trips by bike.

“We do not facilitate, through Australian spatial form, the potential of using your bicycle as your main mode of transport most days. We’re just not set up, designed or planned for that,” Dr Matthews said.

“That has a flow on effects in terms of cycling infrastructure, because then when you want to put in cycling infrastructure in a very dispersed and low density [suburban] model like this one, it costs an absolute fortune because you’re covering vast distances.

“You have to spend an awful lot on cycling infrastructure because that’s what’s in demand here.”

It’s time to crack the egg – before the planet fries

There are good reasons to scramble those car-focused policy priorities. To have any hope of reaching net zero by 2050, we need to get gas-guzzling cars off our roads.

That doesn’t mean we need to convince more people to take up cycling. Just getting more of the people who already cycle as a hobby to start making more trips to work or to the local shops will be enough to get thousands of cars off the road.

The cheapest and easiest place to start towards building a low-risk network for neighbourhood cycling is to simply make the 30 kph the default speed limit for suburban streets.

PROFESSOR MATTHEW BURKE, Griffith University Transport Innovation and Research Hub

“With a growing focus through the realisations that active transport plays a critical role in building sustainable communities, we are seeing a growing level of focus and commitment to fund more and more active transport infrastructure,” Bicycle NSW chief executive Peter McLean said.

“We will see healthy people, connected communities, safer outcomes for all road users, reduced lifestyle related diseases, reduced emissions and improved social equity.”

For moving people, it’s the best bang for our buck 

The good news, as Pedal Power ACT chief executive Ian Ross points out, is that cycling infrastructure is far cheaper than building more freeways for cars. It also provides the best value way to both get people to their destinations and create jobs.

“There’s no evidence to say that investing huge amounts of money in duplicating highways necessarily duplicates the number of people who ride on them … It’s a false economy to say that investing in roads [for cars] over cycling infrastructure is a better investment,” Mr Ross said.

The cheapest and easiest place to start towards building a low-risk network for neighbourhood cycling is to simply make the 30 kph the default speed limit for suburban streets, Griffith University Transport Innovation and Research Hub chair Professor Matthew Burke said.

“I think it is time for dedicated cycling budgets, cycling infrastructure budgets in all the Australian state and territory jurisdictions and meaningful budgets. We probably need a tripling to a quadrupling of what we are currently spending [on cycling] to get a trunk network in place.”

Time to refocus the conversation

Ultimately, the challenge is to refocus the transport conversation on community priorities such as safety, sustainability, health, rather than the status quo.

The extent that budgetary constraints are the reason we don’t have more good quality cycling infrastructure depends on the location, Congress for the New Urbanism executive director Rick Cole said.

“But universally, money is allocated to things that matter – so if a community decides that safety and alternative mobility is important, the money will be found to build cycling infrastructure.”

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at whether car-centric planning, relatively low participation and low investments have led to road builders having little practical experience building quality bike lanes. 

Then, in the final instalment, we’ll look at solutions to the issues raised in this series.

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