CYCLING SERIES No 1: For Australia to reach zero emissions by 2050, we will need to rethink how we get around. Car-centric suburban sprawl with gas-guzzling cars and SUVs won’t get us to our destination.

Along with building walkable communities and investing in public transport, we will also need to see a dramatic uptick in the number of people who use active transport, including on bikes, to get around.

In recent decades, we have seen big investments in dedicated cycleways and bike paths across our major cities. 

However, far more needs to be done to make cycling a viable option, not just as a leisure option or a way to commute to the CBD from the inner suburbs, but also for everyday trips around our neighbourhoods.

Yet far too often, Australian suburbs end up with unprotected bike lanes in gutters, bikes sharing footpaths with pedestrians, or worse, cyclists competing with cars and trucks for space on busy main roads.

So what does best practice cycling infrastructure look like? Why isn’t it being built as quickly as it’s needed? And what can be done about it?

For this five-part series, The Fifth Estate reached out to academics, planners and cycling advocacy groups to find out. They included:

  • Dr Tony Matthews, a senior Lecturer in engineering and the built environment at Griffith University
  • Professor Matthew Burke, the chair of Transport Academic Partnership (TAP), and the Transport Innovation and Research Hub (TIRH) chair at Griffith University’s Cities Research Institute
  • Peter McLean, CEO of Bicycle NSW
  • Ian Ross, the CEO of Canberra-based cycling advocacy group Pedal Power ACT
  • Kate Mokrij, engagement manager at Pedal Power ACT

In part one, we introduce some basic principles and explore best practices for cycling infrastructure. In parts two, three and four, we’ll examine the big roadblocks that stand in the way: car-centric transport policies, familiarity with best practice, and budgetary issues. Finally, in part five, we’ll look at some solutions to these challenges.

Traffic separation 

The basics of a great cycling environment aren’t rocket science. People need to feel safe using their bikes to get to where they need to go.

That means that bikes need to be separated from other modes of transport – especially cars along major roads.

“At a high level, if you want to promote more cycling in neighbourhoods, the guiding principle before we start looking at infrastructural change, or behaviour modification is, the guiding principle is that feeling of safety. Can you give cyclists that feeling of safety?” Griffith University’s Dr Tony Matthews says.

“If you want people cycling on a neighbourhood scale, where they’re mixing very freely with traffic, cycle lanes that parallel main roads are very important, particularly segregated ones.” 

Ideally, aside from cars, cyclists should also be separated from pedestrians.

“Particularly where you have busy commuter routes, you want to be able to support people who arrive to work and to school by bike – and be able to get there in good time. And if you have to basically go at a tiptoe pace in order to get around people then that just frustrates everybody,” Pedal Power ACT Ian Ross says.

“So our ideal would be to have true separation, so that there is a bike lane, as well as a walking lane and a place for private cars.”

Sullivan’s Creek path, Canberra.

Peter McLean, Bicycle NSW’s chief executive officer, adds that it is vitally important to cater for cyclists of all ages and abilities, as well as for different kinds of trips (from neighbourhood and leisure rides to commutes into the city).

“Different bicycle users will all give you different answers when it comes to what makes a great bike lane. Fearless riders want a fast and direct route, while tourers want scenery and services and beginners yearn for level paths and space,” he says.

“We are a diverse bunch just like any other group of people, we vary in age, ability and experience so from Bicycle NSW’s perspective, we would like to ensure all cycleways can be safely enjoyed by all people. Other elements include efficiency, character, linkages and amenities which all contribute to great cycle ways.”

Low-risk networks: the best practice approach

The current best practice approach for achieving these three aims, according to Burke, is by developing what is known as a low-risk network. 

“[A low-risk network] provides enough safety for the majority of cyclists. Not just middle aged men in lycra, but kids, seniors, women, all sorts of people. And people riding in normal clothes,” he says.

“A low-risk network is a network of off-road bicycle facilities. So the kind of bike lanes you’ll find through parks, creeks and other things, but also through alongside other transport corridors, many of them are being built along the freeways today, along roads, rail corridors. Places we can squeeze through the urban environment. They’re fantastic, because there’s no conflict with cars.”

Where dedicated off-road cycle lanes aren’t practical, major roads should have dedicated bike lanes that are physically protected by small barriers. 

“Local side streets should be 30 kph.

“It is in Europe already. It’s increasingly that way in the UK, in the US city after city is adopting this. Washington DC adopted it years ago. Australia has fallen so far behind this agenda it isn’t funny. And we’re becoming a real outlier.

Professor Matthew Burke, Transport Academic Partnership

“Now I don’t mean big, giant, huge barriers. These can be very small, almost ankle high barriers in the road itself that tell the drivers not to come over and create quite a disincentive for them to wander out of their lane and encroach upon the bicycle lane. This gives real world safety to cyclists,” Burke says.

“Increasingly, those lanes are bi-directional, where we can’t get a lane going each way easily. If we’re in an inner-urban street we’ll find ways to do a segregated lane that is barrier protected and runs both directions. The cyclists are passing each other in close quarters. And these can be useful where you don’t want to take out parking on both sides of the street or there are other competing demands for road space.”

Beyond dedicated bike lanes and paths, the other main ingredient in a low-risk network for cycling is reducing the speed limit on suburban side streets to 30 kilometres per hour. 

“Australia hasn’t done a lot of that, most of Europe has turned all its little local neighbourhood streets, the small little ones in the suburbs, to 30 kph. That gets the cars, the cyclists, the scooters and everything else all travelling at pretty much the same speed,” Professor Burke said.

“Cars don’t tend to crash into anything at 30 kph and if they do, they tend to stop or will be running at very low speed with very little impact when they do. They tend not to kill pedestrians or cyclists. That just creates a very low risk environment.

“I’m not talking about the collector road that gets you out of your suburb and I’m not talking about major arterials like Parramatta Road [in Sydney] suddenly going 30 kph. But what I am saying is local side streets should be 30 kph. 

“It is in Europe already. It’s increasingly that way in the UK, in the US city after city is adopting this. Washington DC adopted it years ago. Australia has fallen so far behind this agenda it isn’t funny. And we’re becoming a real outlier. The best indication of this is we still think we’re giving children safety in a 40 kph school zone, when that’s just nonsense.”

The Copenhagen model

Cycling-friendly European cities, such as Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Copenhagen in Denmark, have pioneered many of the elements of this low-risk network approach to cycling infrastructure. The result has been an impressive uptake in cycling.

“In cities like Copenhagen [modal shares] are pretty much in thirds. In 2019, in Copenhagen a third of the travel was by walking and cycling, a third of it was by public transport, and only one-third of it was by car,” Burke says.

“In Australian cities, the car dominates. It’s at least three quarters of all our travel, much higher in cities like the Gold Coast where it’s well into the mid 80 per cent of all the trips that we make are made by car.

“I’m promoting an idea of the future that Australian cities should try over the next 50 years to become cities with 25 per cent of travel is done by car; 25 per cent by walking, cycling and scootering; 25 by public transport; 25 per cent by trip replacement, working from home, e-retailing, e-study.

“All the things that can help get us off the road, get vehicles off the road and just make life so much easier and better for a lot of people.”

The 3.7 km Sullivan’s Creek bike path, which runs through Canberra’s northern suburbs, is a prime example of what a great off-road cycle path can look like in Australia.

However, Matthews cautions there are limits to the lessons we can draw from the great cycling cities of the Netherlands and Denmark. This is because these countries have tended to build their cities around medium-density walkable neighbourhoods, rather than car-centric suburban sprawl. 

“The spatial form and layout of Australian cities is very different from those famous European cycling cities. The way that European cycling cities are put together, you can have a full and rich life accessing all the things that you need, for the most part and relatively close by, on a bicycle.

“There has been 70 years of urban planning to facilitate that. Most Australian cities in the past 70 years have just tended to develop in a much more suburbanised, dispersed low density pattern, which has entrenched car dependency.”

Burke adds that the Netherlands and Denmark also have very different engineering cultures to Australia. “They’ve been doing cycling infrastructure for a lot longer and their systems allow greater experimentation than the very rigid standards based Australian situation.

“Australians are far more litigious. We launch more litigation than even the USA per capita. And so, we’re very risk averse in our engineering culture here and that means we tend to do an awful lot of investigations and evaluations of a possible treatment, rather than a local engineer saying: ‘Look, this is a clear and obvious solution here, they use it overseas, I’m going to do this.’ 

“We can be very slow, therefore, in uptake of new ideas. And this is an example. It’s taken many years for the low barrier, Copenhagen bike lane to gain acceptance in the Australian system. The time we now are starting to appear in standards across Australia. It’s still up for debate as to what is the best way to go.”

Should we look to the Canberra model?

While Australian suburbs might not have the medium density or walkability of their European counterparts, that certainly doesn’t mean good results can’t be achieved in a suburbanised city.

Increasingly, even outside the inner urban parts of our major capital cities, examples of great cycling infrastructure are sprouting up across Australia’s suburbs and regional cities. And perhaps no city provides a better example of what’s possible than the nation’s capital, Canberra. 

“Our infrastructure is that we are more of a satellite community. So unlike built up areas in central Sydney in central Melbourne, Canberra does have satellite cities with spines in between. And those spines have had some investment since 1975, when [Pedal Power ACT] started pushing the [territory] government,” Ross says.

“There has been investment and so we have, not often direct, but you can basically get from one side of Canberra to the other on off-road cycle lanes. I’m not saying this is the gold plated standard, but I’m certainly saying that there are at least indirect routes that you can get from one place to the other.”

Ross cites the 3.7 km Sullivan’s Creek bike path, which runs through Canberra’s northern suburbs, is a prime example of what a great off-road cycle path can look like in Australia. 

“The [Sullivan’s Creek] path is nice and wide, it’s well constructed and it’s pretty direct. That would be a fantastic example for any government to say ‘if you’re building city infrastructure, that’s the kind of thing you want. You want it wide, you want to prioritise the foot and the cycle traffic and you want to make it an attractive place to be’.”

Ian Ross, CEO of Pedal Power ACT

While this path is shared with pedestrians, the fact it is almost four metres wide means there’s very little path conflict between the thousands of pedestrians and cyclists who commute along it each day.

“All the way along, the ACT government has recently installed what’s called wombat crossings, or priority crossings, where the cars have to stop. And in the ACT, they’ve introduced laws that say you can ride across those crossings as long as you ride slowly,” he says.

“We’re one of the first jurisdictions to introduce laws to have people be able to ride, which basically means that you can ride and we don’t have to stop the traffic. The traffic has to stop for us.

“The path is nice and wide, it’s well constructed and it’s pretty direct. That would be a fantastic example for any government to say ‘if you’re building city infrastructure, that’s the kind of thing you want. You want it wide, you want to prioritise the foot and the cycle traffic and you want to make it an attractive place to be’.”

So where does it all go wrong?

So the basic elements of a safe, low-risk cycling network are fairly straightforward. There are clear examples of what works both in Australia and abroad.

But the big problem today is the rate at which this network is being built. And, with most of the easy-to-build paths along riversides and through parks now completed, that process will increasingly involve reclaiming road space from cars.

“At the rate of development of the trunk network, that network that really links up all the suburbs, across all the suburbs and into downtown, we’ve probably built about one-sixth of what we need now. We’ve done that over about a 20 year period,” Professor Matthew Burke says.

“We’ve accelerated the rate at which we’re building that network, but we probably won’t see it in Australian cities for at least another 50 years. That’s not a very good rate of development.”

“It means cycling won’t be able to really help us with our commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050 because too many cycling trips will still be prevented by not having a low risk network. And cycling also won’t be able to help with the congestion busting that it’s doing in other cities.

“Electric cars might save us from emissions but they’re not saving us from congestion. In fact, autonomous vehicles are likely to make congestion worse, not better under many scenarios.”

So what’s holding up the rollout of low-risk cycling network?

The obvious answer is the auto lobby, and the car-centric mindset of planners and governments.

But is that really the case?

Join us for part two of this series, where we’ll discuss the answer.

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  1. Lots of great ideas raised here. Making the choice to cycle or walk for short trips easier, more convenient and safer will result in more people doing so. The e-bike will be a game changer and is already being adopted by business, particularly meal delivery for short trips. Also needed is more public transport.
    If we dont make this shift now, we will need to build wider and wider roads to funnel more and more motorists to their destination. Included in this will be an ever increasing number of toll roads. Looking forward to hearing more on this

  2. By all means encourage walking and cycling. However, let’s not forget that our cities have been designed for cars so at best this is a marginal solution to the problem. Making harder to get around for the majority should not be an unintended consequence in dealing with a solution that will only have marginal outcomes.

  3. Great article BUT there is a deep hostility to bike riders and especially as an alternative to “conventional” transport. Perhaps its based on a belief that returning to cycling is going backwards .