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Cycling

Aug 20, 2011

Is the Auditor-General on-track with cycling?

It’s a long time since I’ve read an official report as both extraordinary and disappointing as the report released last week by the Victorian Auditor-General,

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Bikes of San Francisco - I wish someone had thought to do this for Melbourne

It’s a long time since I’ve read an official report as both extraordinary and disappointing as the report released last week by the Victorian Auditor-General, Developing cycling as a safe and appealing mode of transport.

This effectiveness and efficiency review of the former government’s 2009 Victorian Cycling Strategy is extraordinary because it takes the Brumby government to task for its extravagant claim that the Strategy would “grow cycling into a major form of public transport”, but then failed to put in place the steps the Auditor-General believes are necessary to achieve this ambitious goal.

He makes it clear the sorts of actions he thinks are required are those pursued since the 1970s in countries like Denmark, The Netherlands and Germany where bike’s mode share is now as high as 38% of all trips (but also as low as 3% e.g. Wiesbaden). Those actions include education and promotion, but the key ones are segregating cyclists from cars and making cars slower and less convenient.

As I read the Victorian Cycling Strategy – which is only 20 months old – this sounds like a bit of a fit up, but since the Department of Transport has signed off on the Auditor-General’s review, I’ll let that lie.

Governments in Victoria might need to be careful. Judging by this report the Auditor-General seems to be in no mood to tolerate the entrenched practice of blithely setting exaggerated and inflated goals with little real commitment or accountability for realising them. On the other hand, the Baillieu government has “discarded” the Strategy, so perhaps that emboldened the Auditor-General in this particular instance.

Either way, I applaud the Auditor General for his evident intolerance of bullshit (I hope he takes the time to compare some of the purple prose written about public transport against what’s actually being done in practice). Governments should and can do much more to promote cycling. So far there’s lots of lip service but not much action.

But having said that, the Auditor General’s report is also disappointing because its not without its own failings. For a study that cost nearly $400,000, it is a surprisingly lightweight document. I have to hope there’s much more to it, but quite frankly it reads like someone merely got the Department of Transport to run some basic data off VISTA and read Pucher and Buhler’s influential paper, Making cycling irresistible. If there were such a thing as an audit of Auditor-General’s reports, I reckon this one would be found wanting.

I was doubtful of the report’s technical quality from the get-go when I read the claim in the first paragraph that “cycling offers benefits over other forms of transport because it reduces traffic congestion…”. No it doesn’t, no more than building freeways or improving public transport do. What cycling can do is increase the number of people who can get to a destination despite traffic congestion – which is a huge positive – but it won’t reduce congestion.

A key criticism the report makes is the Strategy prioritises inner city work journeys over other trips. Since 78% of car journeys up to 4 kilometres long (and 80% of car journeys between 4 and 10 kilometres) are in middle and outer Melbourne, the Auditor-General reckons the Strategy should have addressed this potential more vigorously. This simplistic view is symptomatic of much of the report. What it fails to recognise is the necessity of prioritising scarce resources like money and political capital. The fact is inner city work trips in the Melbourne of today are more amenable to cycling than suburban shopping trips.

Another shortcoming is the presumption that to grow cycling into a major form of transport we can and should do exactly what successful European cities like Copenhagen have done. But is “a major form of public transport” the 37% of all trips that Groningen has achieved, or the 3% of Wiesbaden? This is the Auditor-General and he’s finding fault with government policy – expecting some measure of precision isn’t unreasonable.

The fact that those cities have much higher bicycle use than Australian or US cities is a very important and pertinent piece of information, but it doesn’t automatically follow that if we do what they’ve done we’ll get the same outcome. In fact it doesn’t even follow that it’s practical, realistic or feasible for us to do what they’ve done.

There’s a long history of assuming what works overseas will work here. For example, in common with many other countries, Australian governments and universities have attempted many times over the last 30 or so years to replicate the success of places like Silicon Valley by establishing technology parks close to universities. Yet every analysis I’ve seen has shown these attempts to be unmitigated flops – at best, we’ve ended up with cookie-cutter business parks rather than the anticipated hotbeds of innovation fuelled by university-business interaction. The fact is places like Silicon Valley are the result of a very special set of circumstances that can’t easily be replicated elsewhere.

Australia is a different country, both metaphorically and literally. We have a very weak tradition of cycling and public transport use compared to European cities. Our metropolitan areas are lower density and we have a deeply entrenched car tradition. This isn’t because our politicians are somehow less visionary or imaginative than politicians elsewhere – the fact is we have a different history, a different geography and a different culture. We have a different attitude to space and transport.

That doesn’t mean we can’t change over time or learn from places like Groningen and Muenster (and there’s much to learn from Pucher & Buehler’s paper), but finding the political support and dollars to increase cycling significantly in our cities requires a much more sophisticated analysis and understanding of the drivers and constraints than simply pointing to what’s been done elsewhere. Chances are we will require a different solution to the 860 km of completely segregated bike lane in Berlin or the 400 km in Copenhagen (a city much smaller than Melbourne). I think, for example, there’ll be a long period where we’ll inevitably rely much more on sharing roads with cars.

We need a better understanding of what is achievable in the very different context of Australia, a country where every environmental advance seems to be hard won politically. It would also help to understand why cycling hasn’t had the same success in some European countries – like the U.K. – that it’s had in countries like Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands. Glib answers like the UK “didn’t build enough infrastructure” don’t address the question – we need to know why it didn’t.

I like the fact the Auditor-General is prepared to call bullshit on inflated government claims that aren’t supported with substance. However it’s incumbent on his office to do some real homework to support his criticisms, especially given how much his reports cost and his statutory role. Just glibly saying we should copy certain European cities is nowhere near good enough.

BOOK GIVEAWAYfollow this link to be in the running for one of two copies of the new book by James Boyce, 1835: the founding of Melbourne and the conquest of Australia. Entries close midday on Thursday, 25 August.

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