Mar 11, 2012

Do more bikeways mean more bicycle commuting?

It would be a real pity if Barry O’Farrell’s agenda for the City of Sydney ends up compromising Council’s vision for extending bikeways, reducing speed limits and expanding th

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Trend in number of weekday cyclists at selected locations in Sydney

It would be a real pity if Barry O’Farrell’s agenda for the City of Sydney ends up compromising Council’s vision for extending bikeways, reducing speed limits and expanding the area of street space reserved for pedestrians.

They’re the issues of concern nominated by the NSW Premier when he announced the government will set up a new Central Sydney Traffic and Transport Committee. Mr O’Farrell said the Committee, which will have 4 Government reps and 3 from Council, “will have responsibility for co-ordinating plans and policies for public transport and traffic within central Sydney as well as making decisions on major transport issues”.

Last chance! Follow this link to win a copy of Andrew Leigh’s ‘Disconnected’ (two copies up for grabs). Hurry, entries close midnight tonight Tuesday 13 March

Councils have to work closely with State Governments and always have. That’s a good thing because the City of Sydney is only one of 38 Councils in the metro area, making coordination of vital importance. Moreover, the number of Sydneysiders who live within the boundary of the City of Sydney is only a tiny fraction of those who visit it for various activities like work, entertainment and leisure.

But it’s hard not to suspect that this move is aimed at curtailing Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s expansive vision for the city centre. Council’s newly released transport strategy, Connecting our City, aims to elevate public transport, cycling and walking not just over driving and parking, but at their expense.

There are a number of exciting initiatives in the plan, including expanding provision of light rail, eliminating cars from large parts of George Street, and developing a street hierarchy to allocate roadspace to particular modes on particular streets. Of special interest though is the plan for 40 kmh speed limits and construction of 200 km of bikeways (of which 55 km would be fully segregated bike lanes constructed by taking over roadspace – 10 km has already been constructed).

The centres of Australia’s capital cities are dense, pedestrian-intensive and already well-served by public transport. For all their advantages in the suburban context, cars have marginal value in the centre as a form of transport but an horrific impact on amenity. So I endorse the Lord Mayor’s plan (in fact in some respects I think it’s too conservative e.g. no mention of road pricing; limit should be 30 kmh on non-arterials).

Council’s commitment to providing bike lanes and paths is supported by new research just published by arguably the world’s leading researchers on cycling, Ralph Buelher and John Pucher (I’ve cited their work before). They examined the level of cycling to work in 90 of the 100 largest cities in the US and compared it to the length of cycling lanes and bike paths provided in each city (an important point: in the US, ‘cities’ are often the central parts of larger ‘metros’).

They find that the supply of bike lanes and paths per capita is a statistically significant predictor of bike commuting. Cities with a greater supply of bike paths and lanes have significantly higher bike commute rates. They find this to be true even after controlling for land use, climate, socioeconomic factors, gasoline prices, public transport supply, and cycling safety.

However they don’t find a significant difference between on-road bike lanes compared to segregated bike paths. I must say I find that surprising – I’d have expected segregated paths to predict higher levels of cycling than on-road lanes. Buehler and Pucher point out, though, that other researchers have found contradictory results, so it shouldn’t be unexpected.

One of the interesting questions this sort of study always poses is which came first: the chicken or the egg. Is it the induced effect – does the provision of more cycle lanes and paths encourage more people to cycle? Or is it the “reward” effect – do governments tend to provide infrastructure in response to higher rates of cycling driven by other factors? This study doesn’t answer that question but doubtless the causation runs both ways.

Of course the US isn’t Australia, but it’s a better analogue than Europe. And of course correlation isn’t causation, but even so the results suggest those remaining 190 km of bike lane and bike path could have – indeed are likely to have – a big impact on the take-up of cycling as a mode of commuting in inner city Sydney. And the City of Sydney and other inner city Local Government Areas have demographic characteristics that suggest a population likely to be drawn to cycling if members can be convinced it is safe.

As well as looking at the effect of infrastructure on cycling the study also looked at a number of other variables. The authors find that cycling to work tends to be higher in cities where the proportion of college students is higher, the metro containing the city is relatively more compact, the rate of fatal cycling accidents is lower, the level of car ownership is lower, and petrol prices are higher.

Another surprise is there’s not a significant relationship between cycling and the weather i.e. rain, snow, hot temperatures or cold temperatures don’t tend to deter (or encourage) commuting by bicycle. Nor is the supply of public transport a significant predictor of the level of commuting by bicycle.

I think the key to understanding these results is that Buehler and Pucher looked only at commuters (who account for just 12% of all bicycle trips across these cities). They’re a dedicated lot and they have to be, especially in a country like the US with a strong pro-car culture and relatively undeveloped cycling infrastructure.

I commuted by bicycle to the CBD in Melbourne for several years (2001-2003) and know quite a few others who are current or former bike commuters. I’d say there’s a strong ethic that you brave all weathers – and if you’re dressed for cycling you’re not that worried about getting wet or sweaty anyway. The quality of public transport (which in my neighbourhood is pretty good) was irrelevant to me because I preferred cycling – it is as fast as the train, it’s available on demand, it’s direct, it’s private, and I could use otherwise “dead or marginally productive time” for exercise.

As with every study I’ve ever seen, there are important methodological caveats that readers should be aware of. For example, cycling fatalities and petrol prices aren’t available at the city level so the authors measured them at the State level. Similarly, the index of sprawl and the measures of public transport supply apply at the metro rather than city level.

But the take-home message for the Premier of NSW is: don’t stop Council’s proposed bike lanes and paths – they’ll encourage more commuters to cycle.

Finally, I was interested to see Connecting our City recommends Council investigate the feasibility of bikeshare. While noting that the mandatory helmet law is an issue, the report also observes:

Initial analysis suggests that around 2,000 bikes together with 3,500 bike storage racks could be needed. However the City believes it is desirable for more of its bike network to be completed before the public bicycle system is introduced, so that riders will have safe options for cycling.

That compares to 600 bicycles, 50 docking stations and too few fully segregated bike paths at the time Melbourne Bike Share opened. The primary bikeshare market isn’t commuter cyclists – so good thinking, City of Sydney.

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13 thoughts on “Do more bikeways mean more bicycle commuting?

  1. Alan Davies

    The outlook appears to be brightening for SCC’s proposed bike path network.

  2. gdt

    In short, they find that commuter cycling is determined by time, money and safety.

    What is really surprising is how very important money is: a 1% ($0.14) rise in petrol prices would lead to a 5% rise in commuter cycling. The implication is that the 20% real rise in petrol prices in the last decade has been responsible for a doubling in commuter cycling. The most conservative future pricing models add another $1 to petrol prices in the next 15 years, bringing commuter cycling to another 3 or 4 times what it is today. Other reasonable but less conservative petrol price models have increases of $2.50-$3.50 within the next 20 years. That would imply 10 times more people cycling to work.

    The model says that this large increase in commuter cycling will happen without additional bike lanes. The implication is that it is in the interest of motorists for cyclists to have bike lanes, otherwise cars will need to slow down to share the road with 2 to 10 times more cyclist traffic than today. This isn’t something which is yet understood by the automobile associations when they oppose cycling facilities — they somehow think that opposing the facilities will deter cyclists, but the paper shows that effect from the rising price of petrol is stronger than the deterrent of existing levels of safety.

    Of course, playing fast and lose with models has all sorts of problems. But the trend is clear: as petrol prices rise then commuter cycling booms, irregardless of other government actions.

    The paper is irrelevant to the Council v. State stoush. That is really about the future of the car in a dense city centre. The future of the bicycle is already assured, facilities or not. Ironically, because cycling is going to boom, Barry O’Farrell’s deliberate failing to plan for that will make the city less amenable for cars, as cars will need to share the same space as bicycles, much as they do in many city centres in Asia.

  3. rubbo mike

    I’ve been labouring for several days to produce a blog post on, a reply to Barry O’Farrell’s attacks on Clover Moore and her separated bike paths. I went out on Sydney streets with my camera to see how those, already built, looked and felt.

    I discovered what I think is a key impediment to growing a cycling public which will make effective use of these paths, enough use to keep them safe from O’Farrell attacks. I wonder if you agree?

  4. Last name First name

    Parker Alan OAM,

    The problem is that VicRoads in the past never sent their engineers to the Netherlands to see the many options for using rail line and road reserves to create continuous routes and the residential street system which has a 30 Km/Hour speed limit. Dutch cities have long a term Bikeway plan showing where small land acquisitions created shot cuts in the residential street network and link up with bike lanes.

    VicRoads never had never had a committment to create a proper “bicycle arterial network” of bikeways. Vicroads wanted to create the “principle bicycle network” which did not use utilize and ignored Melbournes 7,500 Km residential street network.

    In 1980 the residential where ignored in the Vicroads “Hierarchy of roads study” i I another representative Of the “State Bicycle Committee made a presentation to the Vic roads steering committee with Map of all Bayside suburbs showing all the proposed bicycle routes we could provide and we called our proposed bicycle network the “Arterial Bicycle Network” with a formal definition within “final Hierarchy Of Roads Study” defining what cyclists needed.

    Because VicRoads realised that to do why cyclists wanted many more safe Midblock Crossings would be required for bicyclists and pedestrians and all residential streets should have 40 km Per Speed limits like they have in US urban areas.
    They derided our proposals and where not prepared to formalise in their advanced planning to even acknowledge our proposed “Arterial Bicycle Network”. In the
    Hierarchy of roads study Final report. This was all ignored.
    The reason that Melbourne bicycle routes are incomplete and not as safe as they could be today is because bicycle Infrastructure is 30 years behind where it should be and Vicroads made it so.

  5. IkaInk

    I’m unsurprised that cycling rates don’t seem to be affected very much by weather. These two shots were taken in Nagano, Japan during the middle of winter. They don’t really capture the size of the “parking lot”, but they capture how packed it is.

    As you can see in the second shot, there’s snow on the ground, where it hasn’t been cleared. It snowed lightly later that day, but I asked a local and he seemed to think that the parking lot was always pretty full. Conversely, there wasn’t a a heap of traffic around. This particular parking spot, was just outside the main train station in Nagano. There was also a car-park near the station, but it was further away.

    The two big policy differences that I was able to observe walking around this smallish city, with a low population density compared to Melbourne that might be conducive to the huge number of cyclists were the fact that they went out and built giant parking spots for bikes like this and secondly that they allowed bikes on the (very wide) footpaths. Riding on roads seemed to be ok as well, but more people seemed to be on the footpaths.

  6. Steve777

    Is it a case of build it and they will come? Certainly, more bike lanes would make cycling more attractive and would encourage more cycling. However, there would also be a need for more infrastructure such as somewhere to park your bike and showers / lockers at your destination. And while current cyclists are not affected by the weather, I don’t think there would be many who would fancy cycling in 35 deg C (common in Adelaide or Perth) or bucketing rain (common in Sydney and Brisbane). I can’t see cycling as being likely to be considered seriously by more than a small fraction of commuters. I am not against bike lanes and improving cycling infrastructure, but I think public transport options is where we should be focussing.

  7. suburbanite

    The are critical gaps in cycling infrastructure that render some bike lanes unusable. If you ride out of the Melbourne CBD towards the North East there are lots of roads with bike lanes. The total number of km’s of bike lanes is quite impressive, but the bike lanes disappear for short sections rendering the bits either side of the gap much less usuble. If you ride out along Queens Parade and then Heidelberg road you will get to a gap on the bridge over the Yarra after Clifton Hill. Experienced cyclists riding at 40 km an hour can merge with traffic but this elimanate a lot of potential commuter cyclists. There needs to be city wide planning to link these spots up. The trouble is that i doubt the will or competency exists to do it properly and the effort has as much chance making things worse than making them better.

  8. Last name First name

    Parker Alan,
    Is good that central Sydney safer bridge crossing s for cyclists and some bike lanes but remember the proposed bike plan Sydney proposed at the National Bicycle Safety Conference in Newcastle in 1986. The idea agreed to at the time by the state and commonwealth ministers was that the Newcastle Bike plan was the “sprat to catch the mackeral “ and be the model Bikeplan for metropolitan Sydney. Just like was being done in Victoria with the Geelong Bike plan being used as a Planning model for metropolitan Melbourne. Also the the general idea all states was to have effective interstate cooperation between bicycle planners and bicycle advocates working together. Indeed,Dr John Matheison and I worked together and as a result $40 million was spent Australia wide on bicycle facilities under the Commonwealth Employment Program. Around this time first edition of the Austroads bikeway design manual (part 14) was released.

    However the Bikeplan for metropolitan Sydney was never completed as intended and what was recommended was never completed. The good news was that in Perth and Adelaide and Brisbane that effective interstate cooperation between bicycle planners and bicycle advocates working together did take place a lot of progress was made.

  9. michael

    I’m an occasional cycle commuter. Would use my bike more if there were decent cycle lanes through North Sydney!

  10. S Karl

    No doubt more cycle lanes/paths will result in a increase of people cycling. However as others have pointed out there are often issues with continuity of the infrastructure over different LGA boundaries.. you will be on a great bit of lane for 1km and then hit a dead end as you enter a non-cycling friendly council area. It’s a major issue here in Perth and put’s a lot of people off as it is so inconsistant and puts people in dangerous situations. Also, I think weather isn’t a factor for die-hard commuters, however I see a major difference in the numbers of ‘casual’ commuters on days when the weather is fine here in Perth along the major PSPs. There’s also a big spike in recreational riders, both for fitness and pleasure on days with good weather.

  11. Socrates

    I think there is a pressing need for an overall transport authority to be accountable for delivering bicycle infrastructure. In theory most State transport agencies already are. In practice all the money goes on PT and roads. I am not against bus or rail spending, but I often wonder how many we could get on bikes for the billions spent on large rail projects.

    Another big issue in bike paths is lack of continuity. Bike lanes around the CBD is all very well, but the main issue for most people is how to get there. The arterial road approaches are what deter people, including me.

    Here in Adelaide there is clear evidence that bike paths have an effect. Corridors with connective paths into the city (e.g. NE, SW) have far more riders than other directions.

  12. Rohan

    I’ve been a daily commuter to and from the Sydney CBD for almost 10 years and I’ve been astonished by the acceleration in the uptake of cycling over the last few years.

    Chris Southwood from City of Sydney Council told me late last year that between October 2010 and October 2011, Council’s bike counts at major interesctions doubled at almost all locations, and at one location tripled. It’s difficult to conclude that the bike lanes, however imperfect (some are downright dodgy), aren’t a significant factor in those numbers.

    I’m skeptical whether this “Central Sydney Traffic and Transport Committee” will have much effect on the realisation of Clover Moore’s bike lane network in practice, other than slow the approval process.

    O’Farrell might not ‘get’ cycling, but he’s probably smart enough to get that he is on the wrong side of history here. There are too many people from too many walks of life with too many different reasons for wanting to cycle. He may achieve a little bit of pushback in the short term, but he’ll get slaughtered if he tries to reverse anything that’s already been done.

  13. hk

    The availability of more safe bikeways along routes where people seek to travel definitely has contributed to increases in cyclic traffic, which has replaced car traffic. Field observations and chats at traffic lights with fellow cyclists support this conclusion.
    The scientific methodology supporting this opinion is called “inference theory”, an approach to observation interpretation first published by Austin Bradford Hill in 1965. The theory is sometimes used to explain epidemiological patterns, when there is not a large enough bounded sample to demonstrate causal correlation of the relationships between possible variables

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