Mar 18, 2012

Why do Melburnians cycle more?

Melburnians cycle for transport twice as much as Sydneysiders and are taking to cycling at three times the rate of their northern neighbours. Moreover, Melburnians are more likely t

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Bicycle mode share for work trips, Melbourne vs Sydney (source: Pucher et al)

Melburnians cycle for transport twice as much as Sydneysiders and are taking to cycling at three times the rate of their northern neighbours. Moreover, Melburnians are more likely to use bicycles as a means of transport, whereas for Sydneysiders they’re mainly a weekend recreation.

At a time when many suspect the NSW Premier wants to stymie cycling, it’s useful to consider what could possibly explain a difference of this scale.

Fortunately, an analysis of the reasons for the difference between the two cities was published last year in the Journal of Transport Geography, with the title Cycling down under: a comparative analysis of bicycling trends and policies in Sydney and Melbourne. It was undertaken by John Pucher of Rutgers University, Jan Garrard from Deakin University and Stephen Greaves from the University of Sydney.

It’s surprising that Sydney fares so badly relative to Melbourne. Sydney is considerably denser than Melbourne, has a higher proportion of employment in the CBD, lower per capita car ownership, lower per capita kilometres of car travel, and higher walking rates.

These factors should predict higher cycling and higher public transport levels. Public transport does in fact have a significantly higher share of trips in Sydney than it does in Melbourne, but this doesn’t spill over to cycling. The authors identify a number of possible explanations for Sydney’s poorer performance.

First, Sydney is more hilly than Melbourne. The disincentive that brings isn’t just that more effort is required to climb hills. It also means many of the best roads for both cycling and driving are confined to ridge tops, requiring cyclists to share road space with drivers.

Second, Sydney has more natural obstacles, particularly water bodies, which focus traffic on a limited number of choke points. The effect is to increase the distance cyclists must pedal, as well as require them to share heavily trafficked bridges.

Third, access to Sydney’s CBD – which in both cities is a prime generator of bicycle commuter trips – is limited from some directions by barriers such as freeways and the harbour, again forcing cyclists to compete for road space on a limited number of access routes. In Melbourne, cyclists have many more options for accessing the CBD.

Fourth, Melbourne has wider roads that have greater capacity for cyclists to share road space with drivers, either by common use of general lanes or by dedicating some road space for cycling lanes/paths.

Fifth, cycling is not as safe in Sydney. Although data limitations mean it is difficult to make precise comparisons, it does appear that, after allowing for the difference in the level of cycling, Melbourne has substantially fewer serious cycling accidents.

Sixth, Sydney’s average annual rainfall is considerably higher than Melbourne’s, particularly from January to June. Melbourne’s climate is more like countries such as Demark and Netherlands where cycling is high.

Seventh, Melbourne has a longer history and tradition of cycling, both in competitive and utilitarian cycling. While there were around 19,000 work trips per day made by bicycle in Melbourne in 2006 – largely focussed in and around the CBD – there were more than 50,000 in the early 1950s, mostly in the suburbs.

Now all of these factors might at first glance suggest that Sydney could never hope to match Melbourne’s level of cycling (which nevertheless is quite low compared to many European countries). However while they might provide much of the explanation for why cycling is roughly twice as popular in Melbourne, they don’t explain why it’s growing three times faster in Melbourne.

The authors point out that many other cities have enjoyed large increases in cycling despite similar obstacles. For example, San Francisco and Seattle both have hilly and discontinuous topography; Minneapolis, Portland, Ottawa and Vancouver have difficult climates; and Bogota, Barcelona and Paris lack a tradition of cycling being used as a mode of transport (as distinct from recreation).

They attribute the difference primarily to government policy. They say that Melbourne has more cycling infrastructure and what it has is better quality. Further, it is strategically focussed on commuting routes to the CBD. By comparison:

Many of Sydney’s facilities have been ad hoc, uncoordinated, and often located along motorways in the suburbs with limited usefulness for daily commuting.

Melbourne has a denser network of bike routes, lanes and paths, primarily focussed on the area within 10 km of the CBD. They are better connected, better signed and better supported with maps. It has more bike boxes at intersections, more special turning lanes and more advance green traffic signals for cyclists.

Melbourne also has a much stronger institutional environment advocating for cycling. Bicycle Victoria has 40,000 members, 50 staff and can mobilise 500 volunteers for big events, compared to Bicycle New South Wales’ 10,000 members, 10 staff and 100 volunteers.

Ride-to-Work Day has been run in Victoria since 1993, but only began in NSW three years ago. The TravelSmart program and school-related cycling activities are more extensive in Victoria. The authors say:

Many of the experts we interviewed felt that Bicycle Victoria has been a major force behind pro-bicycles policies in Victoria, more effective than Bicycle New South Wales at raising public awareness of cycling and lobbying for improved cycling infrastructure.

Many of the variables that explain the higher rate of cycling for transport in Melbourne are of course inter-related and self-supporting. Once cyclist numbers reach a critical mass, it invites more cyclists and more support from governments, in a “virtuous cycle”. Sydney’s key problem seems to be it lacks a strong cycling culture – understandable to some extent given the more unsympathetic street network.

The authors stress that overseas cities with apparently equally unpromising prospects have developed high levels of cycling by investing in infrastructure and creating a supportive institutional and regulatory environment. They are also keen to emphasise that Melbourne nevertheless has a low level of cycling compared to many European cities.

It’s worth adding that the importance Pucher et al attribute to Melbourne’s focus on the inner city is at odds with a review released last year of the former Government’s cycling policy by the Victorian Auditor-General. He criticised the policy for precisely this reason!

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11 thoughts on “Why do Melburnians cycle more?

  1. michael

    I always feel I have to apologise for cycling in Sydney – or be in-your-face assertive, and that puts me off cycling a lot of the time. I just can’t be bothered having to justify myself. I’m a non-lycra cyclist riding a staid unfashionable bike. I get scorn from both motorists and the aggressive lycra cycling brigade.
    Cycling in Melbourne seems more friendly and accepted as normal. The only problem there is that Victorians just seem to be oblivious to blocking your way on the road – whether pedestrians stepping out without looking or those driver who regularly “door” passing cyclists. Is there some unwritten Victorian traffic rule that permits Joe Public to occupy large chunk of the highway as their personal space with impunity?

  2. Jonathan Nolan

    One thing that you haven’t mentioned is that Melbourne is a far more progressive/left leaning city. Particularly within 5k of the CBD Melbourne is a fairly left leaning place. The greens received 14% of the vote in the 2010 Victorian senate election but only 10.69% in NSW. Melbourne is the only seat where the greens have one a HOR spot.

    People who live more than 10k out of the CBD in Sydney might be taking the train more often than in Melbourne, but ‘up right’ cycling is currently largely the domain of those living closer in.

    Inner city Melbourne culture often models itself on European culture and that might help describe why cycling is so much more casual and upright in Melbourne.

    Cycling is the ultimate act of conspicuous green fashion, and it’s therefore not surprising that cycling rates in suburbs like Fitzroy, Brunswick and Nortchote are now a lot higher than suburbs with similar amenities like South Yarra and South Melbourne where the vote is more conservative.

    This could help explain the relative abundance of bike paths in places like the city of Yarra, as left leaning residents elect Greens councillors who then push for better cycle infrastructure, and even residents who don’t cycle support it as a green initiative or at the very least complain less.

  3. Rohan

    rubbo [email protected]

    I think this is a huge factor.

    The atmosphere in Sydney cycling is palpably competitive, and the intimidation level increases dramatically for the slower / less competent cyclists, who become the meat in the sandwich as the faster cyclists pull desperate and risky maneuvres to overtake them.

    As you noted, potential cyclists look at this hostile environment and decide they don’t want any part of it.

  4. Bultaco Metrella

    Melbourne is flatter. Why is cycling so popular in the Netherlands, because it it flat. I lived in Ashbury in Sydney. Riding to the city meant climbing in and out of river valleys, it was torture. Sydney is made for Vespas.

  5. Burke John

    All reasons stated for the ascendance of Melbourne over Sydney as a cycling center make sense, but Mike Rubbo has really identified the mystery element. The combination of the Daily Telegraph and O’Farrell attacks highlight both the official and unofficial not just antipathy towards cycling but downright hostility extant within that city.

    I have observed also that contrary to intuitive expectations, the greater the traffic congestion the higher the level of anti-cyclist hostility. Sydney is the perfect example of that.

    Whilst the O’Farrell outburst is absurd and a national embarrassment, he was voted for by a majority carist block.

  6. rubbo mike

    Melbourne presents a more varied cycling face. You see many more riders on Situp bikes, more riding in normal clothes, business clothes etc. around 20% by my count.

    The non cyclist in Melb, seeing such bikes pass by, or having one stop near the car window at the lights, is much more inclined to see such cycling as something he or she might try, more likely than if the cyclist they spot, is in Lycra. Whilst the public bikes in Melbourne are not being used to their full potential, they too send the same welcoming message, being all sit-up

    Last week, in response to the Daily Tele and O’Farrell attack on Sydney’s new separated bike paths, I went to see who was riding into the city.
    I found the bike-ways quite well used at peak hour, but that the riders were predominantly Lycra clad and on fast machines. I saw only one rider of the sit up type.

    What Cycling is showing off to the non rider, is more important than one might think. The situp rider in normal clothes sends the message. Come ride with me” The Lycra rider hunched over drops, says; “Out of my Way” This is part of the reason Melbourne is growing so fast .

    The photos of the Sydney riders and their type are on my blog,

  7. deccles

    Ahem. Hills. Have you seen those effing hills in Sydney? I’m a commuter not a masochist.Melbourne is as flat as a pancake

  8. SBH

    It’s probably down to MHL being better enforced in Sydney.

  9. hk

    In my opinion, the advocacy skills and dedication of Harry Barber and team have been the key differentiating factor.

  10. Captain Planet

    Again my conviction i strengthened – attempting to force cyclists and motorists to “share” roads which were never designed for bicycles and cars to coexist, is dangerous, divisive, and doomed to failure. dedicated infrrastructure for cyclists is the way to go.

  11. MarkD

    Thanks Alan, another good post (which i can still get – thankfully – despite not coughing up for a Crikey subscription),

    The Sydney-Melbourne comparisons seem to be reasonably obvious if you think about each city from the perspective of a regular cyclist – I shudder to think how I would have made the transition from Melbourne to Sydney, if I’d accepted a job offer in mid-1990s.

    I lived in Perth for four years in the mid to late 80s; Brisbane in 1989 and Adelaide in 1999 and felt that I was about the only person mad enough in each place to ride consistently. A similar comparison for all Australian cities would be of great interest to me, and probably most other readers.

    Nonetheless, riding in Melbourne aint all beer’n’skittles either – eternal vigilance being the price for survival on roads in this cycling paradise.


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