Nov 1, 2012

Is cycling to work on the rise?

Despite the growing numbers of cyclists on the streets in peak hour, cycling's share of all work trips is small in all mainland capital cities and barely increasing

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Journeys to work by bicycle (source: Charting Transport)

The newly released Census 2011 data on the journey to work shows cycling’s mode share increased in all major cities bar one. Thanks to Charting Transport once again crunching the numbers, we can compare the figures across Australia for bicycle-only trips.

The journey to work is one of the most promising purposes for cycling as a means of transport i.e. for non-recreational cycling. That’s partly because other modes are less competitive in peak hour due to congestion and over-crowding. Also, the regularity of commuting means problems like guarding against theft and showering/changing are easier to manage.

However as the first exhibit shows, there’s no avoiding the obvious. When looked at from the point of view of the total metropolitan transport commuting task, cycling is apparently still a bit player.

Less than 1% of workers in Sydney currently travel by bicycle. Even in Melbourne with its stronger tradition of cycling, it’s the mode of choice of just 1.5% of commuters. Cycling does best in Canberra, but it’s a very small place with an atypical workforce profile.

Still, cycling increased its mode share over 2006-2011 in all mainland capitals bar Adelaide. But the improvement was slight – its share went up by 0.2 percentage points in Sydney, from 0.7% of all commutes to 0.9%.

It also increased by 0.2 percentage points in Melbourne, Perth and Canberra, and by 0.1 percentage points in Brisbane. It dropped 0.2 percentage points in Adelaide.

This seems like a pretty miserable return given the increase in cycling infrastructure investment since 2006. But there are a number of other factors to consider.

One is that cycling does much better in inner city areas (see second exhibit). In the Melbourne suburb of North Fitzroy, for example, getting on for 15% of commuters cycle to work.

As with Canberra, that probably reflects special characteristics of this suburb. It has reasonably good cycling infrastructure (e.g. Canning Street), is close to the CBD, and has plenty of young and well educated residents.

Another factor to take into account is that the numbers cycling to work grew very strongly in absolute terms over the period. In Melbourne, cycling grew from 20,598 to 28,606, or by 38%. In Sydney the percentage increase was even bigger, with the numbers growing from 12,128 to 17,838, i.e. by 47%.

Averaged over all mainland capital cities, the numbers cycling to work increased 36%, or an average of 7% p.a. Although cycling’s mode share fell 0.2 percentage points in Adelaide, there was nevertheless a small rise in the number cycling.

That these large absolute increases resulted in only a marginal change in mode share is an object lesson in the dangers of only paying attention to growth rates. Regard must be given to the size of the base (very small in this case) and to the fact that competing modes are also growing in absolute terms.

Cycling’s low mode share might also be partly a function of the Census being taken on a single day every five years. The 2011 Census only captures how workers travelled on Tuesday 9 August.

That doesn’t account for seasonal variations. In cities like Melbourne with a Mediterranean climate (i.e. cold & wet winters, hot & dry summers) there are likely to be many fewer cyclists in winter when the Census is conducted than in summer.

Weather also varies from day to day. For example, Census day 2006 in Melbourne was relatively balmy, but in 2011 it was forecast to be cold and wet (update: it was cold and wet).

Most of these objections can be minimised by looking at all cities and by focussing on the inter-Census change. I think it has to be acknowledged that cycling hasn’t made strong headway so far.

That suggests a number of issues worth thinking about.

It may be that cycling has already attracted most of the workers who’re prepared or able to cycle to work. Any really large gains from here may require far-reaching but politically difficult changes.

For example, it might be necessary to construct a comprehensive network of fully segregated paths before it really takes off. Lower speed limits and changes to the law to positively support cycling might also be a pre-condition.

I expect cycling in Australian cities will continue to be a choice largely made by city centre workers for quite a few years yet. As at present, most of them will live in the inner city – see second exhibit.

We need to think further about the ‘bar’ for cycling. Copenhagen and Amsterdam are inspiring examples, but it should be borne in mind that they’re outliers, even in the context of Europe. Cycling’s commuting mode share doesn’t need to hit double figures for it to be a key mode of transport.

Since someone will surely raise it if I don’t, I have to say I don’t think the mandatory helmet law has much to do with cycling’s share of commuting.

I doubt there are many would-be bicycle commuters who are so averse to helmets they choose not to cycle. Since commuting mostly involves mixing with traffic, I expect virtually all positively want to wear a helmet.

There’s more data on the journey to work at Charting Transport. There’re charts here and some delightful maps here. Also see my previous post on what Census 2011 tells us about commuting by public transport.

Animation: % journey to work by bicycle 2006 & 2011, Melbourne (source: Charting Transport)


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29 thoughts on “Is cycling to work on the rise?

  1. Austin M

    I don’t think investment in cycling infrastructure is always the key determinant to cycling growth. Suburb layout and density clearly has a much more important part to play. As an example there have been a number of outer metropolitan arterial road and freeway projects built between the two census dates. Most of these projects have included shared use paths etc. that would have equated to millions of dollars if not tens of million in investment. (If a project is 2 lanes each way the path will represent the width of an additional lane of road and the associated land acquisition).

    I strongly doubt the investment in these locations has represented a strong case (BCR) in terms of cycling infrastructure investment. The increase in cycling’s mode share especially if compared with investing the same sort of money in more dense areas would be an interesting comparison. That all said building outer metro roads without this infrastructure would be a move in the wrong direction (i.e. making suburbs pedestrian and cyclist friendly/accessible)

  2. Cyclesnail

    @Dylan: Correct, the only federal money is from a fund the Greens did during the nation building project, and they are now trying for a $80mio pa to contribute towards safer cycling (infrastructure). Overseas it has been shown that replacing car traffic with bicycle traffic leads to more spending in shops – seems people on bicycles have holes in their pockets?

  3. Dylan Nicholson

    If 5% of the transport budget was spent on boosting cycling, it would fair to expect it to produce something close 5% of the total economic value that transport infrastructure investment generates. Much as I believe boosting cycling is an extremely worthwhile investment, the economic value of having 5% of commuters on bicycles is never going to that high unfortunately – unless you were very generous in pricing in externalities. Given how much cheaper it is to build cycling infrastructure and how much better use can be made of what’s already there, I’d be perfectly happy if 1% of all government spending on transport (across all 3 levels) went towards bicycling infrastructure and promotion. As it is, I gather there’s virtually 0 federal funding towards it?

  4. Cyclesnail

    Neither the red-herring issue of MHL nor any of the other points raised above take away the fact that we are arguing about 0.something% changes in participation. We should be at 5%-10% participation….., instead of flat-lining Australia wide between 2006 and 2012 at 1.6%.
    Let’s make sure that cycling is funded at the desired participation rates. With 5% of the transport budget the cycling picture in Australia would change dramatically over the next ten years.

  5. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    Steve777 – My point is that your personal opinion and my personal opinion on whether or not helmet wearing is a deterrent is a sample size of two, and thus of no relevance in any rational debate.

    Instead we need to look at meaningful evidence such as cycling numbers before and after laws are introduced, or see what happens in overseas cities which otherwise are similar to ours.

  6. Steve777

    MWH – my point was that I don’t see that the requirement to wear a helmet would be any more of a deterrent to would-be cyclists than is the requirement to wear a seat belt to travelling in or driving a car. The dangers of cycling (mainly cars and trucks) are pretty obvious and people will make their own assessment as to whether or not the risk is worthwhile.

  7. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    Steve777 –

    So what about how you feel or I feel about wearing a helmet?

    What matters is how the helmet law effects the population.

  8. Steve777

    As a non cyclist I don’t see that helmet laws would affect the decision of someone to take up cycling. It’s a bit like seat belts in cars – some may argue that adults should be able to make up their own minds but it is a minor additional up-front cost plus minor additional preparation for your journey. The main determinant is really whether you are prepared to brave the traffic without being surrounded by a metal and plastic shell. There are also questions of journey times (which in Sydney would often favour cycling), fitness, exercise benefits and supporting facilities (including an ability to shower and change at your destination). But personally, to cycle I would want a full suit of armour, not just a helmet.

  9. Burke John

    Even if cycling were to be proved a dangerous exercise without wearing a helmet, so what?

    I note that most serious problems relating to the evironment etc and including climate change are alleviated with less humans.

    Personally my dream is to have more cars off the road and more people cycling (electric bikes it will be in this country). Nothing personal but if a few helmet wearing heads are squashed by cars in the interim period, we all gain. Any obstacle of dubious value placed in the way of this real progress should be removed.

    In encapsulating that argument I’m over whether helmets are safe or not…I really don’t care any more. But do MHL constrict cycling numbers?…well if they might…get rid of those laws and lets see.

    I myself moved to Darwin where my wife and I can cycle without one..more or less without harrassment.

  10. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #18:

    Your 3rd option is a leading and loaded question so that can be dismissed. The reference to unsafe helmets in your first option isn’t relevant either because the original question isn’t about manufacturing, it’s about “wearing”. I agree though that someone who’s for helmets for kids but not for adults would be in a quandary. Still, 94% is a pretty big number – at this time, I don’t think they buy the anti MHL argument.

  11. Steve777

    FYI, weather at the Melbourne Regional Office on Tuesday 9/8/2011:
    Minimum temp 8.1 (about average – years 1981-2010)
    Maximum temp 11.6 – pretty chilly (about 4 below average)
    Rain (9:00 9th to 9:00 10th) 1.2mm.

    So it would have been cold with a bit of light rain and probably overcast most of the day. Not an attractive day for a bike ride, nor, for that matter, commuting by any means.

  12. Dylan Nicholson

    That survey question was interesting…”Do you approve of the government making laws to regulate the following”…one of which was “wearing bike helmets”. Even I’d answer ‘yes’ to that (e.g. you shouldn’t be allowed to wear helmets that are obviously unsafe or unsuitable, and for kids under 12 it’s probably best for it to be required by law).
    It wouldn’t exactly be hard to phrase it in such a way that you’d get far less support for it:
    “Do you believe that adults should be required by law to wear a helmet every time they ride a bicycle”?
    And of course you could phrase it in ways that almost nobody would answer yes to…”Given every other country in the world (except New Zealand) permits adults to make sensible decisions for themselves as to whether to wear a helmet when on a bicycle, do you think it makes sense that in Australia you are forced to by the law, and can be fined hundreds of dollars for not doing so?”.

  13. Tom the first and best


    I do agree that the cycling rate are very lopsided. Action needs to be taken by the councils you mention (as well as other councils) but state government action is also needed.

    Remember it was the state government that blocked a proposal a few years ago to install Copenhagen-style bike lanes on St Kilda Rd. Had it not done so then the St Kilda Rd corridor would have less red and more yellow with maybe some green on the 2011 census map above.

  14. Dylan Nicholson

    pedals, strangely, if anything I’ve noticed a significant improvement in the last few months. I even had a guy (P-plater!) stop and pull over yesterday to apologise for passing too close to me, and he wasn’t all that close.
    Sure there are still plenty of idiots that think they own the road and cyclists are just getting in their way, but thankfully they’re the exception.

    Alan, yes, you’re probably right that the ‘cycling is dangerous’ mindset came first. But MHL does nothing to negate it – and almost certainly reinforces it.

  15. pedals

    I’m going to try and leave the MHL topic aside.
    And offer this instead.

    I think that Australian driving styles have deteriorated over time such that people are much more aggressive and impatient in how they drive. We have also seen an increase in vehicle size (esp height) and more freight vehicles on the road.

    Would be cyclists are no doubt motorists too, they know how bad we have become as drivers. Or at some level they have at least percieved this deterioration in traffic conditions. So these people are now too fearful of what they would have to contend with if they were to undertake cycling as a transport mode.

    This is self perpetuating. Perhaps similar to the trend of driving kids to school instead of having them walk/cycle.

  16. Alan Davies

    IkaInk #11,12, Dylan Nicholson # 13:

    I acknowledge it’s my own fault for issuing the invitation, but there’s nothing like MHL to take over a party! It’s like the obnoxious guest who won’t shut up and won’t leave.

    IkaInk, back in the 80s there was a loud and long public discussion about the dangers of cycling, particularly head injuries. There was a very widely shared view at the time that cycling is dangerous.

    The consensus was so strong that we’re one of the few countries that made helmets mandatory. Moreover we did it everywhere (unlike Canada). A change like that would’ve been unthinkable in places like the US.

    The view that cycling is dangerous was and is so strong, I believe even if the law had not been passed, we would nevertheless have much higher voluntary rates of helmet wearing in Australia than happens in other countries.

    Of course there’s mutual feedback, but I think the direction of causation runs more strongly from the perception of danger to helmets, rather than the other way around. In my view helmets are more the symptom than the cause.

    I believe if the law were repealed we would not see a drop to anything like the helmet wearing levels seen in other countries, especially in the case of on-road cycling.

    94% of Australians support the helmet law and only 1% strongly disapprove of it, according to a recent survey. I think it’s implausible to put most of that down to the idea that helmets create a false sense that cycling’s dangerous.

  17. Dylan Nicholson

    “I doubt there are many would-be bicycle commuters who are so averse to helmets they choose not to cycle.”

    Perhaps not, but I think there’s a fair argument that MHL deters a lot of people from thinking of bicycling as a normal safe way to get around, so they don’t even consider it for commuting.

    And I point blank refuse to believe we’re even close to the # of people cycling that will ever be comfortable taking it up. Though it did baffle me yesterday that just because the weather was somewhat windy, a little cool and threatening rain, the # of cyclists on the road was dramatically down from the previous week – especially in a city like Melbourne with such changeable weather, it’s bizarre that we’re so easily intimidated by a few grey clouds. And yes, Copenhagen and Amsterdam are outliers, but they do give a vision of what is possible. London is probably a more realistic comparison though – they’re aiming for 5% mode share by 2025 or something apparently, which we should be able to match.

  18. IkaInk

    Sorry, I was obviously a bit huffy when I wrote that. Written with far more hostility than I would like and some pretty poor gramatical mistakes. However I stand by the point I was trying to make. MHL are in a large part why Australian’s have a higher than usual perception of risk when it comes to cycling. The reverse is probably true to an extent, but if we’d had the same concerns about the dangers of cycling before MHL were introduced as we do now, then helmets would have already had a very high up-take.

  19. IkaInk

    Really Alan? You’re honesty arguing that Australia’s push towards MHL hasn’t changed the perception of bicycle safety? Explain then the massive uptake in helmet wearing after the introduction. Was this just a coincidence because collectively as a nation we’d all decided cycling seemed less safe then a few years earlier? The MHL didn’t influence that thinking in the slightest?

    So daft it is absurd.

  20. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    Just for the record, in 1929 there was a train leaving East Malvern during the peak every 12 minutes – 5 trains per hour. We now have 7 trains per hour.

    In 1929 there was a train in the evenings every 30 minutes. Today we have exactly the same frequency (despite the huge increase in late night entertainment, etc).

    Perhaps it is time to move some investment away from cars towards public transport and cycling.

  21. Alan Davies

    Nik Dow #4:

    MHL was introduced for adults on 1 July 1990 in Victoria, on 1 January 1991 in NSW, and 1 July 1991 in SA. The 1991 Census was conducted in August of that year.

    Look at the first exhibit above. There’s not much change in cycling’s mode share in either Sydney or Melbourne between the 1986 and 1991 Censuses. Melbourne had a minor drop between 1991 and 1996, but of course that was well after MHL was introduced.

    Cycling’s mode share fell in Adelaide between 1986-91 which is consistent with the MHL deterrent theory, but fell much more sharply over 1991-96, but that was after the law came into effect.

    Canberra’s never had a significant fall (why not?), but there were substantial drops in cycling’s mode share in Brisbane and Perth between 1991 and 1996. That correlates with the introduction of MHL in those states.

    Now I was going to save this for a separate post, but have a look at the chart for car mode share. It shows car use rose at a faster rate in most states between 1991 and 1996. Have a look at the chart on walking – it shows a substantial reduction over 1991-96 in all cities except Canberra.

    Higher car use and less walking aren’t likely to be caused by MHL. So maybe there was something else going on over 1991-96 that’s implicated in the fall in cycling in the smaller states?

  22. Alan Davies

    IkaInk #6:

    Yes, mines an unscientific observation, that’s why I used the phrase “I expect…”.

    I’m talking specifically about Australian cities. Notwithstanding what happens in Toronto etc, we have a different history and outlook on cycling – we are, after all, one of the few places in the world that mandated helmets for adults. And we did it for the entire country, not just one or two States.

    I think we have a very specific sense of the danger of cycling here in Australia (that’s not to say it’s right). I think it’s more plausible that MHL is a response to that perception, not the cause.

  23. IkaInk

    Oh, and it is worth noting that Ontario does have MHL for people under the age of 18 and this is considered to have pushed up helmet wearing rates considerably.

  24. IkaInk

    Since commuting mostly involves mixing with traffic, I expect virtually all positively want to wear a helmet.

    That seems a very strange assumption Alan. There are a lot of cities that require bicyclists to mingle with traffic, yet helmet wearing isn’t particularly high in many cities that don’t have MHL. Now it can be argued that Australia’s pushing of helmets has created a pro-helmet culture (which is undoubtedly true to an extent), but I that is different to “people ride in traffic, therefore they must want helmets”.

    Toronto (where I’ve been living the last few months) for example has a similar bicycle mode share 1.5%, has piss-poor bicycle infrastructure (as bad if not worse than Melbourne IMHO) and a helmet use rate of about 46%.

    In my recent travels around North America I’ve also visited Montreal and NYC. I don’t have on hand data to confirm my observations, but neither city seemed to have extensive segregated bike infrastructure, yet my observations of helmet wearing was very low.

    Of course what I am arguing here doesn’t prove much, it is not conclusive evidence at all, just a counter-point to your very unscientific assumption.

    On a side note: despite the lack of extensive infrastructure visible in either NYC or Montreal, some of the infrastructure that has been put in place is excellent. Montreal has some top-notch bi-directional paths along a fair number of major roads, and NYC has a few nice segregated paths I got the chance to ride along; but I can’t imagine many riders can travel from A-B entirely along these paths, i.e. the “network effect” hasn’t been achieved for segregated paths. I’d argue the same is true in Melbourne, some of our paths are actually quite good, but most journey’s require leaving paths and riding through hazardous sections.

  25. Tom the first and best


    In 1964 there were 5 trains per peak hour from East Malvern and that included the 3 from Glen Waverley.

  26. Nik Dow

    Alan, you mention weather etc can have an effect on census and we should “…[look] at all cities and by focussing on the inter-Census change.” I agree with you, but you haven’t done that.

    Try taking a look at

    Which shows Australia in two groups, according to which side of the ’91 census the helmet law was introduced. We aren’t yet back to Australia’s then rising 1980’s level of cycling to work. In 1986 across Australia 1.68% of trips to work were by bicycle and in 2011 it was 1.29%

    As to your “I doubt” and “I expect”, that’s just your prejudice showing again. The evidence says otherwise.

    But I agree with you that in those parts of the inner city where there are some better places to ride we are already achieving close to the maximum, although as @MarkD points out there is still lots of scope to get this demographic riding from the inner East, South and West of Melbourne where riding conditions are still quite hostile.

    The next demographic to take up cycling, as you correctly point out, will only do so when conditions start to approximate the better European cities, i.e. physical separation from high speed or high volume traffic and lower speeds and better laws on local-access streets. This demographic by and large doesn’t wear helmets in countries that allow choice – they simply won’t ride if they feel cycling is so unsafe as to need helmets. That is why Copenhagen calculated they would lose 50% of their cyclists if they introduced a law (Jan Gehl, ABC radio, speaking in Melbourne this year). The vigorous promotion of helmets there is believed to be the reason their cycling mode share has stopped rising over the last few years despite improving facilities at some expense. Compare this to helmet-free Amsterdam and the Netherlands in general where cycling has continued to grow strongly over the same period.

    So while various surveys tell us the law is currently detering about 20% of potential cyclists, this figure could be expected to rise if any Australian city ever embarks on an ambitious plan to make cycling mainstream.

    At , we aren’t waiting for expensive and unlikely major improvements to infrastructure to increase modal share, we are campaigning for repeal of the harmful bike helmet laws across Australia and New Zealand, which would increase cycling quickly, and lead to more pressure for improved infrastructure and in turn more people cycling.

  27. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    Have a look at where we spend the money … and I use the area near me (Chadstone, Victoria) as an example.

    By far the biggest investment over the last decade has been adding an extra lane to the South Eastern freeway. This extra lane is only needed during the two hour peak, and the new lane carries about 1,800 vehicles during this two hour peak.

    Running beside this freeway is the Glen Waverley train line. Adding just three extra trains during the two hour peak would carry about 1,800 people. I suspect that the time table during the morning peak is not much different from what it was in the 1950’s.

    By the train and freeway is also the Gardiner’s Creek bike path. This is anything but a commuter track – rather it has deliberately built in blind corners. This path is ideal for a weekend ride by a 12 year old, but dangerous and slow for cycling commuters.

    Now imagine if a commuting bike path was built along the same route. Something straight, smooth (and boring). Leave the old path for recreating. So perhaps put this commuting path along the railway line.

    This new path would not only be of use during the peak time, but would be used all day. Perhaps it would not carry 1,800 cyclists each way per day. But the figure would be close, and the path would be incredibly cheap compared to building the extra lane on the freeway.

    And as anyone who has driven along the freeway during peak times will confirm, cycling along a purpose built commuting path would be much quicker than driving.

    That building the extra lane on the freeway is treated as normal good practice, and my idea of a fast commuter bike path is pie-in-the-sky just goes to show how economic rationality has nothing to do with our transport planning.

  28. Last name First name

    Hi Alan
    A lesson form NY about How combat congest a major deterrent to cycling

    The mayor of New York did some thing this morning to deal with traffic chaos that takes effect from tomorrow morning. Cars with be stopped from entering NY City unless it has at least three occupants. This should cope with todays on e two hour long at wait bus stops and the flooded underground railway with its flooded tunnels and their burnt out electricity systems . Provide all other with better support service

    As a practical way to reduce the global warming that is underway, mandatory peak hour shared cars could solve road congestion problems in austrlaia by deferringmore more freeway and main road construction thus freeing up funds to renovate urban railways and speed up buses on the existing roads they use

    US Republican strategists have discovered that there is no pool so shallow that several million people won’t drown in it. The latest one is that FEMA emergency organization set up by Obama to deal and according to CNN FEMA has 2000 experienced peoplein 8 states helping people to deal with this catastrophy.

  29. MarkD

    Hi Alan,the rates of commuter cycling is obviously higher in Darebin, Yarra and Moreland–which is where the money (and bugger all in the scheme of things) has been spent. Geez, I wonder what might happen if Stonnington, Port Phillip, Glen Eira were similarly committed to the provision of bicycle infrastructure? It would also help if our State Government(s) targeted their money towards active transport, instead of cars.
    By the way, how many trams did Labor purchase in its 11 years in Government? What pressures did this put on the tram network? Is Baillieu’s government going to make a similar error with funding for bike infrastructure?

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