Is smaller better? Journey to work mode share of walking and cycling, 2001, 2006 and 2011 (Source: BITRE unpublished, via State of Australian Cities 2013)

If you ask an informed passenger what attributes make for a good public transport system, she might mention reliability, hours of operation, frequency of service, coverage, dedicated rights-of-way and very likely personal safety (1).

Ask a cyclist the same question and his answer might include helmet choice, secure bike parking and direct routes to destinations. I expect his first answer, though, would be safety. Even if it’s expressed in an indirect way like “more bike lanes”, the ever present concern of  cyclists is the danger presented by cars, buses and trucks.

There’s no shortage of compelling reasons why many travellers would choose to cycle (2). It’s cheap, it’s a convenient way to build exercise into everyday life, and most importantly it’s time-competitive in many circumstances with both public transport and driving.

But safety is the main reason the latent demand doesn’t translate into more riders. Address the safety issue effectively and almost everything else that would make cycling a viable transport choice in Australian cities will follow.

Bicycle paths and trails that’re completely separated from traffic are the gold standard. When there are enough of them going to the right places travellers have the confidence to ride (see How come the Dutch got cycle paths and not us?). They’re crucial because the next cohort of potential cyclists is more risk-averse than those who’re already cycling.

But the form of Australian cities was shaped by trains and cars. It isn’t realistic to expect to cycle exclusively on separated cycleways, at least not for many decades yet.

Those who will only ride on dedicated paths are treating cycling like it’s a train: confined to an exclusive but always limited network. They aren’t capturing the inherent flexibility of a bicycle – like a car, it’s private and can go anywhere on demand (3).

Separated paths will work in dense corridors in the same way freeways do for motorised vehicles, but on arterial and feeder roads cyclists will have to share road space with cars, trucks and buses.

In many instances sharing can be made safer by taking lanes away from vehicles and turning them over to wide, well-designed bicycle paths. There’ll nevertheless be many situations where cyclists and drivers will occupy the same lane.

It’s therefore vital that drivers respect the vulnerability of cyclists; riders must know they can rely on drivers to be respectful. Motorists need to drive slower and show care for more at-risk road users.

That can be addressed in part via a suite of measures such as mandating lower speed limits, imposing greater legal liability on drivers, strengthening licensing procedures, and promoting positive messages. But Australia is a car-oriented culture and enforcement is always difficult.

It’s essential there’s a comprehensive and dense network of streets where cyclists have priority. More than that, vehicles must be slowed by physical calming works designed to favour the safety of cyclists over the speed of vehicles. It must be self-enforcing (see Killed while cycling: why so few fatal bike crashes lead to arrest in NYC).

Once cyclists are confident about riding on the street network, most of the attributes necessary to attract more riders automatically become available. They can now use most of the infrastructure provided over almost a century for drivers. They can cycle everywhere, on the most direct routes, on wide pavements, with good street lighting. They’re not dependent on the provision of separated paths to every conceivable destination.

It needs to be acknowledged however that significantly improving safety for cyclists won’t be easy because it will necessarily be at the expense of drivers. Motorists will face greater constraints on how they can behave behind the wheel and they’ll lose road space given over to cycling infrastructure.

That will make driving less attractive vis a vis cycling. However in a rich country like Australia, driving presents a compelling proposition for most travellers, especially for non-work purposes. There’ll only be a really large shift from cars to cycling if the inherent attractiveness of cars is curtailed by, for example, significant reductions in road capacity, some form of road pricing, or an external shock like a stratospheric increase in the price of petrol relative to earnings (4).

If cycling were to achieve a high and growing mode share (consider that public transport’s share of all trips in Melbourne is around 10%), it’s much more likely there’d be political support for major infrastructure improvements. More separated bike paths could be built and conflicts with cars reduced. That in turn would make cycling even more attractive.

It would even be possible to reduce the disincentive of “givens” like topography and climate. Cuttings, elevated paths and tunnels could be constructed to lessen steep grades (it’s done with roads and rail all the time), or some sections of separated paths could be protected with wind breaks or roofs.

If there’s a safe network of paths and streets for cyclists, there’s less need for a helmet. That’s why Europeans spurn helmets – for almost all riders they’re unnecessary. The rationale for making helmets mandatory would be much diminished.

Conflict between cyclists and pedestrians is emerging as a serious issue that could potentially limit political support for cycling. Making roads safe for cycling is the obvious way to address that problem.

Even given the right policies, we shouldn’t expect cycling to capture an equiproportionate share of all trip purposes or to increase at the same rate everywhere. At present it’s more attractive in the inner city and that’s partly to do with exogenous factors like demography. Even in Europe there are large differences between cities.

 ____________________________________________________

  1. Ask a regular motorist what makes a place good for driving and chances are he’ll say low congestion, no tolls and possibly no speed cameras. The list will probably be shorter because motorists already have access to a dense network of streets. Another reason is they expect to pay many of their costs out of their own pockets.
  2. I’m not talking about cycling that’s solely for recreation or exercise, but cycling for transport e.g. to get to work, to the shops, to the movies.
  3. One of the reasons I’m optimistic about the potential for bicycles is they offer travellers many of the benefits of cars. The growing number of electric power-assisted bicycles reinforces the similarity.
  4. That’s also true for public transport. Improving supply will not be enough to bring about a big increase in mode share – that’ll only happen if driving is made less attractive.