Nov 25, 2013

Is the potential of cycling for cities underestimated?

Cycling's usually given a minor role in the future of our cities, but it has two big advantages. One is it's a private mode of transport. The other is it's low cost, both for travellers and tax payers

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Bicycle share of trips in Europe, North America and Australia (%). Source: Pucher and Buehler

Serious policy debates about urban transport invariably come down to the relative merits of cars versus public transport. More trains and more light rail (but only occasionally more buses) are favoured as the way for Australian cities to grow and at least maintain their liveability.

The bicycle is almost always relegated to a minor role; perhaps a few percentage points mode share at best. Yet we know from experience elsewhere that it’s possible, given particular conditions, for cycling to make a much bigger contribution to the urban travel task.

In metropolitan Copenhagen, for example, bicycles account for around 20% of all trips (1). In Dutch cities it’s even higher – around 40% in Amsterdam and Assen and almost 60% in Groningen.

That’s much higher than public transport’s share in Australian cities. Averaged across Australia’s capital cities, public transport accounts for around 11% of all travel. It’s higher in some cities and lower in others e.g. around 14% in Sydney and 8% in Brisbane (2).

Both public transport and cars will be an important part of how Australian cities deal in the future with a growing population, but I think the potential of cycling as a policy ‘solution’ is often seriously underestimated.

It’s well established that bicycles have a low impact on the environment, require little road and parking space, and on their own account almost never suffer serious congestion.

If they can be separated from general traffic as they are in many Dutch cities, they’re exceptionally safe. Indeed, the level of subjective safety is so high in the Netherlands that hardly any cyclists wear a helmet.

The advent of low-cost, efficient power assistance now means bicycles can travel long distances without raising an uncomfortable sweat. They can also be ridden by people with compromised fitness.

Compared to a speedy car, bicycles can be costly in terms of time lost in travel. But with rising density and congestion, bicycles are increasingly more time-competitive with cars for a large proportion of urban journeys.

All that’s well known. But there are two key reasons to be bullish about the potential of bicycles.

The first one is that cycling is a private form of transport. Travellers in rich countries like Australia have shown that, given the option, they much prefer private transport over shared (public) transport.

Like a car, a bicycle is available on-demand. There’s no waiting; service frequency and span of hours don’t matter. It goes straight to the traveller’s destination without deviation, without stopping, and without the need to transfer. Importantly, like a car, it isn’t shared with strangers.

Bicycles are very much like cars. Given safe conditions and the option of power assistance for those who want it, I think bicycles (and scooters and small motor cycles) can compete more effectively with cars for many journeys than public transport.

Public transport is hard to beat for accessing highly concentrated destinations like the CBD, especially from more distant origins. But it’s very hard for it to compete cost-effectively against private forms of transport for the sorts of trips between dispersed origins and destinations that now characterise most urban travel.

The second reason is that the social and private costs of cycling are exceptionally low. Relative to a car, a bicycle has very few negative externalities. Even an electrically-assisted bicycle generates limited pollution, emissions and noise.

Relative to public transport cycling requires little public subsidy (in NSW each rail journey costs taxpayers $10 on average). As with cars, most of the financial costs are paid by the traveller.

Except for roads – which are necessary anyway for emergency vehicles, freight and amenity – bicycles impose little cost on the budget. Dedicated bicycle “roads” are cheap to build and maintain; they don’t need the pavement strength, the width, or the generous curve radii of roads.

Getting an order-of-magnitude increase in cycling’s mode share requires two things. One is that cars must be less competitive. There’s a good chance that will happen organically due to traffic congestion but it can and should be encouraged by regulatory and taxation policies e.g. congestion pricing.

The other is safety. Bicycles need to be separated from cars, trucks and buses. That’s been the key to the bicycle’s success in the Netherlands. Since cyclists and drivers will nevertheless need to share road space for the foreseeable future, driving also needs to be “reinvented” as an activity that sits lower in the pecking order than cycling and walking.

Extracting the potential benefits of cycling isn’t likely to come painlessly. A big increase in mode share will to a large degree come at the expense of motorists. That will mainly be in the form of roadspace reallocated to cycling and as a consequence of rules that modify the behaviour of drivers.

It’s not necessary or probably even realistic to expect cycling in Australian cities to match what’s happened in Dutch cities. After all, there’re large differences between cities even in countries with an established cycling culture. However a mode share that (say) came close to public transport’s current share would make an enormous difference to Australian cities (3)


  1. You’ll see much higher figures tossed around for Copenhagen but these can be misleading. They refer to only certain types of trip (e.g. work and education) or to small geographies (e.g. juts the central part i.e. City of Copenhagen).
  2. For convenience, I’ve used shares of travel (i.e. kilometres); if measured in terms of numbers of trips, public transport’s mode share would be a little lower.
  3. I’m aware that much of the potential of cycling also applies to scooters and small motor cycles, perhaps even more. There are issues though, including differences in speed and access to dedicated infrastructure like off-road trails and bicycle lanes.
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23 thoughts on “Is the potential of cycling for cities underestimated?

  1. Tom the first and best


    Far more bike cages need to be built at stations and other locations.

    The easy walking distance, at least for able bodied people (those most likely to switch to cycling), is 800m-1,200m not 600.

  2. Persia

    And when pedestrians all wear front and rear lights at night, make hand signals before changing direction, can walk in a straight line, have some vague awareness of what is around them and keep their dogs on leashes on paths where it is clearly marked that they should do so.

  3. Persia

    Hey Juliana

    You can have registration for cyclists when we can have registration for pedestrians.

  4. suburbanite

    JulianaPayne has a good idea – education is important. Far too many pedestrians also need educating about the road rules. For example, looking before stepping out onto the road, not crossing against the lights or start crossing once the walk signal has started flashing red (this happens everyday just about everywhere) staying to the left on shared paths and keeping dogs on leashes.

  5. JulianaPayne

    Can we also please advocate for education and registration of bike riders; from a pedestrian’s point of view, too many bike riders want the best of both worlds, hopping from road to footpath at will and ignoring pedestrians to our peril; if bike riders want access to and respect on the roads and footpaths they need to play fair, and follow the road and footpath rules. More often than not I witness them ignoring both: they can’t have it both ways.

  6. Last name First name

    Parker Alan OAM.The humble bicycle is the truly green machine that can improve access to railway stations and used instead of cars for most trips to the CBD,and trips across the radiating rail route in Greater Melbourne. There is an urgent need for secure bicycle parking at around 200 stations ignored for those responsible for transport planning. Also most local Council bicycle plans do not recommend theft proof bicycle parking at local stations. There has been of around 1000 bicycle thefts a year at stations since 1987.

    The Ministers of transport no idea how many cyclists bikes stolen and or why. Station theft on police confidential reports and interviews with theft victims. Some theft victims without access to cars or buses had lost 2 or 3 bicycles. (Loder & Bayly and Alan Parker Design 1987). How many thefts take place and how many now drive to work is unknown but probably a lot more than the 30,000 car parked at stations.

    Sadly bike parking is economic means of growing rail patronage and there is need for five more secure bike parking space for every one that exists now. Around 75% of the Metro Melbourne population live within easy cycling distance (2.5 km) of a station, only 500,000 are in easy walking distance (600 Metres). So an ideal form of active transport that can reduce road congestion is still being ignored.

  7. Dylan Nicholson

    Meanwhile, in the real world…

    Statistics that none of us want to see, but perhaps might finally prompt some real action.

  8. Dylan Nicholson

    PDGFD1 you forgot to mention all those smelly cyclists clogging up the coffee shops. Otherwise a nice summary of almost all the silly (and long-ago rebutted) anti-cycling arguments I’ve seen floating around here and elsewhere.

  9. John_Proctor

    Is #14 running a parody twitter account or something?

    Almost all of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard for cycling combined in one post with a bunch if oft heard reasons why a proportion of travel would never cycle. I didn’t, read Alan say that all trips should be by bike and I thought he specifically said it was unlikely we’d reach Dutch levels of mode share.

    The growth in cycling in inner Melbourne in the last 10 years is proof there is a market there for these sort of trips in Melbourne at least. Where thanks to general flat topography, wide road reserves, and grid network making cycling work for large portions of city should be possible and there is potential to reach Dutch levels in the stronghold,d of the inner north. Even my girlfriend rides her bike sometimes since we moved to collingwood!

  10. PDGFD1

    Don’t think so Alan,
    The potential of (sic) cycling for cities (in Australia at least) is vastly OVERestimated.

    It’s waffle to compare any cycling practice in Holland etc to Australian conditions. The ‘low countries’ are a flat as a pancake.
    Urban planning that hopes for an increasing % of ‘trips’ to be under pedal power in an aging population is absurd. It’s as unhelpful to wish for it, or plan for it, as the unrealistic, ultimately congestive, planning approvals that allow developers to build new housing without car parking.

    Fine for those of us who are able to cycle, but there is a vast majority out in the real world for whom cycling is either inappropriate or impossible. ‘Power assisted’ cycle travel is no better.

    By all means… plan for cycle journeys in ‘green fields’ subdivisional locations, but as an urban transport method… get a grip!

    Taking up road space for ‘unshared’ use… nonsense.

    ‘Bike lanes’ are increasing the level of danger to cyclists in my view. In Sydney at least they start and end in positions that are completely mysterious unless studied with a view to use.

    Has anyone thought that perhaps a footpath on one side of every road could be designated as ‘cycle paths’?
    Cyclists could ‘watch for’ pedestrians, in the same way as drivers are expected to watch for motorcyclists, and currently, cyclists.

    We could get rid of all those stupid cycle lanes, and maybe the buses, and bring back the (predictable track) tram.

    One last thing… I know it’s unpopular with fellow cyclists, but… time we were all registered and insured in the same way as motor-driven transport is now.
    That way we might have a way of identifying and managing the nutters who think they have a right to weave in and out of traffic, run red lights, and generally cause havoc on the roads.

    Alan… if you want to do some useful urban planning… start with registration, remove road-based cycle paths, ‘open up’ one footpath per road to cyclists and employ ‘predictable route’ public transport (with ramps for the elderly or infirm)

    Cheaper, safer, and fairer all round.

    Roas could be used for those

  11. Steve

    I apologise if someone has already made this comment, but there can be a strong connection between cycling and public transport — in particular trains. The ability to supplement a bike journey with a train leg provides significant flexibility and combines the ‘personal’ (the last kilometer or so at each end) with the ‘public’ (the common part of the journey). More cycling. More public transport. Fewer cars. More trains. Fewer trucks.

  12. Daly

    While I ride a bike for fitness and pleasure, as a woman I don’t consider riding my bike to work. High heels and stockings, tailored suit, makeup and hair that cannot be resuscitated from under a bike helmet stop me. Yes there are showers at work but the 30 mins cool down time is just a waste of time in a very busy day.
    A bike culture needs to include women and children. Alan and others please think about the cultural reasons people don’t use bikes as well as the ones that entice bike use.

  13. Gavin Moodie

    Bits of the road marked off for bikes increases my feeling of safety markedly: it signals to drivers that I have a right to be there, and it increases segregation from cars and trucks.

  14. suburbanite

    Serious policy debates about urban transport invariably come down to the relative merits of cars versus public transport. More trains and more light rail (but only occasionally more buses) are favoured as the way for Australian cities to grow and at least maintain their liveability.

    I wonder if this is because the debate might be framed by how people would like other people to travel, rather about their own travel preferences. Motorists (the ones with a few working brain cells anyway) probably advocate spending on public transport to keep the roads clear for themselves, the stupid ones of course can’t think ahead about induced demand. The Onion had a great headline “Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others”. Cycling however is going to impede motorists, make them feel inadequate as they sit in traffic and get overtaken by a bike and make them work harder looking for things smaller than a car before they fail to stop at a stop sign or open their car doors into traffic.

  15. Dylan Nicholson

    Except Alan I’d suggest at least the vast majority of Australian adults don’t get sufficient exercise, and for a lot of them it’s because exercise isn’t something they feel sufficient motivated to do that they actually allocate time for it. The obvious advantageous of cycling is that it provides exercise as a side-benefit of something you have to do anyway.
    But I’d agree that boosting cycling levels to say, 10 times what they are now isn’t going to significantly help our obesity problem.

  16. Chris Rust

    The issue about scooters and small motorbikes is much easier when you look at how it works in China where dirty petrol bikes have been virtually swept away and replaced by electric bikes and scooters.
    These tend to have a low top speed and are very compatible with cyclists on the cycle lanes and backstreets.

  17. Alan Davies

    Jacob HSR #6:

    I’ve explained my “unease” about this a couple of times before e.g. Should the war on obesity be a key objective of policy?, Does urban sprawl really make us fat? I think in part there’s a risk of goal succession; in part a risk of compromising pure transport objectives; and it’s not clear that the people who actually need the exercise would be the ones who’d take up cycling/public transport. Oh, and there’s this one too: Are conservative Premiers going all soft and gooey?

  18. Jacob HSR

    Alan #4,

    That is like saying you are uneasy about a stone that kills 2 birds. Or a cricket player who is good at both batting and bowling.

    Given that most of us are overweight and are not going to join a gym en masse or go on a diet en masse. We can however get a lot of people to cycle to work/school.

    There is a big network of electricity pylons across Melbourne, could we build cheap cycleways underneath them to allow more people to cycle to work/school?

  19. Waffler

    I think you are right Alan – safety is a big deal. The issue may be more in perception than reality though.

    We all intellectually know that there are risks in driving – some nutter running a red light, failing to give way, talking on their mobile, etc can easily kill us (although, of course none of us are going to do anything like that!). However, cocooned in our steel box we can largely ignore the risk because we feel safe.

    On a bike though, you are very aware of your mortality, and reminded of it by every passing truck or day-dreaming pedestrian.

    Safer roads would be great, but segregation is probably all that would really change that feeling of cycling being at least a little bit risky – and even then you would still have to deal with nutter cyclists running red lights, failing to give way, talking on their mobile (yes, I’ve seen it), etc.

  20. Alan Davies

    hk #1:

    I’m uneasy about arguing the health benefits of cycling (or public transport or driving). I think transport decisions have to be made in terms of transport objectives.

    Nik Dow #2:

    I’ve addressed that issue before. Cars don’t pay their economic costs; public transport doesn’t pay its financial costs. Both important, but the latter looms larger politically.

  21. Dylan Nicholson

    If somebody gave me the budget for, say, the east-west link and let me spend it on encouraging Melburnians out of cars and on to bikes, it’d reduce congestion by orders of magnitude more than the tunnel would. Admittedly it would take a good 10-15 years for the benefits to show up fully, as one of the first places I’d start is encouraging primary school kids (and their parents) to get used to the idea of bicycles as normal form of transport. Instead, somewhat unbelievably, we still in a world where some schools expressly forbid students from riding to school.

  22. Nik Dow

    All good points Alan, except that cars don’t pay their own costs. You could quote the various studies that estimate the external costs of car travel per km, and the external benefits of bicycle travel to strengthen the case.

    Hk also makes a good point: Approx 50% of the $ benefit of building bike lanes is in the health benefits generated.

  23. hk

    …but it has two big advantages. True …and the THIRD is the benefit to health and well-being.

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