Mode split for Stockholm and Copenhagen - comparable shares for private, public and active transport, but no big difference in cycling compared to walking (source unknown; via Alexander Stahle)

There’s no shortage of data on the spectacular mode share that cycling achieves in many world cities. In metropolitan Copenhagen, for example, bicycles account for around 20% of all trips. In Dutch cities it’s even higher – around 40% in Amsterdam and Assen and almost 60% in Groningen.

Although cycling does much better in inner city areas and for the journey to work in Australia, it captures less than 1% of all trips in our major metropolitan areas.

There’s an interesting question here: given the right policy settings, what mode share could cycling achieve in Australia? Is there any reason why cycling couldn’t be as popular in Sydney or Brisbane (say) as it is in Copenhagen, or even Amsterdam?

While there’re grounds to think cycling could do much better than it currently does, there are also reasons to be circumspect about the ultimate upside in Australia (at least within conventional planning horizons).

One matter to be clear about from the outset is that international comparisons between cities are fraught. Many of the mode share figures regularly touted relate only to specific journey types (e.g. trips for work or educational purposes) or to restricted geographies (e.g. just the older inner city area).

There’s no doubting we’re well behind Amsterdam and many other European cities, but when considered on a like-for-like basis cycling is doing better in Australian cities than is usually recognised (e.g. see Cycling: how do Australian cities compare with Paris?).

Another issue is that cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen are at the top of the distribution; many European cities have much lower cycling levels e.g. Wien is 3% and Brussels is 5%. There could be factors explaining the success of outliers that might be especially difficult to emulate fully elsewhere.

It’s also worth noting that public transport doesn’t do as well in Australian cities either. Or perhaps more importantly, driving wins a much bigger mode share here than it does in European cities; especially compared to the ones with high levels of cycling and walking (see exhibit).

Because subjective safety is extraordinarily important for cyclists, investment in infrastructure seems to explain a lot of the variation in cycling levels between cities. There’s a correlation between the level of cycling-specific infrastructure like segregated bike paths and the mode share won by cycling (e.g. see Do more bikeways mean more bicycle commuting? and Why do Melburnians cycle more?).

So if Sydney or Perth were to build a comprehensive and dense network of segregated bicycle paths on par with world’s best practice cities, is it plausible cycling could achieve a mode share on a par with Amsterdam? Is it just about infrastructure and supportive regulatory policies?

There’s no definitive answer to that question, but there’s good reason to think there are other influences in play. The mode share of cycling in cities with comparable per capita incomes also depends on:

  • The relative attractiveness of driving – determined by factors like the price of fuel, registration charges, and traffic congestion.
  • The relative attractiveness of public transport – determined by factors like frequency, coverage, comfort, reliability and fare levels.
  • The relative attractiveness of walking – determined by factors like residential and employment density, and the compactness of land uses.
  • The utility of cycling – determined by the same factors as for walking, as well as by the directness of routes, topography, geography and weather.

For cycling to win a much larger mode share in Australian cities, there’s absolutely no question it will be necessary to invest in infrastructure that significantly reduces the hazards to riders – perceived and real – from cars, trucks and buses.

Approaching the levels achieved by even the less spectacular European cities, though, will only happen if alternative modes, most especially driving, become less attractive relative to cycling. That might come about via deliberate policy (e.g. road pricing, permitting higher densities) or external factors like dramatically higher fuel prices.

But I think the ultimate potential of cycling in Australian cities (within customary planning time frames) is also limited by another factor. Australia doesn’t have a history – a tradition – of cycling on the same scale as European countries.

For example, the Netherlands and Denmark had historically high levels of cycling even before mass car ownership. But Australia never did; even in 1935 cycling’s mode share was only around 5%, well below walking (16%), public transport (50%) and even cars (25%) at the time.

In common with public transport it’s share briefly jumped up during WW2 (to 9%) but fell back to 4% by 1950, by which time cars had well and truly overtaken public transport.

This difference might’ve been due to the sorts of factors mentioned above and perhaps to differences in per capita income at the time; but whatever the cause, it’s shaped the way Australians view how to travel. The car of course is seen as the ‘natural’ form of urban transport.

I don’t doubt that investing in infrastructure to make cycling safer would dramatically increase its mode share in Australian cities. But getting to Amsterdam-like levels would be a lot harder because our cities and our attitudes have developed around cars.

Of course our cities don’t have to emulate Amsterdam in order to do much better; if cycling were to achieve (say) a 10% mode share in Australia’s capitals that would be hugely beneficial for urban life. It’s equivalent to what public transport averages across our capital cities at the moment.