Mar 15, 2015

How big was cycling in Australia in the past?

Cycling in Australia was much bigger historically - 10% mode share during WW2 - than it is now, but it's never come anywhere near the past and present popularity of cycling in the Netherlands

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Modal shares for urban passenger transport 1900–2011 (source: State of Australian cities 2012)

It’s risky when thinking about the potential of cycling in Australia to make simple comparisons with leading cycling countries like the Netherlands.

It would be possible to significantly increase the level of cycling in Australian cities (currently less than 1%) by building better infrastructure like the Dutch have done, but in order to approach the mode share of Amsterdam and Assen (40%) or Groningen (60%) it would also be necessary to make other forms of transport – especially driving – relatively less attractive.

** The winners of The Urbanist’s comp for the Grattan Institute’s new book, City Limits, are Taylor R and James. Go here for details **

But that probably wouldn’t be enough. One advantage we don’t have in Australia is the Netherland’s long history of cycling. According to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE), cycling has always made a much smaller contribution to Australia’s transport task than it has in places like the Netherlands (see here and here).

BITRE’s best estimate is cycling accounted for around 3%-5% of all trips in Australia from 1900 through to the 1930s. Its share increased with the onset of the depression and nearly doubled during WW2, then subsequently fell right away from the 1950s (see first exhibit).

In contrast, cycling has a long history in the Netherlands according to author, journalist and publisher, Carlton Reid (see Why is cycling popular in the Netherlands: infrastructure or 100+ years of history?).

While it got off to a relatively slow start, he says the Netherlands has been Europe’s top cycling nation since 1911. He cites a passage from the 1999 Dutch Bicycle Master Plan which says cyclists made up 70-90% of traffic in Dutch cities in the 1930s.

It’s important not to underestimate the popularity of cycling in the Netherlands before the 1970s. The Netherlands hasn’t had 40 years of being pro-bike, it’s had 100 years of being pro-bike…

Mr Reid goes on to argue that the reason for cycling’s popularity is, in the words of social historian Anne Ebert, because it is an “important object for Dutch national identification”. She says:

The tremendous success of the bicycle in the Netherlands can be at least partly explained by the particular way in which the bicycle was constructed and conceived as a promoter of Dutch national identity. To be Dutch meant to cycle, and this viewpoint remained prevalent until the Second World War, and – arguably to a lesser degree – remains so to this day.

Whether it’s cause or effect isn’t clear, but Mr Reid says the Dutch started building dedicated bicycle paths in the 1890s. They were provided in part to separate cyclists from pedestrians and horse traffic, but also to provide routes for what were the fastest vehicles at the time:

By the 1920s it had been laid down in National Law that the construction of these separate cycle paths was mandatory on roads with more than 500 cyclists passing per day. When the cyclists’ union looked back in the 1930s to three decades of practise, they were very satisfied that this solution had also improved overall road safety.

BITRE’s estimate of the level of cycling in Australia prior to the 1950s is approximate because there’s not much data to draw on. But the circa 5% mode share estimate in the 1930s isn’t trivial; it’s the same as the share of all trips carried by trains in greater Sydney today (5.4%).

Of course like Wynyard or Flinders St stations at peak hour, there would’ve been particular locations (and times) where cycling’s share was much higher and others where it was much lower.

Given the shortcomings in the available data, the possibility that cycling did better prior to the 1950s than BITRE calculates can’t be ruled out. (1)

One reason I’m inclined to think it’s probably a reasonable estimate though is that bicycles were very expensive in Australia when they first came on the market. The ABS Year Book 2001 says they were a luxury item for most people at the time of Federation. (2)

A new bicycle…cost the equivalent of more than seven weeks wages (in 1901) whereas today you can buy a good quality bicycle for…less than half a week’s wages.

Another reason is secondary sources like old photos and films don’t provide much evidence that cycling was a bigger force historically than BITRE estimates (e.g. Sydney 1906Melbourne 1910 and Melbourne 1954). I know it was big in some provincial centres but even 5% might be generous in the major cities.

Hopefully readers can help, but the only photo I could find showing a high level of urban cycling for transport purposes is the one in the second exhibit from the book Wheeling Matilda by Jim Fitzpatrick.

It’s from WW2 when BITRE says cycling got up towards 10% mode share nationally. That’s small compared to the claims made for the Netherlands but it’s still very impressive; it’s equivalent to public transport’s mode share today averaged across all Australia’s capital cities.

If Wheeling Matilda is right, cycling seems to have been mostly a sporting, recreational and rural phenomenon rather than an urban transport one and lasted for a relatively short period, yielding quickly to the car after WW1.

According to Jim Fitzpatrick, the decline in rural cycling in Australia began at the end of WW1 due to the “increasing availability, reliability, affordability and comfort of motor vehicles”.

Making cycling in Australia more attractive by an order of magnitude or more will require both better infrastructure and strong constraints on car use. We’re not the Netherlands though; the bike has a different history here and occupies a different cultural niche. The role of cycling and the way it’s implemented is bound to be different in Australia’s future.


  1. While one could instead make a guess (or perhaps more commonly assume what fits one’s priors!), I put greater store by the more rigorous approach adopted by historians when dealing with matters where wholly reliable data isn’t available.
  2. It would be useful to know how the price of bicycles influenced the take-up of cycling in the Netherlands. Carlton Reid reports that the Netherlands lagged the rest of Europe in cycling until 1911.
Why aren't there many more photos like this? A Melbourne street during WW2 rush hour (source: Wheeling Matilda)
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11 thoughts on “How big was cycling in Australia in the past?

  1. Alan Davies

    Daniel Oakman #8:

    Ergo, people didn’t walk to work, right?

    Finding historical images of people walking isn’t at all hard; e.g. just take a look at the three videos I linked to in the article.

    Finding images of utilitarian cycling is much harder. Last week I had a look at a large exhibition of photos taken in Brisbane between 1890-1840 by Alfred Elliott. Very few cyclists I’m afraid.

  2. Mairi Rowan

    My grandfather rode his bike to Queensland from Gippsland and back, before WW1, a great uncle rode from Gippsland to Ballarat and home again at least twice, and my mother rode her bike to work every day in the Strezleckis, as well as to dances, etc before WW2.

    For people who didn’t keep horses, the bike was the go to form of personal transport, and they were much fitter than us.

  3. michael r james

    As I have repeatedly written, using Amsterdam (or anywhere in the Netherlands) or Copenhagen as models for Australia, or pretty much anywhere, is not instructive for some of the reasons given by #1 Peter Vella. Our cities are just too different and we’re at a very different starting point. That is why Paris is the better model and where they have succeeded against all expectation of (re-)introducing the cycle (Velib). That began with inner Paris in 2007 and now is being extended to the suburbs, as they simultaneously greatly expand their rail-based PT in the suburbs (of a city of 12m). Like them we’ve got to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time!

    Of course car use will have to be modified but so what? That is on any urban planners priority list (if not our current PMs: “WestConnex will make motorists so happy they’ll be singing in their cars”). The inept attempt to bring Velib to Melbourne and Brisbane also shows it. Building proper cycle infrastructure will be one of the least expensive attempts to improve our city’s mobility and could easily be justified–paradoxically, just in the easing of congestion on the roads. Public transport is the biggie but in Australia especially (compared to those smaller and much more compact Scandi-cities) there is a role for cycling (Velib type schemes) to get to and from the suburban stations.

    Bike ownership is probably already >5% but security on the roads and security of bikes (both private and Velib) need to improve before higher ridership can be achieved. There is also a veritable technological revolution in bicycles (e-bikes) which will help.

    Overnight another Australian, Richie Porte, won another French cycle classic (Paris-Nice).

  4. Daniel Oakman

    Apologies for another post, but this is an intriguing topic.

    If you thinking finding pictures of lots of people biking to work is hard, try finding historical images of people walking to work and school!

    Ergo, people didn’t walk to work, right?

  5. Daniel Oakman

    I’d love to find some reliable transport stats on bicycle usage pre-WWII. What are the sources and methodology behind the stats gathered and quoted here?

    Historic cycling injury/fatality statistics are similarly hard to find. Look at old newspapers, they are filled with ads for bikes and bike products. Australia supported a huge range of cycling manufacturers in every major town and city. Cycling clubs were also large and widespread.

    For arguments sake: in 1939, around 80 cyclists were killed in NSW alone. Even allowing for population changes and the increasing number of cars at that time, one might conjecture that there was a lot more cycling going on to generate this kind of fatality rate.

    – The photographic archive needs to be approached with caution. Photography was expensive and people did not tend to photograph the everyday. Why take a picture of people cycling – too boring. If linked a couple of exceptions. In my view, cycling until the mid-1940s was so pervasive that it was almost invisible. I suggest that the stats similarly miss this usage. Stats also tended to ignore children, which were a bigger segment historically.

    Fascinating article, but I think we are a long way from understanding the detailed history of cycling in this country and we should not project our post-war antipathy for cycling onto the past.

    Anyway, here’s a photo or two from Queensland for interest.

    Daniel Oakman
    Curator of Freewheeling: Cycling in Australia

  6. jimpintin

    The WW2 spike/Melbourne photo may be to do with wartime petrol shortages. Expect continued resistance to bikes from the elderly and infirm, suburban dwellers with child care pick up and grocery shopping responsibilities and people who prefrer not to get wet on rainy days. Wonderful for the young inner city and childless though.

  7. john doe

    The graphic does not depict this I know.

  8. john doe

    In the article it says currently the level of cycling in Australian cities is less than 1%. Historically it was as high as 10% during WWII. A decline has occurred in the interim period between WW11 until the present day. Did a sharp decline occur when mandatory helmet laws were introduced. It may be a little off topic sorry.

  9. Alan Davies

    John Doe #2:

    Mandatory bicycle helmet laws weren’t brought in in Australia until the early 1990s.

  10. john doe

    Would mandatory helmet legislation have lowered the bicycle participation rate in Australia. Australia and New Zealand are the only countries that require universal use of helmets.

  11. Peter Vella


    One thing I have noticed about different cities is the type of core the city has. When I first arrived in Stockholm, I was very confused about where the CBD actually was. There is no CBD in the Australian sense – Stockholm is a residential core city, totally different from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane etc, which all have tall office buildings in the CBD.

    Stockholm is more like a Canberra or Hobart in this regard. With high levels of people living in the city core, does this affect mode share? An observation is that the homes of cyclists are very high in the city core and inner city areas.

    Is is more a case of the city centre simply has more residential in European cities than in Australian and American cities?

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