Proportion of the population reporting having cycled in the last year, month and week

According to this press report, “cycling is on the wane” in Australia. Another observer says “the National Cycling Strategy’s vision of doubling bike rider numbers by 2016 is set for extraordinary failure”.

The source of the concern is the latest (2015) iteration of the National Cycling Participation Survey. It shows the proportion of Australians who said they cycled in the last month declined from 27% in 2011 to 24% in 2015. The proportion who said they’d cycled over the previous twelve months also declined, from 40% to 36%.

The falls are statistically significant and hold for both males and females. They’re concentrated in the population aged 30+.

The National Cycling Participation Survey 2015 has been conducted biannually since 2011 by the Australian Bicycle Council. It’s based on a telephone survey of 8,375 households (including mobile-only households) conducted over a four week period.

There’s no doubt a 4% percentage point drop over four years is an extraordinarily big change; it’s much larger, for example, than the much talked about per capita decline in driving.

But I’m not convinced it’s quite as bad as it looks. What I think is more important is the survey’s finding that the proportion who said they’d cycled in the last week remained steady over 2011-2015 at 17%. (1)

That’s a more reliable indicator; recall of the last week is likely to be much more accurate than over a period of up to a year. In fact the apparent decline over the longer time periods might simply be due to the large variability inherent in trying to remember behavior over such long time frames.

Those who cycled in the last week are also likely to be more committed riders too, so it’s encouraging that the proportion remained stable. With vigorous population growth over 2011-2014, that means the number of riders in this group grew strongly in absolute terms.

Many of them – 30% – say they cycle for transport purposes (as distinct from recreation); that’s down on 32% in 2011 but the difference isn’t statistically significant. On the other hand, the proportion who cycle for recreation did increase significantly; from 81% to 85% (some did both).

Nevertheless, these are impressive numbers. They mean that according to the survey, around 14% of the nation’s population cycled in the last week for recreation and 5% for transport. That’s already well ahead of many other forms of active recreation. (2)

The failure to deliver on the undertaking to double the share of Australians cycling between 2011 and 2016 isn’t a problem in my opinion; it was a preposterous idea to begin with. It defined success as increasing the proportion of the population who cycled in the last year from 40% to 80% over 2011-2016. That was just plain silly.

Still, it’s disappointing that cycling isn’t growing any faster than population growth, especially for transport use.

We obviously don’t know for sure why that’s the case, but there are various explanations for the slow-down: some put it down to factors like insufficient progress with building segregated cycling infrastructure; others point the finger at the mandatory helmet law.

Perhaps other forms of active recreation were more successful in recent years in stealing participants at the margin. Maybe other modes of transport became relatively more attractive.

The authors of the survey thinks the main reason is that Australians are getting older (see also Are Australians cycling less?):

It is possible that the gradual ageing of the Australian population has contributed to the participation trend, and this may increase in future as the Australian population continues to age. The strong correlation between age and cycling participation means that over time, all else being equal, we would expect cycling participation to decline.

Whatever the reason, it’s really of little concern if cycling is losing ground at the margin for recreational purposes. It’s already a very popular active leisure pursuit; if it has to make some room for other active interests then from a social perspective that shouldn’t be a problem. (3)

I’m more interested in the potential role of cycling as a mode of transport. The key point to note I think is that the survey is about cycling by all Australians. It includes the country and suburbs where cycling is at a disadvantage relative to other modes and where the sorts of demographics that currently support cycling aren’t strong.

Cycling is weaker in these areas even in high cycling European countries. But other indicators suggest cycling for transport is making real progress in certain areas in Australia (inner city), for particular purposes (commuting), and among certain demographics (younger people, professionals).

I’m not worried by the results of the survey because cycling is already doing well in the “markets” where it’s got competitive strengths. It can do much better if greater attention is given to mitigating constraints – most especially in relation to perceptions around safety – holding back the next cohort of prospective riders.


  1. While the proportion reporting they cycled in the last week fell from 18.2% in 2011 to 17.4% in 2015, the change is not statistically significant.
  2. I’m not entirely convinced by the finding that 5% of Australians cycled for transport within the last seven days. I’d like to know the definition of “transport”. If cyclists out for a Sunday morning recreational/fitness ride stop for coffee, is that counted in the survey as riding for transport purposes?
  3. There might be cause for concern if cycling is being replaced by inactive pursuits but we don’t know that’s the case and  even if it were, it might not be such a worry after all; see Americans are finally eating less.