Sep 8, 2015

Does cycling get preferential treatment compared to walking?

There's an argument that cycling gets a disproportionate share of attention compared to other modes with much greater use like walking and public transport. But it's not really a puzzle.

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

[caption id="attachment_47075" align="aligncenter" width="560" caption="Melbourne City Council's 2014 - 2017 Walking Plan cites this scene as an example of pedestrian crowding that needs to be addressed by policy makers"][/caption] In their 20102 analysis of the journey to work, Transport Policy at the Crossroads: Travel to work in Australian capital cities 1976-2011, Paul Mees and Lucy Groenhart noted that "cycling is of negligible importance" for commuting and "higher cycling rates are usually accompanied by lower walking rates". They went on to say:
Cycling receives much more attention from policy makers than walking, even though it plays a much smaller role in the journey to work: one possible reason is that cycling is by far the most male-dominated transport mode, reflecting the gender composition of the transport planning profession.
I agree that cycling currently gets more policy and media focus than walking when it comes to commuting. But I think there are more straightforward explanations than the one advanced by the authors. The key one is Australian cities already have a massive historical legacy of segregated walking infrastructure – primarily footpaths or nature strips – so the “catch up” we’re seeing with cycling infrastructure isn’t anywhere near as pressing. (1) Moreover new suburbs in Australia are constructed with dedicated footpaths on both sides of streets as a matter of course. Commuters can walk to the bus stop or station without sharing road space; at busy intersections they have access to specialised crossings and/or traffic signals. (2) With only a few exceptions, our footpaths also have a lot of capacity. They were sized with other attributes in mind besides walking; like separation between buildings and room for landscaping. When it comes to walking we’re a bit like Amsterdam is to cycling; there’s room for improvement at the margin – particularly in how we manage what we’ve got – but the basic infrastructure and policy commitment is already there. Another explanation is walking simply doesn’t demand as much of infrastructure as more specialised, mechanised forms of transport like cycling do. For one thing pedestrians move slowly. Another is the human body is enormously flexible and nimble. Pedestrians can instantly and unconsciously calculate efficient paths through moving objects, around obstacles, and over changing terrain. We’ve had millennia of experience of walking in crowds or at least in groups. A large crowd dispersing from an event is a wonder of efficient shifting and sorting; it’s what the most optimistic boosters imagine driverless cars will be able to achieve. Another part of the explanation could be that cycling is commonly seen as a potential substitute for driving to work in Australia's relatively dispersed cities whereas walking - other than in the dense centre - mostly isn't. (3) Underlying all this is probably the simple fact that cycling is seen as "new" and exciting (the Scandis are doing it!), while walking is old and reliable; it doesn't need a special skill or even money. None of this means there isn't a need to improve walking for the journey to work and more generally, particularly in relation to safety. Regrettably, 83 pedestrians died on Australian roads in the first six months of this year. The speed of walking is also a problem in some places. For example, in dense locations the priority given to vehicles over pedestrians at traffic lights often doesn't reflect the relative number of travellers using the two modes. There are also instances of pedestrian congestion during peak periods and before and after major events; but we need to be very careful when looking at these sorts of cases to avoid falling into the trap of treating walking like driving. What Melbourne City Council calls pedestrian "crowding" (see exhibit) in it's Walking Plan 2014-17 would certainly constitute congestion if all those people were cars, but for walkers that level of "crowding" isn't within cooee of being a problem. That's the advantage of walking. Both modes need more attention from policy-makers than they're getting, but it's neither a surprise nor a problem that cycling is getting more than walking. _____________
  1. There's also an extensive network of privately provided walking infrastructure built for public use e.g. Emporium Melbourne, Myer.
  2. Indeed, the level of public and private investment in walking infrastructure in publicly accessible spaces, even just for the journey to work, surely exceeds that for cycling by a considerable margin.
  3. For example, only 5% of commutes to workplaces in the City of Melbourne are made by walking (only).

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5 thoughts on “Does cycling get preferential treatment compared to walking?

  1. Oz (Horst) Kayak

    Yes, cycling does get preferential treatment compared to walking in some suburbs of the Melbourne Metropolis. Dedicated marked bike lanes in jurisdictions of inner suburbs such as Yarra, Port Phillip and Melbourne signed more than ten years ago are still generating growth in commuter cycling traffic at far greater rates than in commuter walking.
    There is now enough and significant perception of risk to the walker sharing space with cyclist to invest in active transport infrastructure that safely provides for walking and cycling in the same transport network corridor. Walking frame users are finding less and less safe space that is out of the way from the few cyclists with irresponsible attitudes.

  2. Tom the first and best


    The USA has a serious walking problem. Walking has, outside places like New York, become a place where only the very poorest walk. It is also a heavily racial issue.

  3. Tom the first and best

    There are still significant issues with walking infrastructure in Australia.

    The main issue, other than traffic light priority, is wide unsignalled intersections without physical refuge islands (not the easy for motorists to ignore painted ones). They require pedestrians to be able to get across the intersection more quickly with a wider range of checking having to be done at once and also having to wait if only one direction is clear.

    Traffic lights with pedestrian crossings on not all sides of the intersection is another issue. It means that people who should be able to cross a single side of an intersection have to cross 2 or 3 sides and diagonal crossers are delayed half the time by having half their crossing options removed. It also reduces the pedestrian capacity of the intersection and this can cause issues when it has a higher than normal pedestrian flow (I am thinking specifically about the Dandenong, Chadstone and Poath Rds intersection either side of Christmas day).

  4. wilful

    I don’t have first hand experience of this, but form descriptions, Australia is a million miles ahead of the US in planning for walking. You literally get stopped by the cops just for walking in large swathes of the USA. People will NOT walk one block. It’s quite absurd. I have heard many many stories in this vein.

  5. Jason Murphy

    For policy-makers with tight budgets, cycling stands to substitute at least somewhat for expensive roads, trams and trains.

    Walking mostly doesn’t. Although in Melbourne’s new free tram zone there is now some direct trade-off between walking and tram use…

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