One of the legends of utility and recreational cycling in Australia, Alan Parker OAM, died on Easter Monday. Alan was a co-founder of the Bicycle Institute of Victoria (now Bicycle Network) in 1974 and more recently a regular commenter on these pages on cycling and other topics.
Alan was way ahead of the times in his vision for cycling in the 1970s and 1980s. Although it was a key mode in the pre-war years, by the 1980s its share of adult travel in the inner and middle suburbs of Australia’s capitals was close to non-existent (see How big was cycling in Australia in the past?).
While there were residual pockets in some outer suburbs and provincial centres – mainly blue collar riders – hardly any adults commuted to the CBD by bicycle in those days (Did Sydneysiders cycle more in the 1980s?). Utility cycling was something mainly done by school children (see Did students cycle to school back in the day?).
Thanks to the efforts of activists like Alan, significant improvements were made to the infrastructure for cycling in the decades since then, especially the extensive network of shared recreational cycling paths built in cities and towns across the country. That’s contributed directly to the rising popularity of cycling for commuting and recreation (see How important is cycling in Australian cities?).
You can read more about Alan’s life and his contribution to cycling in this obituary written by his wife, Doreen Parker, published in The Age last Friday (Alan Parker obituary: Sprocket Man fought for cyclists’ rights on the road). There’s also this post by The Yarra Bicycle User Group (Vale Alan Parker OAM).
It’s potentially useful for policy to think about why, despite the best efforts of Alan Parker and others, cycling as a means of transport (as distinct from recreation) was largely ignored by policy-makers and travellers alike in Australian cities until relatively recently. As welcome as it is, the recent gains made by cycling are modest compared to the significant increase in many Dutch cities starting from the 1960s (see How come the Dutch got cycle paths and not us?)
If back in the 1970s, cities like Sydney and Melbourne had the same level of cycling infrastructure as they have today, would cycling have been as popular as it is now? I expect it would’ve done better than it did, but I doubt it would’ve approached today’s levels.
Why not? A key factor, I think, is simply that driving was easier then. While it was more costly in real terms than it is today, it was getting cheaper relative to incomes compared to prior decades. Traffic congestion was less of an issue, too.
Driving was still a plausible option for near-CBD and inner city peak hour travel. There was also less competition for parking. Driving to near-CBD jobs and universities wasn’t easy but it was more feasible than it is today. (1)
Outer suburban and regional city blue collar workers who were (relatively) large users of bicycles at the time for commuting started buying cars. They cycled because it was cheap; driving was regarded as infinitely superior and preferred as the real cost dropped (see Did the helmet law reduce commuting by bicycle? and The helmet law and commuting in Sydney and Melbourne).
Another factor is Australia didn’t have anything like the historic levels of cycling that countries like the Netherlands did. As driving became progressively harder, there was no cultural tradition nudging travellers toward bicycles (see How big was cycling in Australia in the past? and How come the Dutch got cycle paths and not us?).
Cycling for transport is largely an inner suburban phenomenon today (see Do political values help explain high cycling levels?). But back in the 1970s the CBD was declining as an employment and residential location. The great wave of services employment in the city centre was in its infancy. The knowledge workers who today populate the inner city – and account for a large proportion of utility cycling – were starting to arrive but outside some pockets the conquest was far from complete.
Today, cycling is seen as a way of getting fit and as a means of minimising environmental harm. Both these factors were much less prominent in the 70s and 80s; it seems astonishing today, but 49% of males aged 18- 44 years smoked in 1977!
Cycling was also portrayed as a dangerous activity, especially in the 80s. There was a consensus that it’s a risky activity, ultimately leading to the mandatory helmet legislation passed in all Australian States in the early 1990s with hardly any opposition. (2)
Despite the logic of their case, the early cycling activists faced significant structural obstacles. That cities like Melbourne nevertheless built a major network of shared trails which today play a major part in the city’s cycling network was in large part due to the persistence and political skills of activists like Alan Parker.
More speculatively, I expect that public transport was more comfortable back in the day for CBD workers. On the other hand, perhaps it was less reliable due to more frequent industrial action?
The idea that cycling is dangerous was so firmly embedded in the Australian psyche that even if the helmet laws were repealed tomorrow it mightn’t have as big an effect as opponents imagine on either cycling levels or helmet-wearing rates. The greater part of the “damage” was done by the pro-helmet campaigns of the 1980s; the legislation was the cream on the cake.