Mode shares, inner suburban Melbourne (source data: VISTA)
Mode shares for all trip purposes, inner suburban Melbourne (source data: VISTA 2012/13)

If the Greens wins the July 2 Federal election, the party proposes to “establish an annual $250 million Active Transport Fund” to build cycling and walking infrastructure across the country.

That’s terrific and it’s more than any other party’s promised; still, it’s only one tenth of the $2.5 Billion p.a. the Greens are promising to spend nationally on public transport projects over the next four years. And it’s underwhelming when considered in the light of the cost-effectiveness of cycling and its potential to maintain and even improve mobility as our cities get denser.

Cycling and walking are already significant modes in Australian capital cities, especially Melbourne. For example, 30.4% of all weekday trips in the inner suburbs of Melbourne are made by these two modes compared to 12.4% by all forms of public transport (see here for map of rings; inner suburbs is roughly 10 km radius). (1)

Cycling is an especially promising mode for Australian cities because even the inner suburbs are relatively low density compared to European cities and therefore entail long average trip distances.

Yet it’s already doing remarkably well. The exhibit shows cycling accounts for 5% of all weekday trips in inner suburban Melbourne; that’s bigger than either bus (1.4%) or tram (4.3%), and approaching the mode share of trains (7.1%).

That’s impressive given the persistently high levels of car ownership in inner suburbs. It’s especially impressive given the small investment in cycling infrastructure in Australian cities – and the low operating costs –compared to other modes.

Cycling has real potential to deal with one of the biggest challenges in inner and middle ring suburbs experiencing increases in population density from redevelopment; providing mobility without congestion.

We know that in the right circumstances cycling can win a very large share of all trips. For example, it’s used for circa 40% of trips in Amsterdam where its mode share is larger than either private transport or public transport. There are reasons why it’d be hard for our cities to reach that sort of mode share but, given the right infrastructure and regulatory environment, we should be able to do much better than we’re doing now.

There’s a compelling case for a much larger share of available funding to be set aside for cycling. Imagine a dense network of cycle superhighways similar in concept to the motorway networks envisaged by road authorities half a century ago, or to Melbourne’s existing inner suburban tram network (see Is it time our cities got Cycle Superhighways?).

Given a modest amount of road space, cycling is virtually immune to congestion at the sorts of densities that are plausible in Australian cities. Moreover, its environmental footprint is the lowest of any mode; it’s more affordable than any other mode; and it’s at the top of the pile for creating resilient cities.

But there are three more reasons why cycling should get a much bigger share of the funding pie.

First, it’s much more cost-effective than other modes. Consider that the 9 km Melbourne Metro will cost $10.2 Billion and the business plan predicts it will replace 50,000 car trips per day.

That sounds like a lot but even at current patronage levels that would reduce car’s mode share in the Melbourne metropolitan area from 72.6% to just 72.2%. Light rail/trams cost a lot less to build but still range from $30 million to $100 million per kilometre, plus operating costs.

Like rail, cycling also needs special purpose infrastructure (primarily to make it safe from cars), but the great advantage is it’s cheap to build and operate. It costs around $5 million per kilometre to construct a segregated bike path or, where bridges or complex engineering works are required, $10 million/km. Operating costs are low and in any event are mostly met by cyclists themselves.

Second, the advent of affordable power-assisted bicycles means cycling is much less dependent on fitness than it was up until quite recently. The range of travellers – in terms of age and fitness – who can cycle is now much wider than it was a few years ago.

Just as important, topography is also now much less of a constraint. Cities no longer have to be as flat as Amsterdam and Copenhagen in order for cycling to win a high mode share. Moreover, power assistance means cyclists don’t have to shower or change clothes. They can also carry more stuff with them.

Third, cycling is intrinsically appealing to travellers because it’s flexible; in fact it has many of the same characteristics as cars. Unlike conventional public transport, it’s available on-demand, there’s no “first-mile” or “last-mile” problem, it goes direct to the destination without detours, and there’s no waiting or transfers. For many people it has the advantage that it doesn’t require sharing space with strangers.

Public transport is the most efficient mode for carrying large numbers of people to the same place at the same time, but that doesn’t describe most trips. Bicycles are particularly efficient on any measure at connecting dispersed origins and destinations over distances up to circa ten kilometres. That of course is why cars have proven so overwhelmingly popular despite their high private cost.

Cycling isn’t for everybody, though; even in most Dutch cities it doesn’t command a majority of all trips. Many travellers won’t tolerate the exposure to wet or cold weather; the time required for long-distance trips; the unreliability that goes with occasional punctures; or the limited ability to carry passengers or large loads.

What’s a reasonable goal for cycling in Australian cities? Even a mode share comparable to that of public transport (12.4% in Melbourne’s inner suburbs) would be a huge improvement, especially if much of it came at the expense of driving. Given the right infrastructure – and constraints on the use of cars – that seems eminently doable.

Since inner suburban residents will continue to have cars, there’s still a need to implement demand management measures e.g. congestion pricing (see How much do inner city residents love their cars?). The need will be even more pressing because cycling (and trams and buses) will necessarily take some road space away from cars (see also Managing excessive car use: what’s the low hanging fruit?).

There’s a continuing need for improved public transport too. Some prefer it; some can’t or won’t cycle; and some trips are simply too long to cycle. Most of all there’s no other way of moving large numbers of people to the same place at the same time e.g. workers travelling to the CBD.

But it’s not a binary choice between cars on the one hand and trains, trams and buses on the other. Cycling offers a huge opportunity to provide mobility despite traffic congestion. It’s an extraordinarily low-cost option compared to the almost stratospheric costs of expanding road and/or public transport infrastructure. (2)

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  1. Numbers are from the Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel and Activity (VISTA 2012/13).
  2. Cycling is not a solution to traffic congestion any more than motorways or rail lines are (c.f. Paris); eliminating congestion requires some form of rationing e.g. congestion charging. Like the rail system, a network of segregated cycle paths provides mobility despite the existence of traffic congestion.