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Cycling

Sep 5, 2017

Can Melbourne be the new Amsterdam?

It’s an appealing meme, but the idea Australian cities could replicate the experience of Amsterdam if only they had the political will is harder than it might look

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

The “old” Amsterdam; cycle city

Here’s a meme that pops up in social media every other week:

When it comes to cycling, the argument your city is not like Amsterdam is invalid. 50 years ago, neither was Amsterdam.

Sometimes the cited city is Groningen or Assen, but in all cases the point being made is that the Dutch were headed down the path of high car use in the 1970s, but deliberately chose as a matter  of policy to step back and put a greater emphasis on cycling (see How come the Dutch got cycle paths and not us?).

Driving is still the majority mode, but cycling has around 27% mode share in the Netherlands, compared to less than 1% in Australia. The mode share of cycling for the journey to work is 40% in Amsterdam, 34% in Utrecht, 24% in Eindhoven, 22% in Rotterdam, and 14% in The Hague. It’s 2% in Melbourne and 1% in Sydney (see How big was cycling in Australia in the past? and Which cities in the world are the most “bicycle-friendly”?).

The message is Dutch cities aren’t unique; there aren’t special or structural explanations for the Dutch cycling miracle. Any city can do what Amsterdam did if it takes action! Unsurprisingly, advocates who earn their livelihood from cycling or urbanism put this meme on heavy social media rotation.

So, can Australian cities “go Dutch”? Is there nothing other than lack of political will stopping Melbourne and Australia’s other cities from achieving Amsterdam-like cycling levels?

I think we can increase cycling significantly in Australia, but it’s usually a mistake to think that we can replicate someone else’s experience. A similar argument could’ve been put in the immediate post-war era – and in many cases was – that every city could choose to rely almost entirely on cars. Yet even in the US where some cities achieved this outcome, the mode share of cars in NYC for the journey to work is small; now around 26%.

Clearly there are other forces at play – like legacy densities and infrastructure – that have a big influence on the extent to which any city can “choose” to change travellers’ behaviour. There are big variations in the level of cycling across European cities too; the mode share for the journey to work is 2% in Barcelona, 12% in Hamburg and 30% in Copenhagen. The fact that 40 years ago “Amsterdam wasn’t Amsterdam ” doesn’t logically mean that other cities can do over the next 40 years what Amsterdam did in the past.

An important factor for Australian cities is we don’t have anything like the tradition of cycling in the Netherlands. Cyclists made up 70% to 90% of traffic in Holland in the 1930s. The Dutch have been pro-bike for 100 years, not just since the 1970s. According to social historian Anne Ebert, the bicycle is an “important object for Dutch national identification” (see How big was cycling in Australia in the past?).

I’m afraid there’s no evidence that cycling was ever particularly big in Australia so it’s never been seen as a natural alternative to driving. Even in World War 2, with fuel rationing and other privations, the Bureau of transport, infrastructure and regional economics estimates cycling’s mode share was under 10%. It’s just never been regarded as being as useful here as it has been in the Netherlands.

The cost of driving relative to incomes was historically much higher in the Netherlands, making cycling relatively more attractive. Australian cities are also larger and less dense. We seem intent on keeping them that way and extending their reach into the regions; that’s made driving relatively more attractive than other options. Aside: it would be interesting to compare the quality of public transport in Australian cities with Dutch cities over the last 100 years or so to see if it was a factor bearing on the relative attractiveness of cycling.

It’s generally argued that pedestrians being run over by drivers in the 60s and 70s was one of the key reasons that political support could be rallied in the Netherlands to take action to reduce the competitiveness of cars and promote cycling. Australia also experienced high casualty rates in that era but the response was to make roads and cars safer. It’s a much less potent issue in Australia now; road deaths peaked at 30 per 100,000 persons in 1970 and fell continuously to 7 per 100,000 by 2009 (see How come the Dutch got cycle paths and not us?).

And here’s one that tends to be underplayed; topography has a big influence on the level of cycling and Dutch cities are very flat – see Is cycling so successful in Amsterdam because it’s as flat as a pancake? While they have flat parts, Australian cities have a more varied topography; even parts of Melbourne’s CBD are steep by the standards of Amsterdam. Riding a Dutch-style 20 kg bike with just three gears – or just one in the case of oBikes – up the northern end of Collins or Bourke St is a big ask for someone who’s a casual rider (see What are the prospects for dockless bike share in Australia?).

The mode share of cycling in Australian cities depends in part on how travellers view factors like the effort involved, exposure to weather, and danger of cycling on roads. It also depends in part on the competitiveness of the alternatives i.e. cars, public transport and walking. The Dutch cycling miracle wasn’t the result of a dictatorship; it happened because of political pressure. A key issue for Australian cities is to identify what would motivate travellers to willingly forego the ease of other modes and take up cycling on the scale of Amsterdam.

Of course Australian cities don’t have to emulate Dutch cities in order to do much better; if cycling were to achieve (say) a 10% mode share across Australia’s capitals that would be hugely beneficial for urban life if it were mostly at the expense of driving. It’s equivalent to what public transport averages across our capital cities at the moment. I think we’ll see a lot more two-wheelers in the future, but I expect that unlike Amsterdam today, they’ll mostly be motorised e.g. electric scooters.

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13 thoughts on “Can Melbourne be the new Amsterdam?

  1. Michael

    Many commentators and self-interested academics who are paid to think up ways to make us safer cannot see the wood for the trees; mandatory all age helmets are the ONLY difference between Australia/New Zealand and the rest of the world, to say otherwise is to look for excuses to support the continuation of mandatory helmet laws when they are an obvious failure.
    After 25 years of mandatory helmets Australia ranks at the bottom of ridership as a percentage population and we rank right up there near the top with the most rider injuries as a percentage of population.
    Many European cities are similar to Melbourne and Sydney, pick any one of 10 cities in Great Britain and even with their appalling weather and worse traffic than Australia and better public transport than Australian they have many more riders and lower injury rates.
    In 1970 when I was in form 4 at an outer Melbourne high School with 800 students I did a geography (or was it social studies?) survey on how everybody got to school, there were 298 bikes in the bike racks, today there are less than 15 bikes in the bike racks each day. That same school has recently been the subject of much upgrading, the new bike racks have 20 spaces only that being an official recognition of an expectation that a maximum of no more than 3% of students will ride bikes.
    On a recent trip to Orebro Sweden (pop. 115,000) a high school with 500 students had over 300 pushbikes in the “bike yard”, and whilst it was not snowing it was a wet and miserable day. Almost all the bikes were upright “city bikes” of the “Dutch pattern” with mudguards and pack racks, hardly a racing type bike to be seen.
    When Australian and New Zealand governments brought in mandatory all age push bike helmet laws they advertised widely, the clear message was that riding pushbikes is very dangerous and you must wear a helmet if you are going to survive. Then, rather than put helmets on the child all sensible and caring parents took the child of the bicycle.
    It really is time for academia, social commentators and particularly our parliamentarians to accept the fact that here in Australia the safest place to ride a pushbike with the highest percentage of push bike ridership is Darwin and the telling fact is that Darwin has relaxed adult helmet laws.
    To put it another way the rest of the world are not stupid and they are reaping the benefits of having voluntary push bike helmet usage, the benefits are much lower population wide health, accident and injury costs, less traffic congestion, better environmental outcomes and lower total infrastructure costs because catering for cars and public transport is far more expensive than putting in bike infrastructure.
    Here in Australia mandatory helmet laws have reduced ridership to the point where the majority of people who ride bikes are the brave young men (some would say stupid) who don lycra and ride competition derived bikes in and out of the traffic or groups who gather for social fitness activity who ride their bikes in “packs” on the road.
    Australia and New Zealand have all but lost the casual day to day ridership, riding to school, riding to sport practice, the trip to the shops, around the corner to a friends place, the few kilometres to work or the transport hub, all are thing of the past and the drop-off commenced with mandatory helmet laws.
    Mandatory all age helmet laws have been the rule in Australia and New Zealand for so long now that we have a complete generation of motorists who think anybody who rides a bike is an absolute nut on a death wish, compare this to countries that have voluntary helmet usage where almost everyone rides a pushbike when they are young so they grow up with an understanding and friendly respect for those who continue to ride bikes as adults.
    And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the rest of the world are not stupid.

  2. Jacob HSR

    They could have built cycleways in Docklands though. The new streets warrant double track tram lines but not a cycleway?

    A lot of residential streets can probably be converted into one-way roads, which would then allow cycleways to be built. And lithium ion batteries are cheaper than ever – enabling even those with weak or damaged legs to commute by bicycle.

    1. Michael

      Jacob, true enough and the reason is that there are not enough cyclists to justify the infrastructure.
      After 25 years of being told that bikes are so dangerous you must wear a helmet we have a now adult generation that believes cyclists are akin to motorcyclists – temporary Australians

  3. S.Flood

    Betteridge’s law of headlines probably applies, but in the spirit of optimism I’ll comment. It can get a whole lot better, participation rates could easily quadruple within a year, if just one piece of legislation is changed. Killing the mandatory helmet law. With it still in place, cycling will continue remain stifled and marginal. It’s been nearly thirty years, and all attempts to increase ridership have failed, because of the delusion that the general population will magically be happy to wear an ugly plastic hat. It is not happening. You can have non enthusiasts on bikes, or you can have plastic hats, not both.

    1. Alan Davies

      S.Flood, I disagree. There’s no convincing body of evidence one way or the other that the helmet law significantly affects the level of cycling (it definitely affects bike share but (a) Amsterdam achieved high cycling without bike share and (b) bike share’s percentage of all cycling trips is small). There are other grounds for objecting to the helmet law, but suppressing cycling significantly isn’t one of them. Sadly, there’s a huge amount of disinformation in Oz around this issue.

      See Is the bicycle helmet law such a big deal?

      1. Stephen Flood

        Alan, “There’s no convincing body of evidence one way or the other that the helmet law significantly affects the level of cycling” that is simply bunk. You are sticking your finger in your ears going “lalala” because you don’t like the answer. I was commuting by bike when the law came in. Every single one of my friends stopped riding after the first ticket, never to return. I watched something I LOVE ( and I don’t use that word lightly ) turned from something everybody did into a niche ‘sport.’ If you want evidence try this: go to any high school and count the bikes in the racks. Then go find a picture of said racks prior to 1989. The claim “it doesn’t put people off ” is simply not true.

        1. Alan Davies

          On the contrary Steven, I’ve looked closely at the evidence, including going back and looking at the frequently cited studies that were done when the law was introduced. Read the link I provided in my comment above and read this article I wrote in 2014, Should repealing the bicycle helmet law be a priority?

          Re your comments about cycling to high school back in 1989, note that the best evidence we’ve got suggests only around 10% of Melbourne high school students cycled to school in 1987 and there was enormous variability between schools – see Did students cycle to school back in the day? Walking and public transport use also fell significantly over the succeeding decades and I don’t think you can attribute that to the helmet law; something bigger was going on.

          The key question though is: Would repeal of the law today lead to a big increase in the proportion of high school children cycling to school? I think not: we’ve had the law for over 25 years and these kids have known nothing else. It’s part of the furniture. Even their parents mostly grew up with it. I’m not an advocate of the law, but I think it’s a second order issue – what’s way, way more likely to increase cycling is better infrastructure.

          1. Michael

            On the contrary Alan, with respect me thinks you have been reading too much of the “same material”, have a look at British medical Journal “Canadian bike helmet study”.
            The continued Academic and “safety industry” support for mandatory pushbike helmets does not pass the pub test and has become self-supporting, Academia and governments are notorious for refusing to admit that they got something wrong.
            If pushbike helmets were so good then after 25 years at least a few countries would have followed but the fact that Australia and New Zealand are still out there on a limb by themselves speaks volumes.

  4. meltdblog

    Support and design (infrastructure) for cycling as part of the transport mixture is wildly different between councils,. Melbourne City and Yarra Councils have made big efforts with densely connected networks and crucially modal filtering to reduce through traffic on routes intended for cycling and discourage short distance car use by making their journeys longer. We already have a general pattern of local shopping in Melbourne, but pedestrian and bicycle access to them needs improvement rather than forcing people into cars due to a lack of crossing and paths.

  5. oz4lca

    Cars for many Melbournians are a major element in their need to display wealth, as well as displaying a form of self expression and self esteem. For some people, where the car is parked, relative to the office entrance is also perceived as an additional display element and mark of success.
    One wonders whether the Dutch, and how many Europeans may have a different mind set.

  6. Ian McKendry

    Thanks Alan. You’ve canvassed issues here that I’ve bored my friends about for years – in the teeth of the incessant, poorly-understood whining from the pro-cycling push that it’s simply a matter of transforming Melbourne into Amsterdam. The long history of cycling in The Netherlands compared with our non-existent cycling heritage is not often cited, and nor is the topography.
    Cyclists in Amsterdam *rarely* need to ride to work in 30+ heat, either.
    I still can’t understand why our cycling culture has been so strongly captured by the ‘Tour de France’ Lycra approach, with daily PB time trials making the commute yet another exercise in tiresome alpha male competitiveness.

    1. Jacob HSR

      Ian, it is a case of built it and they will come. Did Dubai have a railway before 2005? Nope. Do lots of people use the Dubai railway now? Yes.

      In Vic, they will not even build a cycleway from North MEL station to Southern Cross Station! Nor from Jolimont Station to Richmond Station. Before you say “people should try to enter a severely overcrowded train at North MEL station”, think of the obesity crisis!

      Lithium ion batteries have crashed in price and now enable a lot more people to commute by bicycle/skateboard – if only there was a cycleway tunnel. A cycleway tunnel would be a lot cheaper than a road tunnel which both sides of politics love.

    2. Michael

      Ian, my mother is 95 – today I asked her about bikes – she said:
      “There were 6 of us kids and only 4 bikes so we fought every day over who would have to dink the two youngest ones to school. Almost everybody except the kids in calipers rode to school. Mum and dad used our bikes when they wanted and it meant one or two more of us kids had to dink. It was hard when we were little because all the bikes were big, I do not recall children’s size bikes.”