Percentage of population in five largest capital cities who say they cycled in the last week (source data: 2017 National Cycling Participation Survey)

The Advertiser reports that “cycling participation in South Australia has dropped by 20 per cent in the past six years”, from 2011 to 2017:

The number of people riding a bike has this year fallen to 239,000, down from almost 300,000 in 2011, according to the latest National Cycling Participation survey. The annual study found just 14 per cent of South Australians cycled each week – the second lowest of any state behind NSW.

I’ve had a closer look at the results of the biennial National Cycling Participation survey, focussing as is my want on the major urban areas i.e. capital cities. They’re where most of the population lives and where cycling for transport is doing best.

Are things as bad as The Advertiser makes out? The exhibit suggests to me that we should be cautious before assuming the worst. While the trend is down from 2011 to 2017 in all the cities shown, I don’t think we can discount the simple idea that a lot of what we’re seeing is numbers bouncing around from one two-yearly ‘snapshot’ to the next. There are only four data points here.

The data is based on a telephone survey, so it’s subject to all the usual problems with sampling and non-response errors. Variations in weather from year to year and from city to city are likely to have an impact when respondents are asked about cycling in the past week. It weights the data for age and sex in all years according to the distribution at the 2011 Census, so some of the difference between surveys is attributable to the ageing of the population.

The survey only measures participation, not travel:

Participation is defined as the number of individuals who have cycled for any journey or purpose and in any location over a specified time period. By comparison, travel is the number of cycling trips that occurred over that time period, and may include the distance travelled, purpose and so on.

So there might be variations from year to year in total kilometres of travel by bicycle that the survey can’t pick up.

In any event, why should we expect cycling participation to increase or even remain steady? Most of what’s measured by this survey is recreational cycling, which we’ve been doing for decades and decades. It’s a mature activity, it’s not the new kid on the block. Like any leisure activity, it’s likely to be shaped at the margin by changing tastes. Some people might shift to other activities temporarily or, especially as they age, permanently.

And if participation really is declining, does it matter? People might do other things that involve just as much outdoor activity, or as much time with the family, or whatever benefits can be attributed to cycling. What’s important from a city management perspective is the trend in cycling for transport, particularly commuting. This survey is simply too blunt to give us reliable information on that score.

What’s really missing from the ‘doom and gloom’ interpretation of the survey numbers is a plausible theory of why cycling participation would be declining in the first place. Media reports of the dangers of riding might be one reason but that should’ve been the case in earlier surveys too. And why then has cycling increased in Melbourne over the last three surveys despite every fatality getting a prominent airing in the media?

Those in the cycling industry and advocacy groups will interpret the numbers in ways consistent with their interests; while I can’t say for sure what the outlook for cycling is, I can’t see enough in the numbers to lead me to assume the worst. Nor can I see a compelling reason why cycling participation would be in sustained decline.