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Cycling

Sep 5, 2017

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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.

Cycling

Aug 30, 2017

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The trend is sensitive to the time-frame selected – imports of children’s bicycles, Australia (source data: ACPF)

The Guardian reported yesterday that imports of children’s bicycles are “plummeting”, sparking fears that children are exercising less:

The number of children’s bicycles imported into Australia for sale has fallen by 22% in the past decade, prompting concern that children are not being encouraged to be active. The data shows that 492,000 child bikes were imported by wholesalers in 2007-08, compared with 382,000 in 2016-17.

The Guardian’s story is based on a media release, Decade decline in children’s bike sales points to crisis of physical inactivity, put out yesterday by cycling industry lobby group, the Australian Cycling Promotion Foundation (ACPF). The organisation pins the blame on children being driven to school:

The Australian Cycling Promotion Foundation is concerned that it has become too hard for children to be active as part of their daily trips to school and other local destinations.

Regular readers know I’m bullish about the potential for small, slow two-wheelers to improve transportation within cities. But I’m not as convinced that the outlook for children cycling is as gloomy as the ACPF paints it.

Some points to consider:

First, the numbers cited by ACPF are for bicycle imports. They’re presumably a fair guide to sales and hence of great interest to the members of the ACPF, but they don’t measure, as the ACPF and others claim, the number of children riding “to school or other local destinations”.

Second, “plummeting” seems an exaggeration. The data is sensitive to the time frame and the ACPF is selective in the years it chooses to compare i.e. 2007/08 vs 2016/17. If the start of the period is instead taken as a year later, the trend is close to flat. Or if the period is selectively taken as from 2008/09 to 2015/16, the trend is strongly upward. This might be more about annual fluctuations than anything else.

Third, imports of bicycles vary from year to year in other countries too. For example, imports in the UK were constant over 2012-2015, but fell 11% in 2016. There were 17.4 million bicycles sold in the US in 2015; that was down substantially on sales of 19.8 million in 2005, but much higher than the 14.9 million sold in 2009.

Fourth, it’s unlikely the pattern of annual imports has anything to do with fewer children cycling to primary school. Back in 2009/10, the Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel and Activity (VISTA) showed only 3% of children in Melbourne cycled to primary school. That’s not a large share of school travel. The VISTA data for 2013/14 shows the proportion is still 3%.

Fifth, there are many reasons why sales might fluctuate from year to year e.g. prices, weather, incomes. 

Sixth, if it turns out the 2016/17 import figure really does presage a significant and sustained decline in children’s bicycle sales in future years, the idea that children are cycling less wouldn’t be the only possible explanation. For example, it might be the market is approaching saturation; note that according to the ACPF’s figures, a whopping 4.4 million children’s bicycles were imported into Australia over the last 10 years. Or it might be that other recreational fashions, like scooters, might displace cycling for some children.

The industry naturally worries about drops in sales of bicycles from year to year because it affects members’ livelihoods, but I’m not convinced that necessarily means children are riding substantially less (see also Is cycling really declining in Australia?). However I agree with the ACPF that conditions for cycling – in particular, better infrastructure – need to continue to improve to induce travellers of all ages to cycle.

The bigger issue, though, is the decline in walking to primary school. Many more children walk to primary school than cycle and always have; walking of course has similar social benefits to cycling. VISTA shows 22% of Melbourne children walked to primary school in 2008/09; by 2013/14 the proportion had fallen to 20% (see How many students cycle to school?).

I’ve canvassed before the reasons why walking to primary school in Australia fell from around two thirds of all students in the early 1970s (see Why has walking to school stumbled so badly?). They both have an important role, but not withstanding my optimism for cycling more generally, my sense is walking (and in due course automated public transport) has more potential to replace car trips for primary schoolers than bicycles.

Cycling

Jun 20, 2017

5 comments

Parked dockless share bikes offered by competing companies – I took this pic in Shanghai earlier this month, but they’re in all the major cities in China. They’re not always parked as neatly as this

Shortly after the Victorian Government threw another $4.9 million at struggling Melbourne Bike Share (MBS) in this year’s budget, Singaporean company oBike commenced a pilot in Melbourne of its dockless bike share system.

Dockless bikes are now a common sight in a number of places e.g. China, Singapore and a handful of US cities. Multiple companies in Chinese cities compete for the custom of travellers (see exhibit). What distinguishes dockless bikes from conventional bike share like MBS is they don’t require docking stations; the bike is left wherever the journey finishes. Travellers find available bikes (wherever they might be) by an app on their smartphone.

It seems courageous to introduce another bike share system in Melbourne given the lacklustre performance of MBS, but oBike has a number of advantages for both riders and governments. The key one is flexibility. Provided there are enough bikes in the fleet – and oBike says it’s looking to provide as many as 10,000 – travellers in the inner suburbs should theoretically have little trouble finding one within a reasonable walk.

Having a big fleet with what is effectively an infinite number of stations will address one of the main problems with MBS; it only has 600 bikes and 50 docking stations, confining it to the city centre. From the public’s point of view, oBike has another big advantage over MBS; it doesn’t require a direct government subsidy. The cost of setup and operation is carried by the company rather than taxpayers.

There are nevertheless serious risks for oBike. The key one is Victoria’s mandatory helmet law. The company is providing helmets with each bike, but it’s not clear if Melburnians are prepared to tolerate such intimate body contact with strangers. It might be telling that providing free helmets didn’t give much of a boost to MBS or to Brisbane’s similarly underperforming CityCycle scheme.

That suggests the helmet law might not be the only potential problem. Even if oBike were exempt from the law, there mightn’t be enough customers brave enough to cycle on Melbourne’s streets. There’re too many thoughtless drivers and not enough infrastructure to make cycling in Melbourne a fear-free exercise for less experienced riders.

Melburnians also differ in a number of ways from the residents of places like Beijing where dockless schemes have been implemented on a big scale. For one, the tradition of cycling for transport in Australia is relatively weak. Another is those most interested in cycling tend to have their own bikes. And the relatively dense and frequent network of tram services in the inner suburbs (trams are free in the CBD) might make bike share less useful than it is in other places.

The oBikes themselves look good but they’ve got some design problems that could limit their appeal. They’re very heavy and they’re surprisingly small, making them uncomfortable for taller riders. Astonishingly, they don’t have gears (share bikes like MBS usually have three). It’s as if no one from oBike bothered to look at Collins St or Exhibition St.

So, it’s far from self-evident that oBike will be a winner. The criterion for success isn’t simply attracting a lot of riders; had MBS done that it would’ve been hailed a great success. oBike has a much more demanding test; it must be commercially viable. And if it turns out to be a goer, it might well face competition from one or more rival operators. I think the company is wise to do a pilot, although I question how much it can learn from a mere 200 bikes.

Dockless bike share is very new and it’s not clear yet that the model works commercially even in large Chinese cities where the cost of other modes is relatively high (high levels of venture capital funding do not necessarily mean it will be viable). In Melbourne, oBike will have to address the liklihood of high rates of damage and loss in its fleet, as well as the problem of imbalances i.e. bikes tending to left in large numbers at a few key destinations (subsidised schemes like MBS geographically redistribute bikes on a regular basis).

If it succeeds in Melbourne, oBike is likely to create a problem with parking of bikes. The company appears to have shifted much of the cost of storage onto local government, who’ll have to manage the problem of how to accommodate so many bikes without unacceptably compromising the quality of public spaces. That task will be even harder if other operators enter the market. I don’t think it’s necessarily a deal-breaker, but it will be a hot political issue that must be dealt with.

If it proves to be commercially viable, oBike will obviously be providing private benefits for users. However I don’t think the social benefits will be particularly high because the experience with successful bike share schemes elsewhere suggests they don’t reduce car travel by much; bike share mostly replaces trips that would otherwise be made by public transport or walking. On the other hand, it would give the Government the pretext to stop pouring $1 million a year down the MBS greenwashing hole. And anyway, the social costs shouldn’t be very high either.

Cycling

May 22, 2017

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A fantasy cycle route map for the inner suburbs of Melbourne by Adam Mattinson

According to the Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel and Activity (VISTA), 2% of all trips taken by residents of Melbourne on an average weekday are by bicycle. Might not sound like much, but it’s more trips than they take by either tram (1.5%) or bus (1.8%).

Cycling’s share is much higher in suburbs closer to the city centre. It captures 5% of all weekday trips and 9.2% of journeys to work taken by Melburnians living in the inner ring of suburbs i.e. within a radius of 8 – 10 km from the CBD (see How important is cycling in Australian cities?; for a map of rings, see How important is public transport?).

That’s been achieved despite very modest levels of investment in infrastructure and minimal restrictions on driver behaviour. Imagine what could be achieved if Victorian governments were serious about improving safety for cyclists. Imagine if Melbourne had a comprehensive network of safe on-road and off-road cycle paths (see Is it time our cities got cycling superhighway? and Should cycling get a huge increase in funding?).

Imagine if governments committed to the sort of funding Bicycle Network recently recommended to the NSW Government. BN called for investment “in a $1 billion dedicated Bicycle Infrastructure Fund over the forward estimates for the next four years to significantly increase the construction of consolidated networks of separated cycleways, protected intersections and other cycling infrastructure”.

Adam Mattinson, who’s previously developed fantasy network maps for trains and trams in Melbourne, has done the imagining; he’s turned his hand to developing a ‘fantasy’ cycling route map. He says:

I’m a commuter cyclist myself, and I think Melbourne is such a great city for cycling, the topography alone makes it a great option, but it’s often neglected financially, despite the increasing interest as a mode of transport. Other countries have high-quality bicycle route networks, so I thought it’d be interesting to create one for Melbourne.

The map presents the major network as a number of regions, each with its own colour and numbering system to aid navigation. Major on-road and off-road paths are distinguished by the thickness of the lines. The fantasy element comes from imagining these routes are of a high standard e.g. similar to Pigdon Street in Carlton North or the Copenhagen lanes on Swanston Street. Roads like Chapel Street would likely require removing on-road car parking.

Adam used the VicData bicycle path dataset as the basis for his fantasy network:

Looking at the raw data you can see the Capital City Trail acting as a “ring road” with the various waterside offroad trails acting as freeways, then the roads with bike lanes as connector routes. 

The map comes with a collection of road signs to improve navigation, safety and the visibility of cycling (see his Tumblr):

If you were stuck in traffic and saw cyclists zooming past, and saw a sign with a bike route number with your destination on it, it would certainly make the alternative more appealing.

This is a broad-brush network; it’s inevitable that detailed knowledge of local conditions will in some cases suggest change e.g. a slightly different route. Ideas for improvement are welcome; an agreed network would be a powerful tool for cycling advocacy. Unfortunately though the attitude of the incumbent Andrews Government indicates Adam’s vision is sheer fantasy.

Linear cycle route guide for fantasy network, by Adam Mattinson

Cycling

Apr 24, 2017

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Darebin-Yarra Link – expected to be completed in 2017

Victoria’s Andrews Government hasn’t done much to expand cycling infrastructure since it was elected in 2014, so it must be looking forward to the expected completion later this year of the $18 million 1.7-kilometre “missing link” between the Darebin Creek and Yarra trails.

It’s been a long time coming but the Darebin-Yarra Link will be a great asset for pedestrians and cyclists. As Roads Minister Luke Donellan said, “it will safely connect northern suburbs residents to over 600 kilometres of cycling trails across Melbourne”. It’ll give those who live south of the Yarra River better access to the northern trail network too (see “drone view” of route”).

At the local level, residents should finally get a traffic-free way of getting between north and south Alphington (where the primary school is located) without having to cross busy Heidelberg Rd or the rail line. They should get a safe connection to Kew High, the cluster of private schools in Ivanhoe, and the Ivanhoe shopping centre.

Likewise, families on the eastern side of Darebin creek – and mine’s one of them – should finally get a safe connection to the schools and other community services in Alphington. The redevelopment of the Alphington paper mill site will make this connection more valuable.

But “should” isn’t the same as “will”. Astonishingly, there’s no direct access to the new Darebin-Yarra Link for the residents who live closest to it. It’s hard to credit, but the Darebin-Yarra Link is essentially a freeway with limited access; you get on at one end and get off at the other, nothing in between.

Residents of south Alphington – on the western side of the trail – will instead have to back-track to Ivanhoe via Heidelberg Rd in order to get on to the Link. The proposed route is the long way around and so will inevitably put off some walkers and riders. Absurdly, as soon as they’re on the trail they’ll immediately cross the first of the new trail bridges and be returned to their original side of the creek. But the trail will be fenced to separate it from Alphington Grammar and Latrobe Golf Club; they’ll be prevented from getting direct access to their homes!

But the bigger problem is it requires pedestrians and cyclists to use the four-lane bridge over Darebin Creek on Heidelberg Rd. This bridge is not suitable for casual adult cyclists, much less children. Traffic moves fast here because it’s open and because the approaches in both directions are descents. There are no emergency lanes or parking lanes.

The Government presumably knows it’s unsafe and intends to declare the footpaths as shared paths, but they’re exceptionally narrow relative to the volume and speed of traffic. They don’t feel safe for walking, much less for children cycling. There would be very few parents who’d let their children cycle on the footpath even with supervision. I’ve walked this footpath many times; it’s too narrow for cyclists to pass. Trucks and buses are very intimidating for pedestrians. It should’ve been fixed decades ago.

The original plan for the Darebin-Yarra Link provided for the screaming obvious; it envisaged south Alphington residents would get access via Farm Rd (see exhibit). This connection was lost in the protracted negotiations with Latrobe Golf Club over use of the club’s land for the Link. It would only involve building around 40 metres of path from the end of Farm Rd to the main trail, but the club would want it fenced (like the main trail) to prevent public access to its property. But unlocking gates would make it too inconvenient for club members to get to the practice fairway north of the clubhouse.

The main alternative is improving the crossing of Darebin Creek on Heidelberg Rd. This would most likely require a new walking and cycling path on the southern side of the existing road bridge. It could be a free-standing structure or it could be hung off the side of the bridge; either way it would be a multi-million-dollar project.

It might be OK to limit access to a motorway, but the Darebin-Yarra Link isn’t intended for motorised vehicles. It’s accessed by human power, on foot or on bicycle. Providing local access is a key reason why we build shared trails in the first place; it’s fundamental to the idea.

The Government has declared the Darebin-Yarra Link under the Major Transport Projects Facilitation Act. It could be more forthright in insisting on a connection at Farm Rd. The necessity for this short connection to be fenced on both sides is doubtful given public access to the Club’s grounds is possible at present. But politicians are more inclined to spend our money than to take on a political fight that might end badly for them. It’ll be easier to do nothing or promise a bridge that could easily take at least 10 years to be realised.

Update 29 April 2017: The Sunday Age published a story on this issue tonight, Great wall of Alphington: $18 million for new bike path that won’t let locals in.

Cycling

Mar 27, 2017

5 comments

Comparison of injury risks and accident compensation claims, cycling for transport and other activities in NewZealand, 2001–2013 (source: Chieng et al)

Three researchers from the University of Auckland have just published a paper examining how cycling for transport in New Zealand compares in terms of safety with snow sports, rugby, horse-riding, quad bike, and home DIY. The authors conclude:

In terms of moderate injury, cycling is no more dangerous in a statistical sense than many recreational and every day activities, and in some instances is a good deal safer.

The paper, How dangerous is cycling in New Zealand?, by Michael Chieng, Hakkan Lai and Alistair Woodward, is published in the Journal of Transport & Health. It looks at injuries requiring an Emergency Department visit or leading to an accident compensation claim, but not fatalities (summary of paper here).

I’m not convinced the comparison with activities like rugby and snow-boarding is very illuminating and there are in any event serious measurement problems. The researchers are on firmer ground, though, when they argue the absolute risk of injury while cycling is very small:

Taking injuries that lead to claims (for accident compensation), we found these occur roughly 9 times in every 100,000 short urban bike trips; the chance of receiving an injury sufficiently severe to cause a visit to the hospital was similar.

They say that “if you rode a bike three times a week, most weeks, the chances are you would suffer one moderately severe injury every 70 years”.

***

So why, they ask, is fear of injury such a barrier to people in New Zealand and other car-dominated countries taking up cycling, given the statistical risk of injury is “unremarkable”? The answer, according to one of the authors, is cultural:

The bicycle has literally been pushed to the margins and the environment sends a powerful message that such use of the road is unusual, different, and is not valued. The transport norm is reinforced in other ways. For example, cycling promotion campaigns with safety-oriented messages such as “Share the road” have, perhaps unwittingly, strengthened the social framing of cycling as an activity that is inherently dangerous.

It’s an interesting question and I’d say the authors are on the right track. But there’s more to it.

I think the public debate in Australia in the 1980s around the helmet law also contributed to a heightened perception of cycling as an especially dangerous activity. The key thing here though is that it was the debate that moulded attitudes and ‘did the damage’, not the law per se; the controversy cemented the idea of cycling as risky. Even if the law hadn’t passed, I think cycling on roads would still be almost universally seen as dangerous.

Another reason cycling is seen as more dangerous than the numbers suggest could be the high frequency of relatively minor injuries suffered by cyclists – like grazes and bruises from falls – that hurt but don’t necessitate a visit to the emergency department or a compensation claim. There are very few cyclists who haven’t suffered an event like this. Perhaps these small injuries remind cyclists of their vulnerability and amplify the idea that it could’ve been a lot worse.

The behaviour of hostile and unthinking motorists towards cyclists is likely also part of the explanation. But in my view the main reason is simply that we’ve come to see roads as very dangerous for all users.

***

Consider that travelling by car is a lot safer than cycling; according to the authors, “the injury risk per million hours travelled is 75% less for motor vehicles compared with bicycles” (see also Is cycling getting safer?). Yet we still don’t think driving is anywhere near safe enough; we continue to spend huge amounts on initiatives designed to further improve safety.

These initiatives include designing roads and managing traffic to make motoring safer e.g. motorways, black spot programs. We also give enormous attention to improving the safety of motor vehicles e.g. seat belts, multiple air bags, antilock brakes, traction control, electronic stability control, crumple zones. Now there’s a new generation of intelligent safety features being introduced like forward collision warning, automatic brake-assist, blind-spot warning, lane-keeping assist, active head restraints, and automatic tyre pressure monitoring.

It seems our threshold for an acceptable level of motoring safety can never be low enough i.e. it should be zero. So, if we’re prepared to go to inordinate lengths to protect motorists who already have the advantage of metal cages and various safety technologies, is it any surprise that cycling on roads is seen as too dangerous? Is it a surprise when the estimated relative risk of being killed while cycling on Sydney’s roads is around 11-19 times higher than it is in a car (see Is cycling more dangerous than driving?)?

***

The probability of suffering a moderate to severe injury from cycling three times a week might well be only once every 70 years as the authors contend, but it seems that virtually all of those who don’t currently cycle still see that as a risk too far.

The implication for policy-makers is there’s little value to be gained from telling existing and prospective cyclists their fear is irrational. The proper basis for policy is to focus on their sense of perceived safety, just as we do for motorists. That requires actions like constructing separate cycle networks (see Is it time our cities got cycle superhighways?) and, where road space is shared, placing restrictions on the behaviour of motorists e.g. one-metre overtaking laws (see Shouldn’t every state have a one-metre cycling law?).

Cycling

Oct 4, 2016

5 comments

Cycling is growing rapidly in Vancouver
Like Melbourne, cycling is on the up-and-up in the City of Vancouver with the help of better infrastructure – 7% of all trips were made by bicycle in 2015 (source: Streetfilms)

It’s more than two years since I discussed directly the controversial issue of Australia’s mandatory helmet law (Should repealing the helmet law be a priority?). It’s timely to look at it again because in that time it’s hardly ever been out of the news. More recently, the NSW government’s decision to reinforce the law with draconian penalties and the Senate inquiry earlier this year into Personal choice and community impacts (the so-called Leyonhjelm inquiry) have garnered it plenty of attention.

I’ve written 23 articles on various aspects of the law since my first effort on 17 May 2011. I’ve read most of the “foundation” research documents that are continually cited by those engaged in this debate (but, I suspect, are read by few). Here’s my take on the significant issues associated with the discussion:

  • Travel by bicycle is a lot more likely to lead to some form of personal injury than other modes (see Is cycling on roads getting safer?).
  • Bicycle helmets are effective in mitigating the risk of head injuries, especially serious ones (see Do bicycle helmets work?). However, the level of risk varies with who’s riding and the type of cycling.
  • The increase in riders that would result from repealing the law would be quite small (see Should repealing the helmet law be a priority?).
  • It follows that repealing the law would have only a small positive impact via the “safety in numbers effect” and via increased exercise.
  • The avoided injury benefits from the law exceed the health dis-benefits from deterred cycling, probably significantly.
  • The key disincentive to cycling in Australian cities is far and away safety, both real and subjective. The key solution is better infrastructure and tighter regulation of driving.

The first time I wrote on this topic I said “the social benefits of mandating helmets are probably out-weighed by the costs”. I no longer think that’s a valid argument; the evidence simply isn’t there that the law deters cycling on a significant scale. There are quite a few who are annoyed by the law to varying degrees, but very few who are actually deterred from riding by it (see Should repealing the helmet law be a priority?).

It’s true the law is one of the reasons bike share continues to fail in Melbourne and Brisbane (see Is it time to wave goodbye to Melbourne Bike Share?). Note though that even if usage of Melbourne Bike Share were to quadruple in response to an exemption from the law (unlikely, but bear with me), its share of all weekday cycling trips by Melbourne residents would still be less than one percent; bike share is small beer (see It’s still ailing, so what next for Melbourne Bike Share?).

The most plausible objection to the law is that it’s a constraint on personal autonomy. I suspect that’s the key objection for many and explains why the issue consumes so much oxygen and excites so much passion. And it’s true that while the net health benefits of the law are very likely positive, it doesn’t automatically follow that helmets must therefore be compulsory. Indeed, a related complaint is that helmets are mandatory for cycling but not similar activities.

There’re heaps of other behaviours where there’d be a net health benefit if they were more strictly regulated but we choose not to take action. In this case the benefit from avoided head injuries needs to be assessed against the reduction in personal choice. That benefit might well be negative in situations where the risk of head injury is relatively low e.g. bike share and slow riding on off-road paths.

But there’s a practical problem; repeal has got little political traction outside a group of committed cyclists and libertarians. So far as the wider public are concerned the law is plain common sense, like seat belts. One survey found 94% of adult Australians regard the law as a non-issue (see What are governments prepared to do to improve cycling?). Governments aren’t likely to see much political advantage in repealing the law, even on a limited basis e.g. for bikeshare.

While I sympathise with those who find the law intrusive and discriminatory, in the absence of convincing evidence that repeal would significantly boost cycling, my view is the debate is a distraction. In spite of the law, cycling for all purposes by residents now has a higher mode share within 10-15 km of Melbourne’s CBD than trams (see How important is cycling in Australian cities?).

The law’s been in place in Australia for 25 years. It’s now part of the general background to cycling; it’s not the potent symbol it is in other countries where it’s currently proposed (see Should the UK make bicycle helmets compulsory?). In terms of its impact on the level of cycling in Australia it’s a second order issue.

I prefer to see energy focused on the sorts of actions – like improving infrastructure – that really do have the potential to drive large growth in cycling. When better infrastructure and regulation of drivers means our cities start approaching the level of safety offered by some European cities, the justification for the law – and likely the wider public’s support for it – will be greatly diminished.

Cycling

Sep 28, 2016

5 comments

 

Cycling is getting safer (source data: BITRE)
The long-term trend in the absolute number of cycling fatalities on roads in Australia is downwards; it’s stronger after accounting for the increase in the level of cycling. (source data: BITRE)

Back in June 2014 The Guardian published an article claiming Bicycle accidents are rising in Australia. The writer said there’d been “a spate of accidents involving cyclists in the last couple of weeks”. He went on to ask:

Are things getting better or worse?… In 2014 there were 26 deaths between January and May. There were 17 in the same period last year. So the trend points to a further increase in annual deaths.

I challenged the prediction of “a further increase” at the time, pointing out the long term trend in cycling fatalities is downward and that it would be unwise to assume a change in the trend from such a short period (see Is the risk of getting killed while cycling on roads increasing?).

So what’s happened in the years since? The exhibit adds three more years of data to the chart I created in 2014. The numbers are from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development’s (BITRE) Australian road deaths database (the estimate for 2016 extrapolates deaths at the end of August to the full year).

It’s evident from the exhibit that while annual fatalities increased in 2013 and 2014, the numbers returned to trend in 2015 and 2016. Of course there are short-term fluctuations, but the long-term trend remains downwards, whether the start is taken from 1989 or 1992 (the latter to allow for the introduction of the helmet law and strong road safety campaigns around 1989-91).

As I noted last time, the BITRE numbers refer to the absolute number of cycling fatalities on roads. It’s reasonable to assume the number of cyclists increased over the period e.g. the number of commuters travelling to work in capital cities by bicycle increased by 37% between 2006 and 2011.

Hence cycling has been getting safer in “real terms” as measured by the change in number of road fatalities relative to the level of cycling. It’s crucial to understand, though, that cycling is still more likely to lead to personal injury than travelling by public transport or by car:

Most drivers expect to at least have a minor bingle some time that’ll dent their car but cause them no injury; they might scrape the garage door or they might bump into another car. When cyclists have bingles – and bicycles are inherently more unstable than cars – there’s almost always some injury. It’s often just scraped knuckles or a grazed knee but always with the greater possibility compared to other modes that it could’ve been worse. Ten cyclists died on Victorian roads in 2014 and 386 suffered injuries serious enough to require them to be admitted to hospital. (1)

Some forms of cycling are intrinsically safer than others e.g. users of bike share schemes suffer much lower casualty rates than riders of road bikes (see Should cyclists need a licence to ride on public roads?). Some demographics are also less likely to suffer serious injury than others e.g. women. But overall, while improvements in infrastructure have helped make cycling safer, it still carries an unnecessarily high level of risk.

For many prospective cyclists, the sense of subjective safety offered by roads is too low for them to start riding. There remains a pressing need to build a lot more infrastructure and to reform the road law to redress the bias against riders.

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  1. Helmets get a lot of attention but most hospitalisations don’t involve head injuries.

Cycling

Sep 26, 2016

5 comments

Forest plot of odds ratios (95% CI) of helmet use and serious and fatal head injury from individual studies and multivariate meta-regression. H, helmet; NH, no helmet.
Forest plot of odds ratios (95% CI) of helmet use and serious and fatal head injury from individual studies and multivariate meta-regression. H, helmet; NH, no helmet (source: Olivier and Creighton)

A new study of the effectiveness of bicycle helmets in mitigating injury confirms what we’ve known for a long time: bicycle helmets really do work (see Bike helmet review throws cold water on sceptics: they’ll likely save your life).

Jake Olivier and Prudence Creighton from the School of Mathematics and Statistics, UNSW, have just published a review of the literature on this topic in the International Journal of Epidemiology, Bicycle injuries and helmet use: a systematic review and meta-analysis. They reviewed 40 studies that collectively examined 64,000 injured cyclists in eleven countries and concluded that:

Helmet use is associated with odds reductions of 51% for head injury, 69% for serious head injury, 33% for face injury and 65% for fatal head injury. Injuries to the neck were rare and not associated with helmet use.

The authors emphasise that the “reductions were greater for serious injury” and “neck and diffuse axonal injury were rare among cyclists and were not associated with helmet use.

As I’ve noted before (e.g. see here and here), the weight of evidence indicates bicycle helmets do the intuitively obvious; they mitigate head injuries, especially serious ones. While they’re not a silver bullet, they provide big private and social benefits. But there are some important caveats:

  • Wearing a bicycle helmet is only one part of the safety equation for cyclists – good infrastructure and effective regulation of motorists is very likely much more important.
  • Cycling on roads is not as safe as taking public transport or driving, but by the same token the risks aren’t so high they outweigh the benefits of riding e.g. see here, here, here and here.
  • Helmets are beneficial for all riders but their usefulness varies e.g. riders of road bikes are much more likely on average to crash than riders of upright bikes.
  • Just because helmets are effective doesn’t automatically mean helmets should be mandatory; there are plenty of things with a high social and personal cost that we nevertheless choose for various reasons to leave to individual choice.

Unfortunately, the compelling logic of wearing a helmet is consistently questioned by some opponents of Australia’s mandatory helmet law who’re prepared to assert helmets aren’t effective in reducing injury; some even argue they increase the risk of some types of injury.

Their justification is that the helmet law significantly reduces the level of cycling. But even if that’s true, demonising helmets is nevertheless morally unsupportable. It’s unethical to actively mislead cyclists – or to deny them accurate information – about the protective benefit of wearing a helmet.

Australia’s mandatory helmet law is a vexed issue, but it should be debated on the substantive issues e.g. whether or not, relative to the benefits, it reduces cycling participation significantly; or is an unreasonable constraint on individual choice.

The evidence shows it’s a good idea to wear a helmet in most situations, especially when cycling on Australian roads. It’s time to call bullshit on those who assert they’re worse than useless.

Cycling

Sep 8, 2016

5 comments

When a road is this big, a lane at the side of the road doesn't cut it
It seems like Heidelberg Rd was having a nap when the Google car came past last time. Most of the time it’s got ADD! When a road is this big a painted bicycle lane at the side of the road doesn’t cut it anymore; it’s a signal something better is required

Cycling is growing rapidly in Madrid, but Next City reports some cyclists vigorously oppose a plan for new bike lanes (see When cyclists oppose bike lanes).

The protesters say bike lanes increase accident risk for cyclists at intersections, pointing to bike lanes located on the right side of the road as especially troublesome with motorists making right turns.

Cycling association En Bici Por Madrid (EBPM) contends bikes lanes by themselves don’t necessarily increase the share of cyclists on the road.

EBPM has challenged the motto of “Build it and they will come” by citing examples on its website like Stevenage, a British city with a large segregated cycle network that few people use… EBPM believes it’s possible to promote cycling without creating segregated bike lanes.

 

I know there are plenty of cycling advocates who bristle at the mere mention of “sharrows”. But in this case the Spanish activists are referring to the mostly narrow and relatively quiet streets shared by cars and bicycles in central Madrid. Instead of bicycle lanes, they’re managed by signage and a 30 km/h (20 mph) speed limit.

Our cities are different; the hegemony of the car is more entrenched here than in European cities. Moreover, the activism of the late 80s and early 90s that resulted in the mandatory helmet law created a lasting perception that cycling on roads is an especially dangerous activity.

I feel safer in a bike lane when I’m cycling on the wide, fast arterial roads common in Australian cities. I can’t see how removing it would improve my sense of subjective safety or, in all likihood, the objective outlook for my prospects of a longer life. But nevertheless I think EBPM’s argument is relevant to how cycling infrastructure is designed and regulated in Australia

Whether segregated or painted, on-road bicycle lanes signal clearly that cars, buses and trucks have priority over bicycles. They might look OK on uninterrupted stretches of road but disappear at intersections where, of course, all the road space is “owned” by motorists. They disappear when motorists park their cars in them too. And then there’s the ever-present risk of getting doored.

The large economic and environmental benefit from increasing cycling justifies something better. I think we need two key things.

First, a core network of fully-segregated cycle routes – complete with special intersection treatments and in some cases grade separations – to give newcomers the confidence to start cycling. These should replace bicycle lanes on arterial roads.

The existing network of recreational bike paths provides the required sense of subjective safety, but it’s mostly not suitable for utility cycling because the network is sparse and paths are circuitous, narrow, and shared with pedestrians. What’s needed is a core network that looks a lot like London’s cycle superhighways (see Shouldn’t all cities have a “cycle superhighway” plan?).

Second, the core network must be supported by a secondary system of routes that, like it or not, uses non-arterial roads shared with motorists. This system is much larger in terms of route-kilometres than the core network because it must give every address access to the rest of the city.

These shared routes – the idea is similar to London’s quietways – shouldn’t have bicycle lanes (like this quiet street does). Both cyclists and motorists should use the same road space so that the intersection problem is obviated and drivers can’t feel they own the street.

The success of quietways (or call them ‘greenways’, or ‘bicycle streets’) depends on making it crystal clear that cyclists – who are far more vulnerable – are the priority mode. Even if they live on the street, motorists must understand they are using it with the implied permission of cyclists.

Speed restrictions, traffic management works, and signage will all help to establish who’s the top-dog on quietways, but the primary change is regulatory. The law must make it clear that cyclists are top of the food chain on designated shared routes. Although often misunderstood, the notion of strict liability as it applies in the Netherlands might be useful here (see Are Dutch motorists strictly liable if the collide with cyclists?).

Painted bike lanes are better than nothing on fast, busy arterial roads “owned” by motorists, but the objective should be to replace them sooner rather than later with something much better.