Why We Can't Resist Bicycle Infrastructure


When the federal Government dedicated $40 million for cycle path infrastructure in its second stimulus package this year, it was virtually the first time legislators at that level had recognised the crucial part cycling will play in addressing the profound problems facing transport in Australia.

It is becoming increasingly clear that we won’t be able to avoid moving to a new economy, one in which carbon constraints and increasingly scarce petroleum resources are going to demand dramatic changes in the way in which we transport ourselves and even the very structure of our cities. But like any economy, the new one that’s coming is going to need the infrastructure that will make it work. Part of that means letting go of our habitual attitude to infrastructure investment that is predicated on growing motor vehicle use, and accepting one in which continual reductions in car use are brought on by making the use of sustainable transport more attractive. Under such a model, bicycle infrastructure would be a key component of Canberra’s transport budget. It’s a far cry from the current situation.

Recent research commissioned by the Commonwealth Department for Health and Ageing showed that each kilometre a commuter cyclist rides in capital cities provides almost $1 of benefit to the community. This comes in the form of reduced congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and obesity/diabetes. With cyclists in Australian capital cities now riding more than 189 million kilometres annually in peak hour alone, this represents savings to society and government of more than $100 million a year. Add to that the projected savings from the health benefits of recreational cycling — which is already the fourth-most-popular form of physical activity in Australia — and the economic benefits of cycling amount to more than $220 million each year.

Just as significantly, as Australians make more than 1.35 million daily car journeys to work that are less than five kilometres, the potential exists to increase these impressive rates of return dramatically. After all, even with a growth rate in cycling of 28 per cent between 2001 and 2006, only around 1.5 per cent of trips to work are pedal powered.

Despite the substantial benefits from current cycling participation, successive Australian governments have failed to appreciate this potential. An exception occurred earlier this year, when the Greens successfully negotiated for the inclusion of the bicycle infrastructure component in the Government’s $42 billion economic stimulus package.

This one-off commitment stands as a lonely example of the Commonwealth directly funding this emission-free, healthy and affordable form of transport and recreation. Let’s hope it’s just the beginning of a more substantive, long-term program. If so, it would be a win for evidence-based policy, and bring Australia into line with other countries that have not traditionally been cycling strongholds but which are finding that fundamental global changes mean that they can’t afford to ignore cycling any longer.

Other OECD governments have begun to inject substantial funds to build national cultures of cycling, starting with bicycle infrastructure investment. It may come as a surprise to some, but the US Government invested US$4.5 billion in walking and cycling infrastructure projects between 2005 and 2009 — a US$2 billion increase on the previous funding period. Earlier this year, the US passed the Bicycle Commuter Act, allowing people who ride to work to claim a $US20 per month reimbursement for costs associated with cycling.

The UK recently made its largest ever commitment to cycling, with the launch of its $190 million "Cycling City, Cycling Towns" initiative. By focusing on one city, Bristol, and 11 towns, the program begins the process of transforming urban areas to a level of bicycle friendliness capable of normalising cycling within the general population.

So why exactly does Canberra need to ramp up its investment in bicycle infrastructure and encouragement programs? The overarching reason is because it must urgently begin to reverse the heavy dependence on cars created through 60 years of automobile-friendly policies. This dependence has created or contributed to a range of national challenges, challenges which aren’t going to go away. Here are four of the big ones.

Most immediately, Australia is highly exposed to fluctuations in world oil prices. We currently import around 50 per cent of our petroleum requirements. Due to domestic depletion, Geoscience Australia expects that by 2020, we will need to import approximately 75 per cent of our fuel. In a report released last year, CSIRO predicted Australians could be paying up to $8 per litre by 2018. That would bring the cost of filling up to over $450.

Secondly, it has become clear that a business-as-usual approach to transport policy will prevent meeting our commitment to combat climate change. Australia’s transport emissions soared 28 per cent between 1990 and 2005 and the Department of Climate Change recently conceded that it expects a strong annual emissions growth from the transport sector to continue between now and 2020.

Thirdly, Australia’s heavy reliance on motor vehicles, coinciding with our transition to a serviced based (largely sedentary) economy has reduced our participation in physical activity to dangerously low levels. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, over half of Australian adults fail to engage in sufficient levels of physical activity. Access Economics estimates obesity costs Australia $58 billion annually. The recently released National Preventative Health Strategy has highlighted almost 75 per cent of the Australian population will be overweight or obese by 2025. This means the $58 billion annual figure from Access Economics is itself set to skyrocket, just at a time when the ageing population will be placing unprecedented stress on the already overstretched health system.

The Preventative Health Taskforce mentions transport 106 times in its strategy, repeatedly calling on the government to build active living into our lifestyles. Cycling, as a form of active transport, is well suited to take on the challenge of reversing our declining rates of physical activity. In our increasingly time-poor society, combining physical activity and transport makes sense. Put simply, we have engineered physical activity out of everyday life and we now need politicians and engineers to help put it back by embarking on the largest bicycle infrastructure package in the nation’s history.

Fourthly, the Commonwealth, as well as all state governments, has expressed deep concern over traffic congestion. Few public policy issues have been handled quite as badly as the one to "solve" our congestion "problem". The quotation marks are used because it’s not actually a problem and it cannot be solved. As urban planning commentator Jane Jacobs pointed out in the 1960s, congestion is a symptom and automobile dependence is the problem. With some 80 per cent of all trips to work in Australia being done by car, almost always with only one occupant, it is very clearly our over-reliance on motor vehicles that is the real issue. Building roads to reduce congestion is like adding holes to a belt to solve an obesity problem. Failure to acknowledge this reality has resulted in massive road-building exercises that have simply induced traffic, providing no real improvement for anyone.

A part of this problem has been an assumption that traffic behaves like a liquid. A new paradigm has now emerged in which planners see the traffic as more like a gas. The difference is that liquids typically hold their volume, regardless of the space provided. Thus, the transport planner’s job has been seen as simply to provide the necessary volume of road space to achieve an "efficient" flow of traffic. Thinking of traffic as a gas recognises the way traffic works in reality, since neither is absolute — both expand and contract depending on the space provided. Transport policy needs to focus on converting trips to the most space-efficient modes. It’s about compressing traffic by making space-efficient modes of transport more attractive. Using one twelfth of the road space of a car, the bicycle should be receiving significantly more attention in any plan to fight congestion.

The post-World War II period has seen unprecedented levels of public funds go towards creating our car-oriented society. Where has this got us? Traffic congestion is as bad as ever, we are highly exposed to fluctuations in the global oil price, our carbon emissions are out of control and our sedentary lifestyles are literally killing us.

Never before has there been a more compelling set of circumstances for the government to give the green light to a new era of investment in cycling.

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