Trend in number of weekday cyclists at selected locations in Sydney

It would be a real pity if Barry O’Farrell’s agenda for the City of Sydney ends up compromising Council’s vision for extending bikeways, reducing speed limits and expanding the area of street space reserved for pedestrians.

They’re the issues of concern nominated by the NSW Premier when he announced the government will set up a new Central Sydney Traffic and Transport Committee. Mr O’Farrell said the Committee, which will have 4 Government reps and 3 from Council, “will have responsibility for co-ordinating plans and policies for public transport and traffic within central Sydney as well as making decisions on major transport issues”.

Last chance! Follow this link to win a copy of Andrew Leigh’s ‘Disconnected’ (two copies up for grabs). Hurry, entries close midnight tonight Tuesday 13 March

Councils have to work closely with State Governments and always have. That’s a good thing because the City of Sydney is only one of 38 Councils in the metro area, making coordination of vital importance. Moreover, the number of Sydneysiders who live within the boundary of the City of Sydney is only a tiny fraction of those who visit it for various activities like work, entertainment and leisure.

But it’s hard not to suspect that this move is aimed at curtailing Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s expansive vision for the city centre. Council’s newly released transport strategy, Connecting our City, aims to elevate public transport, cycling and walking not just over driving and parking, but at their expense.

There are a number of exciting initiatives in the plan, including expanding provision of light rail, eliminating cars from large parts of George Street, and developing a street hierarchy to allocate roadspace to particular modes on particular streets. Of special interest though is the plan for 40 kmh speed limits and construction of 200 km of bikeways (of which 55 km would be fully segregated bike lanes constructed by taking over roadspace – 10 km has already been constructed).

The centres of Australia’s capital cities are dense, pedestrian-intensive and already well-served by public transport. For all their advantages in the suburban context, cars have marginal value in the centre as a form of transport but an horrific impact on amenity. So I endorse the Lord Mayor’s plan (in fact in some respects I think it’s too conservative e.g. no mention of road pricing; limit should be 30 kmh on non-arterials).

Council’s commitment to providing bike lanes and paths is supported by new research just published by arguably the world’s leading researchers on cycling, Ralph Buelher and John Pucher (I’ve cited their work before). They examined the level of cycling to work in 90 of the 100 largest cities in the US and compared it to the length of cycling lanes and bike paths provided in each city (an important point: in the US, ‘cities’ are often the central parts of larger ‘metros’).

They find that the supply of bike lanes and paths per capita is a statistically significant predictor of bike commuting. Cities with a greater supply of bike paths and lanes have significantly higher bike commute rates. They find this to be true even after controlling for land use, climate, socioeconomic factors, gasoline prices, public transport supply, and cycling safety.

However they don’t find a significant difference between on-road bike lanes compared to segregated bike paths. I must say I find that surprising – I’d have expected segregated paths to predict higher levels of cycling than on-road lanes. Buehler and Pucher point out, though, that other researchers have found contradictory results, so it shouldn’t be unexpected.

One of the interesting questions this sort of study always poses is which came first: the chicken or the egg. Is it the induced effect – does the provision of more cycle lanes and paths encourage more people to cycle? Or is it the “reward” effect – do governments tend to provide infrastructure in response to higher rates of cycling driven by other factors? This study doesn’t answer that question but doubtless the causation runs both ways.

Of course the US isn’t Australia, but it’s a better analogue than Europe. And of course correlation isn’t causation, but even so the results suggest those remaining 190 km of bike lane and bike path could have – indeed are likely to have – a big impact on the take-up of cycling as a mode of commuting in inner city Sydney. And the City of Sydney and other inner city Local Government Areas have demographic characteristics that suggest a population likely to be drawn to cycling if members can be convinced it is safe.

As well as looking at the effect of infrastructure on cycling the study also looked at a number of other variables. The authors find that cycling to work tends to be higher in cities where the proportion of college students is higher, the metro containing the city is relatively more compact, the rate of fatal cycling accidents is lower, the level of car ownership is lower, and petrol prices are higher.

Another surprise is there’s not a significant relationship between cycling and the weather i.e. rain, snow, hot temperatures or cold temperatures don’t tend to deter (or encourage) commuting by bicycle. Nor is the supply of public transport a significant predictor of the level of commuting by bicycle.

I think the key to understanding these results is that Buehler and Pucher looked only at commuters (who account for just 12% of all bicycle trips across these cities). They’re a dedicated lot and they have to be, especially in a country like the US with a strong pro-car culture and relatively undeveloped cycling infrastructure.

I commuted by bicycle to the CBD in Melbourne for several years (2001-2003) and know quite a few others who are current or former bike commuters. I’d say there’s a strong ethic that you brave all weathers – and if you’re dressed for cycling you’re not that worried about getting wet or sweaty anyway. The quality of public transport (which in my neighbourhood is pretty good) was irrelevant to me because I preferred cycling – it is as fast as the train, it’s available on demand, it’s direct, it’s private, and I could use otherwise “dead or marginally productive time” for exercise.

As with every study I’ve ever seen, there are important methodological caveats that readers should be aware of. For example, cycling fatalities and petrol prices aren’t available at the city level so the authors measured them at the State level. Similarly, the index of sprawl and the measures of public transport supply apply at the metro rather than city level.

But the take-home message for the Premier of NSW is: don’t stop Council’s proposed bike lanes and paths – they’ll encourage more commuters to cycle.

Finally, I was interested to see Connecting our City recommends Council investigate the feasibility of bikeshare. While noting that the mandatory helmet law is an issue, the report also observes:

Initial analysis suggests that around 2,000 bikes together with 3,500 bike storage racks could be needed. However the City believes it is desirable for more of its bike network to be completed before the public bicycle system is introduced, so that riders will have safe options for cycling.

That compares to 600 bicycles, 50 docking stations and too few fully segregated bike paths at the time Melbourne Bike Share opened. The primary bikeshare market isn’t commuter cyclists – so good thinking, City of Sydney.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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