There’s a long thread at Sydney Cyclist dealing with Rissell and Gillham’s contention that cycling has declined significantly in Australia since the 1980s.

Rissell and Gillham say the number of cyclists dropped on a per capita basis “by 37.5% between 1986 and 2011.” I discussed some technical aspects of this issue on 22 June 2012, Are Australians cycling less?, pointing out – among other things – that the 1986 data they rely on is problematic.

Most of the commenters in the thread seem to implicitly assume Rissell and Gillham’s agenda is to demonstrate how Australia’s mandatory helmet law (MHL) has discouraged cycling. Being able to show that cycling was much more popular prior to the introduction of the law (circa 1990) supports the repeal agenda.

That might well be true for high school students, but it’s unlikely when it comes to adult cyclists. That’s a topic under debate within the Sydney Cyclist thread, Cyclist numbers are falling.

One commenter, KimR, remarks early on (page 1) that “it was rare to see people cycling regularly to work in the 80s, but (it’s) much more common now”. Another commenter, Paul Martin, disagrees:

It was not rare at all in the 80s to see people riding to work… and as a percentage of the population, it was probably much greater. It may appear more common now simply because the observer (ie. you) is now riding to work more than you did in the 80s and tends to notice it now that they are part of that group. It’s a common perceptual error.

Perhaps they’re all afflicted with the perceptual error Paul Martin diagnoses, but quite a few other commenters in the thread have the same recollection as KimR:

David B – I commuted all through the 80’s through and up to 1998 apart from 90/91/92 when I was living OS, and I can tell you it was much rarer than today. When I was training for races or for the new season, I would sometimes get up, go training and then commute. Generally, I was the only one in my building with 3000 people in it that had a pushbike until ironically the MHL came in, then the numbers increased a little. I had a lot of mates who raced as well in my club (SCC) and in others (RB, ES and ST) and very, very few of those guys commuted. Some did, but few.

John Holstein – I have commented on other discussions where I made similar observations in the seventies. Four years of working out of Bourke St Redfern directing traffic at major intersections and busy school crossings on horseback & hardly ever seeing a cyclist in peak hours. Not a scientific study, but a pretty strong observation period, especially since my focus was entirely on the traffic flowing through those points. Centennial Park was also pretty much bicycle free in those days as well, although, to be fair, I was rarely there before 0700hrs

MadameBike – It was actually uncommon for people to drive to work (in the CBD and inner areas) in the 70s when I used to commute by bike.  i used to have the left lane virtually to myself – except the occasional bus – when I cycled Military Road, then when I cycled through the Chinese area – now where Darling Harbour and Star City are, I think.  most people did not have car spaces provided in the city and most people commuted by public transport. But then the population was much smaller too.

Sure it was rare to see people cycling to work but it was rare to see them driving too.

Omar – Go! Alliance – I agree with Kim, in that I am sure that In 1988/1989 I used to ride all day around Manly and right to the CBD on weekends and often not see one other cyclist (though I always saw this one big dog ready to chase me at the beginning of a bloody steep hill…). Nobody in my office rode. I used to be astonished at the lack of cycling around Sydney generally compared to even the modest levels in California at that time. My travels to the other major cities did little to alter that perception.

noelbike – Like John I also was out there in the 1970s. I lived in Glebe, Ultimo and Newtown and rode. I had no car. Eventually I opened a bike shop – in 1979. So I was quite aware of bike use levels.

I recall being amazed at how few bikes there were. Around UNSW there were some but in the Inner West virtually none. In the winters I could go as long as two (yes 2) weeks without seeing another adult on a bike. That was not typical but it emphasises that there were very few adult cyclists.

Helmet Free – I also agree with yours and Noel Bikes observations on the lack of Adult commuter cycling in the 70’s and 1980’s.

baa baa – I have biked into the North Sydney (school) in the late 70s and then city for college and work from the 1980s. Saw no one other than other loons and I still see some of them now.

I lived and worked in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth in the 1980s and these recollections gel perfectly with mine. There was no golden age of city commuting in that period. Of course Mees et al have confirmed that with Census data.

Cycling to work was much more common in the 50s and possibly even the 60s (although it was in the suburbs, not the inner city) but not in the 70s and 80s. The new golden age of cycling is now!

I couldn’t find any commenters in the thread who shared Paul Martin’s view (but it is a very long thread), however he responds to the others by saying he had a different experience:

I have contradictory anecdotes to yours growing up in my large hometown – bicycle use was much, much higher and effectively has been drying up (adults & children particularly – school/work/other trips). These anecdotes are just as irrelevant.

That probably explains the difference in perceptions. While commuting by bicycle wasn’t common in Sydney where cars dominated the roads, there were some regional cities and towns across Australia where utility cycling was relatively popular at that time. I’ve always understood, for example, that cycling to work was common in Queensland sugar cane towns and another commenter, John Holstein, says:

I remember visiting Grafton as a child in the 60’s and being amazed at the rows of bicycles parked in racks in the main street. Literally hundreds of them.

But overall, one thing in particular should worry cycling advocates about the debate sparked by the Rissell and Gillham study. It’s this: some who’re opposed to the helmet law are so convinced of the rightness of their position, they’re effectively prepared to talk cycling down to make their point.

Suggesting cycling is declining, whether on a per capita or other basis, doesn’t strike me as a wise advocacy strategy. There’s an argument for repeal of the mandatory helmet law, but the law isn’t the No. 1 constraint on cycling.