Modal shares for urban passenger transport 1900–2011 (source: State of Australian cities 2012)

It’s risky when thinking about the potential of cycling in Australia to make simple comparisons with leading cycling countries like the Netherlands.

It would be possible to significantly increase the level of cycling in Australian cities (currently less than 1%) by building better infrastructure like the Dutch have done, but in order to approach the mode share of Amsterdam and Assen (40%) or Groningen (60%) it would also be necessary to make other forms of transport – especially driving – relatively less attractive.

** The winners of The Urbanist’s comp for the Grattan Institute’s new book, City Limits, are Taylor R and James. Go here for details **

But that probably wouldn’t be enough. One advantage we don’t have in Australia is the Netherland’s long history of cycling. According to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE), cycling has always made a much smaller contribution to Australia’s transport task than it has in places like the Netherlands (see here and here).

BITRE’s best estimate is cycling accounted for around 3%-5% of all trips in Australia from 1900 through to the 1930s. Its share increased with the onset of the depression and nearly doubled during WW2, then subsequently fell right away from the 1950s (see first exhibit).

In contrast, cycling has a long history in the Netherlands according to author, journalist and publisher, Carlton Reid (see Why is cycling popular in the Netherlands: infrastructure or 100+ years of history?).

While it got off to a relatively slow start, he says the Netherlands has been Europe’s top cycling nation since 1911. He cites a passage from the 1999 Dutch Bicycle Master Plan which says cyclists made up 70-90% of traffic in Dutch cities in the 1930s.

It’s important not to underestimate the popularity of cycling in the Netherlands before the 1970s. The Netherlands hasn’t had 40 years of being pro-bike, it’s had 100 years of being pro-bike…

Mr Reid goes on to argue that the reason for cycling’s popularity is, in the words of social historian Anne Ebert, because it is an “important object for Dutch national identification”. She says:

The tremendous success of the bicycle in the Netherlands can be at least partly explained by the particular way in which the bicycle was constructed and conceived as a promoter of Dutch national identity. To be Dutch meant to cycle, and this viewpoint remained prevalent until the Second World War, and – arguably to a lesser degree – remains so to this day.

Whether it’s cause or effect isn’t clear, but Mr Reid says the Dutch started building dedicated bicycle paths in the 1890s. They were provided in part to separate cyclists from pedestrians and horse traffic, but also to provide routes for what were the fastest vehicles at the time:

By the 1920s it had been laid down in National Law that the construction of these separate cycle paths was mandatory on roads with more than 500 cyclists passing per day. When the cyclists’ union looked back in the 1930s to three decades of practise, they were very satisfied that this solution had also improved overall road safety.

BITRE’s estimate of the level of cycling in Australia prior to the 1950s is approximate because there’s not much data to draw on. But the circa 5% mode share estimate in the 1930s isn’t trivial; it’s the same as the share of all trips carried by trains in greater Sydney today (5.4%).

Of course like Wynyard or Flinders St stations at peak hour, there would’ve been particular locations (and times) where cycling’s share was much higher and others where it was much lower.

Given the shortcomings in the available data, the possibility that cycling did better prior to the 1950s than BITRE calculates can’t be ruled out. (1)

One reason I’m inclined to think it’s probably a reasonable estimate though is that bicycles were very expensive in Australia when they first came on the market. The ABS Year Book 2001 says they were a luxury item for most people at the time of Federation. (2)

A new bicycle…cost the equivalent of more than seven weeks wages (in 1901) whereas today you can buy a good quality bicycle for…less than half a week’s wages.

Another reason is secondary sources like old photos and films don’t provide much evidence that cycling was a bigger force historically than BITRE estimates (e.g. Sydney 1906Melbourne 1910 and Melbourne 1954). I know it was big in some provincial centres but even 5% might be generous in the major cities.

Hopefully readers can help, but the only photo I could find showing a high level of urban cycling for transport purposes is the one in the second exhibit from the book Wheeling Matilda by Jim Fitzpatrick.

It’s from WW2 when BITRE says cycling got up towards 10% mode share nationally. That’s small compared to the claims made for the Netherlands but it’s still very impressive; it’s equivalent to public transport’s mode share today averaged across all Australia’s capital cities.

If Wheeling Matilda is right, cycling seems to have been mostly a sporting, recreational and rural phenomenon rather than an urban transport one and lasted for a relatively short period, yielding quickly to the car after WW1.

According to Jim Fitzpatrick, the decline in rural cycling in Australia began at the end of WW1 due to the “increasing availability, reliability, affordability and comfort of motor vehicles”.

Making cycling in Australia more attractive by an order of magnitude or more will require both better infrastructure and strong constraints on car use. We’re not the Netherlands though; the bike has a different history here and occupies a different cultural niche. The role of cycling and the way it’s implemented is bound to be different in Australia’s future.


  1. While one could instead make a guess (or perhaps more commonly assume what fits one’s priors!), I put greater store by the more rigorous approach adopted by historians when dealing with matters where wholly reliable data isn’t available.
  2. It would be useful to know how the price of bicycles influenced the take-up of cycling in the Netherlands. Carlton Reid reports that the Netherlands lagged the rest of Europe in cycling until 1911.
Why aren't there many more photos like this? A Melbourne street during WW2 rush hour (source: Wheeling Matilda)