Thinking about cyclists as commuters


The Times in the UK is currently running a campaign to promote cycle riding in Britain. Ten cyclists have died in Britain so far this year and the Times is trying to reduce this death toll by education and by promoting better cycling infrastructure. The campaign seems pretty even-handed. It notes that cyclists and motorists share the roads and that there is a need for mutual respect and understanding. And the campaign notes that in terms of ‘cycling friendliness’, London is a long way behind other European cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

Two things struck me about the campaign. First, while London is not at the European forefront, it is well ahead of most Australian cities in terms of cycling as a true commuter alternative. I have spent the last few days in London and even in the sub-zero winter temperatures of a London morning, there are numerous cyclist-commuters on the roads. As the (print edition) Times notes, cycle commuters include the Lord Mayor of London and the British PM (at least before the last election and the move to Downing Street). This contrasts to Australia where some politicians use cycling as part of their daily fitness routine but not for commuting. And until Australians view cycling as a commuting alternative rather than a fitness alternative, cycling will not be treated as a serious mode of transport.

Second, there is a recognition in the UK that commuter cyclists save the community and other road users time and money. Every driver-commuter that becomes a cycle-commuter means less congestion, less pollution and less road maintenance. The Times (print edition) reports that a four kilometre commute to and from work 80 times a year creates the equivalent of about $200 AUD economic benefits, not including any reduction in pollution. The big benefit, of course, is reduced road congestion.

This approach to thinking about cycling commuters represents the opposite of the Australian ‘debate’ about cycle registration. The Australian approach not only fails to recognise the positive external benefits cycle-commuters create for other road users; it wants to punish the cyclists for creating those benefits.

The bottom line? The Australian debate about cycling needs to focus on commuting. Commuter cyclists may get health benefits but they also create external benefits to the wider community. While mutual respect is needed among road users, there also needs to be a recognition of the broader benefits of cycle commuting so that it is encouraged, not punished.

9 Responses to "Thinking about cyclists as commuters"
  1. Stephen, Is there hard evidence that use of bicycles reduces congestion.  I’ve seen stuff from interest groups but no clear evidence.   To the extent that cycles detract from road supply, travel less quickly and take up space on roads they will not help much.  Does a cycle take up less space/unit time than the average sedan?  Its a real question to me. 

    There are also “triple convergence” issues even if there is a net supply gain. 

    I think the health and pollution benefits are clear and cities with lots of cycles in them offer better amenity benefits than those dominated by vehicles.  But the congestion issue I am not sure of.

  2. I share Harry’s concern. That over used photo of the space occupied by 200 commuters using different modes of transport ignores the length of time each mode occupies the road space. The Main Yarra Trail, for example.

    I think that in Melbourne there is enough cycling infrastructure (though there could be more) provided without detracting from road space that cycling does reduce congestion.

    I question the health benefits. Most cyclists are healthy people and the cycling substitutes rather than supplements other exercise. For commutes under 5km, this could actually be a negative.

    The Australian debate is also complicated by the higher proportion of cyclists on the road who are out there for recreational purposes. Have a look at Cycling Australia’s response to Warnie-gate for an example of a failure for the cycling side of the debate to promote a credible position along the lines Stephen suggests.

    As an aside. It would be good if cycling infrastructure was assessed on the same basis as road infrastructure, ie by looking at opportunities to reduce travel time and blackspots. This would require a network manager/owner/ 

  3. Melbournes cycling infrastructure isn’t too bad by Australian standards but having spent time in Amsterdam and other Netherlands spots, it really is way underdone. Many workplacesdistill don’t have shower change facilities and it really depends on what suburb you are commuting from and to as to whetheit the infrastructure is good or bad. The biggest problem in Australia is that unlike say the Netherlands, we can’t understand cycling as anything less than a macho sport. Sadly this attitude infects even the females. Australian must make any form of exercise into a sport with all the attendant posturing, competitiveness, officious ness, rules, prejudices and male attitudes. Just look at the design of bikes and Lycra clothes. You can ride all over Netherlands see millions, literally, of cyclists, and never once see the aggressiveness of oz bike riders, nor will you see even the bike designs. Here  bikes even for commutimg are tour de France professional look alikes. You never see such bikes in holland. You nevr see Lycra in holland unless it’s a small bunch of semi professional riders training.likewise in Netherlands they all progress much slower not doing ” personal bests” on the way to work or on a Sunday recreational ride. This every thing to do with excercise or physical excretion is sport ruins most activities in Australia. 

  4. This change is actually happening from below as ordinary people realise the benefits of cycling as a commuter. It’s just taking a while to get real change at the top.

    Cycling as a commuter option is really growing. While some of that belongs to the current lycra fashion for blokes on expensive bikes, there is also a real change in commuting behaviour (which will not go away when the fashion changes). A number of the cyclists at my workplace are women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who have taken up cycling for the first time. There are lots of ordinary people doing it now – I keep meeting them on my bike.

    “In Melbourne, the average speed of a commuting car is 19.7km/hr.” I’m very slow and  I average 20km/hr on my way to work (I see the Eastern freeway full of single driver cars) – I find it hard to believe that more people on bikes could do anything other than reduce congestion.

    By the way, as I pedal among the trees next to the Yarra and hear the birds I ponder why anyone would drive if they could cycle – try it – it’s great! 

  5. Got to agree with JJ – I’ve cycle commuted for 15 years now, it really is a great way to commute.  And many more people have taken it up over the past 3 to 5 years.
    My building in the Sydney CBD has pretty good facilities for cyclists with a dedicated bicycle storage room plus showers and lockers.  On a typical day there are around 50 bikes parked in the store room – probably close to 2% of the building’s occupants.  Even five years ago, there would only have been 5 to 10 bikes parked in the building.
    While many of the cyclists are the lycra road warrior types, a large proportion are pure cycle commuters on sensible commuter bikes wearing normal clothes.
    With respect to traffic congestion, as JJ says, bikes in peak hour traffic move at around the same speed as motor vehicles, they also take up far less space and, despite what the shock jocks may say, are relatively easy for cars to get around when they do reach higher speeds.

    I can’t find the link, but counts show that close to 1000 cycles (almost exclusively commuters) cross the Sydney harbour bridge per hour in the morning peak.  This is close to 10% of the vehicle numbers crossing.  If these 1000 cyclists instead took to their cars, the congestion across the SHB would be significantly worse.  Similar numbers come in from Sydney’s west across the Anzac bridge.
    Even if cyclists took buses rather than cars, the additional 30 plus buses required would probably exceed the very limited capacity for passenger offloading in the CBD and cause complete gridlock.

  6. I agree with the above comments.  Commuter cycling is growing, even in areas without infrastructure investment.  The reason being, that roads are becoming more congested, and parking more limited (relative to the number of cars).  So the trade-off is slowly being pushed in favour of cycling, and public transport (although public transport costs are ridiculous in Brisbane – another bonus for the cyclers).

    I see urban commuting as a trade-off between modes.  All modes can’t be equally attractive.  If you want more cycling, you need to make car driving less attractive – close lanes, reduce parking, etc. and make cycling more attractive – end of trip facilities, cycle lanes and paths, etc.  If you keep trying to build roads to make driving easier, you can’t expect much of a take-up of other transport modes.

  7. I think HC’s question is an important one. If commuter cycling is to win over politicians then it has to show the congestion benefits. And these are not always obvious. 
    For example, I use two roads on my daily commute. On one I use a service road and this clearly means my bike reduces congestion compared to if I drove (the service road is not supposed to be used for through traffic). On the other, it is a broad road with cars parked in the left hand lane and enough room in that lane for a cycle. So again, I think my ride reduces congestion by using a lane that is effectively blocked for cars (although I have to be careful of opening doors).
    But I also live near a two lane major road without parking. A cycle using that road in peak period leads to slowing traffic as the left lane cars try to merge right. Given the congestion at the traffic lights, it is not clear a cyclist increases car commuting time – but a cyclist would raise driver blood pressure and may lead to dangerous merging.
    What this means is that road, public transport and cycle infrastructure need to be designed together.
    For example, it may be desirable to dramatically lower commuter traffic on some roads. If so, can these be effectively turned into cycle-preferred routes (e.g. with a seperated bike path on left) so as to deter commuter traffic and increase local amenity (I hope that is the logic behind Albert St in East Melbourne). 
    Similarly, while bike infrastructure can be expensive, using rail verges or the central strips on freeways (e.g. in Perth) or even hanging the bike path off the bottom of the freeway (e.g. Melbourne) can reduce the cost of this infrastructure and have a direct effect on congestion.
    If commuter cyclists can show that building better bike infrastructure helps car drivers then they will go a long way to winning the political argument over funding. 

  8. Part of the space that cars take up is caused by their excessive speed. Everyday I see morons driving at 60+ kmh towards nearby red lights. These cars are not saving themselves any commute time, just increasing their own costs and adding extra risks onto everyone else. They take up a larger space on the road by travelling fast and reduce the opportunities for other vehicles to merge.
    i haven’t had the privilege of cycling in Europe but I wonder how the cycling infrastructure works there. Here it is often impossible to use them legally since paths often end and begin without ramps to the road and require riding on footpaths to get to them or using pedestrian crossings. The rules probably state that cyclists are supposed to get off their bikes and walk them to the cycle path. To be fair cars should be treated the same way when crossing pedestrian paths, then their might be less 2 tonne SUV’s. 

  9. There is no mention above of urban planning, which is clearly tied up in all of this. Cycling is common in Amsterdam and other cities in Europe, because these cities are dense, and also with good public transport infrastructure. You don’t need a car. Major Australian cities must be more dense – Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane all need a proper subway network, and for such a network to work it must be that medium/high density developments are allowed near subway stations. The current low density model mitigates against public transport, cycling, and other modes of transport.

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