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.