Last month, I spoke in Canberra about how to cut traffic congestion. My talk focused on our fear of change, communicating with positive messaging, and creating a cycling infrastructure revolution.

When I finished, a prominent Government official said he loved that I’d talked about cycling and hadn’t mentioned Copenhagen once. Most people agreed Australia won’t ever be the Scandinavian dream.

Recently I shared an Op-Ed piece from Santa Monica businessman Bruce Feldman. In his open letter to Mayor Garcetti in the LA Times, Bruce said that “LA is not Stockholm” and added “some politicians and transportation professionals have suggested that we look to Amsterdam or Stockholm for inspiration. Stockholm’s population is one-tenth of ours, plus it has a compact, well-defined central downtown business and shopping core with a large number of residential units. Last I checked, LA is nothing like that.”

The next day I was bombarded with emails, texts and social media messages saying Bruce was wrong and that people in the US – and Australia – can’t continue to use their cars and need to get on their bikes.

Australia is the land of low-density car orientated suburban sprawl. The average Australian (2011 Census) is a 37-year-old woman, married with two kids, a three-bedroom suburban house, and two cars. She drives to work alone. Some 45 per cent of Aussie households don’t own a bicycle and in regional centres like Toowoomba, 90 per cent of all trips are made by car.

In major cities, the average commute is 20 kilometres, whilst a quarter of people in regional areas drive more than 30 kilometres to work. On average, we all waste 15 hours a week stuck in traffic, so it’s perhaps no wonder 53 per cent of us feel constantly tired. Many Aussies have a morbid dislike of anything residential over two storeys, love large gas guzzling four wheel drive vehicles, dream of life in a gigantic acreage home and have a mortgage that eats up, on average, 30 per cent of their household income.

I’m not being negative. I live in a shoebox-sized inner city apartment, walk to work and have written a book about tackling traffic congestion. I’m just being pragmatic. I’m saying that the Aussie dream – and associated culture and lifestyle aspirations – don’t resemble the inner city streets of Copenhagen, Helsinki or Amsterdam.

So if we’re not re-creating Copenhagen Down Under, what should we do?

  1. Let’s play to our strengths. Studies suggest that 86 per cent of cycling in Australia is recreational. On the Manly and Sandgate esplanades on any given Saturday or Sunday, you can’t move for every different shape, size and style of bicycle. Families, groups of friends and social clubs (people who won’t ever ride to work) delight in the traffic-free seaside routes, whilst café owners grin from ear to ear with roaring coffee and ice cream sales. So let’s build more high–quality, traffic-free recreational routes and get more people cycling because they want to, not because the Council or their employer told them that they have to. If I were Mayor, I’d rip those ‘free’ bikes out of Brisbane city centre and dot them along the coast from Sandgate to Redcliffe. I reckon they’d be overused and oversubscribed forever. How about we collect real recreational cycling data to verify the wider economic benefits for shops and cafes?
  2. Let’s give people what they want, not what we think they need. People don’t do what they need to do; they do what they want to do. I probably need to quit sugar, but it’s not something I want to do. No one in Singapore needs a Ferarri, but all wealthy Singaporeans want one. It’s a high-density city with no wide open roads, and a government that doesn’t like cars. Despite this, Singapore sells more Ferraris per person than almost any other country. We all agree we probably should drive less. Organisations that tell car drivers they need to get ‘on their bikes’ will ultimately fail. We need to talk to people about what they want. They may actually want a list of family-friendly bicycle routes, or a list of hotels with bicycles to hire. The key to success is to understand peoples’ wants rather than their needs. I’m running a masterclass on this in Kuala Lumpur later this year.
  3. Let’s accept that not everyone wants to bike. The fact that half of all households do not own a bicycle is proof enough for  me that not everyone wants to ride. And quite frankly that’s ok with me.

If we’re not re-creating Copenhagen Down Under, let’s just be ourselves, because Copenhagen, Helsinki and Amsterdam are already taken. Instead, let’s play to our strengths; let’s give people what they want and let’s accept that not everyone wants to ride.

  • A useful "sanity check" on the validity of comparisons with Copenhagen. However I disagree that we should simply "give people what they want". I think the point of leadership is to do what is for the best for the whole community. I can't see much value in funding recreational cycling if our objective is to improve transportation. One of the challenges I see with cycling in Australia is that the larger suburban distances and the strong sporting culture have tended to give us a cycling demographic and culture that skews to fit, young and male. Recognising the importance of the differences that you identify, maybe the approach is to focus our cycling infrastructure and promotion on areas that are already culturally more "Copenhagen-like"? Make it more car-unfriendly in West End, South Brisbane, Fortitude Valley, New Farm and the CBD?

  • Give people what they want?
    A vast proportion of people want to drive SUVs with no concern for the environment. They want cheap fuel and wide roads with free-flowing traffic so they can go where they want when they please.
    They want to live in detached housing on 800m2 but still want their suburb serviced by everything.
    The population of Australia needs to realise that our way of life is not sustainable; it is not environmentally friendly and it is pretty selfish.

    Not striving for Copenhagen means not striving for a city where one can ride a bicycle without the fear of being killed every single time. Surely that’s not too much to ask?
    Not striving for Copenhagen is accepting that 50+ human beings on bicycles are killed every year by trucks & cars and accepting that this current road and transport infrastructure is OK.

    Perhaps what little cycling we have is 86% recreational (i.e. on foreshore bike paths) because the rest of the roads are too dangerous to venture on to?

    I accept that not everyone wants to bike; but there are a lot of people out there that are being penalised because they want to bike but feel like it is too dangerous to do so, so they drive.

  • A few points:
    1. Road congestion is inevitable in any large city, unless you have demand management (e.g., road pricing). There can never be enough space to cater for all the latent demand – it is mainly congestion that keeps demand in check. European cities with great public transport and bicycling facilities still have road congestion, but they accept it and concentrate instead on providing people with realistic options to sitting in traffic.

    2. Amsterdam was a car-based city in the 60s and 70s. No bicycle lanes, plazas used for car parking etc. The majority of people didn't *want* to cycle, because they didn't feel comfortable or safe riding in traffic. Few people *want* to cycle for transport in Australian cities because of similar concerns, but there is strong evidence that they would want to if they felt safe.

    3. The low density of Australian cities is a consequence of highway expansion since the 1950s. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Despite the low density, the vast majority of urban residents live within bicycling distance of shops, railway stations etc. And the majority of trips are less than 5km. So there could be a much larger role for bicycle transport.

  • All in favor of making urban ,inner city areas more car – unfriendly and for having more bike paths ,as long as this goes hand in hand with banning cyclists from all main roads with a sixty speed limit. Cars and bikes together on main roads is an accident waiting to happen and make no more scene than letting pedestrians run, down the middle of a main road.

  • I have very mixed views on this opinion piece Rachel. While I agree that every country, city and community has its own specific context to deal with, I disagree with the idea that there is a push to replicate places like Copenhagen here in Australia, or indeed, other northern European cities around the world. When we aspire to something different, something better, regardless of the goal, we will naturally look for concrete examples of best practice. In terms of strong bicycle cultures, Copenhagen is a prime example. It is not just that they have such high levels of ridership, fantastic facilities etc., it is also the broader changes they have delivered in their city. They are economically prosperous, very environmentally focused and constantly rate as the happiest people on the planet. Copenhagen was once car-dominated, congested and facing the same consequences as many cities around the world. But, they acted quickly. They adopted outdoor dining on their streets, which was largely a Mediterranean activity. Jan Gehl has spoken extensively about the extreme resistance this initially generated. Outdoor dining is now a defining characteristic of many Australian cities, but only in the last 10 or so years. Australia, like every other country, has always and will continue to borrow ideas and practices from other places. How this translates on the ground is a different matter. Take our so called “Copenhagen lanes” as a case in point. They actually resemble nothing like bike lanes in Copenhagen. You could argue the principle of separation has been adopted to the Australian context. The point in heralding places like Copenhagen is not to replicate it here, rather it is about adopting and applying sound principles in a different context. I believe that this has been lost in the noise of the arguments for and against urban cycling in Australia.

    The other issue I have to disagree with, is the idea that we should focus on people’s wants, rather than their needs. This is fundamentally wrong. We already do focus on their wants above their needs. Human behaviour does not take place in a bubble, rather it is the outcome of a series of simultaneous interactions with the social-cultural-regulatory-technological environment in which we live. If you change that environment/system, people’s beliefs, values and behaviour will also change. This is a fundamental of behavioural science. Asking people what they want is the main reason community consultation fails time and time again. Wants become politicised and difficult to shift. Understanding what people need is more difficult but ultimately more important. “I want a car” vs. “I need transportation”, or “I need to access facilities, goods etc.” I do agree that not everyone want to ride a bike and we shouldn’t expect them too. The alternative to a car is not always a bicycle.

    I sense some frustration in your article, as well as a determined effort to overcome some constant barriers in terms of supporting more people to ride. However, I think its important to frame the issue differently, i.e. using principles from other places rather than copying and pasting. I would strongly urge you to rethink the wants vs. needs assertion. Perhaps have a look at some behavioural science literature.

    I hope this doesnt appear too critical because I admire anyone willing to put their ideas and thinking out there. I also admire your obvious determination to create change.

  • I like where you're going here, Rachel.

    Making active choices easier and more accessible for recreational use will eventually lead to people choosing the bike/footpath over the car eventually.

    Perhaps we're jumping too far ahead of ourselves (after all we're a few hundred years younger than Copenhagen) and need to assist in making bikes a greater part of our lives BEFORE we try to push people into relying on them for commuting purposes.

  • Steve Hansen
    Industry Journalist
    2 years, 1 month ago

    Many people refrain from biking because of mandatory helmet laws.

    According to Luke Turner, writing for the Institute of Public Affairs, "Australia is one of only two countries in the world with national all-age mandatory bicycle helmet laws (MHLs)." The result has been predictable:

    "When the laws were introduced in the early 1990s, cycling trips declined by 30-40 per cent overall, and up to 80 per cent in some demographic groups, such as secondary school-aged females."

    Turner referenced a survey by University of Sydney Professor Chris Rissel, concluding that "amending helmet laws to allow adult cyclists free choice would lead to an approximate doubling of cycling numbers in Sydney."

    • Too true Steve but unfortunately we have a national cycling advocacy group that told me in response to this issue that "99% of cyclists like helmets" and that cycling participation rates have rebounded even though they clearly have not, especially for transport cycling and school kids. It's only race bikes & recreation that have become somewhat popular again. Most advocacy groups are too busy being nice to government in order to win minor favour rather than stand up and fight hard for equality. (Business ladder climbing books like "How to win friends and influence people" have a lot to answer for with resulting bad government.)

      The Federal Government is currently calling for comments on "Nanny State" laws and helmets are first on the list. The Qld Government review of cycle laws recommended getting rid of the law for adults but the minister of the time "believed" in helmets and ignored the sensible recommendation.

  • Giving better cycling facilities will encourage people to ride more and where these facilities surround and lead to popular destinations, a significant number of people will choose to cycle. We generally have a better climate for cycling than these European cities but the article only talks about the negatives. We are different to these European cities but we can still have solutions.

    • Well said Rachel & I agree with most of it particularly the bit about sugar, not everyone want's to cycle & urban sprawl.
      2 points of disagreement.
      1/ Like others have said – government should be catering to societies' needs not people's wants. Most people are not much better than spoilt brats and it's only by working together that society really achieves a lot & "lifts all boats".
      2/ Seeing cycling as recreation is what got us into this mess in the first place. The anti-cyclist rants in the Murdoch papers are mostly directed at "lycra" cyclists and some (OK, not most) of those ranting actually accept that commuter cyclists reduce traffic congestion etc. and have a valid place on roads. We need to sell cycling for transport. Of course recreation is a good way to get people started in cycling and hopefully lead on to commuter cycling or at least more aware of cycling safety on our roads when they drive. But other factors like time & cost of motoring becoming excessive can probably be more of an incentive in congested areas than converts from recreation.

    • Craig, personally I find our climate less conductive to cycling that Europe's. Our warm & humid weather in the major coastal cities makes sweating much more of a problem. Cold might deter people going outside at all but when it's cold at least you can cycle in a business suit and not get it sweaty.

    • Cummings, recent developments in e-bike technology mean that hot/humid weather (and hilly terrain) can no longer be used as an excuse not to promote/use the bicycle as a means of transport.