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.