Urban Riding: is the Cycle Slowing?

Popular wisdom says that urban bicycle riding is on the up. In many cities, increasing numbers of latte-sipping beardies whizz by on fixies and mums with kids on the back roll to kindergarten. But the truth seems to be otherwise. In many places active urban cycling could be slipping in popularity. By James Teo and The Dirt.

Singapore has some great bike paths - but commuting is not yet common. Courtesy thesmartlocal.com

Singapore has some great bike paths - but commuting is not yet common. Courtesy thesmartlocal.com

Amsterdam, April 4, 2019. In 2014, 904,000 Americans admitted to commuting by bicycle. By 2017, only 830,000 Americans biked to work, Given the increasing popularity of bicycles as sustainable transport, and that communities large and small have made investments in bicycle infrastructure, why haven’t the numbers of bike commuters dramatically increased?

Likewise, in Australia, 2017 National Cycling Participation Survey results published by Austroads and the Australian Bicycle Council indicated that Australian cycling numbers have been dropping significantly. From 2011 to 2017, the data shows almost 640,000 fewer Australians riding a bike at least once per week and some 1.4 million fewer having cycled in the year prior to the survey. The report also noted that the overall cycling participation rate has declined from 18% in 2011 to 15.5% in 2017. Ominously, it noted that “… the general downward trend appears to be supported by the survey results from 2013 and 2015.”

Something is obviously curbing the surge of the early 2000s when buying and riding a bike was THE thing to do. It would seem there are other influencing factors to the appeal of cycling, other than the obvious ones of cost, health and convenience when compared to cars. Investigations have suggested that increasing numbers of active and commuter cyclists stem as much from the provision of bike-friendly environments, not just better bikes and jazzier cycling gear.

In London, which despite huge numbers of cyclists boasts only a piecemeal cycling infrastructure, a survey of millions of riders recorded an average speed of 22kph. In Amsterdam, the average speed was 26kph despite those heavy sit up and beg bikes, with barely a fixie to be seen. Dutch riders have to stop and weave less often; their infrastructure is better and the riding easier.

Amsterdam is famous for its cycling culture. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Amsterdam is famous for its cycling culture. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The clue is that Holland, spends around US$40 per rider on cycling infrastructure. The UK spends just US$2.5. The United Nations  recommends that governments allocate 20% of their total transport funding to non-motorised transport. Sadly, almost nowhere is seeing that happen.

Another influential factor on the slipping numbers could be the planning process. One American community activist, Christian Dorsey, said his government in Northern Virginia is looking to promote cycling, but “we can’t just promote the new bicycle infrastructure to the bicycle advocates — it has to be for everyone,” for it to work.

“If bicycle infrastructure isn’t designed to be safe for everyone — and therefore inclusive of everyone — then it’s not safe for anyone,” agrees Danielle Arigoni, from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), who noted that reported accidents to riders 65 and older were rising – and they don’t get back on their bikes. Additionally, it could be that the increasing perception of cycling popularity in cities is due only to a class-based bump, not broad social uptake. Dorsey asserts this may be part of the issue.

Retro-fitting safe cycle lanes is key to rider uptake. Courtesy City of Melbourne.

Retro-fitting safe cycle lanes is key to rider uptake. Courtesy City of Melbourne.

“It is important that access to bicycle infrastructure … is equitable,” he says. He says that bike share stations need to be set up in all neighbourhoods, not just the wealthy downtowns. And most low-income employers don’t offer showers or bike lockers.

“If someone (low-income) is biking to work, they have to do so in their work clothes as there are often no facilities at the other end,” he adds. That makes it more practical for an executive, with access to facilities, to bike to work than it is for someone who works at a fast food restaurant.

It’s not all bleak news though; in the US, safe, connected, bicycle infrastructure has made it easy to cycle in some cities. Places like Berkeley, California have seen 9% of commuters travel by bike, and in Portland, Oregon an impressive 7% ride to work. In those communities, infrastructure has been key to achieving high numbers of bike commuters, just like in Amsterdam and Copenhagen – where 36,000 cyclists ride every day, and over 50% of locals commute by bike.

Nonetheless, the slowdown in bicycle usage in many urban centres could be due not to just to  lack of facilities, but also to saturation of the available (token) facilities. In Melbourne, which in the late 90s was little short of a kamikaze zone for cyclists, some 2.3 million riders recently logged rides online – only a smidgeon behind Amsterdam with 2.7 million rides for the same period. Its city-wide separate, wide cycle lanes, dedicated cyclist traffic lights and priority stops at junctions make the city a haven for riders of all stripes and quantities. Not just those who are brave enough.

This link between adequate facilities and cycling uptake is underlined by Amsterdam’s story. In the 60s and 70s Amsterdam was one of the most car-crazy capitals of Europe. Traditional cycling ownership was declining rapidly – but so was safety. The crunch came in 1971, when 3,300 people were killed across Holland in car accidents. More significantly, over 400 children were killed by vehicles. As a result, the Stop de Kindermoord (child murder) movement and the Cyclists’ Union pushed for a complete rethink of transport in Dutch cities.

This led to a government sponsored push to put bicycle transport – accessible to all users – at the forefront of city planning. Since then, vehicle carnage has dropped dramatically. Road deaths have slumped to just 600 a year, despite the overall population having risen by 25%.

In most societies bicycles are already seen as a healthy and viable alternative to other vehicles for personal transport. So maybe we can learn from the Amsterdam – and Copenhage, and Curitiba in Brazil, but to achieve critical mass and regular usage, infrastructure needs to keep up with bicycle sales. Three bikes in the garage is no good if they never get ridden.

Even in the car-wedded US, a National Institute for Transportation study noted that 63% of respondents agreed with the statement "I would be more likely to ride a bicycle if motor vehicles and bicycles were physically separated by a barrier."

The answer could be in more, better cycle ways and cohesive urban planning.