Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia

6 December 2019

After a decade of spinning its wheels on active transport policy, Australia needs to wise up and invest in a post-car future with bicycles at the forefront, Craig Richards writes.

It’s unclear how history will remember the last decade. Maybe, it will be remembered as a decade of treading water. It’s so murky in fact, that even as it comes to an end, it’s still unclear what it should be called. Is it the twenty-tens or the twenty-teens?

Active travel policy in Australia is a prime example of a decade of going nowhere. On the one hand, there have been some advances like minimum passing distance laws and relaxation of footpath riding laws – with the notable exception of Victoria – and the publication of a number of impressive strategies promising futures that feature bikes.

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On the other, the 2010s have seen glacial progress on building better places to ride, share bike vandalisation become a national sport, and a seemingly never-ending chant for bike riders to ‘pay rego’. Overall, when it comes to bike riding, any ground won was quickly conceded.

As a result, the number of people riding bikes has steadily declined. The National Cycling Participation Survey shows that in 2011 18.2 per cent of Australians rode a bike once a week. By 2019 that number had slid to 13.8 per cent.

The humble bicycle is described as a simple solution to the world’s most complicated problems.

With society facing serious problems like congestion, physical inactivity, and climate change, it’s astonishing how few policies actually encourage Australians to get their bicycle out from the shed.

As the sun sets on the 2010s, the big question when it comes to people riding bikes is, ‘What will happen in Australia in the 2020s?’ The truth is it’s impossible to predict, but it could go one of three ways.

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By 2029, there could be masses of happy people pedalling to where they need to be without a care in the world. Alternatively, Australia could be a nation divided, with some communities embracing two wheels and others driving everywhere, thinking that pedalling even a single kilometre is as physically demanding as competing in the Tour de France. Even worse, like the resistance in a sci-fi movie, bike riding could be reduced to a few brave warriors, suiting up for battle against the machines.

Australia’s current stalemate is a result of confusing active transport policy. As a general principle, riding bikes is encouraged. But that proposition is quickly eroded by actual policy, which treats moving motorised vehicles as its number one priority.

It’s further damaged by the well-meaning, misguided view that every risk of injury, no matter how small, must be eliminated. The tension between these policies is why the next decade is so uncertain. Will the government allow humans to decide what they wear, or will it be illegal to pedal a bicycle without a fluorescent jacket and inflatable torso protector?

Will it be the responsibility of people driving cars, or the people programming them, to look out for people riding bikes? Or will bike riders be blamed for any collision unless they are lit up like Christmas trees?

The reality is it doesn’t have to be this confusing or complex. Imagine how much clearer it would be if there was just a single, guiding principle. One that recognises that bike riding is about freedom and convenience. A simple test for transport policy: does it make riding a bike easier?

That test would slam the brakes on the angry ‘pay rego’ mob. It would switch off the compulsory lights for bikes during daylight argument. It might even mean decision-makers open their minds and reconsider their enthusiasm for penalising people on bikes who don’t wear helmets at all times, or who dare to ride a bike without a bell.

This single guiding principle will stop the implementation of the seemingly never-ending stream of ‘good ideas’ that lack supporting evidence and really are just solutions in search of a problem. However, if Australia is to make it to the summit, policymakers will need their overarching policy to be a reason to act, not just a reason to refrain from acting.

That’ll mean putting all existing restrictions under the microscope, and yes, that includes mandatory helmets. It means introducing laws that give the people at greatest risk safety priority and building an Australia that means riding a bike doesn’t involve constantly looking out for motorised vehicles.

Of course, for a bike-friendly Australia to become a reality, its spending will also need to pass this overarching test. As Canadian urbanist Brent Toderian says, “The truth about a city’s future is found in its budget, not its strategies”.

Australian government budgets currently pour billions into trains and automobiles and drip millions into active transport. The United Nations recommends that at least 20 per cent of transport spending be on active travel. In Australia, that amount is well under five per cent, and below one per cent of Australians ride a bike to work.

As the sun sets on the 2010s, it is perhaps time to think about a new decade’s eve resolution. Instead of vowing to go to the gym, why not commit to pulling that trusty old pushbike out of the shed, pedalling down to see the local Member of Parliament and letting them know that to secure a vote at the next election they need to show real progress on active transport, not just keep the wheels spinning.

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