Wednesday 20 January 2010

Yarra - the highest cycling rate in Australia

Mike Rubbo recently made this film about Jackie Fristacky, the Councillor for Nicholls Ward, City of Yarra which is located in Melbourne in Australia.

Over here, it's nothing special to be a "cycling councillor." In fact, quite the reverse. When 93% of the population ride a bike at least once a week, it would be a brave councillor who tried to get elected with any kind of anti-bike message. In this country, the royal family ride bikes, and do so publicly in part because it's a way of connecting with the public and appearing a bit more normal rather than aloof.

However, in Australia it is not the same, and Jackie is sticking her head out in being a "cycling councillor." It is perhaps not a co-incidence that she represents the area with the highest cycling rate in Australia. 9% of commutes in Yarra are by bicycle, which is vastly higher than the average for the country as a whole.

Now, that's all very interesting, but what I like to know about places like this is what makes them special. What makes Yarra a place where cycling is more acceptable and more commonplace than elsewhere in Australia ? I sent Mike this question, and got a very comprehensive reply from Jackie herself, listing her reasons why Yarra has a high cycling mode share:
  • Location close to key destinations such as CBD (1-2kms away to 5kms away at the extreme), employment and local activity centres;
  • Yarra being 19.5 sq kms, and only a few kms from CBD (Central Business District), so distances all easily cyclable;
  • Relatively flat terrain;
  • Hoddle grid street pattern (rectangular blocks) makes cycling easy;
  • High youth population, including students, given proximity to many tertiary educational institutions (University of Melbourne, RMIT, Australian Catholic University, and city campuses of Monash University, Vitoria University and others);
  • Demographic is diverse with high proportion of professionals (higher incomes), and students and public housing (low incomes); both demographics cycle;
  • cycling as an egalitarian and independent mode, suits the Yarra demographic;
  • Congestion, so it is far more effective to cycle - being faster and door to door;
  • 20% of households do not have a car, compared with Melbourne average of 10%;
  • 73,000 residents; and 8,700 business in Yarra, employing some 60,000 people, Yarra having the largest source of employment outside the CBD. Some large businesses, like the CUB, have large secure bike cages for staff. Many employers are starting to encourage their staff to cycle to work with good parking and other facilities. Under the State planning scheme, these have become mandatory for larger new developments, but this is effecting existing businesses too. At meetings with planners, we take every opportunity to point out that more bikes are sold than cars, especially in Yarra, so where are residents/workers going to put their bikes. We say that if they do not want them in corridors and on balconies where they can cause trip hazards and WorkCare claims, then they need to plan better storage places;
  • people are employed locally though more are employed in the CBD and also in surrounding areas;
  • Yarra inherited a good cycle path to the CBD (Canning Street) but this has been supplemented by bike paths on virtually all roads in Yarra due to policy change directing this;
  • Role models of Mayor and councillors on bikes, and senior staff including Directors on bikes;
  • PR with press features on cycling and facilities;
  • many local workers like to attend a bar or the like after work and having a car hampers them with restricted parking, drink driving etc; a bike gives more flexibility and less likely to be DUI.
What is my point in presenting this ? I believe there is always a reason why people cycle more in some places than they do in others. You see the same thing even here in the Netherlands. Some cities have higher cycling rates than others. There is always a reason why.

The challenge is to transform the rest of the city, even the rest of the country, so that conditions there are also conducive to cycling, and to keep on doing so in order to continue to increase the cycling rate. Commuters are a start, but they only get you so far. For a sustainable improvement, infrastructure needs to be designed to make it possible for a wider demographic to take to bicycles.

For now, let's be happy with what Yarra has achieved so far: The highest cycling rate anywhere in Australia.

Compare with a city in the Netherlands with a "low" rate of cycling


Rob Mackenzie said...

CBD = Central Business District, that took me a moment!

Anonymous said...

Sounds a lot like the conditions in Portland - a few higher-profile people starting to ride regularly, some real infrastructure starting to materialize, lots of positive press for cycling as transportation, and businesses starting to make it easier for their employees and customers to arrive by bicycle with facilities like parking, money incentives to ride rather than drive, etc.

And we have the highest cycling rate in the U.S. (at least, of the major cities) - I've heard figures of about 4% of all trips, or 8% of commuters, which is still low for much of the world, but we're getting there, slowly but surely :)

Some of our bridges into downtown (our downtown is along a river) have up to 20% bicycle mode share for daily traffic.

And more indicators, more and more people riding in normal clothes, on non-racing bikes, at reasonable speeds, bike racks at grocery stores always full, on-street bicycle parking popping up all over the city, replacing car parking spots, city testing out infrastructure like on-street cycle tracks, etc.

All just little signs that we're moving in the right direction.

David J said...

Excellent story! I grew up in Melbourne, the inner suburbs are great for cycling thanks to the committment of particular communities and their enlightened councilors. There's a fantastic network of bike paths and river trails that can take you to some really beautiful spots. Where I lived it would take about 45 minutes to get into the CBD, by car or train During peak hour. I could be there in the same time on my bike... Too bad the roads out of town are so bussy and dangerous though. I still remember the buzz I got from passing long lines of people trapped in their cars as they waited for the lights to change but lived in fear of being doored or slammed into by the ones who decided stopping at the lights is for mugs...