Monday 15 March 2010

Why do Sydney's drivers hate cyclists ?

The Sydney Morning Herald from Australia recently reported that Sydney is "the city that hates bikes." Cycling rates are low all across Australia, but Sydney is the city which has "the lowest rate of bicycle ownership of any major city in Australia as well as the lowest proportion of people who cycle every day." Melbourne has double the cycling rate of Sydney, with 2.1% of commutes by bike vs. 0.8% in Sydney.

John Pucher, who I wrote about previously, spent a sabbatical year researching ways to boost cycling in Sydney, and wrote a detailed report which looks into the reasons why Sydney has so little cycling, making comparisons with Melbourn and with the rest of the world.

The graph shows the relationship between the bicycle modal share for commuting and the proportion of bike trips which are by women for various areas of Melbourne. Women are typically more cautious than men, and where subjective safety is lacking, fewer women will cycle. It is noted in the article that cycling rates for women are very low in Australia, while the highest rate of cycling by women is here in the Netherlands where 55% of all cycle journeys are made by women.

Normally I would note here that the commuting rate is usually a lot lower than the modal share for all journeys. This is true in most instances because children, parents with children and the elderly are even more affected by subjective safety issues.

However, Australia's cycling rate is so low that other effects come into play. In Sydney, fully 53% of cycle journeys are made for recreational purposes. This is quite an unusual situation. Conditions are such that utility cycling by "normal people" who don't identify themselves as "cyclists" has almost been eradicated.

Pucher's article (please read it) spends a lot of time looking at the factors which make cycling particularly unattractive in Sydney. Topography and climate, population density and urban form, trip distance, socioeconomic and demographic factors. I've covered most of these issues before, and none really add up to a reason for no-one to cycle.

I've covered these excuses before, so I won't go over them again, except for one. The problem of trip distances is so commonly over-stated that I will write about that. The average work trip length in Sydney turns out to be 16.9 km. That's quite a high figure. However, 32.9% of work trips are actually under 10 km, and 15% of trips to work are under 5 km. Even with such a large number of short commutes, only 0.8% of all these commutes are being made by bicycle. Journey distances may put off some potential cycle commuters, but they are clearly not the real reason for the cycling rate of Sydney being so extraordinarily low.

It is often believed by people from low cycling English speaking countries that the Dutch only make short journeys. That of course is not the truth. Across the whole of the Netherlands, 35% of all trips for all purposes that are under 7.5 km are made by bike. So are 15% of journeys between 7.5 and 15 km and 3% of journeys over 15 km. The Dutch have the longest commutes on average of any nation in Europe.

So what is the problem ? Why do Australians cycle so infrequently ? Section 5 on page 14 of the article gets down to it:

"Concern about the danger of road cycling is a serious deterrent to getting more people to cycle—especially for children, the elderly, and women, but also for anyone who is risk averse (Bauman et al, 2008). A recent survey of 1,150 Sydney residents living within 10 km of the CBD suggests that perceived traffic danger is the primary reason why non-regular cyclists do not cycle more often (City of Sydney, 2006). Thus, improving cycling safety is an important approach to encouraging more cycling among a broader cross-section of society. Of course, reducing cyclist injuries and fatalities is an appropriate public health goal in itself, but the potential impact of improved safety on people’s willingness to cycle is yet more reason to pursue this goal."

There you have it. There is a lack of Subjective safety.

It doesn't have to be like this. In the Netherlands we have infrastructure which supports cyclists by giving them direct journeys with a high degree of subjective safety making cycling easily accessible to all. The result is not only an enormous difference in the number of short and slow journeys made relative to other countries, but increases interest in all types of cycling. You also see it reflected in the very high rate of participation in racing, and the resulting success in international racing vs. other countries, and the high rate of long distance cycle commuting. The latter particularly benefits due to infrastructure specifically designed to support it. The quality of Dutch provision has made a great difference to my own commuting speed. For keen cyclists, there is no down side to the type of infrastructure which exists in the Netherlands.

The story about Sydney came to me via the Crap cycling and walking in Waltham Forest blog.


Unknown said...

Well said David, as an importer of dutch bicycles into Australia I experience these sorts of excuses almost on a daily basis. At the end of the day, infrastructure needs to be improved and all else will follow!

Edward said...

This is a great post David. You have hit the nail on the head. You could be describing almost any Australian city.

I live in Adelaide. There has been a small resurgence in cycling recently and by that I mean I am starting to see more women dressed normally except for the polystyrene hat) on normal bicycles than I used to. It is still only a trickle though.

Our infrastructure consists in the main of painted lines in the gutter which magically disappear when you reach an intersection.

Many drivers are courteous but are simply not used to having cyclists around them. Motorists are not taught basic things such as looking over their shoulder whenever they turn left.

The State and Federal Government both claim to want to encourage cycling but it is always aimed at recreational cycling only. Money is being spent on "upgrading" cycle tracks in the parklands, which is great if you only want to cycle in circles in a park, but as soon as you reach the end, you hit fast moving traffic and are left to fend for yourself.

I enjoy your blog but I have to say I get cranky and jealous when I see the sort of infrastructure the Dutch authorities install without the incessant moaning that we seem to get from a few vocal motorists.

Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...


An excellent post.

I was looking at road accident statistics from this site I found:

In Australia, in 2009, there were a total of 29 cyclist fatalities nationwide. Of these, 22 involved another vehicle (75%). There is no comment on mechanism of injury, etc. nor, interestingly, any mention of helmets (I wonder why...).

If that figure is not a case for separate bikeways I don't know what is.

The problem here is the sport cycling subculture (mostly, all that we're left with here), which usually only cycle on weekends or treat the daily commute as a high speed training run, don't want separate infrastructure. Somehow they feel they're under 'threat'.

They also treat pedestrians on shared paths in the same way that they detest car drivers treating them - the hypocrisy!
See here for an interesting interview on our local ABC radio station in Brisbane:

Your site shows that if you have decent infrastructure for all cyclists, not just the Tour de France wannabes, then all cyclists benefit, not to mention the disabled and pedestrians.

Proper infrastructure, as Edward says, consists of bikeways that are more than convoluted paths through parks. That's all well and good but we need the paths to highlight the seriousness of bicycles as transport. They need to be given more priority, as in the Netherlands.

I also get a bit jealous of the Dutch infrastructure but please keep posting!


Dr Paul Martin (Brisbane)

PS: My wife and I cycled 10km to dinner on Saturday night, all dressed up on our Gazelle bikes - even with high heels (well, not me) and it really was splendid. We rode slowly by the river with the city lights reflecting in the water while we chatted in the cool evening breeze. The journey to and from the restaurant was as memorable as the meal!

freewheeler said...

"I have to say I get cranky and jealous when I see the sort of infrastructure the Dutch authorities install without the incessant moaning that we seem to get from a few vocal motorists."

Edward, I can assure you that I am equally cranky and jealous of what the Dutch achieve, when I encounter what laughably passes for cycling infrastructure in London. One of the biggest obstacles to cycling in London is driver behaviour, and my enthusiasm for "vehicular cycling" has evaporated. Only the kind of infrastructure shown on David's blog is ever going to reverse the trend towards more and more car dependency in Britain.

Freedom Cyclist said...

I have not come across the 'level of hostility' that the researcher mentions in his survey, and I am quite surprised that he would give up cycling so quickly even in Sydney, especially since he claims he has been cycling for 'decades' - is this guy a man or a mouse?

Cycling numbers in Sydney are growing by the day and our Lord Mayor is committed to cycling infrastructure. She valiantly weathers criticism from many quarters and doggedly continues to improve conditions for bicycle transport and the city. It's a pity that despite obvious and visible improvements our media continues to broadcast only the 'doom & gloom' stuff (on behalf of the helmet and oil lobbies) in a bid to frighten us off the roads - the dangers of cycling still do not equate to the dangers of motoring on australian roads.

At some stage we must start celebrating the improvements as they happen no matter how small - personally I'm fed up with the SMH's complete subsription to the perils of cycling, as well as attempts by all our media to 'terrorise' us off our roads!

Oh dear! i do sound cranky! - many apologies, david! - but we are making inroads! truly - the article is not reflective - it's desparate!

J.. said...

Nice post David.
I have my doubts though about the "hostilities" mentioned by mr. Pucher. He seems to be somewhat isolated in his opinion about Sidney Motorists. Others say drivers there are friendly and well behaved. My own (albeit limited) experience with Australians is that of a pretty laid back and stressless culture.

Is it perhaps possible mr. Pucher was cycling in a radically different (perhaps more assertive) way than most of the locals? Is he more easily intimidated or more sensitive to the dangers of motor traffic? Was he just unlucky?
I don't know, but if the drivers of Sidney really are that hostile, I seriously doubt he'd be the first to notice.

Having said that, serious cycling on a non-pathetic scale (ie. double digit mode share) is unfeasible anyway, simply because of the helmet law.

ibikelondon said...


I lived in inner city Sydney for over a year and know the conditions of many of it's roads; there are multiple problems facing the cyclist (not just poor infrastructure) There's the helmet law, which of course is unfriendly, there is the ease with which Sydney highways will deliver you into the central business district, the cost of parking is (by international standards) quite cheap, and is a lack of infrastructure for sure.

The current Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, is making inroads in finally building bike lanes but her efforts are hampered by the NSW Government which is corrupt in the extreme, and by lack of provision for bicycles in planning provision.

Whilst I'm not sure if Sydney is the world's least friendly city towards cyclists (and I am not sure how helpful this tag might be for those there who might be considering cycling), it does have a LONG way to go to catch up with the rest of the world.

Sadly, the biggest problem there is not just one for cyclists; it's for pedestrians, users of buses and trains and all public transport: in Australia the car is king.

Anonymous said...

Pucher is from New Jersey, which has its fair share of hostile drivers. And he's a good researcher, so I doubt he was just reporting on his personal experiences.

That said, I'm sure that some places in Sydney are fantastic to bike in.

Jörg said...

Very interesting! Thanks!

skippy said...

@edward every so often i see a tweet from @premiermikerann about his riding a bike .
With the TDU being so important to the SA economy surely he would WANT the racers to leave each year reporting increased cycling path infrastructure , after all most racers enjoy passing on their observations to their followers !
During Sydney2000 i rode back to the Olympic Village on Parramatta Rd with a peloton of Racers and the outstanding moment was a motorcycle cop telling us to single up as we could be holding up the traffic ! Things have changed since BUT as long as Law officials THINK this way the "motoring hoon" will feel confident in their harassment of Vunerable Road Users . VRU in all parts of the world are treated as 2nd or 3rd class citizens , even video evidence from helmet cameras does not guarantee an early response from the authorities . See cyclingsilk blog for the ongoing saga , there are links on my blog for that and other incidents .

Enjoyed your blog and i hope we can exchange links