Fairly or unfairly, Australia has a reputation in bicycle advocacy circles as a place where good public policy goes to die. Years of atypical, punitive, disproportionally priced and enforced fines—such as for not donning a helmet or carrying photo identification—combined with minimal investments in protected infrastructure, have created an unwelcoming and unforgiving environment where only the fit and brave prevail. Worst of all, the slow, simple, safe, and civilized act of upright utility cycling has all but abandoned the public consciousness, while Australian streets and media are dominated by Lycra-clad “Super Dads” hunched over carbon fiber racing bikes.
This misguided and heavy-handed experiment has resulted in Australian cities, such as Sydney, being among the few in the world where cycling rates are actually declining. But nearly 4,000 kilometres away, in the Western Australian state capital of Perth, advocates and officials are trying to buck that trend, tackling the problem with a three-pronged solution. They are taking inspiration not from emerging cycling cities like Seville, Vancouver, or New York, but from the undisputed kings of utility cycling: the Dutch.
“The Dutch Are an Excellent Resource for Developing the Use of Bikes for Transport”
Earlier this year, the Western Australian government released a 2050 bicycle master plan, that—as Perth’s population increases from a region of 2 million to 3.5 million over the next 35 years—elevates the humble bicycle into a central strategy to deal with that growth. It reads very much like the ten cycling lessons we at Modacity brought back from The Netherlands, proposing a network suitable for ages 8 to 80, consisting of complementary commuter routes and cycle tracks on high streets. The plan even acknowledges the role that e-bikes will play in addressing barriers to the uptake of cycling as a means of transportation, and proposes to incentivize their use.
Local cycle campaigner Tim Burns—whom we had the pleasure of meeting this past summer at an event hosted by the University of Amsterdam’s innovative “Planning the Cycling City” program—reacted to this plan with cautious optimism. “There are a few people within our state government Department of Transport who understand the Dutch are an excellent resource for developing the use of bikes for transport,” Burns explains. “The change has not been dramatic, but there is change. For example, they now understand the importance of social [side-by-side] riding, and some of the Principal Shared Paths will now be widened from 3 metres to 4 metres.”
Burns also sees modest success in the types of people now riding bikes in Perth. “We are seeing an increase in the number of people riding upright style bikes in normal clothes, particularly in the inner city suburbs,” he suggests. “As part of this trend, the proportion of women and older people has been increasing. Cargo bikes carrying children are still a rare sight in Perth but they were non-existent ten years ago.”
"Direct, Safe Pathways and Secure Bike Parking Facilities"
One of the most prominent ideas Perth borrowed from the Dutch planning playbook is strengthening the powerful and efficient bike-train-bike connection, in an effort to encourage residents to cycle to and from the train station. Transperth, the authority that runs the region’s seven passenger rail lines, has been promoting biking to its 71 stations for a few years, through the construction of secure parking facilities, seamless integration with fare cards, and a series of targeted marketing campaigns.
Jim Krynen, Transperth’s Manager of Cycling Integration, explains the origins of the program: “A car number plate survey revealed that 60% of cars parked at our train stations had driven less than 3 kilometres. And a survey for one specific station found a shocking 43% had driven less than 800 metres.”
“We conducted 1,000 intercept surveys at four different train stations over a one-week period,” says Krynen, “27% of respondents said they would ride a bike if there were direct, safe pathways, and secure bike parking facilities at the stations.”
As Transperth continues to invest resources in infrastructure and policy that integrates rail and bike travel, they also see tremendous value in promoting and educating the public about their efforts. They recently rolled out a fantastic poster and video campaign, which—over the next three years—hopes to increase bike parking usage to 80%, and increase the percentage of passengers arriving at a station by bike to 2.6%. While it’s a far cry from the 50% bike mode share many Dutch train stations enjoy, it’s a positive step in the right direction.
“Developing Unique Visions for Thriving Cities and People-Focused Places”
Among the organizations that can take credit for this vision, the Melbourne-based Cycling Promotion Fund (CPF) definitely deserves its fair share. A national marketing and promotion organization—funded by various players in the Australian cycling industry (including Giant, Shimano, and Bosch)—the CPF’s mandate is to grow the number of people cycling for transportation in the country.
It’s something we at Modacity have long argued the struggling North American bike industry needs to do. That is, stop squabbling over a (diminishing) share of an existing pie, and pool their efforts and funds to advocate for infrastructure, policy, and marketing campaigns that will tap into the millions of “interested, but concerned” citizens who would get on a bike if conditions on the ground were more hospitable.
In addition to hosting their own conferences, campaigns, and awards, the CPF organizes annual study tours to The Netherlands, in order to immerse Australian planners, politicians, and policy makers in a "best practice" environment, and see what the “end game” can look like.
Stephen Hodge, the CPF’s Government Relations Manager, and host of their study tours, is quite clear about their purpose: “The program is designed to encourage politicians, planners, engineers and key executives to develop their own unique visions for thriving cities and people-focused places once they return to Australia.”
Needless to say, Hodge is pleased with how Perth’s plans to “Go Dutch” align with the CPF’s own goals. ‘This is probably the strongest political support we have ever seen from a state government about the desirability of long term planning for bikes,” he claims. “The plan provides for sustainable transport options and addresses the needs for a population in the greater metro area which is expected to grow at least 50% in the next 35 years. The release of this plan is also a strong statement nationally of the need for long term planning and investment in quality bicycle and transport infrastructure to meet the growing demands of our expanding cities.”
"The Truth About a City's Aspirations Is Found in Its Budget"
Whether these bold ideas will be sufficient to wean Perth off its well-documented car addiction remains to be seen. As our friend Brent Toderian states: “The truth about a city's aspirations isn't found in its vision. It's found in its budget.” And precious few details have been provided about how the Western Australian Government hopes to fund these investments.
Furthermore, much like our hometown of Vancouver, the growth-stifling helmet law is something that will eventually need to be addressed, if officials ever want to experience the levels of mass cycling seen in The Netherlands. It’s another issue about which Tim Burns is cautiously optimistic: “I’m hoping Western Australia will become the first state to discard the mandatory helmet law. There seems to be a more relaxed attitude to helmet use from the community, government, and media. I hope non-compliance will become even more widespread, and the law will be phased out in the same way our bike registration law was phased out in the 1950s.”
Regardless, it’s refreshing to see a city set its sights so high, and encourage the growth of cycling through a three-pronged solution of infrastructure, policy, and marketing. Perhaps Perth’s ambition will spur other Australian cities into action, and we start seeing good news out of Melbourne, Brisbane, and Sydney. Because as we’ve seen here in Canada, once one city (Vancouver) starts investing in better bike infrastructure, many more (Calgary, Victoria, Edmonton, and Winnipeg) will follow suit.