The future of Melbourne cycling with a positive spin
Bicycles and Melbourne have had a love affair since the first velocipede wheeled off a ship from Europe in 1868 to the lycra-clad weekend warrior of today. They are a part of our history, having helped shape the city and the people that we have become.
However, it has been a bit of a bumpy ride as the popularity of bicycles in Melbourne has been somewhat cyclical. When mass production of the safety bicycle began in the 1890s, it granted affordable and independent travel for many Australians. Their popularity and the hubbub caused is well documented in the 1896 poem Mulga Bill’s Bicycle by Banjo Paterson.
The history of cycling in Melbourne
Tourism by bicycle boomed until the First World War, when the introduction of motor vehicles saw Australia became the 6th largest country in the world in motor vehicle ownership, rising from 5000 cars in 1910 to 169,000 in 1923. The Great Depression and the Second World War saw bike sales take over again as Australians were priced out of motor vehicles or rationed out of their parts and fuel. After the war, changes to the bicycle became social as well as physical.
Melbourne sprawled further outwards due to accessibility of cars and the quarter-acre dream. This made cycling a less convenient, less safe and a less popular form of travel for adults. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century when the introduction of BMX and mountain bikes revived Australian interest in cycling. Introduction to cycling on the world stage in the late 1980s, Olympic and international cycling success as well as mounting environmental concerns added to the cycling boom.
But what good is a bike if you’ve nowhere to ride it?
When next you ride along a path in Melbourne, consider that it did not come about overnight. Bike paths like those found along the Yarra river date back to the late 1890s and were made possible by hard lobbying from professional and amateur cycling bodies. These tireless campaigners are responsible for much of the bicycle-friendly infrastructure we enjoy today.
The League of Victorian Wheelmen (1893) lobbied for the reduced tariffs on imported bicycle parts which increased sales and made Victoria the largest cycling manufacturers in Australia. The Victorian Amateur Cyclists’ Union (1917) which would turn into Cycling Victoria in 2011 and the Bicycle Institute of Victoria (1975) which would become the Bicycle Network, both lobbied and continue to push for many of the paths and infrastructure like the Capital City Trail, St Georges Road Trail and many more.
Today, cycling is steadily gaining traction with over 2% of Melbournites using a bicycle to travel to work. This means over 32,000 of us regularly getting to work using a bike. While this may seem plenty, the Danish capital Copenhagen sees nearly half of all trips to work and study in Copenhagen done by bicycle. This is in a city that snows.
So what grand scheme was put in place to achieve this? Getting that type of buy-in is not a design problem. Urban planners have had the answers for a while – even to retrofit to small, cramped cities in Europe. The challenge lies deeply rooted in politics and culture.
What can we learn from Copenhagen?
The Danish people are now, safe to say, openly in love with their bicycles. There are more bicycles than people in Copenhagen. Urban design in the city is unique and traffic lights are even coordinated for cyclists over car users. There are still a great many stuck in traffic, however, the cyclists zip safely through clean crisp air on bike paths designed to enjoy and transport.
This might be a template worth following for Australia’s fastest-growing city. Melbourne is growing by almost the population of Darwin every single year. Estimates show this adds 85,000 cars annually to strained Melbourne streets. This congestion is quantifiable as well as unenjoyable, costing the Melbourne economy over $4.6 billion per year.
Australia’s transport industry is responsible for 18% of Australia’s total emissions. One Cyclist riding 10km each way to work would personally save 1.5 tonnes of greenhouse emissions per year. These emissions don’t only affect global temperatures and Al Gore’s blood pressure. During the Olympics, the increase in population and strain on infrastructure often forces car travel to be put aside in favour of public and active transport. During the events, this has been shown to significantly reduce ozone pollution, asthma admissions to hospitals and carbon monoxide levels throughout the city. 2017-18 marked the year that 67% of adults in Australia were overweight or obese, with 31% falling into the latter category. The total cost of inactivity to the Australian economy in 2012 was $13.8 billion.
A longitudinal study, of Copenhagen residents with 15 years follow up data found that independent of other exercise, cycling to work reduced the risk of all-cause mortality by 28%. This alone far outweighs any concerns over the safety of cycling. Being active has also been shown to improve mental health and Australia is a country where 1 in 7 people experience depression at some point in their life. The list of benefits is long.
What does this mean for cycling in Melbourne?
Melbourne has all the tools at its disposal to become a global cycling hub. Australia is the driest flattest inhabited continent on earth and despite its reputation regarding miserable weather, most of Melbourne fits this description. The average day to cycle in inner Melbourne is dry, warm and flat and over half our car trips each day are under 6kms long. We are physically ready for the switch, and the government might be beginning to notice.
We may be a little behind our European counterparts but we are taking steps in the right direction. The St Georges road cycle path is getting a huge revamp and Daniel Andrews recently announced a path that would take riders from Werribee to the CBD without contacting any traffic. To increase road safety, $27 million has been invested to physically separate drivers and cyclists along St Kilda Rd. Speed limit reductions from 50-30km/h like the one recently put into effect along Wellington St, Collingwood. In Graz, Austria, similar steps have seen a 24% reduction in traffic accidents as well as a spike in walking and cycling.
The Victorian government recently released its 20-minute neighbourhood plan which would see all major necessities to Melbournites be found within a 20-minute walk or cycle or public transport of their home. There has also been $1.1 billion pledged to the road safety strategy and action plan with $100 million of that going to improve pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.
These are the types of investments to improve safety and enjoyment for cyclists will increase modal share in cycling. As seen in Copenhagen, construction and prioritisation of cycling infrastructure have a Field Of Dreams effect. Build it, and they will come.
Words by Joe Hoppe for blueprint