This podcast explores the future of cycling in Australia when it comes to cycling safety, societal attitudes towards cycling and what can be done to promote cycling as a mode of transportation. We cover everything from road rage and hatred towards cyclists to urban design and creating cycling infrastructure that is safe to use for all members of the community.
The guest is Dr. Alexa Delbosc. She is a senior research fellow at Monash University’s Institute of Transport Studies, where she specialises in transport psychology and transport engineering. Alexa is a highly decorated expert in the overlap between transport engineering and social science and her research has directly informed transport planning and policy design in Australia.
Listen to the podcast here:
Article about the rise of cycling in London, mentioned in the podcast.
Article about falling rates of cycling, mentioned in the podcast.
Brief show notes:
- Alexa Delbosc is a senior lecturer at Monash University’s Institute of Transport Studies.
- According to Alexa, cycling in Australia is comparable to countries like the United States and Canada where cities have been built up around the use of the automobile. This has left roads crowded and unsafe for cyclists.
- The anger and hatred towards cyclists in Australia stems from the fact that most people haven’t experienced what it’s like to ride a bicycle in traffic. The lycra “dress code” also plays a part in creating an “us” and “them” attitude, which is comparable to the discrimination towards some ethnic minorities.
- Alexa thinks Australians should demand more and better cycling infrastructure just like they do public transport and road networks. Cycling is not getting the focus and attention it deserves from politicians at the moment.
- In the Netherlands it was grassroots movements who put pressure on politicians to get cars off the road and build cycling infrastructure. We should do the same here.
- Congestion is a constant problem in our cities now and the problem will only grow as population growth continues without major changes to inner city transport infrastructure.
- Alexa suggests that we should focus on replacing short car trips to school, work or the local shops with cycling as it would relieve congestion and reduce the need for parking spaces. Currently, parking spaces take up valuable land along main streets and train stations which could be put to much better use.
- Research has shown that on-street parking is not necessary for functioning communities but it’s a hard sell to change the perception of local councils and small business owners. If Alexa could change one thing, it would be to remove on-street parking and replace it with cycle lanes, greenery and wider sidewalks on our main streets.
Cameron: [00:03:24] We’re at Monash University with Alexa Delbosc and we’re here to talk about cycling, transportation, how things can be improved here in Melbourne and perhaps more broadly in Australia. It’s a bit of a podcast takeover today as I’ve got Jonas here with me. We thought he’d be better to run this podcast because he’s actually seen some of the things that you’ve talked about firsthand, coming from Copenhagen in Denmark. Welcome to the podcast.
Alexa: [00:03:59] Thank you.
Cameron: [00:04:01] So just a bit of context before I let you introduce yourself. I was listening to 3AW Radio about three-four weeks ago and you were speaking to Neil Mitchell or Tom Elliott.
Alexa: [00:04:15] Tom Elliott.
Cameron: [00:04:16] And you were speaking about St Kilda Road and how that’s been narrowed to one lane in between Toorak Road and Domain Road. And whilst that’s happening, what an opportunity for us as a society to test that area, whether that be things like cafes, cycle ways etc. I was quite intrigued about what you were saying, because from a cycling community perspective we know that we’ve got a simple solution to some of these complex logistics problems that we’ve got in Melbourne at the moment. So I dug a little bit deeper, looked at your background, would you like to just quickly introduce yourself?
Alexa: [00:04:59] I’m a senior lecturer at Monash University’s Institute of Transport Studies. This is in the Department of Civil Engineering so I teach traffic engineering and management at the postgraduate and undergraduate level, but my research background is actually from the field of social psychology and social science. I’m very interested in that overlap between the transport system and how we design it, how we use it safely, and the people using the system because more than any other area of engineering, transport is messy because it involves people – from one end of the trip to the other.
Cameron: [00:05:34] We then talked about a few of the hot topics more broadly in the Melbourne community but also in cycling at the moment and you gave me some interesting takeaways. A lot of your stuff isn’t just an opinion, and actually comes from a research perspective. So I wanted to dig a little bit deeper and I thought Jonas would be well equipped to run today’s podcast.
Cameron: [00:06:04] I’ve actually got to run off and leave you both to it because I’ve got to go pick up my kids from Blackrock Primary School. I wish you both all the best and look forward to listening to this podcast. Jonas over to you.
Jonas: [00:06:34] Welcome again to the podcast. It’s normally the 10-Hour Cyclist Podcast – I think we can call it the 100-Year cyclist Podcast today, because that is my goal in life: to be cycling until I’m at least 100. And to do that. We need some safe roads and some proper infrastructure and that’s what we’re here to talk about today. So you’ve already touched on transport psychology which is your field of research.
Jonas: [00:07:01] Let’s kick off there because I’m interested in hearing more about it and and especially relative to cycling safety in Australia. So if we start start with that, how do you see cycling safety in Australia compared to say other countries around the world?
Alexa: [00:07:26] I think Australia is quite similar to a lot of American-style developed countries. Countries where cities grew in tandem with the automobile, like Canada, the US and Australia. We have very spread-out cities and cycling maybe had a bit of a boom in the late eighteen hundreds, but from there the rest of the city was dominated by the car for 100 years now and we’ve inherited that land use and that transport system. It’s only more recently that we realised the role that cycling can play in solving a lot of the issues on the road, but we’ve inherited a road system that is not designed for cyclists and certainly not designed for safe cycling. It’s a huge barrier to have to overcome as a society.
Jonas: [00:08:15] Is that because the distances are so vast? Or is it because of the way the roads are set up that we don’t have a good system for cyclists?
Alexa: [00:08:23] It’s a bit of both. I think the distance is a little bit of a furphy, a little bit of a red herring when people say “oh things are too far away to cycle to”. They would be farther away than in a small European village, but if you’ve got the safe cycling infrastructure to do that then riding five kilometres to your local shops is not a huge barrier for most people if they have the confidence and the infrastructure to do it.
Alexa: [00:08:49] I think it is more the road design. The roads are very contested space in any city. There is not enough space on roads, we hear that over and over again. So who gets priority? People in cars fighting for priority against trams in Melbourne in particular, buses, pedestrians trying to cross the road and cyclists fit in? They are one group of many people fighting for that road space.
Jonas: [00:09:14] So what you’re saying is that it’s the width of the actual the lane? Or is it the amount of traffic on the road? What are the particulars of the issue?
Alexa: [00:09:30] Well when you get down to it, it’s the cross section of the road from one building to the next building. If you look at the sidewalks, the parking and the lanes that’s what you have to work with in cities these days. We can’t just knock down the buildings to widen the roads, at least it’s not very popular to do that. So how do we use that space more efficiently?
Alexa: [00:09:54] There are a lot of sacred cows of removing parking because we need the parking for the shops – at least that’s what the business owners believe. When that’s all you’ve got to work with it’s big conversation of who who gets that space, who gets the priority.
Jonas: [00:10:11] Okay, so one thing is the infrastructure design. I’ll tell you a little story before asking the next question.
[00:10:27] As people can hear from my accent I’m not originally from here. I grew up in Denmark. I lived the first 25 years of my life there, and I grew up in Copenhagen which is competing with Amsterdam for number one cycling city in the world. I don’t know who is winning – I have my own personal opinion on it, but we’ll leave it at that. The thing that I saw when I arrived in Australia was that cycling was still quite popular in the areas I frequented, which is Bayside Melbourne and inner city.
[00:11:05] I noticed that there were some differences in the way that people used bikes – it was less transportation, more recreational exercise. The lycra stuff is more profound here, but the thing that really stood out to me, and that I absolutely hated and still hate, is the attitude towards cyclists and also other road users. I felt there was, and still is, this aggression and anger on the road between motorists and also between motorists and cyclists that I was not used to when I moved here. People started yelling stuff at me in the street just because I was riding a bike. I’m thinking “hang on, what have I done here?”
[00:11:43] Where do you think that sort of attitude comes from and how does that compare to elsewhere in the world?
Alexa: [00:11:53] I’ll put my social psychologist hat on again. There’s a lot of research on attitudes to cyclists and you generally find that people who drive and do not cycle have more negative attitudes than people who cycle and drive, so they’re wearing both hats. That’s at least the case in countries like Australia where cycling is a minority.
[00:12:18] It comes back to that contested space. When you are a driver you are in the majority, you are in your car and you expect an unencumbered journey. So when they meet cyclists they think “who are these people, these hobbyists”? As you said, in Australia cycling is seen as a hobby or a lifestyle choice. It’s not a way of life for most people, so it sets up an “us” and a “them”.
[00:12:43] There’s been some really listing commentary on comparing cyclist to ethnic minorities. It’s a bit of a long bow to draw, but when you think about it, in Australia and in places like North America and Canada cyclists are a numeric minority – there aren’t very many of them compared to the general population. They have a distinct social category in most people’s minds. So there’s a stereotype of the typical cyclist – you said it yourself, in Australia it’s the MAMILs in lycra. It’s often a negative stereotype, tied to the idea that they’re impulsive, they don’t follow the rules, they’re unpredictable on the road and if you are a cyclist it almost becomes part of your identity as a separate thing. In Australia it’s: “I am a cyclist. I am in a cycling club”.
[00:13:47] There is a power differential between cyclists and motorists. Motorists don’t think cyclists are a legitimate group. They don’t you know they don’t pay their registration, they don’t have a license – how dare they use this space? A lot of those things are similar to ethnic minorities and something you wouldn’t get in places like Copenhagen or Amsterdam where everyone cycles, and it’s not a special or different part of who you are. You’re just a member of society.
Jonas: [00:14:20] I for one can relate to that because in Denmark everyone cycles and it’s not an activity tied to a certain type of person or a class or even a dress code. In Australia cyclists are often seen as people who can afford the really expensive high-end road bikes and there’s probably a bit of stigma around that or a bit of jealousy. “These guys are on these bikes that have cost the same as my car”, that sort of thing.
Alexa: [00:14:53] Yeah there’s probably a class differential, or at least the perception of that.
Jonas: [00:15:05] It’s cultural bigotry. This anger towards cyclists as a whole group – the “us” and “them” is something that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.
Alexa: [00:15:15] Well even if you think about the way we use the words: we talk about “cyclists” as if they are a separate category of creature as opposed to just being people on bikes. It’s a subtle difference and it can sound academic or pedantic, but I suspect in places where cycling is the majority it’s not a separate category, it’s just “people”.
Jonas: [00:15:43] Absolutely, that is something I picked up on coming here from a strong cycling culture. Is the technical word “cyclist” exists in Danish, but you don’t use it. It’s “a guy on a bike”, or “a girl on a bike”, or “a man and his daughter on a bike”. The mode of transportation doesn’t define the person. Do you think that it’s utopia for Australia to ever end up with that sort of really positive cycling culture?
Alexa: [00:16:17] It’s not going to happen until cyclists are more of a majority. I just don’t think it will happen until we get there. I’ve been reflecting recently on this difference and how cycling is looked at in Australia versus overseas and it made me wonder: why don’t people demand better cycling infrastructure in Australia, the way they do, say, better public transport infrastructure?
Alexa: [00:16:47] I do a fair bit of research in public transport and it’s very common for people to have very high expectations for trains, buses and trams in Melbourne. They say, “Why can’t we have turn-up-and-go services, why can’t my train come every five minutes, why can’t it run 24 hours a day? I’ve been to London and I’ve been to Tokyo, I’ve worked in New York and they have these wonderful systems. Why can’t we have the same”?
[00:17:08] There’s a lot of political pressure from the bottom up – whether the politicians are listening or not – to improve the public transport system and there’s less of a stigma of public transport users being some separate group. It’s the idea that most people at some point will use public transport so it should be good for all of us. But why not cycling? There’s a resounding silence unless you’re already part of that community and then it’s the head-butting of “oh you loud people asking for something that I don’t want”.
[00:17:41] I wonder how much of it is just the lack of experience of how things could be? Is it just simply that more Australians visit Copenhagen or live in Amsterdam for a couple of years and understand how good cycling can be and come back and demand it? Maybe if we sent more Australians to those parts of Europe we’d have more action back home?
Jonas: [00:18:02] Maybe Monash University should sponsor a study trip to Denmark or Amsterdam within the transport community?
Alexa: [00:18:10] It’s certainly held up as an example. Elliot Fishman from the Institute of Sensible Transport is running a study tour to the Netherlands sometime this year. So within the transport community it’s understood, but not really outside that community, and I think that’s a shame.
Jonas: [00:18:32] Alexa, you have a lot of cyclists listening right now. You talk about people demanding better public transportation – how can cyclists help themselves here? What could they do to put pressure on politicians or at least make them aware of what could be done?
Alexa: [00:18:52] I think it’s going to be an uphill battle as long as cycling is seen as a fringe hobby. We need the case can be made of how important this is to the health of our cities, to reduce congestion. I mean that’s a huge issue that we’re always talking about, having to build more freeways and build out the Melbourne Metro because the population is growing, causing congestion, congestion, congestion. Why isn’t cycling a more active part of that discussion? Keep talking and don’t give up. All of these transport issues are wicked problems, they’re long term issues It can feel disheartening, but you just have to keep going.
Jonas: [00:19:53] I’m going to keep relating things to where I grew up because I think it’s a good stake in the sand to compare ourselves to. When I was a little kid I rode with my mum on the back of her bicycle to school and she would go to work afterwards. About two thirds of the bicycle lanes and other infrastructure for bikes in Copenhagen today wouldn’t have existed then, 25 years ago. It’s taken a long time to build out and it’s been a priority of many political cycles, many elected local governments and state governments to keep focusing on cycling. Now when they hold elections in Copenhagen, every party will have their own cycling program. It’s really interesting to think about how far that’s come in the last 20-30 years and how integrated it is in the culture.
Alexa: [00:21:25] I remember reading about that evolution in the Netherlands. In transport circles there’s this perception that we can never be like the Dutch because they’ve always cycled, they’re born with bicycles attached to their legs. I point out to them that in the sixties and seventies the Dutch were filling their cities with cars, and more and more people were dying and children getting hit by cars. It was then citizens’ action from the ground up in the eighties – people saying, “Stop the slaughter of children, we don’t accept this anymore”. It was this groundswell from the ground up and now, just like Copenhagen, it is just part of mainstream transport planning. It takes time, money and political will get there.
Jonas: [00:22:13] Do you think the politicians are doing enough in Australia, are they pushing it enough. Are they interested in it?
Alexa: [00:22:20] Are they pushing it at all? I struggle to recall a time a politician has stood behind a cycling push. The latest example is St Kilda Road, as Cam mentioned at the start. There have been lots of plans of what could be done with St Kilda Road in the future. It’s a huge, beautiful boulevard with six car lanes, four parking lanes and it has tons of space. There are beautiful trees, trams and already some bike lanes – right next to where the car doors open. St Kilda Road has tons of space to work with and there’s been lots of working groups and consultations to think about the future of St Kilda Road. And then in the end, the roads minister came in and said “no not on my watch, when it reopens it’ll be exactly the same as before”, which is fairly depressing right?
Alexa: [00:23:11] That section of St Kilda Road is going to be down to one lane in each direction for four years, and perhaps in four years we will have a different roads minister. In the meantime, the community should keep saying, “this is what we want”. Don’t give up. Keep talking to the politicians, write to your local members, write to VicRoads, write to your local council, get your voice heard. Maybe at the end of four years we will see something different.
Jonas: [00:23:33] There’s really a responsibility on all of us to help push the agenda and make politicians aware that there is a need for better cycling infrastructure.
Alexa: [00:23:44] Yes, and to make it clear that cycling is not a fringe issue. Like with St Kilda Road you could say, “Look it goes down to one lane when you get to the city anyway and two things on the way out. So why do we need four lanes going into the city if it’s going to one lane anyway? If we got the infrastructure right for cyclists, we could reduce congestion on that corridor, because less people would be driving on St Kilda Road and more of them would be cycling.
Jonas: [00:24:16] Do you have any examples of that working elsewhere in Australia or internationally?
Alexa: [00:24:25] In Collingwood, I believe it is, the City of Yarra Council is a very strong advocate for walking and cycling and safe infrastructure and you can see why. Yarra Council includes areas like Richmond and Collingwood – very congested inner city areas and it’s a nightmare to drive and park there – and they’re okay with that. That is part of the character of that neighborhood. There’s no space to put anything more there, so they’re very tactful with how they use the roads. There’s one corridor on Wellington Street that’s had a bike lane for a while, but they’ve been slowly putting in a curb separated bike lane. They actually call them Copenhagen lanes. Is that actually how they do in bike lanes in Copenhagen?
Jonas: [00:25:12] I think I’ve picked up on why they call it that. Some people call it a subtle difference; I call it probably the most important difference for a successful bicycle lane or lane infrastructure. It’s actually designed by a guy who is a famous international urban planner from Denmark. He helped design a lot of this stuff 10-20 years ago in Copenhagen, and he’s now exporting his skills. He’s called Jan Gehl.
Jonas: [00:26:01] In Australia we have sidewalks, then parked cars and then bicycle lanes painted on the road. The Copenhagen bike lane is sidewalk, then curbed bicycle lane, then parked cars and then the road. So you never mix with cars and you don’t have the same risk of dooring which is something that is quite dangerous really. When you’re riding on something that’s just painted on the road you get the shit sandwich of parked cars on one side and on the other side you have cars coming at you from behind. It’s twice as much to pay attention to.
Jonas: [00:27:05] You’ll hear some people complaining that cyclists often swerve slightly into the motor or stay right on the edge of the bike lane. I do that because the risk of being doored is greater than the risk of someone hitting me from behind. That’s the risk mitigation. I’m sure lots of cyclists will relate to that. The Copenhagen bike lane design takes that into account. 30 years ago Copenhagen had lots of the types of bike lanes that we have here because the infrastructure wasn’t built yet. Now, parked cars have been moved out and bike lanes have been given the space where parked cars were.
Alexa: [00:27:49] Thank you for clearing that up for me, I often wondered if that was an accurate description, or if like “french fries”, it’s one of those things that we just say, even though french fries aren’t actually from France, but from Belgium.
[00:28:00] Back to the story. In Collingwood they had this quarter where they had a Copenhagen lane which was quite successful. It was about half a city block in size and they managed to get enough money to extend it another block. Even though it’s not a continuous bit of infrastructure – the gold standard is to have it from outside your door to where you’re going – it even just extending that bit produced a 10 percent increase in cyclists in one year using that corridor. So the universal rule is: if you build safe cycling infrastructure, people will use it and more people will use it than before.
Alexa: [00:28:46] “Safe” is an important word here. There are not very many separated Copenhagen style lanes and Melbourne, as you pointed out. We seem to think that some paint is enough. My favourite – and I say it sarcastically – is when you just paint a picture of a bicycle in the gutter or a white line to say “this is the bike lane”.
Jonas: [00:29:19] So cyclists should not only demand more cycling infrastructure, it should be the right stuff?
Alexa: [00:29:24] Well it needs to be safe. Because if you just niggle away with “half-safe”, not “very safe” and you don’t get the increases in cycling, then people say “oh well, we tried that and it didn’t work, and there is no point, so let’s just stop”, and that’s not productive. If it’s not safe, it’s not going to be used by all members of society. If you wouldn’t feel safe letting your 12-year-old daughter ride on whatever infrastructure you are proposing, then it’s not safe enough for society. If we’re only building stuff that brave young men, possibly in lycra, are willing to ride on, it doesn’t work for society.
Jonas: [00:30:11] One of the things I think about is the massive population growth we are seeing and will continue to have in Australia, especially in our cities. Melbourne and Sydney, given the current growth rates, will be 8 million people in each city by 2050, which is huge. Melbourne will more than double and Sydney almost double, even though city centres aren’t going to change substantially. How do we how do we deal with that and what are the solutions to the massive congestion that will come from more cars on the road? Inadvertently it’s going to happen even if we have less people driving as a proportion of the total, because there will be so many more people. How do we how do we solve that and how does cycling fit in?
Alexa: [00:31:09] Well, we have to use what we’ve got more efficiently. It’s called “sweating the asset” in engineering. Building more tunnels is really expensive and knocking down houses to widen roads is not politically very popular. In cities, the king hitter is mass transit. Expanding the Melbourne Metro is a huge step forward for Melbourne. It will take a while to get going. Once they finish the one, I hope they build three more but for more!
Alexa: [00:31:42] But for local trips the congestion is already beyond the peak hour now. For the last decade or two we’ve said driving into the city is a nightmare. These days driving to your local shops on a Saturday is a nightmare. And while cycling can help with getting into the city and reducing peak hour traffic, why aren’t we looking at that for our activity centres? For your kids being safe to ride to school, so there are fewer mums and dads dropping them off in the car, so that people can ride their bike to the shops on a Saturday, instead of fighting over the non-existent parking when they get there. That’s the role that I see. It can be used in the big congestion picture and also the local access picture if we’re willing to look at that.
Alexa: [00:32:29] The other big one is “park and ride”. We’re still building tons of housing estates on the urban fringe, and out that way people argue the only way to get into the city is to drive to the station and park. The bus connections aren’t always great, but parking lots are a horrible waste of space around train stations. It’s tons of space that we’re giving away for free. We actually have a PhD student doing some research on the potential to open up these catchments instead of walking for less than a kilometre or having to drive. If you had five kilometre catchments around every train station because you knew you could ride your bike and park it securely, we’d be making much better use of our existing train system.
Jonas: [00:33:14] Would that be people using their own bikes or should it rely on share bike systems like oBike or Melbourne Bikes?
Alexa: [00:33:31] Bike share is very tough in Melbourne because of the mandatory helmet laws. If nothing else, there are plenty of benefits to share bikes in cities where it’s done well. I think it’s always going to be tough here because if you don’t have the helmet with you, you’re going to get a ticket, so you can’t use it in that spontaneous way you can in other cities, but in some situations I think it can help.
Jonas: [00:33:55] It’s almost like there’s an order of things. You get the infrastructure right first, then it gets safer potentially. Potentially you could limit the scope of the helmet laws or make them a bit more relaxed. Again, in Denmark there is no mandatory helmet law, because it’s safe enough. I’ve cycled there for over 25 years and I’ve never had an accident. I never felt even close to it, so I could do without the helmet. Once it’s safe enough to remove helmets you get the mass adoption of cycling.
Alexa: [00:34:47] In an ideal world maybe, yes. But before we move on from congestion, you wrote a blog post about how cycling rates in Australia were dropping fairly steadily over time. It didn’t gel with me because I’d seen data from the Census “Journey to Work” that was suggesting that cycling rates were increasing. I had in my head that more people are cycling and these numbers showed less. I had to look back at census and I wasn’t remembering it wrong. If you look at the last three census from 2006 to 2016, in all three of the capital cities, the rates of cycling to work on census night have actually increased quite significantly. In Melbourne it was over 18,000 people cycled to work on the census day in 2006 and it’s gone from 18,000 to 29,000 in 2016.
It’s still a small percentage – from 1.1 percent to 1.4 percent. – but it’s going up and I do wonder if this congestion issue is the kicker. Maybe the overall rates of cycling are declining, but more and more people are getting sick of their commute. Maybe they live in places that don’t have the best public transport connections, but they still live in those crowded inner middle suburbs where there is a trail or infrastructure. So instead of sitting in their car for an hour they’re going to ride their bike for 45 minutes and also have exercise. Perhaps congestion could be working in favour of cyclists in the long run?
Jonas: [00:36:32] It absolutely does. I think the spending on cycling infrastructure as a proportion of the total is something like 0.6 percent, it’s very small. We spend tens of billions on roads in Australia and we spend hundreds of millions in total, all states and territories combined on bicycle lanes, so the investment right now is really minimal. You’re essentially getting a freeway for the cost of a sidewalk, so for me it’s very much worth experimenting with cycling infrastructure. If I were a politician – which I’m not – that’s what I would be doing.
Alexa: [00:37:25] The tricky part about the funding is who pays in state, local or federal government. And for a lot of these cycling projects it ends up falling on the local councils and they don’t have millions of dollars of budget. For Yarra Council, one section of a Copenhagen bike lane would eat up the majority of their transport budget for the year. So they have to look across the council and go, “does this neighborhood over here get an upgrade to its roundabouts and speed humps or do we expand this bike lane”? There are ways for them to apply for funds but when it’s at that level it’s very much restrained. And then when you’re looking at the state level and VicRoads, you’re looking at arterial roads, and there it’s not necessarily the budget, it’s probably the community backlash against giving up road space for cyclists. It gets back to that political will and changing society, how we change people around from a negative of putting in a bike lane to the positives of putting in bike lanes.
Jonas: [00:38:31] You’re reminding me of an article I read a couple of weeks ago, which was a case study on London which has recently moved from not being very cycling friendly to cycling being the predominant mode of transportation in peak hour traffic. Like here, they had many small councils being responsible for their little patch, which was a big puzzle to patch together, not only logistically, but also the will of each council group to decide whether to build bike lanes and how to connect to bike lanes in neighbouring councils. Then they changed that responsibility to fall under Greater London. In other words, a huge catchment area that could do some planning for the whole of inner London. Potentially that’s something that should be looked at here too?
Alexa: [00:40:47] VicRoads does have a framework to manage the roads, called Smart Roads. It’s meant to look across the whole network for every mode of transport, instead of having a little bike network here and there. So they look across the whole thing and see where the bus network should be, where the bike network should be and the pedestrian priority areas. So there are maps with lines on them that say this is where the priority is. That’s the vision of where we’d like to be. The challenge is getting from here to there.
Jonas: [00:40:44] How does that work? What are the councils responsible for vs. VicRoads, state and federal governments?
Alexa: [00:40:56] In Australia, the federal Government is only interested in roads of national significance, as they choose to define them, and they’re generally highways and freeways connecting major cities. Tony Abbott was famous for saying that on his watch the federal government would never pay for public transport because that’s not national, it’s a state issue. So cycling would never be on their radar that I can fathom.
Alexa: [00:41:24] At the state level, the states are in charge of the major roads, the arterials, the highways and the freeways, and the local councils look after the local roads and some of the kind of in-between roads. Cycling infrastructure is not always going to be on the major roads – sometimes it’s not safe for it to be on the major roads and that’s where that interface between the local council and the state government can get tricky, like the case with London.
Jonas: [00:41:47] In an ideal world, who should be responsible, if you could set it up logistically in the way that would make most sense?
Alexa: [00:42:00] I think VicRoads does a fairly good job these days of interacting with the local councils but there just needs to be more funding behind cycling and more local will to do it. One of their biggest concerns for local councils is complaints of residents and local businesses. And as soon as you propose any transport infrastructure, not just cycling infrastructure, and that, say, removes on-street parking or annoys local residents then you have a problem. Because then the council won’t endorse it because their local businesses get in their ear saying “if you get rid of this parking at the front of my business, I’m going to go out of business. Nobody will park here nobody will show up here”. And so they lobby, lobby, lobby, and that’s a problem across Australia. Everyone has the idea that on-street parking is required for a successful shopping area, but there is a lot of research suggesting that that is not necessarily the case. But it’s one thing to read a paper where somebody has done a study suggesting that you’re not going to go out of business if you get rid of the parking, and it’s another when it’s your business that you have put your heart and soul and money behind.
Jonas: [00:43:18] Yes, that’s classic: “We can do it just not right next to me”. Should this only be the responsibility of politicians, councils and other government entities? Or do you think there’s also a responsibility of the business environment in Australia?
Alexa: [00:43:48] Yes, it should be. Funnily enough, property developers are starting to get more of a clue of this. Again it comes down to the bottom line: more and more developers building apartments have realised that the more money they have to put into parking lots for residents, the less apartments they can build on the same amount of land, and the more those apartments cost when they sell them. If they can propose a development with less car parking they can make more money, they can build more apartments and they can sell them for a lower price point. So more and more developers are starting to say, “hey, if we put a bike cage in instead of four of these car parks, then we can offer the residents the opportunity to ride to the local shops instead of needing two car parks”. So at least residential developers are starting to get the idea.
Alexa: [00:44:44] It’s hard to convince a local business that if they put bike racks in front of their cafe and put in a bike lane, that they might have better turnover than if people can park out the front. That’s a hard conversation to have and every business is different and has a different turnover of clientele.
Jonas: [00:45:05] To wrap things up I’d like to ask you potentially a bit of a tricky question. If you could introduce three things to make cycling more commonplace and accepted in Australia – and this can be infrastructure can be changes in attitude or demographics – what would they be?
Alexa: [00:45:44] That is a big question. For number one I’ll dovetail on what we were just talking about. My first wish would be for people to stop using on-street parking as this sacred cow that can never be touched. And it’s actually a little bit unique to Melbourne as well. I feel like other Australian capitals are less likely to have on-street parking on especially major roads. If we could just give it up in some key areas and see what happens if you transform it from a section of road that’s just used to park cars to a section with a bike lane and some trees increased cafe seating etc. If we had enough cases of how that can have positive benefits, perhaps that would open up more conversations to realising the potential of our roads if we didn’t have on-street parking on all of them.
[00:46:41] Secondly, I’ll borrow your idea of the mandatory six-month study tour to the Netherlands or to Copenhagen. If people could see what it was like to live that way with their family and friends, to be able to have the option to hop on their bike if they wanted it, they might have higher expectations when they come home.
[00:47:10] Thirdly, if we looked outside of the big cities to some of our second cities in Australia like Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong, I actually feel like there’s more potential there to get cycling right in some ways than in Melbourne. Melbourne is huge, it’s just enormous. But in Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong the city centres are not that big. Often in these country towns the streets are quite wide. They have sort of parallel parking they may have 90 degree parking so when you look from curb to curb it’s actually a lot of space to work with. But again you’d need the community to want it. We could transform some of these smaller towns into wonderful places for cycling in a way easier than we could in Melbourne.
Jonas: [00:48:07] And with a population of say 300,000 or 500,000 there are plenty of people there so it’s absolutely worth building that sort of infrastructure.
Alexa: [00:48:20] Absolutely, and they still have the same issues we have in Melbourne. They still don’t like the traffic in town. It might not be the same level of traffic we have to deal with in Melbourne, but you still hear people asking what can be done about traffic in peak times when it’s congested. Get some bike lanes in there, I think it will be more efficient than running lots of buses in some of these small towns where the populations might not be big enough to support more public transport.
Jonas: [00:48:52] Last question: what do you think cyclists can do to help themselves to a better world?
Alexa: [00:49:03] I hate to blame the victim and say, “it’s up to you to get better infrastructure for yourselves and your community”, because that’s exhausting. But if you’re not going to fight for it, who will? It doesn’t have to be done through crazy protest in the streets, but you know, it worked in the Netherlands when they did take to the streets and demanded something better.
Jonas: [00:49:38] I think that gives us something to think about for sure.