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Melbourne academic and transport commentator Paul Mees expresses wariness of the road lobby's support of cycling, laments that fewer people use bicycles as transport these days as more children are driven to school and emphasises the importance of developing public transport over developing cycleways.
Melbourne's 2009 Ride to Work Day has been pronounced a success. Despite the inclement weather, thousands of cyclists participated, assisted by hundreds of volunteers who showed their support for the environment by proudly wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the logo of the event's principal sponsor, the RACV.
So why is the road lobby so keen on cycling?
In the face of global warming and insecure oil supplies, everyone agrees that transport needs to become more environmentally sustainable. Governments, road lobbyists and greenies all agree on the ultimate goal, but not on the best way to get there.
One option is a radical change in transport priorities. Funding and road space would be redistributed, with an active bias in favour of walking, cycling and public transport delivered by efficient, accountable public agencies. Zurich exemplifies this: at the last census in 2000, only 19 per cent of those living and working in the Swiss city took private transport to work; only 2 per cent of students went to school or university in cars.
Change this radical is too much for the road lobby and many governments who say we can make car travel more attractive at the same time as we reduce its environmental impact. They have no models to cite, because nobody has been able to square the circle in this way. Instead, they focus on publicity stunts and ''behaviour change programs'' that put the onus on individuals, rather than governments.
Some unkind people call this ''greenwash''.
Despite the good intentions of many participants, cycling advocacy in Melbourne may be falling into this trap. The road lobby, the vested interests behind our dysfunctional public transport, and the multitude of players who make life miserable for pedestrians can all rest easy: they don't need to change. More bike lanes and promotional campaigns will fix the problem.
The reality, as measured by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, is less impressive.The number of Melburnians cycling to work has remained at about 1 per cent since 1976, although the share of those employed in the CBD who cycle has increased to 2 per cent (not the 9 per cent we often hear); but the share of suburban workers who cycle has fallen below 1 per cent.
Cycling is now largely confined to male professionals who live in the inner suburbs and work in the city centre. If, like me, you are one of these people, you could be forgiven for thinking cycling is booming, and transport problems are fixing themselves. Unfortunately, it's not the case even for work trips, while the data for school travel shows a big fall in cycling (and walking).
Of course the real question should not be ''is cycling growing?'', but ''is sustainable travel displacing car trips?'' If cycling grows at the expense of public transport there may be little benefit; if it grows at the expense of walking, there is no gain at all.
This seems to be what is happening in Australia. The cities with the highest rates of cycling to work (Adelaide, Melbourne and Canberra) have the highest rates of car driving, and generally the lowest walking rates. The cities with the least car driving (Sydney, Brisbane and Hobart), have the lowest cycling rates and (except for Brisbane) the highest rates of walking.
Fortunately, things are not this bleak everywhere. Canadian cities have higher cycling rates than us, despite the freezing weather, but also more walking, more public transport use and less car driving. The best overall performer is Ottawa, where ''sustainable'' modes account for 31 per cent of work trips, compared with 19 per cent in Melbourne. Ottawa's sustainable transport success began in the 1970s, when the city cancelled most of its freeways and nationalised public transport.
The cities making progress towards sustainable transport don't rely on promotional campaigns directed at individual modes of transport. They pursue co-ordinated policies combining first-rate alternatives to car travel with moratoriums on new freeways. In some of these cities, cycling is a significant transport mode; in others, such as Ottawa and Zurich, it is less important than walking and public transport. But none of these places uses cycling as greenwash to distract attention from transport policies that favour the car.
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