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Australia's cycling participation rate continues to decline

Alia Parker's picture
Cycling commuting at night in Melbourne. Source: ymgerman /

Australia is set to fail dismally in its attempt to double cycling participation by next year, with a new report revealing the percentage of people riding their bikes has actually fallen since the target was set in 2011. Furthermore, it suggests it may continue to fall as our population ages.

Contrary to the National Cycling Strategy (NCS) target, the percentage of respondents who had ridden their bike in the past year had declined to 36.3%  in 2015 from 40.2% in 2011, the National Cycling Participation Survey revealed.

“The NCS target of doubling the number of people cycling between 2011 and 2016 is unlikely to be achieved,” the report said.

“Instead, it appears cycling participation has at best remained stable and at worst declined marginally since 2011.”

It said Australia's ageing population may have contributed to the decline.

“The strong correlation between age and cycling participation means that over time, all else being equal, we would expect cycling participation to decline,” it said.

The decline

It's important to distinguish here the difference between the increasing number of cyclists on the roads and the decline in participation.

Indeed, the number of cyclists, particularly in cities, has been increasing. But this rate of growth is slower than the overall increase in Australia's population, meaning a smaller percentage of Australians are riding bikes.

The survey also registered a decline in the percentage of respondents who had cycled in the month leading up to the survey, while the percentage of respondents who had cycled in the week prior to the survey remained flat.

It found that about 45% of Australian households have a working bicycle, a figure that has remained relatively unchanged in recent years.


The results show a remarkable failing by the State and Territory road authorities to make any significant change to the target, which was set by Austroads – the advisory body of which all road authorities are members.

Cycling infrastructure development has been identified as a key driver of cycling participation growth, and figures in NSW and Western Australia appear to support such claims.

NSW was the only State to register a sustained increase in weekly cycling trips, coinciding with improvements to cycling infrastructure in Sydney and a rise in daily commutes.

Meanwhile, overall cycling participation was strongest in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory.

In Western Australia, 43.3% had been cycling in the past year. About 591,000 people, or – or almost a quarter of the population – rode a bike at least once a week, up from 405,000, a result which Bicycling Western Australia (WestCycle) chief executive Jeremey Murray puts down to the government's ongoing investment in cycling infrastructure.

“The State Government’s commitment is shaping Perth [into] a cycling city and helping to make riding more accessible for more people,” Murray said.

WestCycle aims to get over one million people cycling a week by 2020.

The National Cycling Participation Survey has been conducted by the Australian Bicycle Council every two years since 2011. This year it surveyed 8,375 households around the country containing 20,879 persons, a similar sample size to the previous two surveys.

Image: Cyclist commuting at night in Melbourne. Source: ymgerman /


This is a surprise. It *feels* like cycling is becoming more popular. And it *feels* like infrastructure has improved so much since 2011. You would think participation would have crept up, even just a little bit. What can we do to make it rise?

Repeal mandatory helmet legislation.

MHL has a number of negative effects that not only sound plausible, but are also validated by studies. And its only positive effect does not actually appear to manifest when you apply the correct epidemiological approach to population-level data. Here's an epidemiologist, Ben Goldacre (the Bad Science guy), writing in an editorial in the BMJ on the subject:

This sounds counter-intuitive to many, but here's the thing: cycling isn't actually dangerous. You're *half* as likely to suffer a serious head injury on a bike as you are in a car, and nobody's going to tell you how you've got a death wish for getting in a car without a helmet. MHL justifies itself by creating the perception that cycling is dangerous. In reality, it's an obnoxious intrusion that scares folks off bikes, and even makes criminals of the least scared. It's a tool of the car lobby.

Lots of powerful people want you in your car, despite whatever two-faced dribble you might hear about sustainability. Cars are cash cows.

The number of people cycling at any given time is much more affected by the number of regular cyclists, but the article talks about the much larger number of people who rarely cycle. "even once in the last year" captures a huge number of people, but their median hours on bike or distance ridden will be low. Further, many of those are recreational cyclists who are unlikely to been see on the road. Most of them ride intermittently.

The small subset who ride frequently (more than once a week) make up most of the cyclists riding at any given time. It's quite possible for the size of that group to change independently of the "even once" group. We could quite easily have ten times as many people riding to work every day while the "even once" group halved in size. The number of everyday cyclists really is that small. Less than 2% of people commute by bicycle[1].

The increase in Australia's population is almost irrelevant to either number. It's interesting that 45% have access to a bicycle but only 36% rode one. I would have picked that gap to be bigger.


The key issue is that many people feel insecure riding on-road. The institutional response is "infrastucture" in the sense of protected bikelanes and so forth. No wonder we are getting nowhere.

The infrastructure being provided is of questionable value to cyclists, but even that is being built at such a glacial rate that we are looking a timelines of close to a century to get it all done. That would be even if the outer, cyclist-unfriendly, suburbs were not still expanding rapidly.

Worse, the infrastucture planning is extremely wasteful, concentrating on easily-built long stretches that have relatively little need of treatment while ignoring, or even aggravating, problem points. If this seems incredible, study the bikepaths out in Craigieburn where bikepaths keep cyclists off the wide roads with their long sightlines then the paths disappear at roundabouts and cyclists are directed onto the footpath. Not shared path, because there are no signs designating it as such, but footpaths on which cyclists are obliged to get off and walk. Not all examples are as bad, but few are really good.

Most cycling is done on roads, so we need to make all roads ridable, not just a selected few. Speed limits need to be set more appropriately for sharing space than for cars alone, and intersection and squeeze points rectified. Even in The Netherlands, a lot of local cycling happens on roads, even after massive and highly-systematic investment in high-quality cycling infrastructure, so getting cyclists off roads is not the way to address the issues, particularly in the short term.

We need safe roads, not traffic Aparthied.

I can say that Yes I am one of those who has not been cycling in last year, mostly my PTSD related-but also due to my new dog's impossibly short legs making him unable to run along side and his being 17 kilos being that I can't find a basket for him to fit.

But I'm also aware that if my recumbent was modern, not old and hard to maintain, I'd far more likely be riding everywhere!

As well as safe roads what we need are Melbourne Cyclists who actually bother being visible. I see dozens a week who shouldn't even be allowed to cycle during the day, let alone night.

Perhaps the perceived 'war' between drivers and cyclists as well as the increase in cyclist deaths reported in the media is scaring new cyclists away.

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