Overview of Bicycle Use and Bicycle Commuting
The 1890’s were a boom time for bicycling in Australia. Western Australia (WA) was amidst a gold rush, which attracted many hopeful prospectors seeking their fortune. Bicycling was the key form of transportation and led to the world’s largest network of bicycle paths ever created. The gold rush was short lived and many of these paths no longer exist today. The use of the bicycle plummeted throughout the twentieth century. More than one hundred years later, things are changing. In the age of the hybrid car, WA policy makers are managing to renew interest in using healthy and green transport alternatives.
Between 2006 and 2011, Perth achieved a 28.6% growth rate in the number of bicycle commuters, the greatest increase of all major Australian cities. Unfortunately, the 2011-2016 figures are not finalised. In the meantime, the intermediary data suggests that the growth will be stronger. The Western Australian Department of Transport (WADT) Bicycle Network monitoring system showed growth of over 30% between 2011-13.
Planning and Policies
In 2014, the WADT took part in a program, which sent staff to the Netherlands in order to learn about adapting cities to cyclists from local governments. This was organised through the Dutch Embassy in Sydney in conjunction with the Cycling Promotion Fund. Their participation shows a long term and genuine commitment to cycling where policy creation is concerned. The Dutch mindset is that cars are guests on inner city roads. Australia is unlikely to ever reach this point, although, there were many ideas that appear to have shaped current policy.
One key issue for bicycle commuters is the end journey experience. Bicycles need to be parked. Those of us happy to lock our bikes onto the closest railing are the minority. I think we’d all agree that a more secure solution would bring peace of mind. Utrecht, Netherlands leads the way in the bike storage. Ample, secure, and cheap bike parking options exist at many workplaces and all public transport hubs. The push to replicate this in Perth has come from an active transport initiative. A part of this is the TravelSmart Workplace program. Organisations are able to apply for expert assistance to transform their workplace into a cycle friendly business. This expertise largely helps businesses understand how to incorporate or add end journey facilities into their premises, from bike parking and lockers, to showers and ironing boards. WADT grants initial funding for businesses to employ a dedicated active transport officer. Active transport officers deal with the development and delivery of active transport projects within the business, including fostering positive behaviour and attitudes among existing staff. WADT also offers commuter workshops that complement these initiatives and can be run for staff upon request. While these efforts are relatively new, local cyclists are already seeing the change. Old properties are being retrofitted and new properties are being built with cyclists in mind.
Although not unique to Perth, it should be noted that all levels of government in Australia are pushing healthy living campaigns. The most notable campaign is Bike Week, funded by the WADT. Bike Week celebrates all things cycling. With a visible increase of cyclists around Perth, one would expect that increasing recreational participation rates should boost the number of commuters over time.
Infrastructure projects are key to turning a car centric city into a cycle friendly one. Over the past five years, an impressive one hundred and thirty one projects involving paved cycle ways have been approved. Many of the major freeways leading into the CBD now have a parallel bike path. With careful planning it is possible to ride from the city to the Perth Hills almost exclusively on bike paths. There is an eighty-kilometre bike path that runs south of the city, a length well beyond any sane persons commute. This really indicates an investment in recreational cycling as well.
Perth’s recently released transport plan for 2050 places a strong focus on cycling. The key network of city cycle ways will expand to five times its current size. The plan also takes into account the expected increase in bicycle commuting, as electric bicycles become a more pragmatic option. Grander projects such as the three-point bridge, which would total 1500m in length, grabbed attention in local papers. The practicality of building this bridge is yet to be seen. Even if this construction never eventuates, the rest of the 2050 plan will pave the way towards comprehensive cycling infrastructure in Perth.
A Local Perspective
The policies, plans, and predictions all seem to point in the right direction. After interviewing a local rider, who has seen Perth evolve over the last twenty years, I was left with the impression that change is a palpable reality for local commuters. It isn’t perfect, though. Bike paths in the suburbs are limited, but you can still access major bicycle thoroughfares via quiet backstreets. Despite living twenty kilometres outside of the city, the interviewee notes that bicycle commuting is the quickest way into work during peak hour. The inner city itself is busy, without adequate infrastructure for commuters, and bicycle tolerant but not friendly. This makes the final part of the trip into work more daunting. The new law enabling cyclists to use footpaths has resulted in more people choosing to commute. Being able to do so appears to raise the confidence of those a little unsure of cycling’s safety.
Is Perth doing anything revolutionary? The proposed three-point bridge would possibly fall into that category. On the whole, the answer is no. Is Perth doing anything that other Australian cities couldn’t do? Again, the answer is no. So why is what they are doing increasing bike commuter numbers? Because they are doing it. They have seen and placed a value on the benefits of people using greener and healthier transport options. Logical and long-term projects are being undertaken. Green and healthy messages are being communicated through policies and programs pitched at various demographics. Everything is working together to create an environment that supports and encourages all bicycle users.
Photo (top) © Robert Firth
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