What role for commuting by bicycle in Melbourne?

In response to my post last Tuesday, Melbourne will be a car city for a long time yet, a reader asked for my views on the role of cycling in Melbourne.

I have a particular interest in cycling, not least because I’m a keen recreational cyclist and commuted religiously by bike for a number of years. I think cycling has a small but significant role to play in meeting Melbourne’s transport needs but my ideas are a little different to the conventional view.

Despite record sales over the last ten years, bicycles account for just 0.9% of all weekday kilometres travelled in Melbourne, so their present contribution to saving fuel and reducing carbon emissions isn’t large. That figure includes recreational cycling too, so we don’t know how many of these kilometres actually replaced car travel.

Bicycles are more competitive for commuting, where they are used for 2.9% of work trips. The journey to work, however, only accounts for around one fifth of all trips in Melbourne, so again we’re not talking big numbers.

Cyclists who commute tend to work in or close to the city centre and to live in the inner city or the older inner suburbs. The great bulk of their trips are made at the expense of public transport or walking, rather than cars, so the environmental benefits of commuting by bicycle appear to be relatively modest.

More worrying, though, is that every commuter who cycles rather than trains or trams to the city centre deprives public transport of revenue. And because most resort to public transport when the weather gets nasty (or in winter when it gets dark early), the public transport system doesn’t receive a full offsetting reduction in the level of capacity it has to provide. Sure, Melbourne’s trains could use any reduction in demand at peak hour they can get at the moment, however occasional, but that’s (hopefully!) a short term issue.

So even before considering the key deterrents to cycling, like safety and lack of workplace showers, it is debatable from a public policy perspective if the benefits are large enough to justify investing heavily in cycling infrastructure for commuting to the city centre.

Nevertheless, there are other benefits from cycling to work, such as improved health outcomes. Cycling has a singular advantage over other forms of exercise – you don’t have to find extra time to exercise because you have to commute anyway.

However there may be another significant ‘market’ for cycling that so far has received little attention. Provided some of the key deterrents to cycling can be addressed, there may be real potential for people who live and work in the inner and middle suburbs to commute by bicycle. These workers overwhelmingly drive, so every commute transferred to bicycle would yield a substantial environmental benefit.

The median journey to work distance in Melbourne is 14 km, indicating that there are a large number of commutes that are an ideal distance for cycling. Given that the great bulk of jobs (72%) and people (92%) are located in the suburbs, there is a big potential market for cycling. Even if these riders still choose to drive when the weather is nasty, they would not be undermining public transport.

An obvious drawback is that road space liberated by these commuters will simply be filled by other drivers, giving no net environmental benefit. That’s no doubt true and emphasises the need to look at managing traffic demand in other ways, such as road pricing.

Tomorrow I’ll look at what concrete actions would be needed to overcome the deterrents to commuting by bicycle in the suburbs. EDIT: see second post here.

2 Comments on “What role for commuting by bicycle in Melbourne?”

  1. […] to increase commuting by bicycle Posted on March 12, 2010 by Alan Davies I argued yesterday that there might be potential to shift workers who live and work in the suburbs out of their cars […]

  2. […] get from the standard tourists spots. Note the suburban setting – it ties in with my earlier post arguing that the suburbs have the greatest potential for cycling in […]

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