Is the Auditor-General on-track with cycling?

Bikes of San Francisco - I wish someone had thought to do this for Melbourne

It’s a long time since I’ve read an official report as both extraordinary and disappointing as the report released last week by the Victorian Auditor-General, Developing cycling as a safe and appealing mode of transport.

This effectiveness and efficiency review of the former government’s 2009 Victorian Cycling Strategy is extraordinary because it takes the Brumby government to task for its extravagant claim that the Strategy would “grow cycling into a major form of public transport”, but then failed to put in place the steps the Auditor-General believes are necessary to achieve this ambitious goal.

He makes it clear the sorts of actions he thinks are required are those pursued since the 1970s in countries like Denmark, The Netherlands and Germany where bike’s mode share is now as high as 38% of all trips (but also as low as 3% e.g. Wiesbaden). Those actions include education and promotion, but the key ones are segregating cyclists from cars and making cars slower and less convenient.

As I read the Victorian Cycling Strategy – which is only 20 months old – this sounds like a bit of fit up, but since the Department of Transport has signed off on the Auditor-General’s review, I’ll let that lie.

Governments in Victoria might need to be careful. Judging by this report the Auditor-General seems to be in no mood to tolerate the entrenched practice of blithely setting exaggerated and inflated goals with little real commitment or accountability for realising them. On the other hand, the Baillieu government has “discarded” the Strategy, so perhaps that emboldened the Auditor-General in this particular instance.

Either way, I applaud the Auditor General for his evident intolerance of bullshit (I hope he takes the time to compare some of the purple prose written about public transport against what’s actually being done in practice). Governments should and can do much more to promote cycling. So far there’s lots of lip service but not much action.

But having said that, the Auditor General’s report is also disappointing because its not without its own failings. For a study that cost nearly $400,000, it is a surprisingly lightweight document. I have to hope there’s much more to it, but quite frankly it reads like someone merely got the Department of Transport to run some basic data off VISTA and read Pucher and Buhler’s influential paper, Making cycling irresistible. If there were such a thing as an audit of Auditor-General’s reports, I reckon this one would be found wanting.

I was doubtful of the report’s technical quality from the get-go when I read the claim in the first paragraph that “cycling offers benefits over other forms of transport because it reduces traffic congestion…”. No it doesn’t, no more than building freeways or improving public transport do. What cycling can do is increase the number of people who can get to a destination despite traffic congestion – which is a huge positive – but it won’t reduce congestion.

A key criticism the report makes is the Strategy prioritises inner city work journeys over other trips. Since 78% of car journeys up to 4 kilometres long (and 80% of car journeys between 4 and 10 kilometres) are in middle and outer Melbourne, the Auditor-General reckons the Strategy should have addressed this potential more vigorously. This simplistic view is symptomatic of much of the report. What it fails to recognise is the necessity of prioritising scarce resources like money and political capital. The fact is inner city work trips in the Melbourne of today are more amenable to cycling than suburban shopping trips.

Another shortcoming is the presumption that to grow cycling into a major form of transport we can and should do exactly what successful European cities like Copenhagen have done. But is “a major form of public transport” the 37% of all trips that Groningen has achieved, or the 3% of Wiesbaden? This is the Auditor-General and he’s finding fault with government policy – expecting some measure of precision isn’t unreasonable.

The fact that those cities have much higher bicycle use than Australian or US cities is a very important and pertinent piece of information, but it doesn’t automatically follow that if we do what they’ve done we’ll get the same outcome. In fact it doesn’t even follow that it’s practical, realistic or feasible for us to do what they’ve done.

There’s a long history of assuming what works overseas will work here. For example, in common with many other countries, Australian governments and universities have attempted many times over the last 30 or so years to replicate the success of places like Silicon Valley by establishing technology parks close to universities. Yet every analysis I’ve seen has shown these attempts to be unmitigated flops – at best, we’ve ended up with cookie-cutter business parks rather than the anticipated hotbeds of innovation fuelled by university-business interaction. The fact is places like Silicon Valley are the result of a very special set of circumstances that can’t easily be replicated elsewhere.

Australia is a different country, both metaphorically and literally. We have a very weak tradition of cycling and public transport use compared to European cities. Our metropolitan areas are lower density and we have a deeply entrenched car tradition. This isn’t because our politicians are somehow less visionary or imaginative than politicians elsewhere – the fact is we have a different history, a different geography and a different culture. We have a different attitude to space and transport.

That doesn’t mean we can’t change over time or learn from places like Groningen and Muenster (and there’s much to learn from Pucher & Buehler’s paper), but finding the political support and dollars to increase cycling significantly in our cities requires a much more sophisticated analysis and understanding of the drivers and constraints than simply pointing to what’s been done elsewhere. Chances are we will require a different solution to the 860 km of completely segregated bike lane in Berlin or the 400 km in Copenhagen (a city much smaller than Melbourne). I think, for example, there’ll be a long period where we’ll inevitably rely much more on sharing roads with cars.

We need a better understanding of what is achievable in the very different context of Australia, a country where every environmental advance seems to be hard won politically. It would also help to understand why cycling hasn’t had the same success in some European countries – like the U.K. – that it’s had in countries like Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands. Glib answers like the UK “didn’t build enough infrastructure” don’t address the question – we need to know why it didn’t.

I like the fact the Auditor-General is prepared to call bullshit on inflated government claims that aren’t supported with substance. However it’s incumbent on his office to do some real homework to support his criticisms, especially given how much his reports cost and his statutory role. Just glibly saying we should copy certain European cities is nowhere near good enough.

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12 Comments on “Is the Auditor-General on-track with cycling?”

  1. Hi Alan,,

    As the Auditors Report states VicRoads did not deliver and that goes back a long time. To when the model ” Geelong Bikeplan plan for Victoria was released in 1976 and the Hamer government approved it and went to approve the commission of the Melbourne Bikeplan to be produced in three stages: then approved again later by transport Minister McClennan.

    Keith Dunstan was President of BV and I was the Research officer would prepare a technical argument for what needed to done and he would up an interview with many VIP’s

    The problem with Auditors report was that he failed to recognise that VicRoads did not deliver from the mid give one concrete example. I stopped cyclists from being banned from main road with fast traffic 25 years ago by persuading a legal adviser from the premiers department , who was asking me If I agreed with VIc Roads proposal to ban cyclists from main roads and compel them to ride on adjacent shared footpaths.As the research officer of Bicycle Victoria ,(Known then as the Bicycle Institute of Victoria) I told him he should go and look at two sections of main road with shared footways on one side of the road(only) on a Sunday when these shared footways where full of pedestrians and child cyclist and novice cyclist. A few days later he phoned and thanked me for sound advice and told me that experienced cyclists and racers where going to continue to be able to ride on the roads. The patron of BV Minister Brian Dixon who I knew well at the no doubt put his view to cabinet on this matter.

    What VicRoads has done for the last 30 years no cycling group should agree with.I represented BV for 5 years on the State Bicycle Committee VIcRoads was a pain in the but.
    I remember Keith I coming out of hour long meeting meeting at VicRoads and their engineers (Petrolheads) . Keith said to me afterward they did not listen and talking to them was a waste of breath.

    VicRoads was not the only anti cyclist bureaucracy In Melbourne.
    Keith Dunstan became a trailblazer for two-wheelers. He approached the then sports minister Brian Dixon about setting up a Bicycle Institute of Victoria, then became its first president. He went to see Alan Croxford, big boss at the old Board of Works, about bike lanes but had even less success. ”The bloody things should be banned from the roads,” snarled Croxford. Undeterred, Dunstan wrote about the glories of bicycling as often as he could. He rode thousands of kilometres across the US, thousands more at home. Decades passed and Dunstan kept pedalling – but times were a-changing. ”In my 50s,” he says, ”smart young girls in tight pants were having no trouble passing me on the Yarra Boulevard. In my 60s, small boys would whizz by on little bikes. In my 70s it was no longer a contest – girls in brilliant Spandex were rocketing past with the speed of light.”

    Then cyclist Dunstan hit his 80s and – in a warning to the army of Lycra-clad pedal-pushers out there – he has had his moment of truth. ”A group of us were on the Lilydale-Warburton trail,” he says, ”and little Mount Evelyn was looking like Mount Kosciuszko. I reached the top but the next day my knees were creaking like rusty chain. They were so bad I couldn’t ride for three months.”

    So the unthinkable has happened. At age 85, this hardy pioneer of Melbourne cycling has sold out. ”I have bought an electric bicycle,” he says. ”It’s a terrible confession. Until now I had nothing but contempt for those things.”

    Mind you, it took a couple of days to win him over. He found a seductive silver beast at a cycle shop, powered by a lithium battery. ”It had a range of 50 kilometres, cruising speed of 25 km/h and the salesmen said 50 million Chinese were riding bikes just like it.”

    Dunstan’s resistance finally snapped when he took it for a test ride and sailed up Wheeler’s Hill at 20 km/h. ”A mysterious force took over,” he reports. ”There was a whirring noise from the motor – which is incredibly small – and I began to sail.”

    Now Dunstan is an advocate for powered cycling. ”It folds in 40 seconds and can be slipped into a car boot. And on a warm day you can arrive at your destination smelling like a rose.”

    Actually, that raises a question: what happened when he pedalled to work all those years ago? Was there a shower and change of clothes, a la office cyclists of today? ”No,” confesses Dunstan. ”People just sat a little bit further away.”

  2. mdonnellan63 says:

    cycling as a viable transport alternative started and will continue to grow from the inner suburbs, outwards. inner municipalities like melbourne, yarra, port phillip and moreland provide on-road cycling infrastructure and urban growth has given us slow congested roads towards the city, (perhaps ironically) making them safer to ride on. the victorian government didn’t adequately resource their plan – in the same way they haven’t really contributed to PT matching growth. where’s the AG’s report on PT?

    unfortunately, it is the people who live in the outer suburbs, or those who think they can’t ride a bicycle – for whatever reason – will increasingly be more out of pocket as fuel prices rise, further entrenching the disadvantage of living further out. learning to ride a bike has and will become an economic decision, ahead of any environmental and time benefits.

    Mark Twain said it best: Get a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live.

    Happy and safe riding

  3. Thanks for the Comment ,
    “I agree it is the people who live in the outer suburbs, or those who think they can’t ride a bicycle – for whatever reason – will increasingly be more out of pocket as fuel prices rise”.

    I am now Elderly (75) have weak heart and live in an outer suburb with no rail link and only one bus route along the Bay to Frankston. I need 250 watt “Pedelec” that take 50% less effort to rid. I do not have to a car so my oil consumption and air pollution far less .

    The 250 watt “pedelec” is perhaps the safest type of mass produced electric bicycle; available in Europe the US and Japan, but banned from sale in Australia and Victoria ( thanks to VicRoads Negligence) since 2001, it offers a simple, healthy alternative to much motor vehicle travel in urban areas. New EU safety regulations will apply in 2011 and Australia should adopt them for 4 reasons.
    1: In 2010 pedelecs were considered safe and used in countries with overall low road death rates per 100,000 population:Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, Switzerland, Denmark and Germany.
    2. Pedelecs enlarge train and bus access and make cross suburban travel across
    radiating rail lines easier, Pedelec access is three times more efficient than a bicycle.
    3. Millions of the elderly find walking and driving too stressful. Japan conducted research,which found thatelderly cyclists needed bicycles with auxiliary motors that took 50%
    less effort to ride.
    4. Pedelecs are similar to bicycles, with similar low weight, wheels and frames; but safer with automatic motor start and cut out at 24 km/hr.

    Alan Davies concludes about bicycle In Melbourne that that “Just glibly saying we should copy certain European cities is nowhere near good enough.

    I agree some US cities are safer than Melbourne According to a June 27th Planetizen article:

    “Davis, California, is widely celebrated as the bicycling capital of the United States with over 16% of the population commuting to work on bikes. What is less well known is the fact that the traffic fatality rate in Davis is also unusually low, at about 1/10th of the California statewide rate. Although this fact is not widely disseminated, there is growing data showing that cities with very high use of bikes for routine transportation almost always have much lower than average traffic fatality rates. The finding that most bike friendly cities are safer than average has been reinforced by the recent experience of cities such as Cambridge, MA, Portland, OR, and New York. These cities have garnered much press for their success in dramatically increasing bike use over the last several years. This increase in bike ridership has corresponded with an equally dramatic decrease in traffic fatality rates in all three cities. Interestingly, the decrease in fatality occurred not just for people on bikes, but for all classes of road users — including people in cars and people on foot…”

    This shows that these US cities and the five EU countries Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, Switzerland, Denmark and Germany all have have lower death rates per 100,000 population
    for all classes of road users — including people in cars and people on foot…”

  4. URT says:

    Nice work Alan. Keep the bastards honest.

    Melbourne’s cycling needs are big and will be tough to meet. I think the emotive arguments for cycling musty be at their zenith, which means any further change will have to come from real concrete infrastructure invetsments.
    What form they should take is a big expensive questions with zero sum game aspects… a road is only so wide. But there are some positive sum game aspects, such as if money is spent building bike paths along railway lines.

    As tough as those decisions will be, they shoudl be expedited. The upside is huge – on a sunny day like today you could take ten percent of people out of cars, and they’d be so much happier.

  5. I agree .
    Providing “Share footways” along rail lines is possible in many places but it would be well near impossible in some places. Perhaps where the few “share footways” exist connecting to the very narrow footpath paths that already exist many discontinuities could be breached for pedestrians only. In other places some “shared footways” could be extended along the rail lines however that is limited by space constraints and the only option is to make signed links to the residential street network.

    The problem is that VicRoads in the past never sent their engineers to the Netherlands to see the many options for using rail line and road reserves to create continuous routes. And long a term Bike way plan showing where small land acquisitions that would open up the residential street network and link up with bike lanes. VicrRoads never had never had a committment to create a proper “bicycle arterial network. Which the co-called principle bicycle network does not do.

    The only time that should have been considered was in the Hierarchy of roads study in the 1980’s. I another representative Of the “State Bicycle Committee made a presentation to the steering Vic roads steering committee with Map of all Bayside suburbs
    showing all the proposed bicycle routes we could provide and we called our proposed bicycle network the “Arterial Bicycle Network” with a formal definition within final Hierarchy Of Roads Study defining what cyclists needed. VicRoads realised that to do that many more safe MIdblock Crossings would be required for bicyclists and pedestrians and all residential streets should have $) km Per Speed limits like they have in US urban areas.

    They derided our proposals and where not prepared to formalise in their advanced planning to even acknowledge our proposed “Arterial Bicycle Network”. In the Hierarchy of roads study Final report. This was all ignored

    I can tell you that the reason that Melbourne bicycle routes are incomplete and not as safe as they could b today is not a bicycle friendly city and bicycle Infrastructure is 30 years behind where it should be.

  6. Of course we’ll be sharing roads with cars for a long time to come. This said in most cases it would not be expensive, nor particularly difficult to provide better separation than a white line that runs between parked and moving cars. As I’ve said on previous articles about these topics VicRoads needs a kick up the backside and told to start treating bikes seriously, not as afterthoughts, with “lanes” only during clearway times that frequently disappear at intersections or anywhere else the roads thin out slightly, as has been the case for decades.

    One street that I believe could be a basic blueprint for many quieter suburban streets would be Napier Street in Fitzroy. The bike lane is fairly well marked, and the intersection at Johnston Street shows how a simple infrastructure investment can make the intersection far safer for cyclists with little penalty to cars. The intersection has a small wedge between the car and bike lanes on Napier Street with a pedestrian crossing button that instead triggers a Green for Bikes light that runs for a short time before the car green turns on. It means bikes get a short time to get at safely into the intersection and also means bikes will actually trigger the light sequence to change.

  7. Frankly, the VAGO report read like it was written by a hardcore utility cycling nut. Inconveniencing motorists to promote cycling? Even if it was actually a sensible thing to do, there was Buckley’s chance of this receiving political support outside the People’s Republics of Moreland and Yarra 🙂

  8. Hi Robert,
    I disagree there is a good chance of the VAGO report apart the People’s Republics of Moreland and Yarra. Even in Mornington Peninsular where most people are very dependent on cars a lot is being done for cyclists and pedestrians. There a group of 20 Melbourne Councils that pro cyclist now. Apart from the 70,000 members of Bicycle Victoria.And local groups. You are clearly a hardcore petrol headed car nut.

    • I agree, but the context was the VAGO report argued fairly prominently that – in a nutshell – that cyclists should be prioritized over cars to promote cycling. I actually think that this is a very good idea (in some places). However, it’s a political hot potato, to say the least.

      For instance, the previous transport minister overruled his department when they planned to expand bike lanes on St. Kilda Road.

  9. Hi Alan

    Cycling participation will grow again (even more than the recent half-decade resurgence), not necessarily and exclusively because of economic self-interest or a half-hearted concern for the environment.

    Participation will continue to grow because cycling in its myriad forms will one day be seen to be a desirable activity: if more people ride a bike more often – either to and from work or to the local shops, and so on – there will be a spin-off effect of net overall benefit to society and the environment. If more people are to be ‘encouraged’ to take up cycling we need marketing campaigns to ‘encourage’ people to want to ride a bike (because cycling strokes their ego); only then will the cycling participation rate will grow.

    The last great boom in cycling in Australia occurred in the cities and the countryside. At the turn of the century, before internal combustion engine powered vehicles became cheap enough for most people to afford, most people rode a bike most of the time. There were once vast numbers of people on a bike. More on that here:

    In modern times we have developed a ‘weak tradition’ when it comes to cycling and public transport. I agree with you there. But it wasn’t always the case.

    Our modern ‘tradition’ simply means that we are only interested in participating in something that is desirable: the saying of ‘working to live, not living to work’, is never truer. ‘We’, who live up to 20k outside a city, in a ducted air conditioned McMansion we can barely afford, participate in life through gritted teeth. Maybe we do have a ‘different attitude to space and transport’, but I feel that applies only to the ‘we’ who want to live an urbanised life + have space + have as many cars in the drive as is necessary to live a ‘normal’ life. (I live 5 train stops from the city centre, with the lights of the MCG visible in the distance, 2 adults and children under 5 at home, 1 car, and 5 bikes…maybe I’m not normal.)

    Cycling these days, even though the numbers are growing, is still a marginalised activity, from the perspective of ‘normal’ society.

    It’s the trendy young things riding cruiser bikes, or ‘fixie’ bikes, or the once a year telecast of the TDF, that has made cycling participation more and more desirable, but we’re not there yet.

    If, at a policy, planning, or strategic level, we are going to have more people cycling – and with more numbers, safety increases – the focus needs to be on ‘selling’ the idea that cycling is emotionally and materially desirable. Cycling takes a bit of effort, and if more people are going to make the effort, for heaven’s sake don’t mention economics, or the environment, or road-sharing; egos need to be stroked.

    Go for self interest.



  10. […] in safety – between Australia and Europe’s top performing countries. They should note that Copenhagen, for example, has an impressive 400 km of completely segregated bike lane, even though it’s much […]

    • Alan A, Parker OAM says:

      Alan A, parker OAM

      Seven EU countries are safer for all road cyclists.: because they have integrated health, transport and environment policies. Bicycle helmet wearing is not compulsory where as they are in Australia

      All countries need to reduce their road death rates per 100,000 population by integrating their health, transport and environment policies and provide infrastructure for cyclists. Bicycling has become much safer in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and the UK because of their innovative bicycle planning and intermodal bicycle/public transport planning practices that are still being improved in integrated national policies.

      Many other EU countries are catching up with these seven leaders, Australia, NZ and the US. They have all reduced their road death rates per 100,000 population since 1980 and plan for further reductions.

      World car production peaked at 64 million passenger cars and 21 million commercial vehicles in 2012 and these were responsible for most of the 1.24 million road deaths. Sadly, half of these were vulnerable road users: pedestrians, cyclists, and powered two wheelers. In the developing world.

      Most developing countries have much higher road death rates per 100,000 people and need to plan for motor vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian urban road networks. The World Health Organization (WHO) believes that road safety generally and bicycle and pedestrian safety need to given priority for the health and well being of adults and children in all countries. Most deaths deaths involve motor cyclists and they all need to have helmets and roads with bike lanes that they and cyclists can use. Enforcement of road rules need to be a priority.

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