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In the current climate of economic uncertainty and fiscal restraint, governments are quick to reassure us that they are making every effort to “do more with less”. Providing mobility for citizens in Australia’s rapidly growing cities is a key public policy goal. When faced with alternative transport options, sensible governments will invest in measures that achieve maximum benefits for the least cost, right? Well, um, maybe.

In fact, governments of all persuasions in Australia have been slow to align transport policies with comprehensive assessments of the benefits and costs of alternative transport modes. A recent example of this mismatch is the Victorian Government’s decision to stop funding the VicRoads Bicycle Program. Funding for the program (which averaged $15 million a year over the last three years) has effectively been abolished.

A recent review of 16 economic valuations of transport infrastructure or policies reported a median benefit-cost ratio (BCR) of five for walking and cycling projects (that is, you get five dollars in benefits for every dollar spent). Based on this finding, reducing funding for bicycle infrastructure in Victoria from $15 million to zero means that the Victorian Government is, in all likelihood, foregoing an estimated $75 million in benefits.

To add insult to economic injury, the government plans to provide further subsidies for motor vehicle travel. In contrast to the favourable BCRs for bicycle infrastructure, many road construction projects struggle to break even. For some projects, the costs outweigh the benefits. Sir Rod Eddington’s 2008 report ‘Investing in Transport’, included an assessment of the economic benefits and costs of a proposed East-West road tunnel across inner Melbourne. The BCR for the road tunnel, which is expected to cost several billion dollars, was less than 0.7; that is, a net cost. Furthermore, the Victorian Government is now asking the Australian public (via Infrastructure Australia) for $30 million to develop a plan to construct this financial black hole.

The reasons for the large disparities in BCRs for bicycle infrastructure compared with road infrastructure are not difficult to unpack. In transport terms, it is hard to beat the efficiency of moving people by bicycle. A single-occupant car requires 20 times more space than a cyclist (see this image), and freeways cost about a hundred times more to construct (per km) than off-road bicycle paths.

Cycling is usually a faster mode of transport than car travel for trips up to about 5km in urban areas. For longer trips the travel time differences are small. In the morning peak (7.30 to 9.00 am) in Melbourne, average travel speeds in 2009/10 were 22.2km/h on inner Melbourne (approximately 10 km radius from CBD) undivided arterial roads, and 20.2km/h on arterial roads with trams. For a typical cycling speed of 20km/h, the average cycling trip to work (7.7 km) would take about 2 minutes (on undivided arterial roads) to 18 seconds (on arterial roads with trams) longer by bicycle than by car.

Car parking facilities are also more costly than bicycle parking – not that most Australians would notice, as the concept of “user pays” is rarely applied to car parking in countries like the USA and Australia. As Donald Shoup has shown, the real cost of “free” parking is in fact borne by all citizens via business or government subsidies, regardless of whether they benefit from free parking.

Cycling is also one of the healthiest ways to travel, with reduced health costs accounting for between two-thirds and one-half of the total benefits in cycling BCRs.

Sitting in a car is the ultimate in sedentary behaviour; and the longer we sit, the fatter we get. Cycling, on the other hand, is an excellent way to get the recommended daily dose of 30 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Physical activity is one of the best buys in public health, and active transport like walking or cycling is one of the best buys in physical activity. For busy people, active transport is a good way to combine exercise time with travel time.

Countries, states and cities that have high rates of active transport have lower rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes than those with low rates of active transport. Large longitudinal health studies have reported 28% lower mortality rates among people who cycle to work compared with those who do not.

Investing in bicycle infrastructure is also an investment in reducing road trauma. Road crashes cost $27 billion per annum in Australia, and nearly all of this harm is caused by motor vehicles. Motor vehicles are especially hazardous to cyclists and pedestrians who are not encased in a protective shell. Cycling injury rates in Australia are high by international standards, and increasing. Improved cycling infrastructure makes cycling safer for current cyclists, and also assists more people who want to cycle to start.

This benevolent circle can lead to an overall reduction in road traffic injuries as more people swap from dangerous (to other road users) motor vehicles to low-harm bicycles. This is the situation in the Netherlands, which enjoys one of the lowest road crash fatality rates in the world (close to one-half of Australia’s fatality rate). They also reap the benefits that flow from having more trips made by bike than almost any country in the developed world (27% of trips, compared with about 1% in Australia).

The pattern of benefits associated with a shift from car use to active travel has been summarised by Todd Litman in the table below.  He argues that the failure of traditional transport planning to comprehensively value the costs and benefits of alternative travel modes has contributed to poor transport planning.

Several wealthy European and Asian countries have been ticking many of the boxes in Table 1 for several decades. The Netherlands is well-known for its high levels of cycling for transport. Less well-known is that the Netherlands also has an excellent network of high-volume, high-speed motorways (34,000km of highways, including 3270km of expressways) for the efficient movement of freight and people over long distances. In fact, transport services (including road-based freight distribution) comprise about a third of the Dutch economy.

The Netherlands recognised several decades ago that for the multiple short-to-medium distance trips that characterise daily living, the most efficient vehicle is the bicycle. This is also feasible for Australia, where about 50% of household trips in urban areas are less than 5km.

Despite already having excellent cycling infrastructure, the Netherlands continues to invest about $25 per head per annum in cycling infrastructure. Annual investment in cycling infrastructure varies across Australia’s states, territories and local government areas, but rarely exceeds $10 a head. The Victorian Government’s decision to no longer fund bicycle infrastructure may well mean that Victoria now takes the wooden spoon for state-funded cycling investment in a country where the competition is not excessive by international standards.

There is also high latent demand for more cycling in Australia. Surveys consistently report that people would like to cycle more, but are constrained by poor cycling conditions. So we need not fear that well-placed and well-designed cycling infrastructure will go unused. Build it and they will indeed come.

Investing in improved bicycle infrastructure makes economic, transport, health and environmental sense. It is time to correct our long-standing bias for investing in infrastructure aimed at moving cars rather than people. Healthy, productive, sustainable and liveable cities of the future will need to do a better job in meeting communities’ diverse transport needs.

This article was first published on The Conversation.


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