Australians are pretty enthusiastic about cycling for recreation. Cycling to work is another matter entirely. Arguably, cycle commuting is even more important than recreational riding: as well as the health benefits, cycle commuting helps with congestion and with reducing transport emissions. But it’s also a lot more controversial.
Ride2Work is significant for cycling advocates because it is the only promotional event focused on workplaces and commuting. There are many recreational rides available, and many sport related riding options, but commuter cycling is lower on the public’s hierarchy of cycling acceptability.
Most people would agree that recreational riding is fun and healthy. In sports-mad Australia, cycling for sport or going on training rides is reasonably acceptable.
But when transport cycling starts to compete for road space or shared bicycle/pedestrian paths with other commuters, there is less support. Making the transition from regular recreational rider to sometimes riding to work is for many a psychological step too far.
Evaluation of Ride2Work shows that participation has been steadily increasing over the years (now over 150,000 people expected to register in 2012). Importantly, a substantial proportion of these are new to riding to work. And in 2011 38% of these new riders were still riding to work five months later.
Single day popular cycling events do work to encourage more people to cycle. This is because participation usually means preparing well ahead of time and sometimes training or building up fitness, finding enjoyment and satisfaction from participating on the day, and then continuing to do something that is inherently pleasant.
Perhaps we need a ride to work day every week, not just once a year?
Clear government leadership on this is fundamental to enhancing the image and acceptability of commuter or transport cycling. Comments by roads ministers that city cycle paths should be removed send, at best, a mixed message about the value of cyclists to the community. Where are the state funded communication campaigns encouraging more people to cycle?
At all levels of government there are policy documents that identify increasing cycling as a priority. New South Wales, for example, has a state target to “more than double the mode share of bicycle trips made in the Greater Sydney region, at a local and district level, by 2016”. Surely as part of this plan it will be important to legitimate cycling, make it seem attractive to the public, and maybe balance the inexplicably virulent attacks on cycling and cycling infrastructure by some radio commentators?
The international evidence is absolutely clear that the health benefits of a greater proportion of the public cycling regularly could lead to huge savings in the health budget, by helping reduce levels of obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Ride to work day once a week might well change the culture of cycling as we know it. It would be safer, because of the well-documented “safety in numbers” phenomenon, there would be fewer cars on the road, less pollution, and more people might even be in a good mood when they get to work.
Not everyone can ride to work – think tradesmen with heavy tools, those people who live too far from their work (riding more than 10-15 kilometres is tricky for most), or people with a disability. Nonetheless there are many who might be interested and capable if we (government agencies, workplaces, colleagues, families, drivers) made it easy for them.
If we seriously want to double the mode share for bicycles, we need to do a lot more. Even though there are more people riding these days (greater absolute number of people riding) the proportion of bicycle trips to work by commuters has stayed the same for the past 20 years. Certainly there have been real increases in pockets of the inner capital cities, but this is outweighed by the vastly greater population growth on the urban edges of capital cities where there are marked declines in the proportion of workers using a bicycle to get to work.
The annual Ride2Work is a worthwhile event, but to get more people riding regularly, even just to the train or bus stop, we should start to think about monthly ride to work days. Then let’s take it up a notch, and institute regular Ride2Work Thursdays.