Try cycling on Ride to Work Day … it might change your life

Tucking your pants into your socks mightn’t be trendy, but cycling to work has a range of benefits. AAP/Joe Castro

In July, Cadel Evans became the first Australian to win the most prestigious race in professional cycling: Le Tour de France. But what effect has Cadel’s victory had back home in Australia?

Are more Australians cycling than ever before? Are our cities becoming more cycling-friendly? And why does any of this really matter?

In the first part of our Cycling in Australia series, Dr Chris Rissel of the University of Sydney looks at national Ride to Work Day. Can one day of collective action really make a difference?

CYCLING IN AUSTRALIA: Tomorrow is national Ride to Work Day. I used to be sceptical of one-off “event” days for changing behaviour, but it is surprising how a single positive experience can change people’s minds.

Every year thousands of workplace volunteers encourage their colleagues to try cycling to work (or part of the way), offering breakfast or other benefits as an incentive.

Last year, more than 105,000 people participated in Ride to Work Day across Australia. More importantly, 43% of those who registered as new riders were still riding to work five months later.

Try before you buy

Public events can be powerful triggers for change, because people actually try the new behaviour: if they have a positive experience, they’ll want to repeat it.

The Sydney Spring Cycle is a case in point.

A study of participants in the large community event found that beginners and novice riders:

  • prepared beforehand with practice rides and built up their strength and confidence
  • felt a sense of achievement when they completed the event, and
  • continued to ride afterwards.

This is particularly likely to occur if there are others in a social network that support and encourage the new behaviour. Workplaces can do this well.

New behaviours are easier to adopt when a group is involved. AAP/Julian Smith

Most state and local governments have targets for increasing cycling levels, including riding to work. New South Wales, in its State Plan, has set a target to increase the mode share of bicycle trips made in the Greater Sydney region – at a local and district level – to 5% by 2016.

Individual local government areas have also set targets, such as the City of Sydney’s Cycle Strategy and Action Plan 2007-2017, which has a target of 10% of trips to be made by bike by 2016.

These targets are set because there are enormous benefits that result from more people riding.

Aside from personal health and productivity gains, at international, state and local levels, Professor John Pucher and others found that when more people actively travel (walking or cycling) there are fewer people overweight or obese, inactive or with diabetes.

Another study in NSW found that those people who drove to work were 13% more likely to be overweight or obese compared to everyone else, even after taking into account leisure time physical activity.

More cycling also means fewer cars, which means less air pollution and less congestion.

Good infrastructure is vital for attracting new cyclists. AAP/Christopher Samuel

There’s more we can do

The number of cyclists who participate in Ride to Work Day is much higher than the number of people who usually ride to work (about 55,000 in all the capital cities).

Both the national Census and the Household Travel Surveys in NSW and Victoria record that about 1-2% of Australians rode to work on Census day or did so daily.

This rate of cycling to work has been quite stable for many years and represents approximately 10,000 people in Sydney, and 20,000 in Melbourne.

Although cycling rates are increasing, they are doing so from a very small base, with the result that the increases have yet to affect overall travel patterns.

This is in contrast to general cycling levels (riding to the shops, for example), with more than 10% of Australian adults having ridden in the past week and almost 30% in the past year.

Interestingly, the distribution of people cycling to work is not even. Inner-city areas have as much as three to four times the proportion of people cycling to work than the state average, or outer suburbs.

One reason for this is shorter trip distances in the inner-city. Five to ten kilometres can be ridden in less than 30 minutes, but most people would not cycle more than ten to 15 kilometres to work.

This is partly a fitness issue, but it’s also affected by individual “time budgets” for travel. As the time needed for a journey goes up past 30-60 minutes, the preference for that travel mode goes down.

For people living in outer suburbs, one solution is to support bicycle parking at transport interchanges, so people can ride to the station or bus stop.

AAP/Christopher Samuel

How to we get more people to ride to work?

To increase the number of people riding to work, the same things are needed that encourage people to ride in general.

Cycling infrastructure (bike lanes or paths) can help separate bikes from cars. Lower speed limits and traffic calming create a more cycling friendly environment.

When people get to their workplace they need facilities, such as showers and somewhere secure to leave their bike. Some workplaces are very switched on and provide great facilities, in part because they want to retain employees.

For example, Deutsche Bank and Fairfax Media in Pyrmont, Sydney provide a fantastic fresh towel service.

Others workplaces have made arrangements with local gyms for use of shower facilities. Brisbane has a large bike hub in the CBD for bike parking complete with showers, a bike shop and mechanics, and nearby cafés.

So tomorrow, on Ride to Work Day, why not give it a go? It’s good for the environment, it’s good for your health, it can increase your productivity at work and you might even get a free breakfast as a result.

Who knows: you might even enjoy it too.

Read the rest of the Cycling in Australia series.

For more information about Ride to Work Day, or to register as a Ride to Work Day rider, follow this link.