We subsidise road and rail commuters – why not bikes too?

Would cold hard cash help get Australians out of their cars and onto their bikes? AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Australian governments heavily subsidise car, bus and train commuting, but not cycling. Yet a new survey shows many workers would consider riding to work if they got paid for it, and most would even support it if they didn’t participate, because of the wider benefits for cutting road congestion.

The list of existing transport subsidies is long. Fuel tax receipts have fallen so low that they now fail to pay for road-building programs as they once did. Company car concessions remain one of the largest distortions in the Australian tax code and a severe hit to the federal budget. Many employers provide free car parking at great cost, and few jurisdictions impose parking levies. Fare subsidies on Australian public transport are very high relative to other countries, especially considering how poorly our rail networks perform.

The welcome rise of bicycle commuting seen in all our major central business districts over the past two decades is helping save all city workers from congestion on the roads and crushes on trains and buses. Getting more Australians cycling to work provides considerable health, economic and environmental advantages for government, society and the riders themselves, and the infrastructure to provide for it is, relatively speaking, extremely cheap. The question is: how do we get more people to do it?

Car comforts

Price factors influence Australians’ travel choices. Even though cycling is one of the least expensive ways to travel, the concessions for motoring remain so large that it is hard to convince many Australians to ride to work even where high-quality cycling infrastructure exists.

As cycling conditions improve in our cities, and bike parking is provided at more and more workplaces, can small financial incentives help encourage the next wave of increase in bike commuting?

Many places overseas have introduced financial incentives to tilt price signals back towards cycling (although in many cases the subsidies still remain skewed in favour of motoring). France, Belgium and the Netherlands have all introduced small direct subsidy schemes that allow employers to offer tax-free payments to employees worth a few cents for each kilometre of bike commuting.

Research suggests that financial incentives have played a key role in the relative success of urban cycling in these countries. Meanwhile, in car-dominated America, a small Seattle-based program that gives employees financial incentives for walking or cycling has also encouraged non-motorised commuting in that city.

Getting Australians on their bikes

The National Heart Foundation and the Cycling Promotion Fund have recently surveyed more than 2,000 Australian workers aged 25-54 who do not currently ride to work, and who live within 15 km of their workplace.

Survey respondents were asked about three types of potential incentive for bicycle commuting: direct subsidies to employees; indirect subsidies via employers; and tax deductions to buy bicycles for commuting purposes.

The results are striking. Around half the respondents said that financial incentives would encourage them to take up bicycle commuting, while 80% said they supported the implementation of such incentives, regardless of whether they rode a bicycle to work themselves.

We must view these figures with some caution – it is one thing to respond to a telephone survey, and quite another to actually go through with it and change your daily behaviour.

But the strength of the response on the impact of very small incentives is extremely encouraging. It suggests incentives could be useful in helping some non-cyclists make the crucial transition from thinking about cycling to work, to doing it on a daily basis.

Yet perhaps an even more obvious policy change for Australia would be to reduce the disproportionate incentives for motoring, which increase proportionally every year as fuel taxes decline. Even shifting from a company car benefit to a scheme that subsidises business travel by any mode would be preferable to the current arrangement.

If that is a political non-starter, as seems the case at the moment, then a very modest scheme to support cycling to work seems prudent. As the Heart Foundation and Cycling Promotion Fund’s data shows, Australians are both ready to respond and supportive of the idea.