Cycle highways for commuting

Photo by Megan Markham on

Addressed to the ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr

The ACT Government has recognised the importance of investment in capital projects as part of the stimulus to offset the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 health threat. In 2018 and 2019 the ACT Government released multiple policies to make Canberra a more liveable city, to combat the effects of climate change, and to prepare the city for a population of 500,000, who will need to commute to town centres and Civic across town twice daily. It is expected that our infrastructure will collapse under the peak period loads without the strategic investment in active travel and the construction of cycle highways. Even though it might still be the commonly held mental model, Canberra cannot still live by small city standards but rather mature into a regional metropolis.

Photo by Salih Sayed on

“Car, house, and two kids!”

To achieve the ACT Climate Change Strategy 2019-25 goals, less people need to be driving, so that those that have to can. Most Canberrans drive to work. If people are to switch from cars, then the Active Travel Network needs to be very attractive. The benefits have to be greater than the disbenefits. Commuting is one of the reasons many buy a car. We cannot live without work. In the future more may have the possibility of working from home but for the majority, earning a living involves a twice-daily commute. The 2017 ACT Household Travel Survey shows that the daily commute is one of the longest journeys made. Schools, shops, doctors and sport are usually in the local area and the distance travelled is almost always shorter. Not surprisingly, commuters are least likely to leave their car at home. Getting to work is serious business. 

The average commuting distance is about 10 km for Canberrans (2017 ACT Household Travel Survey). This is too far to walk in a reasonable time, and certainly not twice a day, five days per week. The distance could be easily cycled and in less time than the average commute driving (50 minutes in the ACT, Department of Infrastructure report, 2019).

Houses in a suburban neighborhood. Photo by David McBee on
Houses in a suburban neighborhood. Photo by David McBee on

Vague language is a barrier to change

Active Travel” is a vague term that is hard to understand and not particularly intuitive. It causes a great deal of confusion. Most people don’t regard public transport as active travel, but it is because the “last mile” between the bus stop and the home, workplace, shops and schools, is usually walked. The ACT Disability Act further expands the function and importance of the path network beyond walking for those who require a “mobility device”.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on
Not the Canberra light rail but looks like it. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

The Active Travel Framework does not make clear the central importance of riding to work every day. Recreation and sport is a wonderful thing but comes only after we have secured our economic existence. Commuting hides in the background of the Active Travel Framework – implied but not explicitly mentioned – and yet at the heart of any paradigm shift.

Clear and concise language is a key ingredient of any cultural transformation, and we should not actively disengage people with the use of abstract language. People must first be aware of and then understand “active travel” to get on board. Through the lens of active travel, cycling to work is about transport, not mainly about fitness or sport – that is a desired secondary reason. It all starts with the language: “riding to work”, “cycling commuters”, and “cycle highways”.

Photo by Craig Dennis on
Cyclist crossing a bridge. Photo by Craig Dennis on

Cycle highways are essential

Cycle highways are a sticking point and a pre-requisite. The routes and paths must be designed correctly. The commuter rides quickly and will only stop when they must. The commuter requires good quality, smooth, safe and well-maintained paths, that provide direct, low gradient routes that can be used in all weather (even after heavy rains) and times of day (safe at night). “Cycle highways“ are swept and cleared of debris. For construction sites, a safe and easy temporary path is provided to get around it. We cannot expect people otherwise to leave their cars at home.

Drivers understand what good infrastructure means. Source: Twitter

Cycle highways are high-speed paths built for their utility and need to be designed with similar thoroughness and thoughtfulness as roads. But the requirements are quite different. For example, cars prefer to travel at speeds of 80km/h – pedestrians are very slow. The Canberra urban planners and ACT Government should note that “cycle highways” are not likely to be built by additions to existing road or pedestrian infrastructure that have been designed for a different purpose. The design of cycle highways can not be compromised, if the benefits are to be realised.

Photo by Ju00c9SHOOTS on
Photo by Ju00c9SHOOTS on

Bikes are getting faster and there are more of them. Shared paths will not work, and only lead to spikes in accidents and near misses. Even with a normal bike, a cyclist commuting commonly reaches speeds of 20km/h. Electric bikes are faster still with speeds of 25km/h, even uphill. Electric bike sales are booming. Riding downhill, bikes can reach much higher speeds. Austroads cycle path design guidelines include path radius for speeds higher than 30km/h. Riding to work requires separated and dedicated infrastructure for bikes. 

Direct, smooth, safe and fast – good cycling infrastructure. Source: Twitter

Cyclists are “vulnerable road users” and require alternatives to roads. Attempts have been made to categorise the bike as a vehicle for the road or “pedestrian” to permit the use of footpaths. This has failed as a cyclist is neither of these. A person that rides a bike to work is a cyclist and their needs are different, hence the absolute need for a paradigm shift.

Paris has committed to building infrastructure and experienced a 50% growth in cycling in the last year. Source: Twitter

Too late to wait

Infrastructure needs to be given priority by the ACT Government as it takes a long time to build. Cycle highways are not the last step but included in the first, as behaviour follows infrastructure. There are other barriers to commuting, including business dress standards, sweating, helmet hair, makeup, secure storage facilities for bikes and clean and hygienic change rooms with big enough and well vented lockers. I would not have them forgotten. They are factors that contribute to change resistance.

The ACT Government has written good policy in the last few years, with examples such as the Active Travel Framework and the ACT Climate Change Strategy 2019-25. Now is the time to turn all of this into practice. There is a noticeable lack of commitment to reallocating investment to strategic active travel projects such as cycle highways. COVID-19 stimulus measures and the ACT Budget 2020-21 are opportunities for the ACT Government to correct this. What an amazing window of opportunity!

Photo by Luna Lovegood on
Photo by Luna Lovegood on


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