Australia is a cycling laggard

Many cyclists in Australia think cycling is common and popular here, but is that actually true? A recent international survey from 2022 of 22 countries shows that Australia belongs to a handful of English speaking countries that are cycling laggards. Compared to other countries, many people in Australia do not support investment in cycling infrastructure. It took 20 years for the majority of Australians to support climate change. Research (2019 Federal Election) showed that even when the majority recognised the problem many were not prepared to vote for it. How long, therefore, before we are prepared to vote for cycling?

Only four of the 28 countries show a significantly higher level of favour for automobiles than for bicycles: Australia, USA, Great Britain, and Canada.

52 percent globally say cycling in their area is too dangerous , IPSOS surve 2022 of 22 countries, accessed 27 May 2022.

Slow to move on climate change

In the 1970s, here in Australia, research suggested that climate change was occurring and caused by our greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). In the early noughties, people around the world were prepared to act to take action against climate change. Politics followed suit and many countries set targets for GHG emission reductions. Europe led the way. Even the UK was on board and promised a 50% reduction of GHG emissions. Australia had a much slower start. The politicisation of the topic resulted in a schism polarising political debate over the last decade.

Where there is political will, there is a way. Lagging 20 years behind other countries, we are finally in the position to tackle climate change challenges consistently, decisively, and effectively.

Transport emissions

GHG emissions come from a variety of sources. The emissions are broken into categories, with 2 of these categories of particular importance to us: transport and electricity generation. Electricity generation in Australia is still 70% coal and gas, and prices are very high. For many years now, renewables have been the cheapest option (if we are to remain technologically agnostic) and best for climate action. Investment in renewables worldwide is very high and growing. Unfortunately, the reduction in fossil fuel use is slower than we would like. The replacement of infrastructure with low emission alternatives is a massive task. ACT can pride itself as the only Australian state/territory that has 100% renewable electricity. 🙂

Transport emissions have continued to grow in Australia despite the concern for climate change and the recognition of the unsustainable nature of our private motor vehicle fleet. Unfortunately, little has been achieved to reduce GHG emissions from cars. In the ACT, the transport sector is responsible for more than 60% of all GHG emissions. The situation in the ACT with private motoring is worse than ever. We have:

  • lowest average vehicle occupancy
  • historic highest percentage of the adult population with a driver’s licence
  • record number of car registrations
  • more people driving to work in the ACT than any other Australian city
  • a cavaliers attitude to speeding and hooning
  • rising road deaths.

What can be done?

Since 2004, the ACT government has recognised the importance of managing GHG emissions. Since 2012, the ACT Transport Strategy has aimed to shift to other transport modes with lower GHG emissions – away from car use to active travel. The targets for mode shift have not been achieved, and cycling is a weak point. The mode share for cycling to work has not shifted from 3%, compared to 30% in the Netherlands for instance. Public transport uptake also remains low – well below Melbourne. The investment in active travel infrastructure stagnates at a low level. The shift has not yet be seen – even though every policy document since the release of the 2012 Transport for Canberra 2012-2031 strategy (see the timeline below) has pointed out the importance and priority of increasing active travel.


Information box: The evolution of ACT active travel policy

  • 2007 DS13 Pedestrian and Cycle Facilities – predecessor to MIS05, by Geoff Farrar Director, CivilScope Consult and others

  • 2011 MIS05 Active Travel Facilities Design Draft 2011

  • 2012 Transport for Canberra 2012-2031

  • 2013 ACT Government review of all infrastructure standards and specifications to facilitate the best designs possible for active travel

  • 2015 Building an Integrated Transport Network Active Travel (Active Travel Framework)

  • 2015-2020 Active Travel Infrastructure Documents and Standard Drawings (ATIPT)

  • 2017 Active Travel Infrastructure Pratictioner Tool (ATIPT) by CivilScope Consult

  • 2018

    Moving Canberra 2019 2045 Integrated Transport Strategy

    2018 ACT Planning Strategy (Movement and Place)

    Planning for Active Travel in the ACT: Active Travel Infrastructure Interim Planning Guideline (Dec 2018) (PATACT)

    MIS05 Active Travel Facilities Design (Dec 2018) (MIS05)

    ACT Planning and Infrastructure Design Guidelines For Active Travel – Information Session (12 Dec 2018)

  • 2019

    ACT Conservation Council Submission to Moving Canberra

    MIS05 Active Travel Facilities Design (Apr 2019) (MIS05)

  • 2020

    ACT Transport Strategy (released pre-election)

    2020-2021 TCCS Annual Report 2020-21

  • 2021  ‘Her Way’ Recommendation Report, Dr M Paterson MLA

  • 2022

    6 Steps To Active Travel March 2022: Why We Need More Active Travel And How To Get It, Jo Clay MLA

    Molonglo Valley Active Travel Masterplan (in work 14 Feb 2022) including Geoff Farrar Director, CivilScope Consult


Part of the problem lies in the low level of active and visible change leadership and political support. While every survey since 2018 (at least) would suggest more people in Canberra want better active travel infrastructure, the topic was void at the last 2020 ACT Election. Only the ACT Greens fronted up with the cycling reVolution. The ACT Greens proposal is part of the 2020 ACT Parliamentary Agreement. The appendix of the 2020 ACT Parliamentary Agreement list those things ACT Labor and ACT Greens could not agree on but would like (wish list) – and the cycling reVolution is one of these things. ACT Labor has followed since its own election pledges and completely ignored those of the ACT Greens. Transport is currently an ACT Labor responsibility. One minister has little influence over another, which has had those trying to implement cross-directorate policies grinding their teeth. Due to silo thinking, policies across directorates are likely to fail from lack of active support. Power points for recharging electric vehicles in new appartment buildings are an example this.

Main Community Routes (blue) and Local Community Routes (pink) on the Active Travel Infrastructure Practitioner Tool (ATIPT) GIF animation
Main Community Routes (blue) and Local Community Routes (pink) on the Active Travel Infrastructure Practitioner Tool (ATIPT), Images: 2018 ACT Planning and Infrastructure Design Guidelines For Active Travel – Information Session (12 Dec 2018), GIF: canberra.bike.

ACT is a laggard

Since 2015, the ACT has had an active travel policy but its implementation lacking. For TCCS, 2022 is another year of paralysis by more analysis. 2022-2023 will see more data gathering and analysis. By the time TCCS has got around to discussing and deciding on next steps the 2024 ACT Election will be afoot.

In Australia and New Zealand, other cities have outperformed the ACT. Wellington has experienced a cycling push since 2014, and was quick to build popup cycle lanes when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Melbourne is always ahead of Sydney with cycling policy development, and both cities managed to use the pandemic to build protected cycle lanes. Sydney is now making these protected cycle lanes permanent.

The ACT missed that unique window of opportunity for increasing cycling participation. Only now that traffic studies have warned of the pending congestion doom due to light rail construction works, has TCCS decided to give active travel some priority. Too little, too late, we might argue.

Strangely, it also seems like the 2015-2018 active travel policy work was wound back in the last years. The latest 2020 Transport Strategy fails to mention the 2018 Moving Canberra 2019 2045 Integrated Transport Strategy – as though it never existed. The 2018 Transport Strategy has been deleted from TCCS’ website. Instead, the 2020 Transport Strategy refers to the decade old strategy from 2012 as its predecessor. Is this a good example of rewriting history? Most disturbingly, the 2020 Transport Strategy has removed the travel mode priority pyramid in favour of a more ‘balanced’ approach. As Brent Toderian said, “balanced is code for status quo“, which for the ACT means a clear priority for roads and cars!

Rather than the terrible curvature we’ve created that allows cars to get around the corner at 60 kph in a 50 kph zone, how about we build a crosswalk so that pedestrians have less distance to walk in the zone of danger and cars have to slow down? Wouldn’t that be a smart idea?

PROFESSOR MATTHEW BURKE, Australias terrible urban streets and why we build themAndrew Sadauskas, 12 May 2022, Updated 26 May 2022.
Hierarchy of prioritisation by mode: pyramid for the importance of each mode of transport in ACT investment.
Hierarchy of prioritisation by mode: pyramid for the importance of each mode of transport in ACT investment. This model is found in all ACT Transport Strategies since 2015, including 2018 Moving Canberra 2019-2045 Integrated Transport Strategy, but left out of the 2020 Transport Strategy.

Australians are carophiles but bikephobics

German journalists often write that cars are to Germans what guns are to Americans. Does that also ring true here in Canberra?

Cycling needs to find political favour in the ACT. A good example is the expected disruption of the road network due to the light rail construction. A recent survey in the ACT showed that most Canberrans want to drive rather than consider other transport modes, even when driving will mean sitting in traffic. Canberran’s single mindedness makes it difficult for ACT Government to reallocate road space or investment. Politicians are unlikely to open a can of worms when they think that they will get punished for it. Community council meetings also show a love of all things metal and heavy, with ongoing discussions of road widening and parking. Perhaps with the next 2024 ACT Election in mind, Minister Steel might be playing it safe with more feasibility studies and modelling – rather than just simply building safe and fast cycling infrastructure. Kicking the anglo saxon can down the road will not turn laggards into early adopters!

The numbers of people cycling on a daily basis in Australia are abysmally small. Therefore they don’t constitute a particularly large or powerful bloc in the social or political discourse.

Dr Tony Matthews, a senior Lecturer in engineering and the built environment, Griffith University. Source: Andrew Sadauskas, The chicken and the egg: How planning budgets make neighbourhood cycling a scramble, The Fifth Estate, 5 May 2022, accessed 9 May 2022.

The recent international survey of public attitudes to cycling (IPSOS, 2022), involving 22 countries, shows that our car centric thinking is completely out of step. Australia is one of the few countries where car love still dominates the political debate and sidelines investment in other modes of transport, including cycle infrastructure.

Countries where bicycles are most favoured over cars are Turkey, the Netherlands, Hungary, Chile, Argentina, Belgium, Colombia, and Peru (all by 15 percentage points or more). Only four of the 28 countries show a significantly higher level of favour for automobiles than for bicycles: Australia, USA, Great Britain, and Canada.

52 percent globally say cycling in their area is too dangerous, IPSOS survey 2022 of 22 countries, accessed 27 May 2022.

Cycling beats all other transport modes hands down, except walking, from the perspective of health, wellbeing, happiness, better cities, climate change, and return on investment. In many cities riding with a bike is faster than a car trip. Protected cycle lanes have proven not to impact significantly on motor traffic. Around the world we have seen the value of cycle infrastructure – build and they will come. Behaviour follows infrastructure.

Australia is stuck and its views are hopelessly outdated. It is easy to think that what is normal here is typical for elsewhere in the world. That is not true! The survery showed that the support for prioritising bicycle over automobiles is favoured in general except for just 5 countries, four of which are English speaking. Australia is one of the laggards!

Prioritising bicycles: In this context, twice as many agree as disagree (64% vs. 36%, on average per country) that new road and traffic infrastructure projects in their area should prioritise bicycles over automobiles. Support is higher than average in all emerging countries surveyed. The only countries where fewer than 50% agree are Canada, USA, Australia, Japan, and Great Britain while opinions are evenly split in Belgium and Norway.

52 percent globally say cycling in their area is too dangerous, IPSOS survey 2022 of 22 countries, accessed 27 May 2022.

The danger is that our climate change debacle might be repeated for cycling. While the rest of the world tries to move forward rapidly, investing in active travel and cycling instead of more roads, Australia remains stuck in the past. 22 years into this century, both sides of politics are finally pulling in the same direction on climate change. We can only hope that for cycling the public and political will and support arrives faster. Melbourne and Sydney are first movers. Ken Behrens – and regional mates using our roads – are laggards!


Information box: Geoff Farrar Director, CivilScope Consult

Geoff Farrar is an active travel legend in Canberra. He reviewed the Design Standard for Pedestrian and Cycle Facilities (DS13) back in 2007. He has worked on active travel since then and is currently working on the Molonglo 3 East active travel masterplan.

Geoff has a long association with the development of standards and specifications, having authored sections and project managed the delivery of the ACT Standard Specification for Urban infrastructure in 2001. He subsequently completed a review of the Design Standard for Pedestrian and Cycle Facilities (DS13) in 2007 and the roundabouts supplement in 2011. The active travel infrastructure standard MIS05 and standard drawings including for equestrian facilities were developed with Warren Salomon. He is also the founder of the active travel facilities design course in Canberra presented by Warren and Dick Van den Dool since 2010.

Engineers Australia Event, 16 March 2022, website accessed 12 May 2022.

We missed the Engineers Australia Event on the 16 March 2022 and it was unfortunately not recorded.

About the event

The Molonglo 3 Stage 2 area is the ideal location to implement a cycling (active travel and integrated public transport) focused suburb. … The theoretical active travel network in Molonglo 3 considered the influencing factors for cycling mode share around the world, identified in academic studies and research and developed a transport network plan (and development concept plan) for the site.

In 2013, the ACT Government commenced a review of all infrastructure standards and specifications with the aim of delivering a standard document along with a suite of standard drawings to facilitate the best designs possible for active travel facilities in Canberra. To inform designs that best meet user needs, and to capitalise on the unique planning environment in Canberra, planning was integrated into the design process. This required the development of the Active Travel Routes system.

Transport Canberra and City Services (TCCS) is currently developing a Best Practice Guide for active travel facilities at intersections, based on current best practice across Australia.  The draft findings and activities undertaken so far during the project will also be presented.

Engineers Australia Event, 16 March 2022, website accessed 12 May 2022.

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