Australian cities are generally dispersed, a problem identified in earlier articles of the special edition of Australian Planner Vol47 No4 (here & here). This article reviews what realistic transport role bicycles can play in a post peak world - remembering that we are not all super sleek lycra freaks.
Rethinking oil depletion: what role can cycling really play in dispersed cities?
Matthew Ian Burke and Jennifer Bonham
An overview of cycling in dispersed cities, focused on US and Australian cities, highlights low bicycle mode shares and low participation rates for women, children and seniors at present. Yet cycling can flourish in suburban settings, with low-density, outer-suburban communities in many European cities having very high bicycle mode shares, and strong participation across all demographic groups. Under a variety of Peak Oil scenarios, the bicycle is shown to play specific roles in supplying local mobility and access to and from mass public transport for longer distance trips.
Many advocates have thrust forward cycling as a way to ‘solve’ an oil-related transportation crisis.
The main bicycle advocacy groups in Australia, including the Cycle Promotion Fund, have included oil vulnerability in their political campaigning for cycling investment. [But if] we look at government, there is very little uptake of such views. Australian state government cycling strategies tend to identify health, environment and traffic congestion as main motivators for encouraging cycling, rather than oil depletion.
This paper seeks to provide a reasoned evaluation of the role of cycling in dispersed cities … thus far absent from the literature.
Despite this low use rate for utilitarian transport, participation in cycling for exercise and recreation remains high, being the fourth most popular physical activity after walking, aerobics/fitness and swimming, and more popular than running.
The auto-oriented Modernist design found in the middle- and outer-suburbs here and in the US, supported by land use zoning and other policies, has been widely criticized for limiting sustainable transport and affecting human behavior, well-being and health.
Where Australian and US cities differ, is in the strength of the central business districts (CBDs) in Australia’s state capital cities. The Australian CBDs have retained their primacy such that there are concerns regarding over-centralization, with government attention now focusing on strategic decentralization. Australian CBDs never experienced the downturns and ‘white flight’ of their US counterparts, with few ‘edge cities’ apparent in the suburban landscape.
Why is it less safe to cycle in the outer suburbs of Australia and the US?
Australia-wide it is standard for local streets to have a 50 km/h posted street speed, whereas 30 km/h is more common in
German and Dutch cities.
It is now understood that the mere presence of greater numbers of cyclists and pedestrians, by and of itself, leads to an increase in safety for these modes. … as levels of cycling increase, the rate of cyclist fatalities declines.
The authors criticize the belief that widespread car use and ownership, and travel is some innate natural human desire.
Rather, the very way in which we frame urban travel through the knowledge we produce assists in the proliferation of automobile use and fosters a culture that supports automobile travel.
This has specific consequences in decision making. The way in which planners’ perceive the choices people make to use specific modes is often operationalised according to a function of the user’s preferences and the relative costs of the different available modes of travel. This is pretty much as modellers do in micro-economic disaggregate models, focused myopically on utility. It fails to consider the other values and benefits pertaining to cycling, including equity and health.
A recent report by Dodson and Snipe identified that the middle to outer suburbs of Australian cities were the most vulnerable to oil price increases and yet:
…it is in the middle- and outer suburbs of the dispersed Australian and US cities that cycling has low participation rates, where it appears to have lower priority in policy and programs, and little safe infrastructure.
The authors then criticize some of the Peak Oil “scenarios” proposed by, for example H. Kunstler, in which urban landscapes are “made to work” by some combination of socio cultural change or techno fix. The authors suggest an incremental transition is both more likely, and feasible.
…some limited urban restructuring (including retail and schooling), with rapid short term changes in transport networks (especially public transport networking), policy and priority. Any demand destruction for the car is used to free up
road space for walking and cycling and on-road transit. Such environmental changes are feasible in the short term and could deliver much of the necessary mobility and access for low-density populations, without dependence on high volumes of oil.
Bicycle trip types in an oil crisis
The local trip
Many trips are within cycling distance in dispersed cities. A significant percentage of all household trips … are within a 1 km walk or 3 km bike ride.
Economic forces under Peak Oil may well reduce the viability of mega-malls and ‘super-schools’
A minor restructuring of grocery shopping and schools to a more human (perhaps humane?) scale would facilitate the adoption of cycling and walking. The local shopping strip and small shops of ~20-30 years ago.
While distance is but one of many factors that impact on the level of cycling, the proportion of people living in close proximity to their workplaces suggests that if we can align some of the other factors there is significant potential to increase cycling beyond the current metropolitan averages of 1.5%.
The longer trip
There is a small but significant proportion of riders current undertaking sometimes heroic commutes by bicycle in Australian cities. There is a small but significant proportion of riders current undertaking sometimes heroic commutes by bicycle in Australian cities.
But bicycle travel will play an important role as a feeder mode.
The question also arises regarding whether bicycles are needed at the ‘other end’of a public transport trip, and how this should be supported. … there maybe more use for the bicycle to go that ‘last kilometre’ or two, especially … before any significant change to urban structures is possible under oil scarcity.
The paper has a brief review of “free” or public rental bicycle schemes noting that Australia compulsory helmet requirement may limit the usefulness of these schemes. There follows a breakdown of some specific bicycle routes in Australian cities;
… one thing is clear: inner-urban male commuters are over-represented in the current bicycle travel market.
Although we do not have any local research on the phenomena, the past three years has seen the reemergence of utility bikes in cities such as Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane, judging by sales and advertisements in magazines such as Australian Cyclist.
Implications for policy and planning
… cycling will probably play ‘second fiddle’ to mass public transport in dispersed suburban areas, with buses and rail taking on the bulk of the non-local travel task.
The remainder of the paper discusses in more detail some of the social and behavioral issues: gender, age, dress, goods carrying, safety.
Of interest, there was no discussion of the influence of terrain and weather in this paper. I’ve ridden (some years ago) in both Melbourne and Adelaide where the terrain is generally flat, especially if you use the paths along the O Bahn (Adelaide) and some of the inner creeks leading into the city (eg Scotchmans in Melbourne). However, Melbourne's changeable weather is a deterrent, and I suspect that Hobart with its more rugged terrain and notably colder and frequently wetter weather also poses a challenge for the ‘average’ commuter.