With a splash of cash, the UK is showing the way to save on health costs by spending on bike riding. Simon Vincett investigates the situation in Australia.
Europe, it seems, has always led the way when it comes to building infrastructure for bike riders. There’s no need to look any further than the Netherlands to see how a society can embrace bikes as part of everyday, healthy travel.
Now the British are joining the bike riding revolution with the UK Government announcing in November 2014 the country’s biggest ever spend on cycling: £214 million over the next three years to further develop bike riding in eight cities. Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, launched the suite of projects declaring the government’s intention is to double trips by bicycle in Britain by 2020. He said the move would save the National Health Service £17 billion within 20 years, reduce road deaths by 30% and increase the mobility of the nation’s poorest families by 25%.
This funding announcement followed £374 million funding for cycling between 2011 and 2015. The Government also leveraged £248 million of local funding to deliver cycling programs and provided access to £94 million in grants for cycling infrastructure and promotion to the eight cities of Bristol, Birmingham, Cambridge, Norwich, Oxford, Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester.
So why is Australia lagging behind when it comes to funding and building connected bike infrastructure?
Australia’s peak body for bike riders, Bicycle Network, has been campaigning for better infrastructure for the past 40 years.
Bicycle Network’s General Manager of Government and External Relations, Chris Carpenter, says the Australian Government needs to do more for bike riders—and introduce similar measures to that of the UK government to get more people riding.
“This leadership from a national government is a welcome sign,” Carpenter says. “The UK have realised the benefits of bike riding in terms of health and economic congestion.”
“Bicycle Network continues to campaign for the Australian government to commit to significant bike infrastructure funding,” Carpenter explains. “Over the past year we have heard a lot from politicians about the need to reign in the health budget. Well, we know that significant investment in bike riding infrastructure would save the government billions in health costs.”
Inactivity is calculated to be draining the Australian economy of $13.8 billion every year. According to the latest Physical Activity in Australia survey, two out of every three Australians don’t get enough physical activity to stay healthy. They put themselves at high risk of Type 2 Diabetes, some cancers and heart disease.
“We have seen cities like London use health outcomes in their cost benefit ratios when assessing projects—Australia needs to do this too,” Carpenter says.
Warnings of the powerful correlation between transport choices and health are coming from more and more quarters as Australia’s a lack of physical activity across the country grows. For emergency physician and Vice-President of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Dr Stephen Parnis, the link between health and activity is all too clear.
“A generation ago [we] were much more likely to walk or run or ride. We’ve got to try to reintroduce these activities [like bike riding] wherever possible for [people’s] physical health as well as their mental health,” Dr Parnis says.
The AMA sees government as playing a leading role in promoting increased physical activity.
“Governments set the tone for the community,” Dr Parnis says. “Whether it’s federal, state or local government, each level has its role in having systems in place to encourage physical activity. For example, state and local government clearly have a role in the design of communities to encourage the use of walking and riding and public transport. They all have a role in improving physical activity. That’s something that we strongly support.”
Overall leadership and a coherent vision are essential, Dr Parnis believes.
He says the Australian federal government’s ‘Walking, riding and access to public transport’ ministerial statement backs this up.
“We think this [vision for active transport] is a priority irrespective of who’s in power as part of a national approach to health. Emphasis on remaining physically active and encouraging it is core business for the whole community and a priority for government.”
Professor Billie Giles-Corti, Director of the McCaughey VicHealth Centre for Community Wellbeing, University of Melbourne, similarly says all-of-government leadership is needed to promote good societal health. Professor Giles-Corti has developed world-leading expertise in measuring health outcomes from how populations transport themselves and where they live.
“I think people on the fringe have the right to be able to cycle … ” Professor Billie Giles-Corti
“Land use, transportation and infrastructure of services are the elements that contribute to the liveability of a place,” she says. “Managing liveability requires integration of planning and thinking. I’d really like to see the federal and state governments really come to terms with this and make it happen.”
“The role of government is to facilitate people making the healthy choice,” she continues. “People make choices based on what’s on offer to them. If you live on the urban fringe of cities you have little choice—the only thing you can do is drive—because there is nowhere to walk to, nowhere to cycle to and there is really infrequent public transport, because the density is so low that you can’t provide a frequent service in those environments.”
“We’ve done some work in Melbourne and found that if you put cycling infrastructure to all the train stations it virtually connects the whole of Melbourne,” Professor Giles-Corti explains.
“Most people live within a five kilometre distance from a train station. Now that would mean that it’s not just the inner-city yuppies—as people like to think—who are doing all the cycling. I think people on the fringe have the right to be able to cycle and use the alternative. But it does require the infrastructure to make it possible. I think if we linked up all the train stations and all the activity centres we would see a real renaissance in cycling.”
The Australian Government has committed to double the number of bike riders between 2011 and 2016. At the same time the 2014–15 Federal Budget announced $50 billion for infrastructure spending without any funds designated to bike infrastructure.
A spokesperson for the Commonwealth Minister for Infrastructure, Warren Truss, says there was support for active transport.
“The Australian Government supports measures to increase all aspects of active transport in Australian communities,” he says.
“While the designing, building and funding of cycling and pedestrian infrastructure is primarily a matter for state, territory and local governments, this $50 billion investment will include, in relevant projects, the building of new cycling and pedestrian infrastructure as part of the overall project.”
“The Australian Government has committed to double the number of bike riders between 2011 and 2016.”
Shadow Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, is not convinced bike riding is being facilitated.
“They seem to think it’s about roads and cars and that’s all,” Mr Albanese says.
He pointed to the $3 billion provided for Melbourne’s East West toll road and quoting from Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s book Battlelines: “Mostly there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car and cars need roads.”
Referring to his own 2013 ministerial statement ‘Walking, riding and access to public transport’, Mr Albanese said “Our active transport vision was about our major cities in particular and how people could get around our urban communities.”
Mr Albanese believes it’s a key role for the national government to provide leadership.
“It’s happening in other parts of the world. Active transport can actually mean that you save governments money by reducing the call on government funding for health. It also enriches communities: people are more likely to engage with others when they’re out and about walking and riding than when they are in their private motor vehicle.”
Mr Albanese wants an integrated multi-modal transport system in Australian cities.
“A transport network that integrates a public transport with active transport is such a viable option. There are a range of examples around the world whereby rail is very much integrated, whether it be to take your bicycle on the train, with appropriate space for it, or whether it be lock up facilities at train stations. Australia has been falling behind on these initiatives.”
For bicycle transport, Albanese says Australia should follow the lead of other countries.
“The separation of bicycle and car traffic, where that’s possible, is one of the things that’s recommended internationally and is occurring in other parts of the world. If you look at the success of places like the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain and France there’s a range of areas where it is a growing option—growing much faster than it is here in Australia.”
Professor Giles-Corti agrees.
“When we’re talking about trying to get mass cycling, and we want to get those people who are particularly vulnerable, kids and older people, and those not keen on cycling with all the cars, such as many women, I think the separated lanes seem to be a much more attractive and effective option.”
Bicycle Network’s Chris Carpenter sees the time for action is now. “National governments across the world are realising the long-term benefits of increasing physical activity,’ he said. “The Australian government must join this global trend and take responsibility for implementing preventative health measures. More people riding a bike is good for both our health and our economy.”
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