Making cycling the new normal – challenges to reaching the ACT’s bike commuting target

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Last Wednesday night in a somewhat noisy bar in O'Connor a bunch of experts and members of Canberra’s cycling community put our collective heads together to discuss  how we can make it easier to ride a bike to work in Canberra. When it comes to getting to and from work, we Canberrans remain committed to our cars. With cycle commuting rates currently at a low 3%, a long way from our 7% target, there was consensus about the challenges ahead, and some fairly consistent themes emerging for the critical steps we need to take to get more Canberrans out of their cars and onto bikes.

Experts in the fields of health, transport planning, education and psychology put forward their top three actions, with panellists including Mr Tony Stubbs (Heart Foundation); Dr Anthony Burton (Anthony Burton and Associates); Associate Professor Richard Keegan (University of Canberra); Ms Raynie McNee (Cycle Education) and ACT MLAs Bec Cody and Caroline Le Couteur.

Not surprisingly, one of the key themes that came out of the discussion was the need to invest real money in building and maintaining cycle infrastructure. The need for high quality separated paths and bike facilities came up again and again, not just as practical pieces of infrastructure that make it safer and easier to cycle, but for the message that they send to the broader community that that cycling is normal part of life in our city, and an ordinary way to get around. Of course, Canberra is a low density city, and to make active travel a viable alternative we need to become a more compact city, by densifying and converting lost resources such as surface car parks.

Active travel expert Dr Anthony Burton challenged us to aim higher than our 7% target to set our sights on creating the conditions in which active travel is a more obvious choice than driving a car. He asked policy makers to look at data and ask why it is that certain areas of Canberra have high participation rates cycling (e.g. suburbs near the excellent Sullivan’s Creek path) with others virtually non-existent.  He talked about normalising bike riding as an ordinary way to get around the city, something that people can do in regular clothes, without special equipment. He also advocated for further reducing the availability of car parking as one way of pushing people to look for travel alternatives.

Tony Stubbs from the Heart Foundation provided a preventive health perspective, advocating for our community places and spaces to be connected and easy to get to on foot, as well as on bike, and to find new ways to encourage people to make it easy to incorporate walking and cycling into their day.

Understandably most of us in the room were already keen cyclists, and the conversation turned to the need to target those who are not already riding their bikes. Educator Raynie McNee of Cycle Education, talked of the need for more basic training in bike skills and road rules to help new riders, particularly women, to build confidence and develop a  lifelong love of cycling.

This lead to an interesting discussion of the psychology behind what motivates people to take up cycling. University of Canberra Sports Psychologist Richard Keegan pointed out that while long term health benefits of cycling may be of interest to policy makers, it is really the more immediate benefits that will have an impact on motivating people at a personal level. We need to focus on outcomes such as the great relationships and social connections with other riders, as well as increased energy levels and mental alertness, as factors that might encourage someone to try a cycling to work routine.

Some of the other issues discussed included the valuable contributions that electric powered bikes could make,  reviewing mandatory helmet laws and the 250W limit on e-bikes, the need to incorporate cycle facilities into the design of new developments, and better signage and information on the existing path network.

It’s clear that there are many options that we need to explore if  we to reach our 7% target, and we look forward to working with the Canberra community to  make this happen.

“3 steps to 7% - making Canberra a more bike friendly city” was hosted by Pedal Power with support from the ACT Government as part of Canberra Walk and Ride Week.

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