A local ‘biketivist’ compares our ‘cycling capital of Australia’  to Paris

26 Oct 22 | By pp-admin | Infrastructure, News Wheel

How does Canberra stack up on its claim to be “the cycling capital of Australia”?

Paris Lord, slow rider, Pedal Power Board member and host of Canberra by Bike says we rate about 4/10.  A bit harsh do you think?  This is why.

In July this year, Paris escaped our cold and dreary winter and tested bicycle infrastructure in a number of European destinations as well as undertaking a course on the subject in The Netherlands.

“In Canberra, and in Australia generally, there is a dearth of cycling infrastructure knowledge “ explains Paris “We Ride Australia’s Stephen Hodge suggested I use some of my time in Europe doing a masterclass in cycling infrastructure and doing the DTV Capacity Building course certainly opened my eyes to what I thought was happening and how it was done”.

Amongst the course participants were people working for local councils – including Wellington and Auckland City Councils – as well as traffic engineers and planners, mainly from European countries.  An American participant nicknamed Paris “biketivist” – an activist who rides a bike!

Paris also discovered the Wellington City Council has a budget of NZ$226m over ten years – that’s a serious and long term commitment.  In Australia we are not yet at that level, but Pedal Power is consistently advocating to the ACT Government to continue working on our cycling infrastructure.

Paris found the course content varied, totally relevant and practical, including rides in various areas to experience local cycling infrastructure.  A key concept was to see the bicycle ‘as a tool for a bigger picture’ and to ask the essential question: “What sort of city/neighbourhood do you want?”.  As Paris says, “the bicycle is a part of your city – do you want to design your neighbourhood for people or for cars?”. 

During the course, Paris saw how the Dutch have rebuilt their neighbourhoods so that they are for people, not traffic.

During the course, Paris saw how the Dutch have rebuilt their neighbourhoods so that they are for people, not traffic.

“I think this has built independence in children and means everyone, of any age or ability, can move around safely and conveniently” Paris says. 

You can see more about the course and what participants got out of it here.

We all have a sense of The Netherlands being the gold standard for urban cycling.  One of the key takeaways from the course for Paris was understanding more about how the Dutch have built that cycling environment.

A fundamental element of their story is their five principles of cycling infrastructure design: cohesion, directness, safety, attractiveness and comfort.

During the course, Paris got to walk or ride around cities to see this in action.  In Utrecht, a city in the middle of The Netherlands, well known not only for its wonderful medieval city centre but as a city with some of the best cycling infrastructure in the world, course participants were given candid explanations of what the city saw as failures and mistakes.  But from Paris’s vantage point, he thought (as did others) even to have their failures or mistakes would be a step up for our cities!  

Two things stand out for him in the Dutch story. 

Firstly, collaboration between diverse parties who traditionally might not have been seen as ‘on the same page’ achieved far more than any one group could have done. Groups such as building preservationists, residents seeing old neighbourhoods destroyed to make way for cars, hippies and parents’ groups united and, also taking advantage of rocketing oil prices (in the 70s), were able to effect change.

Secondly, the Dutch don’t refer consider themselves ‘cyclists’; rather they are people who happen to use a tool (bicycle) as Paris says, “to get life done”.  They are mums or photographers or employees or students or professionals and they all just happen to use a bike for short trips. 

“I realised that plenty of them still have cars,” says Paris “but since the 70s their society has been designed to make it a lot easier to get around riding a bike”.

As part of this approach to making cycling easier, Paris delighted in the city of Breda’s approach to bicycle parking.  In a city of just 100,000, the council provide five free bike parking stations which not only provide safe and secure parking, but also facilities such as baby changing facilities, prams, different bikes to rent, vending machines, repair services. All things to make cycling attractive, easy and safe.

Beyond The Netherlands, Paris also sampled the delights of riding in London, Paris and Copenhagen.  So, the hard question for him was: could he give one highlight from each destination? 

For the Netherlands, he simply recognises them as the gold standard and the pinnacle of what could be achieved (acknowledging it has been a five-decade – and continuing – journey making a massive cultural, attitudinal and environmental change). 

London showed him what can be done quickly and cheaply with planter boxes of flowers supplemented with licence plate cameras and bollards for slowing traffic.

In Copenhagen, he admired the solution of shipping containers to ride through so that construction developments don’t come at the expense of bike lanes or footpaths.

And in his namesake city of Paris, he delighted in their extensive Vélib bike sharing scheme with a mixture of pedal and eBikes which are now ubiquitous, along with ‘slow’ streets. Plus, he noticed many women riding to work, in everyday street clothes, as a sign that cycling was seen as an ordinary part of life and “getting life done”.

So why did Canberra only score 4 out of 10 as the cycling capital of Australia?

For starters, Paris points to our paths being insufficient and too narrow which means there is competition for the space.  This leads to those who want to cycle feeling threatened and rattled by people – usually men – who are trying to break speed records often in highly-used areas like around the lake, instead of slowing down and sharing the space.  And we haven’t mentioned cars yet! Or how to get from ‘A to B’ across city centres or from home to work. Or where to leave your bicycle safely.

“One of the things Londoners and Parisians and others have learnt is that if you slow the cars down,
you don’t need to make massive, investments in infrastructure upfront” says Paris Lord

How could Canberra get to say, 8/10?  Paris sees three essential steps:

  1. Lower speed limits in residential streets (not major thoroughfares). Paris makes the point: “One of the things Londoners and Parisians and others have learnt is that if you slow the cars down, you don’t need to make massive, slow and costly investments in infrastructure upfront – you can start with large planter boxes and other devices to calm and filter traffic, like bollards. Once you have constrained speeds that make cars dangerous to vulnerable road users and pedestrians, then you can have cycle streets where cars give way to pedestrians and riders. Narrowing of streets means cars cannot go too fast”.
  2. More well-maintained official cycle routes across the ACT. Paris points out there are currently only ten C routes: “That’s insufficient and existing ones are aimed at recreational cycling. The most dangerous part of any person’s trip is trying to get to a C route (the safe infrastructure). People need to be able to do any trip, in safety – through wider footpaths and slower streets – before the pendulum can swing to more cycling and less driving”.
  3. Safe, secure, sheltered bicycle parking… everywhere, not just at a few bus stations. Paris argues, “These need to be available in places dotted across town centres and outside major retail outlets.  This is easily done initially by converting a small number of car parking spaces at shopping centres for bikes – ten of which can fit in each car space. There are places here in Australia that have already gone down this path, notably in Sydney and Perth”.

It seems Pedal Power, particularly through its ongoing advocacy, and all of us riding our bikes to “get life done” can contribute to truly making Canberra the cycling capital of Australia in the medium term. 

Paris is doing his bit both through his active involvement in Pedal Power and by hosting his very popular Canberra by Bike tours – make sure you check out his upcoming slow rides giving you a greater appreciation of local Canberra landmarks and history from modern street art to our embassies and the impact of Marion Mahony Griffin on the design of our city.