Many cities around the world want to encourage active transport use and are taking action by building more bike and pedestrian lanes or creating mixed use or low speed vehicle areas.
While this is a welcome move, active transport infrastructure is sometimes poorly planned or treated as a box-ticking exercise. This can lead to a delivery approach that results in a sub-optimal solution, with infrastructure that is not as safe or connected as it could be. Bike lanes for instance fizzle out at certain points only to merge with busy roads or footpaths, or line-marking might separate them from vehicles rather than proper barriers.
Part of the problem is that active transport provision is often viewed negatively - as taking something away from people to accommodate it. But some of the common objections don’t hold up to closer examination.
Dispelling the myths and misconceptions
1. Active transport infrastructure harms retail businesses
One of the main arguments against active transport is that increasing infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians will result in fewer car parking spaces, and losses for retail businesses.
But research shows just the opposite – when people can cycle or walk to retail centres, they tend to spend more time and money while they are there.
Transport for London (TfL) conducted a major study on the economics of walking and cycling in commercial areas, which found that:
- It increases retail sales by up to 30%.
- Retail vacancies reduce by around 17%.
- Cyclists and pedestrians make more trips to retail centres than people in cars.
- 83% of businesses surveyed said it attracts more customers.
- Cycle parking spaces require less room than cars, allowing for greater numbers of visitors.
"High streets that are nice places to walk, cycle, and spend time in attract more shops, making the high street more economically viable and vibrant," the study says.
London is not the only city where this is the case – TfL points to studies in other countries that show similar outcomes. These include San Francisco, New York, Bern, Los Angeles and Copenhagen.
Similar results came also from a study of a very busy section of road in Melbourne’s inner north. This research showed that each square metre of public space allocated to bike parking generated substantially higher income than for motor vehicle parking.
2. Active transport lanes will slow people down
The argument here is that sharing more space with pedestrians and cyclists will make trips longer and could cause motorists to arrive late at their destination.
This claim doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Several studies around the world show that slower traffic speeds only make a significant difference over long distances. In built-up areas with all the stopping and starting and avoiding of hazards, the differences are insignificant.
At Beca, we did a study on reducing speed limits to 40km/hr in Sydney, aiming to facilitate improved conditions and better safety for active transport users. When looking at 85% percentile speeds, we found that most vehicles were travelling below 40km/hr posted speed limits to start with. Analysis of travel times on six transport routes, a combination of local and state roads, showed that reducing the speed limit increased travel times by 7.3 seconds on average during peak times and 18 seconds during off-peak – hardly substantial.
A similar effect was shown in a Melbourne study which found that adding cycle lanes increased travel time for motorists by very little – seven per cent at the very most.
3. Active transport infrastructure causes more accidents
There is a perception that adding bike lanes and encouraging more people to ride, can create more conflict between cyclists and cars, and result in increased accidents.
Research doesn’t bear this out. A longitudinal study published in the Journal of Transport & Health found that higher rates of cycling makes roads safer for everyone using them.
The study looked at 12 large US cities over 13 years and found significant reductions in road fatalities of up to 75%. The presence of segregated bike lanes also appeared to have a ‘calming’ effect on motor vehicle traffic.
4. Active transport lanes reduce individual choice
If you remove parking spaces for the sake of active transport, a key argument is you are impinging on people’s choice to drive.
On an individual basis, this may be the case. But taken at a broader level, it actually increases choice. Adding active transport to the mix of options can unlock journey opportunities for more people, particularly those on low incomes or in areas not well served by public transport. This can help increase the economic and social vitality of an area – potentially leading to better financial viability for businesses and more amenity for everyone.
A healthy community is a vibrant and inclusive community – one that enables access for all to community resources. This includes the full mix of transport mode options for people to choose from.
Providing active transport options also benefits the wider community in terms of reduced traffic congestion and pollution.
5. Active transport suits cities but not regional areas
Another unhelpful perception is that active transport is only suitable or relevant for cities, not regional or rural areas. There is often a distinct lack of thought given to walking and cycling in regional towns - from a lack of dedicated cycle lanes to inadequate pedestrian footpaths.
This leads to a two-tier system where rural and regional areas are left behind in planning and funding for new active travel infrastructure, even though this doesn’t need to be the case.
Welcome changes are being planned, and there is opportunity for active transport infrastructure to be delivered alongside regional road safety projects.
This was highlighted in the 2023-24 Federal Budget, with $976.7 million earmarked for the Road Safety Program for rural and regional roads. As well as improving general road safety, the program aims to help protect cyclists and pedestrians in urban areas - certainly a positive step in the right direction.
However, this approach does not come with any guarantee of active travel infrastructure beyond basic safety measures. We are missing an opportunity if we do not plan for the dual benefit of calming traffic while also providing more active transport.
A good example of a regional town which is taking the initiative and focusing on active transport is Tamworth in NSW, which has developed a comprehensive active transport strategy. Tamworth’s strategy sets ambitious targets of 10% walking and cycling for commuting trips, while recognising barriers to achieving this and seeking to overcome them through well-defined actions.
6. Australian cities aren’t like those in Europe
Australia’s cities tend to be car-centric, and one could argue that increased cycling in
somewhere like Sydney isn’t feasible – the city is hardly Amsterdam or Copenhagen after all! But cities with high numbers of cyclists and pedestrians now were not always that way.
Amsterdam for example used to be very car-dominant. At one stage, cyclists were under threat of being excluded from the city to make more room for cars. What changed this was a willingness to listen to the public and to invest in serious and safe cycling infrastructure, such as properly interconnected bike lanes.
Similarly, Copenhagen was fast becoming dominated by cars but now aims to achieve a 50% cycle rate for work and education trips by 2025.
Paris is another example. The city has been adding hundreds of kilometres of cycle and muti-use lanes in recent years.
And then there’s London. While this city may not have been quite as car-dominant as those in America or Australia, its Cycle Superhighways show a willingness to highly value more active modes of transport.
There is so much to gain from improving active transport infrastructure and little to lose. If other once car-centric cities around the world can do it, why not Australia also?
This article originally appeared in Roads and Infrastructure Australia.