An inexpensive path to more sustainable cities: bikes, cycleways and relaxed helmet rules

This week the West Australian is running quite an impressive series on encouraging more cycling in WA. Today they ran an opinion piece I wrote on why bikes are an inexpensive path to more sustainable cities. I have pasted the full text below

An inexpensive path to more sustainable cities: bikes, cycleways and relaxed helmet rules

Perth is undergoing unprecedented population growth. Around a 1000 people are moving into WA each week putting increasing pressure on our already straining transport network. So, what are our options to keep us moving efficiently around our rapidly growing city and deal with traffic congestion that is expected to the Australia’s capital cities over $20 billion annually by 2020?

Perth could of course take the Los Angeles approach and keep building more and bigger highways and freeways but these are extraordinarily expensive. The recently announced Gateway WA airport roads package alone is expected to cost more than $1 billion. History also shows that that building more roads simply attracts more cars to fill them – holding off congestion only momentarily.

Perth instead needs to be making alternatives to the private car the focus – to both limit congestion and tackle sustainability concerns.

Without a doubt, WA will need a major investment in public transport especially extending train lines and rolling out light rail. But rail is also expensive. For example, light rail costs between $20 and $50 million per kilometre and as a result is likely take many decades to be rolled out to a wide range of suburbs.

Looking to more affordable options, cycling is perhaps the cost-effective response to traffic congestion. Cycling rates in WA are some of the lowest in the world with the number of people commuting by bicycle falling from 1.8% in 2000 to 1.2% in 2009. By contrast in many western European countries have 10-30% commuting on bikes. In Copenhagen the bicycle, with a modal share of 36%, is the most used form of transport for trips to work.

A great thing about cycling is not only is it a healthy and sustainable form of transport but it is also supported by cost effective infrastructure. Dedicated cycle ways and on-road bike lanes (which are essential to make cycling safer and more appealing to a wider range of riders) are a fraction of the cost of road and rail per kilometre. Furthermore, bike lanes return the equivalent of roughly $4 on every dollar spent compared with just $2 for motorway projects.

But perhaps the most effective way of getting more people on bikes is to relax the mandatory requirements for adults to wear helmets on cycle paths and low-speed roads.Manfred Neun, the president of the European Cyclists Federation, believes the number of cyclists in WA would treble if helmets were not compulsory.

While this leads to the obvious safety question, the evidence across many countries is that an increase the number of cyclists actually makes cycling safer. As the number of cyclists doubles, the risk per kilometre falls by 34%.

Cycling has up to now been the neglected tool in the chest of solutions for Perth’s transport problems. Far greater investment in bike lanes and liberalising our helmets laws could see us become the Copenhagen of the South yet. On your bikes.

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About Mayor of Fremantle Brad Pettitt's blog
City of Fremantle Mayor

6 Responses to An inexpensive path to more sustainable cities: bikes, cycleways and relaxed helmet rules

  1. Awesome piece Brad! Well done!

  2. Great to see you engaging more widely on the topic of cycling Brad but I would suggest better infrastructure goes a lot further to encouraging cycling than would relaxing helmet laws. The recent opening of the extension to the Bassendean PSP is one example where DoT is claiming a 61% increase in usage over last year. Something to consider for Fremantle 🙂

  3. Heath Adams says:

    Hi Brad,

    I’m currently building a cargo bike (as part of my transition to selling my car and becoming 100% bike oriented) but don’t really have anywhere on my property to keep it – I don’t have any off-street parking. Lugging it up the stairs to my house everyday isn’t really possible even if I had a spot for it.

    What I’d really like to do is have a small shelter on my verge where I could lock it each night – quite a radical idea I suppose that council verge regulations probably don’t cover.

    My hope is to share/allow access to this bike with others on the street, thereby providing community support for transitioning away from cars. I’m envisaging something that blends with the native tree streetscape we’ve been working on in Wray Avenue; runs perpendicular to, yet remains off, the path; and doesn’t interfere with cars etc.

    Given that the Council is actively supporting more cycling, a shift away from car-transport and want better bike infrastructure, is there any way you can see that I could work with the staff there to have this happen? Can you recommend someone to talk to?


  4. Maryse says:

    I am all for actively supporting cycling promotion for health benefit and enhancements of our roads for safer cycling.

    However, pretending that people will cycle more if helmet rules were relaxed is the most stupid thing I have ever heard/read.

    I suspect that If people don’t cycle it’s because:
    1) nobody cares about them on the road – with or without helmet, most car drivers push them on the side and ignore them approaching a roundabout.
    2) of distances & heat : in Perth, to go anywhere with your bike (unless you limit yourself within Fremantle), you need a lot of time. It takes me more than 1 hour to go from Fremantle to Perth to work and when I get there I need a shower.
    3) some people cannot be bothered, they cannot even go to the corner of the street to do their shopping without their cars.

    It is a cultural/behavioural/time/safety issue not a helmet issue. No sane person would put their kids on our roads next to a car and this is not because of the helmet. A helmet might not be perfect in all cases of accidents, yet, it still offers an extra layer of protection when you knock your head. No studies, as far as I know, has shown statistically how many life/head injuries have been saved by wearing a helmet. This is for the obvious reason, that if you have an accident/fall off your bike and hit the ground with a helmet and stand back up without injuries, you will never report it and you won’t be part of the statistics. If the helmet is not good enough, what about putting funding into research to design a better one? If the helmet is too expensive, what about offering one free/at reduced price to low income families? It is still less expensive than the hospital.

    So let’s not get ahead of ourselves, let’s encourage cycling by offering the best infrastructure for it, making it safer for everybody. I cycle mainly along the river cycle path to go to/from work. I see a lot of behaviours on the road and on the cycle path (speed riding) that keep me determined to have my helmet on as well as all the lights possible to be seen by all at all times.

    So, may I suggest Dr Pettit, you do the same for a couple of weeks and let me know after, if you really think our society is ready to relax the helmet rule. And if you still are keen to go ahead with this relaxation of the law, I invite you to take reponsibility for it by talking to any single family who will have to deal with head injuries/death due to a bicycle accident without helmet after the law has been changed so you can explain to them why you changed the law…

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