Friday, 26 December 2014

The Density Myth

Sometimes people say Perth can never be as good as cities in The Netherlands for bicycle riding.

"We don't have the population density".
"The Dutch can have better bicycle infrastructure because their cities are so compact, everything in Perth is so far apart".

If you compare the population density for all of Australia with all of The Netherlands it seems to support the idea. We have less than three people per square kilometre and they have around 490. That simplistic approach doesn't give a true representation of how most Australians live. There's a few of us looking after that big bit in the middle, the part with kangaroos and stuff, but the majority of Australians live in cities near the coast. We tend to group together like most humans.

The middle

Perth does have a problem with sprawl. The city's population is getting close to two million. The metropolitan area is spreading north and south along the coast, and it is currently about 140 kilometres from one end to the other. Overall, it has a population density of about 310 people per square kilometre. However it is not all the same, the middle and outer suburbs have a low population density but there is an inner core that has a population density eight times greater.

These older areas grew around train and tram lines in the first half of last century. They were built before everything became designed around the car, at a time when riding a bicycle was normal and deliveries were often done with a horse and cart. These inner urban areas have similar densities to the best bicycle cities in The Netherlands.

Looking at the data for the local council areas of Subiaco, Vincent, Victoria Park, South Perth, the inner part of Cambridge and the Perth central business district we have an area about the same size as Groningen, with the same population density. This inner core of Perth has a density of 2391 per square kilometre and Groningen has 2362 per square kilometre.

If density is what we need, we already have it in Perth's inner areas. Lack of density should not be used as an excuse for why we can't have a lot more people riding bicycles.

Perth's inner area compared with Groningen

Just in case you haven't heard of Groningen, it won the Dutch Fietserbond (Cyclist's Union) award for best cycling city in The Netherlands in 2002 and has continued to be acknowledged as one of the world's best. In Groningen, around 50% of all trips are made by bicycle. Here's a Streetfilms video from last year and a few of my own photographs taken earlier this year while being guided by David Hembrow.

Groningen, The Netherlands
Groningen city centre
McDonalds and KFC Restaurants, Groningen, The Netherlands

Groningen is not full of high rise apartments; the buildings and the width of the streets are not unlike the older parts of Perth. They even have a KFC and McDonald's drive-through. It is not surprising to find the population density is the same as Perth's older areas. The major difference is people on bicycles do not have to share roads with motor vehicles travelling at 50 km/h. The Dutch have invested in infrastructure that allows people to feel safe while travelling on a bicycle.

There's another city in The Netherlands that matches Perth's inner-area density: the city of Eindhoven has 2491 people per square kilometre. That's the place with this thing: the Hovenring. It's impressive bicycle infrastructure and there's not a lot of 'density' showing in the photo: this could be Perth.

Photo by Chris Keulen/National Geographic
Perth's inner area compared with Eindhoven

Does density really matter? It's important for a walkable city but less important for a bike-able city. It's the difference between moving at 5 km/h and 15 km/h or more. There are already huge sections of Perth that have sufficient density to support an economically viable bicycle transport network. It just requires the right policies and the guts to make it happen.

Eindhoven was a finalist in this year's "best cycling city in The Netherlands" award but was beaten by the city of Zwolle which has half the population density.

Zwolle has a population of 123,507 and a density of 1109 people per square kilometre. This is similar to the City of Gosnells, one of the local municipalities to the east of Perth. Except when you try to ride a bicycle.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Mosman Park intersection downgrade

An article in the Post newspaper this week has caught my attention. The Town of Mosman Park, one of Perth's smaller local government areas, has decided they need to change the intersection at Glyde Street and Stirling Highway. They want to modify the lanes to allow two rows of vehicles to turn right at the same time. The idea is to reduce the waiting time of motorists queuing. It seems the deputy mayor thinks this is the town's most important community project. 

It is not clearly stated in the article but the main benefit will be easing congestion for traffic traveling to the highway after accessing the schools at the eastern end of Glyde Street. The peak times are "at 8am and 3pm". They want to make it easier for parents to drive their children to school.

These sorts of modifications are surprisingly costly. The total for the works is expected to be $315,000. Glyde Street is a local government road and Stirling Highway is a WA State Government road. Logically, the people at the Town of Mosman Park are expecting the costs to be split between the two. To find the money, the Town of Mosman Park is considering delaying spending on local community works including a children's playground.

In total the Town of Mosman Park is proposing to spend $228,000 on this project. If I was a resident of the town, I would prefer my money was spent on transport solutions to have less motor vehicles through my neighbourhood, not encouraging them.

Some potential alternative projects can be found in the Town of Mosman Park's Cycling & Pedestrian Plan 2012-2032 done two years ago. (The document is still in "draft" form. It is clearly not their most important community project.)

Here are a few of these projects that could be done sooner:

Proposed for 2015/16
$210,000 for 1.7 km shared-path which would be a "Principal north-south link though LGA (local government area), serving a number of schools". Possibly only $105,000 with state government assistance funds.

Proposed for 2024/25
$50,000 to build 185 metres of shared-path, 2.5 metres wide, beside Stirling Highway. This would connect missing path sections in the Wallace Lane area.

Proposed for 2030/31
$230,000 to provide 1.7 km of on-road bicycle lanes 1.5 metres wide on Wellington Street. The town's plan states this would provide "key east-west linkage though the southern half of the LGA".

Proposed for 2030/31
$70,000 to provide on-road bicycle lanes 1.5 metres wide on Glyde Street between Stirling Highway and Palmerston Street. The plan states the lanes are required because this is a "key commuter route to Mosman Park town centre and Mosman Park train station". 

I find this last one particularly interesting. For the same section of road, the Town of Mosman Park would spend $228,000 now to reduce waiting times for motorists yet the $70,000 bicycle lanes can wait until 2030. 

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Australian School Run

I've made a new film. There’s no music or voice-over. Nothing much happens, it’s just 50 minutes of morning traffic in a suburb of Perth. A comparison between traffic on a normal Friday and five weeks later on a Friday during the school holidays. 

You won’t be seeing this one on the film festival circuit.

The recording time has been compressed to three and a half minutes, and I’ve added a counter showing the number of motor vehicles. Even with that exciting addition I expect most people will skim to the end.

In Australia it has become normal to drive children to school. There are various figures: some say 51% are taken by car, others say 75%. In this film it appears to be even more.

Most parents consider it's not safe enough for children to walk or ride bikes to school because there are so many parents driving their children to school. It has taken Australia only one generation to get into this crazy spiral.

Next time somebody complains about road congestion and suggests spending our money on a new freeway, bypass or extra slip lanes at intersections, we can remind them that designing our roads to  enable our children to travel to school by themselves will be cheaper and better for all of us. We will have money for separated bicycle tracks if we stop wasting money fixing the wrong problem.

This is Jeans Road in Karrinyup. There are three schools nearby: St Mary's Anglican School for girls (Kindergarden to Year 12), Deanmore Primary School and Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Primary School. St Mary's has over 1350 students, they can arrive at school from 8:00am however the preference is for students to arrive between 8:30 and 8:55am.

Mornings in Australia could look like this

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Perth's protected bicycle track built in 1986

The Perth suburb of Kensington has a protected cycle track that has been in place for 28 years. It connects Kensington Primary School to an underpass below Canning Highway. This is not a footpath converted to a "shared path" by painting a few symbols on the ground, it's the real thing. Pedestrians, bicycle riders and motorists each have their own space. Three modes separated.

Banksia Terrace Kensington

Banksia Terrace Kensington

Back in 1986 someone at the City of South Perth council must have had some inspiration. This 400 metre long section of Banksia Terrace had the carriageway narrowed and a bicycle track was installed along the north side. It was done by simply removing the option of on-street car parking on one side and building a buffer zone with concrete kerbs and garden beds.

Being bi-directional and 3.1 metres wide it is not quite world's-best-practice by today's standards but it is so much better than the unprotected painted lanes that are commonly installed around Perth.

Kensington Primary School on left

I was living in a rented house in the street at the time it was installed. I do not remember any details about community consultation or engagement. I think the council just-did-it, without fuss. If anybody was involved and knows some of the background, I would be interested to know how it happened. 

After it was done, there did not seem to be any complaints or "bike lash". There was just some confusion about parking for a few months. People parked their cars on the bicycle track because they did not understand what is was, this type of infrastructure would have been a first in Perth.

In those early days the bicycle track was the same colour, the red bitumen used now helps to define the space and there currently does not appear to be any parking problem.

There is "No Parking" allowed in driveways nearby but the bicycle track is controlled with the more restrictive "No Standing" zone which means no stopping at any time.

"No Parking" sign

"No Standing" sign

It is becoming common practice for Western Australia's local governments to convert standard footpaths to "shared paths", it is cheap and easy but not very safe. Driveways are often hidden behind high walls and vegetation, as shown in this photograph below. Having a protected bicycle track further away from the property line allows time for both the motorist and bicycle rider to see each other and avoid a collision.

Banksia Terrace Kensington

Unfortunately the path ends at the underpass and once you come out on the western side people on bicycles are delivered back onto a normal street with pinch points. 

Canning Highway underpass

Western side of underpass
Banksia Terrace, western side of Canning Highway

And unfortunately, the path also ends in 1986. Imagine what Kensington and South Perth would be like now if this type of infrastructure continued. If they just did 400 metres each year, there would be more than 11 kilometres of protected bicycle tracks. Why did the City of South Perth stop?

1986 protected bicycle track

2014 ?

Friday, 13 June 2014

Australia, start counting to three

The bicycle can be used for sport, or transport. During the past 40 years Australia’s concept of the bicycle has shifted so much the majority of people now just consider it a piece of sporting equipment. We like to think of ourselves as a sporting nation, and we know you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to participate in sport. Therefore, millions of us own bikes.

Photo: Elfa storage system

The amount of time we actually use them can vary dramatically. Some enthusiastic people will get out on their bikes a few times a week and clock-up hundreds of kilometres riding around the streets in the early morning. At the other end of the scale, it is typical for families with young children to own bikes and ride them around their local park occasionally. Perhaps for an hour or two, every couple of weeks, but only when the weather is suitable. It’s good exercise and good ‘family time’. Sometimes they won’t bother with the bikes and just kick a ball around instead.

It can be a hassle dealing with bikes, especially if you don’t have a good park nearby. Loading bikes into the car and driving to a park can feel like a mission.

We carry bikes in cars because most of us don’t feel safe riding on busy roads. This is also the reason the majority of us stop riding bikes as we get older, and once the kids have grown up.

Australians who are older than forty will probably remember riding a bike to school - it’s what we did back then. But now, a lot of us drive our kids to school. Things have changed.

What happened?

Lot’s of things are different. We don’t accept death on the roads as much as we did in the 1970s. The road toll back then was huge. It’s much better now. We have all become very safety conscious. And there are more cars now. Lots more. And traffic is bad.

That’s interesting: it’s safer to drive now, but the roads are busier.  Since the 1970s in Australia, it has become safer in a car but not on a bike.

There are multiple issues involved, but one of the key factors during the past forty years of safety and transport efficiency advancements, has been that Australia has continued to build a road network that facilitates movement of people in motor vehicles and on foot, but not on a bicycle.

Basically, the Australian road space has two parts: a carriageway for motor traffic, and a path on the side for pedestrians. People on bicycles are expected to either share with motor traffic or share with pedestrians. The conflict problems are obvious.

City of Adelaide, South Australia
Floreat, Western Australia
Osborne Park, Western Australia

Mixing people on foot and on bicycles is not ideal but can function OK if the area is not crowded and speeds are slow. However, it is bizarre that during a period of significant safety advancement in Australia, people sitting on a skeletal combination of steel and rubber are expected to share the part where there are moving motor vehicles. A bicycle is not a protective shield, it‘s just somewhere to sit.

While Australia (and the UK and North America) continued with this problematic two-mode network, the Netherlands adopted a three-mode network. It’s simple really. Instead of leaving bikes behind, they took them on the same safety journey.

Groningen, The Netherlands 
Assen, The Netherlands
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

This has enabled the Netherlands to maintain bicycles as a common transport device. The social consequences of adopting this three-mode principal has been dramatic.


Dutch children are able to have independent mobility. In the early years they are accompanied by their parents to school as they develop their riding skills, then by the time they are eight or nine, they are able to travel by themselves.

School traffic - Assen, The Netherlands
School traffic - Assen, The Netherlands
School traffic - Assen, The Netherlands
Teenage girl travelling to sport after school, Groningen, The Netherlands

Meanwhile in Australia, the majority of our children have restricted mobility. They must wait to be taken places by car. Being a parent in Australia also means being a taxi driver.

Most people living in Perth are aware how much easier it is to drive during school holidays. In 1970, 16% of Australian children were taken to school by car, now it's about 63%. The figures vary between each state but the trend is clear (Heart Foundation report 5.6 MB PDF).

Stirling Highway, Claremont Western Australia - 8:10 am during school term


The three-mode system also allows older people to have independent mobility without the stress of driving. Wide bicycle paths that form a connected network, separated from motor vehicles, allow the Dutch seniors to get out and about. They are not sitting at home waiting for a weekly visit from their adult children. They can do their own shopping and are able to have a more active social life than Australians.

Electric assist bicycle, The Netherlands 
Supermarket parking area, Assen, The Netherlands


The other group of people who are able to use this third network are those with disabilities. Smooth, continuous paths designed for bicycles are also ideal for wheel chairs and other motorised mobility aids.

Assen, The Netherlands
Amsterdam-Noord, The Netherlands
Couple holding hands, Groningen, The Netherlands

At the Velo-City Global 2014 conference in Adelaide, it was heartening to hear Manfred Neun, the President of the European Cyclist Federation, declare the organisation will be pursuing access to bicycle riding and infrastructure on an international level and this would include the United Nations. He stressed: "Active mobility is a basic human need, and must be a human right".


The photographs above feature the Netherlands because I took them during a recent study tour. Of course, other European countries also adopted the three-mode principle. Denmark is a prominent example, in particular the city of Copenhagan. Now other enlightened cities around the world are progressively installing separated infrastructure because they acknowledge the importance of providing an option of bicycle riding for all people. As Steven Fleming wrote after the conference:
"Velo-City has shown there is no further need to argue the case for separated bike infrastructure. There is a global consensus, held now as well by all major players on the Australian bike scene. Separation is key to making cycling mainstream. It has been proven in car crazy cities from New York to Saville."
This report from the USA Protected Bike Lanes Means Business provides some useful facts and figures for any sceptics you might encounter (2.5 MB PDF).

The current policies in Australia are not working. The National Cycling Strategy 2011-2016 had the objective to double the participation of people bicycling riding during those five years. The interim statistics for 2013 actually show a drop in participation after two years!

This change needs to start at the top. The Austroads standards need to be rewritten, again. Reading Cycling Aspects of Austroads Guides (2014) is depressing. The majority of the specifications, which deal mostly with on-road bike lanes, only suit the 5% of people who are already riding. The other 56% of the population who have bikes in the shed will not use their bikes for transport unless there is a dramatic change to the urban environment. At best, they will ride a few times a year, on a sunny Sunday in a park somewhere. 

The majority of people will simply not ride a bike next to motor vehicles travelling at 50 or 60 km/h. I frequently see examples of Australian 'best practise' bicycle facilities go unused. It is a waste of money and resources.


This on-road bicycle lane next to Shenton College does not get used. The students riding bikes prefer the safer option of being on the footpath even though they're at risk of being 'doored' by the other children arriving by car.  Shenton College has 1200 students and only around 5% travel by bike.

School traffic, Shenton College, Western Australia

This on-road bicycle lane on the new section of Great Eastern Highway was made with a width of 1.8m, has top quality green paint at intersections and detailed road markings but it is rare to see anyone using it.

Great Eastern Highway, Redcliffe, Western Australia

It is more common to see people using the footpath. The speed limit on this section of the highway is 60 km/h. These types of lanes are not used by all of the existing 5% of riders, so there is little hope the other 95% of people will use them.

Great Eastern Highway, Redcliffe, Western Australia

This road in Midland was completely redone a few years ago as part of the railway Workshops redevelopment. It has generous proportions, expensive landscaping and an on-road bike lane that most parents would not allow their children to use.

Centennial Place, Midland, Western Australia


What is worse than the basic Austroads standards is when those standards are not even applied. There are multiple examples of roads being realigned and neighbourhood streets being upgraded without any provision for riding bicycles.

This issue is not about Australia having enough space or money. It's about changing our thinking from two modes to three. Adelaide's North Terrace is an example of a street with plenty of space, a beautiful expensive footpath, yet no safe or legal provision for people on bicycles. 

North Terrace, Adelaide, South Australia

Newcastle Street in Western Australia had a full makeover a few years ago. Fancy paving, new kerbs and landscaping that included trees planted down the centre of the road. This central island in the road provides a refuge for pedestrians but has narrowed the carriageway so there is no room to pass a person on a bicycle. The speed limit here is 50 km/h.

Newcastle Street, Northbridge, Western Australia


The towns that I visited in the Netherlands were not all beautiful. The amount of money spent on materials and landscaping in the streets did not appear to be any more than what we spend in Australia. Perhaps even less, some of the streets are quite shabby by Perth standards but they function in a way that is fairer for all people.

Bicycle path traffic light crossing, Assen, The Netherlands

The money for roads in Australia is already available, the issue is how we spend it. 

Once we stop thinking about the bicycle as just a piece sporting equipment and remember our history of using it for transport, we can stop having the pointless debates about a minority group called "cyclists" and get on with providing transport options for the majority of people.

In Western Australia, only 1.3% of people ride a bike to work or school, yet there is at least one working bike in 61% of households. Obviously most people, even when they own a bike, do not want to travel to work, school or the shops wearing Lycra and a helmet, in single-file next to fast moving motor vehicles. That's the main option available right now.

Australia, it's time to stop taking baby steps with infrastructure and treat the bicycle with the respect it deserves, as an efficient transport option for all people. Our aim should be to provide protected or separated bicycle lanes where ever possible.

I want our children to be able to ride home from school, relaxed, chatting with a friend, on a path that is wide, safe and separated from motor vehicles.

Groningen, The Netherlands