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It’s a long road to get more of us safely cycling, but when we arrive it’ll be worth the ride

If you’re in Sydney or Melbourne, chances are you’ve been thinking more about using bicycles for transport around town recently, with the latest bike-sharing initiative literally placing itself in everyone’s path, sometimes controversially.

Another long-standing cycling controversy – whether or not helmet wearing should be mandatory – is also enjoying a resurgence. According to an ABC news report, Australia’s biggest cycling organisation, Bicycle Network, is reviewing its longstanding pro-helmet stance with a call for submissions of evidence, and an online survey currently in progress.

'Hop on'. Courtesy Flinders Twartz
‘Hop on’. Courtesy Flinders Twartz

This week there is some bad news about cycling from Victoria, where a well-designed study found that, while deaths from road traffic crashes decreased between 2007 and 2015, and rates of serious injury were stable, the incidence of serious injuries among cyclists increased about 8% per year over the same period.

The study only counted deaths and injuries among road users, so cyclists using separate bike paths or pavements were not included. It also couldn’t include a denominator, although a survey released earlier this year suggests that cycling participation has, if anything, decreased in Australia.

The two articles below are reposted from The Conversation. In the first, the Victorian study’s lead author says the findings should prompt further inquiry into the reasons for the increase in injuries. He also cautions against simplistic ‘solutions’, saying a multifaceted strategy is required to get more people cycling more safely.

The second post, from transport and cycling experts at the University of Sydney, reminds us that safe cycling really is a healthy means of transport and a public good. Their recent research and provides some principles, and some practical examples of strategies that have worked to support it.

Both posts emphasise the importance of acting now, to make cycling both more practical and more safe in future.


Dr Ben Beck writes:

More cyclists are ending up in hospital with serious injuries, so we need to act now

Cyclists are suffering more serious injuries in road crashes than ever before, leading to significant disability, our new study shows.

But what is less clear is what’s behind these injuries, which are occurring as the number of people who died in road traffic crashes has fallen.

In our study published today in the Medical Journal of Australia, we investigated deaths and serious injuries after traffic crashes in Victoria from 2007 to 2015.

Cycling in Melbourne, Savio Sebastian Flickr
Cycling in Melbourne, Savio Sebastian Flickr

We looked at whether deaths and serious injury rates for all road users changed over time. We also looked at the disability and economic costs of these injuries.

The total number of deaths from road traffic crashes fell over the study period. But rates of serious road traffic injuries did not.

There were 10,092 road traffic deaths and serious injuries over the course of our study. This led to over 77,000 disability-adjusted life years (a measure of overall disability burden, expressed as the number of years lost to disability or early death).

The estimated health costs associated with these road traffic injuries (known as “health loss” costs) was more than A$14 billion.

Most concerning was the rise in serious injury rates in cyclists, which increased 8% a year. In fact, the absolute number of cases more than doubled over the nine-year study period.

These injuries are often severe, including head injuries, spine injuries and fractures of the pelvis and limbs. They often lead to significant disability.

Over the course of our study, a rise in such serious injuries led to a 56% increase in disability-adjusted life years; health costs for cyclists were more than A$700 million.

Why are cyclists’ serious injuries rising?

However, it is not clear what’s driving these increases in serious injuries.

In a previous study, we interviewed cyclists admitted to hospital after a crash. Of the crashes that occurred on the road, 52% involved another road user, most commonly a motor vehicle.

A total of 22% of all on-road crashes also occurred while cyclists were riding in a marked bicycle lane, demonstrating they are not sufficient to completely protect cyclists. While these on-road bicycle lanes provide dedicated space for cyclists, riders remain close to motorists, and people in parked cars opening doors.

A total of 48% of on-road crashes only involved a single cyclist. While we need more research to better understand the single cyclist-only crashes, researchers have previously found the condition of road surfaces, distraction, mechanical issues and speed are possible factors.

Are more people cycling?

One of the limitations of our study was that we couldn’t adjust for the amount of time or distance cyclists travel each year. Unfortunately, we have very limited data on this in Australia.

The National Cycling Participation Survey is a telephone survey that asks how many times people cycled in the past week, month or year. The 2017 results showed the proportion of people who had cycled in the past month declined from 27% in 2011 to 22% in 2017.

While cycling participation overall may have declined, there may be an increase in the overall time spent riding, or the number of cyclists riding on the road, compared to on bicycle paths, for example.

So, what does this mean for cyclists?

So, is the message from our study, “don’t cycle”? No, not at all. The health and economic benefits of cycling are well established. A recent UK study demonstrated that cycling to work was associated with a 41% lower risk of early death compared to commuting by car or public transport.

And while cycling-related injury rates are on the rise, they made up only 11% of serious road traffic injuries.

It is clear we need greater investment in cyclist safety. We know being concerned about safety is one of the biggest barriers to people cycling.

Interactions with motor vehicles – not just collisions, but also being in the presence of and close proximity to motor vehicles – and the absence of appropriate cycling infrastructure are some of the most common barriers people mention.

Dedicated bike lanes that are separated from traffic are an effective way to reduce serious injury.

While we need to invest more in cycling-specific infrastructure (like bike lanes and bike paths) it is often not feasible to have this across an entire road network. So, we need a multi-faceted approach to improving safety for cyclists.

Reducing the speed limit in residential streets to 30km/h has been proposed as a way to improve safety for vulnerable road users, and a trial has recently been announced in inner Melbourne.

We also need to improve the culture around cyclists as legitimate road users, through changes in legislation, education and training for all road users.

Given the rising injury rates in cyclists, we need government and road safety organisations to act now to provide a safer environment for cyclists.

*Dr Ben Beck is a Research Fellow with the Prehospital, Emergency and Trauma Group within the Department of Epidemiology & Preventive Medicine, Monash University, Melbourne.

*This article was first published by The Conversation


Melanie Crane, Chris Rissel, Christopher Standen and Stephen Greaves write:

People take to their bikes when we make it safer and easier for them

The latest national cycling participation data, released in June this year, show the proportion of Australians cycling has fallen significantly since 2011. This is bad news for health and wellbeing, and for the economy as well.

Photo, Ruth Armstrong

However, our recent research shows some exceptions to this trend, in places where safe cycleways have been built.

While many of the world’s cities are investing in cycling, Australian cities are pedalling backwards. Cycling targets may appear in planning documents, but federal and state governments have clearly failed to commit adequate resources to achieving these goals.

Governments tend to see cycling as sport, recreation or a children’s activity, rather than as an essential part of a modern multi-modal transport system.

We have yet to tap cycling’s potential

It was refreshing to hear New South Wales state MP Geoff Lee lauding the opening of the Parramatta Valley Cycleway. The cycleway connects vast areas of his electorate with Parramatta CBD, Western Sydney University, Westmead Hospital, Olympic Park and many schools and rail stations.

However, as well as commending the project for giving “local residents, cycling and fitness enthusiasts more ways to enjoy and explore our beautiful local area”, Lee could perhaps have said more about its huge transport potential.

Many of the trips we make around our cities – for work, school, shopping, visiting friends, getting to a train station – are less than two kilometres. Given adequate facilities – and perhaps a more liberal approach to cycling regulation – many of these trips could be easily (and quickly) made by bicycle.

If more of us were cycling for transport, we could expect to see some reduction in heart disease, diabetes and stress levels, and an improvement in our overall wellbeing.

More of us could be liberated from sitting in perennial traffic congestion. More businesses could increase their productivity by switching to bicycle delivery, as Domino’s Pizza has done. Innovative business ventures, like recently launched app-based bike-share services (Reddy Go and oBike), might be more likely to succeed.

Build a cycleway and the riders will come

The national cycling participation data show NSW now has the smallest proportion of people cycling in Australia. However, this varies widely from area to area.

Our research shows residents of some parts of Sydney are bucking the trend and riding more often. And the key reason is investment in cycleways by councils such as the City of Sydney.

Over two years, we observed changes in travel and uptake of cycling among residents living in suburbs south of Sydney’s CBD, before and after a 2.4km cycleway was built through their neighbourhood in 2014.

We also observed residents living in similar suburbs west of the CBD, where no new cycleways were built during this time. This type of study is known as a natural experiment, which can help isolate the effects of an intervention (in this case a new cycleway) from the effects of background factors (more on these below).

We found that, while cycling decreased elsewhere, people living closest to the cycleway continued to cycle and cycled more frequently. Those living a little further away – between 1km and 3km from the cycleway – actually increased their weekly cycling, compared with those either closer to or further from it.

Data from biannual bicycle traffic counts corroborated these findings. These showed that bicycle traffic at one point on the cycleway more than doubled after it opened, while the average count across the city declined somewhat.

Even when adjusting for uneven population growth, cycling along the route clearly increased relative to areas with no investment in new facilities.

Bikes aren’t promoted as everyday transport

It’s important to note that our study coincided with major changes to Sydney’s transport environment.

A new public transport ticketing system, the Opal smartcard, was introduced in 2014, which made public transport more attractive. Major changes were made to bus routes in 2015, to allow construction of light rail along the CBD’s main thoroughfare (George Street).

At the same time, the state government demolished the College Street Cycleway, one of the busiest commuting routes in the city, to create space for more traffic.

The government announced steeply increased fines for cycling infringements, as well as plans to force people to carry ID when cycling. Police stepped up enforcement of even the most trivial of cycling offences. Despite these measures being justified on safety grounds, the cycling injury rate appears to have since increased.

This array of background factors highlights the importance of our natural experiment approach, and may explain why cycling rates fell in areas with no new infrastructure.

Although transport cycling (as opposed to sport cycling) is relatively safe, concerns about safety and fear of traffic are among the main reasons people give for not riding. A connected network of protected cycleways and quiet streets across a city allows people to get to more places by bicycle, without feeling intimidated by traffic.

This is the underlying philosophy of the City of Sydney’s cycleways strategy. It’s also the first step in enabling the average Australian to use a bike for everyday transport.

At a time when government spending on transport and health care is ballooning, our research shows a relatively small investment in cycling infrastructure could give many more people the option to make short trips by bicycle.

But it would help if legislators considered proven measures for protecting people who are considering cycling for transport. It appears punitive fines and heavy-handed policing simply drive them straight back onto crowded roads and trains – while doing little or nothing to improve safety.

*Melanie Crane is an evaluation specialist Research Fellow for the Australian Prevention Partnership, University of Sydney. Chris Rissel is a Professor of Public Health, University of Sydney. Christopher Standen is a PhD Candidate in Transport Economics, University of Sydney. Stephen Greaves is a Professor in Transport Management, University of Sydney

*This article was first published by The Conversation

 

 

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