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Decline in bike riding seen midway through period when aim was to double participation

A survey in Australia has discovered that there has been a “small but statistically significant” decrease in levels of cycling in the country during the past two years.  Some 37.4% of Australians rode a bike during the past year, compared to 39.6% in 2011.

The Australian Cycling Participation 2013 report, which can be downloaded for free here (registration required) comes in the middle of a five-year period when the country’s National Cycling Strategy 2011-2016 aimed to double participation in cycling.

The decline was particularly marked decline among children aged 2 to 9. Some 44.4 per cent of 2 to 9-year-olds rode a bicycle in the week prior to being surveyed, down from 49.1 per cent in 2011.

While that remains the age group with the highest levels of bicycle usage among the overall population, such a big decline among a group that represents the adult cyclists of tomorrow does not bode well for the future.

Regular cycling is also in decline. The percentage of people of all ages riding weekly has fallen from 17.8 per cent in 2011 to 16.6 per cent in 2013.

The survey, conducted every two years, is commissioned by the Australian Bicycle Council and published by Austroads, the association of Australian and New Zealand road transport and traffic authorities to help monitor progress towards the achieving the goals set out in the National Cycling Strategy 2011-2016.

Members of some 10,052 households comprising a total of 25,471 individuals were interviewed by telephone during March and April this year, a period when Australia passes from late summer into autumn.

Cycling participation levels were found to be highest in the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. In each of those states, around one in four of the population ride a bike weekly, and a nearly half get in the saddle at least once a year.

South Australia, where the state tourist agency heavily promotes the country’s highest profile race, the Santos Tour Down Under, showed the lowest levels of participation, with around one in three residents cycling once a year or more.  

However, Christian Haag, Bicycle South Australia’s CEO, raised doubts over the accuracy of some of the survey’s findings, telling Guardian Australia: “We’d certainly query the results given the day-to-day indicators we see in South Australia. Bike counts are seeing a rise while event participation is plateauing.

“The decrease in children cycling is mirrored by falling sales in kids’ bikes, which does set alarm bells ringing. We need to be working much harder on education programs, which help children with bicycles but also help them become better drivers later in life. We also need other things to fall in place, such as 40km speed limits.

“Overall, I’d say the message is to invest more money in cycling infrastructure and do so smartly. But cycling is now an established norm in society. It has moved well beyond being a fad.”

While Australia’s nationwide compulsory helmet laws are often singled out as being a deterrent to cycling, Bicycle Network Victoria spokesman Garry Brennan told the Guardian that it was the perception of danger on the roads that discouraged people from getting on a bike.

Noting that while cycling was experiencing a boom in inner city areas in contrast with what was happening in the suburbs and countryside, he said: "With the rapid population growth in the state, we have to convert new riders faster than population is growing,” he said.

"Research shows that most people would love to ride more, particularly to improve their health. But there are not enough safe facilities and they are scared to ride in traffic. Governments that are prepared to invest in cycling will find a very grateful community."

Olympic champion Anna Meares urged for a change in attitudes towards cycling, including mutual respect between road users, to help arrest the decline, telling News.com.au: "It's like we need a change of culture, if you go to Europe the attitude towards cycling is 180 degrees different."

"Cycling can have a really powerful social impact on your confidence and self-esteem, if you can just get over the first hurdle and I've got to encourage more women to get involved by not being body conscious.

"A lot of people typecast cyclists but there is so much more to it, there's the commuter and recreational cyclist, not everyone needs to be put in the mould of a professional.

"It's just a matter of jumping on a bike and riding to even the corner store instead of taking the car.

"Then there are more in-depth issues like sharing the road and everyone being respectful."

According to Austroads, key findings of the report include:

• 16.6% of the Australian population had ridden in the previous week and 37.4% had ridden at least once in the previous year.

• 9.5% of the Australian adult population, aged 18 and over, had ridden in the previous week and 28.0% had ridden at least once in the previous year.

• Young children have the highest levels of cycling participation: 44.4% of 2 to 9 year old children had ridden in the previous week, decreasing to 32.2% of 10 to 17 year olds.

• 5.1% of Australian residents had ridden for transport purposes over the previous week compared with 14.1% for recreation or exercise.

• Males are more likely to participate in cycling than females: 20.9% of males and 12.4% of females had ridden in the previous week.

• Among those who had ridden in the past week the average number of days having ridden was 2.9 days.

• The average Australian household has 1.47 bicycles in working order and 55.2% of households have at least one bicycle in working order.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.