Getting around on a bike

Cycling is booming in Australia — not just for recreation but for transport.
 
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  • Updated:29 Feb 2008
 

01 .A growing trend

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Cycling is booming in Australia — not just for recreation but for transport. Big efforts by cycling advocates and an increasing number of new riders mean that getting from A to B by bike is becoming safer, more convenient — and more fun!

Riding a bike can help your health, save you money and reduce your greenhouse gas emissions. You don’t need heaps of fancy gear, just a helmet, a bike that’s serviced regularly, a good lock, bright clothes and lights if you plan to ride after dark.

There’s still a way to go, but exciting new facilities around Australia are making cycling for transport easier. In this report we tell you where to go for helpful maps, online route finders and local groups to give you encouragement and advice.

Please note: this information was current as of February 2008 but is still a useful guide today.


A transport trend

Car-owners devote a lot of time to their cars: about 18 percent of their life can be spent working to pay for the car, its petrol, tolls, plus driving it, parking it and sitting in traffic. About half of car trips in Australian cities are under 5km — a distance easily covered on a bicycle. Build exercise into your transport method, and you’ve multi-tasked beautifully. You’ve saved time, saved money on fuel and gym fees and cut your greenhouse gas emissions.

People across Australia are realising these benefits, with the number of bicycles on major commuter routes across Australia rising quite dramatically in recent years, particularly in inner city areas where congestion can mean cycling is faster than car travel.

We’re definitely a long way from 'mainly bike', with only 1% of all ride-to-work trips taken by bicycle. But some councils are already anticipating that a switch to cycling will deliver reduced road costs, reduced overcrowding on public transport, lower greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions, reduced cycling accidents — not to mention healthier citizens.

Still finding excuses not to think outside the car? In this article CHOICE explores some of the exciting new facilities and support that are changing the face of cycling.

Did you know that some Aussies can get roadside assistance for their bikes, (for example through Victoria’s RACV)?. We also take stock with an essentials checklist for the person who cycles for transport — and a bike contacts list will help you find the best bike route.

Number crunch

  • 1.47 million Number of bikes bought in 2007, outselling cars for the eighth year in a row.
  • 1.3 tonnes a year Amount of greenhouse gases saved by a person converting their 10 km commute from car to bike.
  • 22% Growth in commuter bike trips in Australia between 2001 and 2006 — including a whopping 42% in Melbourne!
  • 10%-30% Increase in number of bikes on major commuter routes across Australia in 2007.
  • 8% Proportion of peak-time (7am-10am) vehicles in Melbourne in 2007 that were bikes — compared to 4% in 2006.
  • 90,000 Estimated total number of riders who participated in the 2007 National Ride to Work Day — formal registrations up 186% on the
  • previous year.
  • 2 to 3 times The reduction in exposure to air pollution on a bike, compared to being in a car on the same road.
  • 38 fatalities From road cycling per year in Australia since 2000. This contrasts with 52 per year in 1990s, when road cycling was less popular.
 
 

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If you've ever been riding along in a bike lane only to have it suddenly disappear with a 'lane ends' sign, you’re not alone. Cycling experts emphasise the need to reconfigure the road space so it’s more bike friendly, and say that solutions need to be customised to suit the location.Bikes in lock-up cage

A real challenge for the next wave of investment is linking up existing infrastructure, while informing people about what’s actually there through signs and maps. Many local councils and State governments encourage bicycle infrastructure through local bicycle plans.

Some authorities are joining the dots between cycleways and public transport options to extend the distance you can travel with your bike. And there are some interesting proposals for change, such as Sydney City Council’s consideration of a European-style walk-up bike hire system.

End-of-trip facilities are still lacking, not just at workplaces but other common destinations such as gyms, where parking and gear storage is not always available (though at least you'll get a shower). Biking facilities in workplaces are often conspicuous by their absence as well. Talk to your employer about it — cycling organisations and local councils can give tips on how to help improve facilities for cyclists at work.

Movement on the ground

No single place in Australia has it all, but there’s a great range of new and expanding initiatives that are making cycling for transport much more appealing.

  • Adelaide: BikeDirect is a series of 13 free online maps covering greater Adelaide. Take note of the colour of your route, because they’re colour-coded to match on-street signage.
  • Adelaide: A daily bike hire scheme called Adelaide City Bikes is free, you just leave some ID as a deposit.
  • Brisbane: Adjacent to a new bus station, the King George Square Cycle Centre offers secure bike parking for 420 bikes. There will be lockers, plus shower and change facilities. It's expected to open in June 2008.
  • Brisbane and Canberra: Some city buses can carry two bicycles — using racks attached to the front of the bus. Bikes are carried for free, with cyclists loading and unloading them after notifying the driver.
  • Secure bike parkingCanberra: The Australian National University has one of the largest staff bicycle fleets in Australia, providing free bikes, helmets, panniers, lights and cycle computers for employees. Its 45 bikes clocked up 38,000 km of travel within the campus in a year, a significant proportion of which would previously have been done by car.
  • Melbourne: On weekends on Beach Road Black Rock, a popular cycling destination, two car parking spaces are converted to an on-road parking rack for 50 bikes.
  • NT and ACT: These record the highest proportion of trips to work by bicycle of the states and territories. Both have relatively flat terrain and the capital cities have good established networks of shared pedestrian/cycle off-road paths.
  • Perth: Train timetables show when bikes are allowed on the trains, which is generally outside peak hours. Folding bikes are allowed on trains at all times, and all bikes travel for free.
  • Perth: At most suburban rail stations there are now free bike lockers (BYO lock) and bike rails. They are close to the platform and monitored by closed circuit TV. At Perth station there’s a rest centre with lockers and showers for a fee.
  • Sydney: A corner of a Manly car park near the ferry terminal has been converted to 72 bike spaces. Users pay $20 and a $30 refundable deposit for a swipe card to enter the bike cage where they can lock their bikes to rails. It’s CCTV-monitored.
  • Victoria: After just eight months, 42% of trips to schools in the state Ride2School program are made by bike or foot, compared to the national average of 20%. Over 500 schools are now enrolled in Victoria, and NSW has also joined the program.
  • Victoria: Despite a brief ban earlier this year, bicycles are again allowed on Connex and V/Line trains at all times. Folding bikes are allowed on all trams and buses, provided they are folded.

Transport essentials

Safety vestHere's our checklist of essentials for transport on your bike. You should have:

  • a recently serviced bike that fits you
  • a helmet
  • front and rear lights for visibility if you cycle after dark
  • a bell and possibly horn
  • bright clothing
  • a route plan
  • a bag that suits your needs
  • a rain plan or gear
  • a repairs plan or kit
  • a bike lock or secure parking at destination

Don’t feel like you have to get a Tour de France makeover with full Lycra body suit, toe clips and bike computer — these aren’t the domain of the everyday rider! That said, experts do recommend a few essentials — starting with the obvious!

Bike

Red bikeDust off your old bike, or buy a new or used one, and have it professionally serviced. Bikes need regular attention, and just like a car, the more you use it, the sooner it’ll need a tune up so it’s good to learn how to do the basics yourself – tyres brakes and chain. Above all, ensure that your bike fits you properly, has brakes that work in all weather conditions, and check the tyre pressure weekly.

If you decide to purchase a bike, beware of false economies — a shop that doesn’t specialise in bikes may sell you a bike that isn’t a good fit for you — and it probably won’t be as good quality as one from a specialist shop. If you intend to park in the street, theft can be an issue, so think twice about the type of bike you get and don’t overspend.

Local cycling organisations can give you advice about choosing a bike (see Useful links) — it’s also helpful to talk with friends who cycle, or fellow riders online (to get started, check out our cyclists' feedback forum).

There are many options to choose from, such as mountain bikes with road tyres, folding bikes, a bike with shock absorbers you can switch on and off as you ride, and various gearing. Most bikes are now sold with 24 gears, though you can find some with just one gear, or three gears. Internal (hub) gears might make maintenance easier – but your workout will be harder!

Some bikes are quite heavy and hard to attach luggage to — all the more reason to get your bike from a shop that appreciates how you’ll be using your bike and what customising adjustments you’ll want. It’s particularly important for women to get a seat that’s a good fit and to angle it comfortably, because women have a different leg length and a wider pelvis than men.

Helmet

Bike helmetNew helmets are light, comfortable and well ventilated. But you don't need to spend hundreds of dollars - just make sure it meets the Australian Standard — non-negotiable and downright sensible.

Light colours make you more visible. Make sure the helmet fits snugly, and remember they're not invincible! You should replace them every 3 to 5 years, and if you're not sure how old your current helmet is, or whether it's had any impacts in the past, buy a new one.

Visibility

Front and rear bike lightsIt’s vital that you’re visible on the road. This comes from a combination of how you ride, what you wear, how you’re lit up, and whether you can be heard. Wear bright or reflective clothing. Avoid drivers’ blind spots and ride predictably. Front and rear lights are crucial at night. Mostly, you’re aiming to be seen by others, not to light up the road in front of you. At a minimum, you’ll need a white front light and a flashing red light at the rear of your bike. These days LED lights are the most common: they’re bright yet easy on batteries.

Your bike should have a bell, which is great for politely warning pedestrians of your approach on shared cycleways. And on the roads, for getting the attention of drivers with their earphones in and windows up, small bicycle air horns are very effective.

Rider comfort

Bike rear-view mirrorDepending on the weather conditions and length of your ride, you might want to get a water bottle, warm gloves in winter, and cycle gloves — for protection on bumpy terrain and if you fall off.

You might also want a rear-view mirror that mounts to your right handlebar or helmet. Sunglasses or clear lens glasses will stop bugs, dirt and rain from flying into your eyes.

Grabbing your gear

Saddle bag for bikeIt’s really a myth that it's too difficult to carry stuff on a bike — even shopping for a family of four is possible with a bike trailer! Some people just throw their backpack on and go, though others find this causes a sweaty back.

Smaller bags at the front of a bike can be really useful for stowing things you want often and quickly, like your wallet, phone, keys and a snack. Both these and baskets attached to the front handlebars are gaining popularity, but remember to keep security in mind if you opt for a basket.

Panniers — saddle bags that attach to your bike — can range from briefcase-style bags to heavy-duty waterproof ones with large storage capacity. There are even suit bags that wrap over the back of your bike. Some of the modern bags can be clipped on and off easily and quickly so you can take them with you when you go. Make sure that your racks, baskets, and panniers aren’t loaded beyond their maximum load.

Carrying kids

Perhaps the most common way of carrying a toddler on a bike is in a child seat to fitted to the rear of the bike. Other models support the child between the rider and the handle bars. Kids can also travel in a trailer attached behind the bike.

A good cycling shop will check that the child can hold their head up (from around 12 months old) and fit into an approved helmet, and you should make sure your child’s weight doesn’t exceed the recommended capacity of the equipment. (See our report on Kids' bicycle helmets.)

There’s debate about which is the safer and better way to take your kids along on the bike, and it can depend on the type of bike you have. Cycling organisations can provide advice about riding with kids, for example the Bicycle Victoria website has a 'baby on board' guide and there are whole books dedicated to bicycling with children.

Be prepared

Plan your route. You might like it to track past regular errands: corner store, post office. Rather than the quickest route, you may opt for the most peaceful — the one that snakes along a river or through a park. Local cycling organisations will usually be able to provide maps of cycling routes that are totally unlike the car routes you’re used to. You might also plan to build up your fitness gradually by cycling into work one day and catching the bus home, then using public transport to get in the next day and cycling home.

You can get a flat tyre on a bike just as on a car — in fact it’s even more likely to occur – so don’t be left stranded. Make sure you’ve got a mobile phone, change for a train or taxi fare. Or carry a pump and spare tube or puncture repair kit and learn how to use them. They’re small and light, and your local bike organisation can give you a demo. You might even consider roadside assistance membership if it’s available in your area – yes, for cyclists! (see Useful links).

End of trip

Bike equipment storageWhat are you going to do with your bike and gear when you get to your destination? Ideally you’ll be able to lock the bike out of sight but you might have to leave it on the street. As a car driver you think about where to park securely and you keep your valuables with you — the same thought process is necessary when biking.

It’s worth buying a high quality, heavy-duty recent model D-lock (sometimes also called a U-lock) or hardened chain. When faced with a good lock of this type, bike thieves are likely to try elsewhere.

Some employers, councils and other government groups are investing in bike parking facilities. If you intend to park at work, ask your employer or building management what’s offered in the way of parking, lockers and showers (see Useful links for a list of organisations to ask for advice on this).

Building confidence

Fear of traffic is one of the biggest barriers new riders face. Don’t let your first ride be 10km into the CBD in peak hour when you’ve got an important meeting first thing! Instead, start small with short, low-stress rides, to your friend’s place or the local shops. This will get your confidence up and give you a feel for the bike.

Joining your local bicycle user group can be another great way to learn bike skills from peers. Some groups organise fun social rides to local chocolate stores, markets and the beach.

Riding style

Remember the three Cs: common sense, caution and courtesy. Experts say cyclists should assume all drivers have a visibility problem with vehicles that aren’t cars — though hopefully the more cyclists there are on the roads, the less true this will be.

Avoid the temptation to try to go as fast as motor vehicles — it’ll just make it more likely you need a shower at the other end, as well as dramatically increasing your stress levels.

Ride with a gap between you and parked cars – lots of cycling accidents are caused by car doors opening without warning. But about 80% of all bike accidents don’t involve anyone else — they’re just down to operator error. So if your skills are really rusty, join a cycling group or course (even some community colleges offer them).

Route finding

The route you take is all-important to how comfortable your ride is. Many people avoid riding because of busy roads, but cyclists use a different mental map to drivers and where possible use quiet traffic back streets rather than main roads. There are some terrific bike maps and online tools you can use to help you find a route that suits you (see Useful links). You may discover pleasant streets in your area that you didn’t know existed.

You can also boost your visibility and confidence by riding with a buddy. This might be a friend, a work colleague, or even a 'bike bus' (a group of people who cycle the same route to a timetable: see hop on the bike bus).

Cycle events

Once you're comfortable on your bike you can gain inspiration by riding with a big group. There are plenty of events — find out more from your local bike user group or state bike organisation (see Useful links).

Many States hold a bike week, with lots of fun events. Try a day ride where thousands of people of all ages take to the roads together, like Melbourne’s famous Around the Bay in a Day and Sydney’s Spring Cycle (both on October 19 2008) and Perth’s Great Bike Ride. All these rides have shorter distance options for kids and beginners.

If you’re getting serious, try a 'Big Ride' where you camp at night and ride over several days — your local bike group can point you in the right direction. National Ride to Work Day is 15 October 2008 and Ride to School Day is 12 March — these are held annually.

State cycling organisations

These are member-run organisations that organise events, advocate for better bike facilities, give advice about riding and help find local user groups, build skills, some groups will insure you against bike theft and accidents.

Riding to work and school

Maps for cyclists, printed and online

Check with your local bike store, council, and planning or roads authority. Here’s a taste of what’s out there:

Routes recommended by local cyclists

Use these sites to find a route recommended by locals, and possibly even a ride buddy!

Roadside assistance

In case of accident, mechanical problem, or puncture. Ask motoring associations in your state whether they offer roadside assistance for bikes.

For $22/yr ($30 for a family) RACV promises to fix your bike, or taxi you and your bicycle to your destination. The service is included if you are already a ‘Total Care’ member.

Phone 13 72 28 www.racv.com.au

Recycle your old bicycle

Check out the links page at www.bicyclerecycling.com for leads on who might want your old bike – there are community groups who’ll recycle it, refurbish it or donate it.

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