Why Australia needs a cyclists party

| August 1, 2014

The Australian Cyclists Party has recently been approved to be a registered Federal party. Its President and Founder Omar Khalifa says we need to rethink our priorities if we want to improve traffic congestion, our health and the environment.

The question I field most often is “why a cyclists party?” It is the obvious question but one that also largely answers itself. The answer is simply that we should not require a party dedicated to cycling. It would be an absurdity in many countries where cycling sits prominently and comfortably in society and on the roadways. Not here.

Government at all levels should be striking the right balance that looks after all of us on the roads regardless of our mobility choice. It’s their duty regardless of political or ideological alignment. But they haven’t and they aren’t and after decades of failure by all parties to correct the situation we believe we must turn from advocacy to directly influencing policy and spending and competing for their seats in parliaments across Australia.

I have been involved in cycling advocacy for nearly five years and it has never been easy to fully comprehend why cycling has become so alienated from government discourse or so widely pilloried by so many in the media – largely unchallenged and sometimes stoked along by our leaders. Verbal and even physical threats and abuse by some motorists ranks among the top reasons as to why people feel uncomfortable cycling. In nearly any other context such venting would be called bigotry or vilification or assault.

This reaction to cycling is particularly strange as Australia has a proud cycling tradition that began in the late 1800’s with many early explorers and common laborers finding cycling a reliable and effective means of mobility. We event sent infantrymen to World War I on bicycles (yet none are to be found in our memorial parades). We have also consistently demonstrated our cycling prowess in sport for over a century. So why does this not translate to more support for cycling as a form of transport today?

While places all over Europe and increasingly in the USA have embraced cycling as a necessary part of a transport mix, in Australia it is still largely seen as merely a sport or form of recreation or a daily workout. Partly in reaction to the lack of perceived safety issues, women are under-represented and two thirds of parents don’t feel comfortable sending their kids to school or the shops on a bike.  Cyclist deaths due to road accident have jumped 50% over the last year. These are worrisome statistics that need to be addressed if we are serious about our health, our communities and indeed our economy.

Even the Heart Foundation has published a comprehensive roadmap, Moving Australia 2030, that points to an active population that embraces cycling as a key contributor. “Walking and cycling amenity and connectivity” was a key part of their vision for “A high quality of life for all Australians”.

Yet in Australia we spend just $4.60 per person to support cycling – that compares to over $700 on roads. Clearly it is not nearly enough. While governments balk at spending millions to create safer infrastructure for cycling, there is no hesitation to spend billions on roads with vastly inferior investment returns. Many tens of billions of those have recently been labeled as “wasted” by Infrastructure Australia.

If we want to progress cycling and enjoy its many benefits we need a serious rethink of our approach and our priorities. If urban areas choked with traffic and a health system struggling to cope with obesity or an environment fast running out of options is not the future we seek for ourselves or our children, we need to instigate change. If current political parties can’t get their heads around making the necessary changes, then it is time we challenged them for their jobs.