Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Connecting Cycling 2005

Connecting Cycling 2005
Report on the Brisbane Conference 5-8 October 2005

Organised by the Bicycle Federation of Australia

City Hall, Brisbane

Report by Councillor Shayne Mallard

In his opening welcome to the conference the outgoing President of BFA, Dr Rod Katz noted the unique circumstances and opportunities that present themselves to ‘active transport’ planners at this time. The hike in oil prices, community awareness of greenhouse gas emissions, growing obesity crisis and traffic congestion in our cities present a unique opportunity to active transport advocates; “Australia and indeed the world, faces some crucial decisions for the next generation,” Katz predicted.

In acknowledging the government support for the conference Katz singled out the Federal government departments of Transport and Regional Services and the Australian Greenhouse Office for their ongoing commitment to sustainable transport planning. At the State level, Queensland Transport was acknowledged for their huge commitments to cycling in that state. All were sponsors and speakers. Clearly absent throughout the conference were delegates or engagement from NSW State government and aside from two Councillors, the City of Sydney was also lamentably absent. In a climate where many States and indeed the Federal government are ensuring sustainable transport is an integral part of transport and community development strategies the NSW government was held out for strong criticism throughout the conference.

The keynote address was from Dr Mukesh Haikerwal, the President of the Australian Medical Association. His attendance set the major direction for the conference being the growing obesity crisis in Australia and the western world. Amongst many facts presented during the conference, one that highlighted the challenge was that the average carbohydrate and fat intake for Australians has not increased over the past 40 years, however our level of activity has dramatically decreased. Dr Haikerwal noted that “time saving technologies and changes in lifestyle have reduced our aerobic and incidental activity levels…our increased car use, longer working hours and even the use of the humble remote control have reduced our physical activity.”

The conference put into perspective the regular (and easy) scapegoat for our obesity crisis – fast food. Whilst fast food is a contributor the dramatic reduction of activity in our daily lives is responsible for the obesity health crisis, particularly for children. Studies were presented demonstrating that in less than one generation the percentage of children either walking or cycling to school each day has collapsed by approximately 80% - replaced by car trips to school. The reasons for this include growth in both parents working, increased income and affordability of a second car, the over-estimated fear of the crime against children and poor design of contemporary urban areas with inadequate direct pedestrian and cycle links to local schools often remotely located. Speakers presented strategies to counter each of the obstacles to active school transport including in the United States figures that many more children are killed around school gates by cars dropping off children than abducted and murdered by the ‘big bad wolf’. In fact Sharon Roerty a speaker from the USA described how she has the FBI attend parent meetings to help put into perspective the fear of ‘stranger danger’ around schools as they work to implement active transport programs.

Speakers and presenters at the conference canvassed the following topics:
Planning a Healthy Community
Public Health- the Key to Public and Political Support for walking and Cycling
Odense – Denmark’s National Cycle City – case Study
Hatching Healthy Communities – USA program to reverse inactivity in children
Health Benefits of Increased Physical Activity
Creating Child-Friendly Cities
Better Planning – Who is Responsible?
Sea Change in Cycling – It’s about Public Transport
The Best Path Forward

Workshops included Cycling Tourism, the Safe Routs to Schools Programme and Ride to Work (where the City of Sydney was congratulated by the presenter).

I presented two papers in workshops. The first ‘Planning new or repeating success stories; Is it better the devil you know?’ where I case studied the difficulties COS has confronting a community, media and bureaucracy (at both local and state levels) that are historically and culturally not sympathetic to increasing cycling policies. I commented it is better to take the small steps forward with a longer-term strategy in mind and stick by and large with the ‘devil you know’. Evolution rather than revolution in implementing increased bike usage in Sydney. The second workshop I presented was on ‘Cycling infrastructure: are we getting the best bang for our buck?’ In this workshop my thesis was that if you build political support the resources would follow and again I set COS as a role model. In preparing my PowerPoint presentations I want to acknowledge the assistance I received from Adam Fowler and Allan Saxby.

The BFA Conference was an excellent opportunity for attendees to learn what is being developed and implemented not only in Australia but also across the world. For COS I was able to learn what Marrickville Council were doing right next door with their active transport mapping project, through to Odense in Denmark where the national government has selected the city for investment and role modelling for innovative cycling strategies and infrastructure.

Clearly health benefits were the key theme from day one. The upward trend in obesity in the western world was linked to the dramatic decrease in physical activity. The statistics led one presenter to ask: “Does speaking English make you fat?” as this phenomenon is unique to English speaking western countries. Aside from speaking English the common statistic amongst the top 10 fat nations was car dependency. We need to walk and cycle more. As little as 20 minutes of vigorous walking or cycling each day can dramatically reduce the mortality rate or extend the life expectancy in the population. We have an obligation to push forward on active transport planning for the next generation and in particular need to make communities accessible and safer for children. There are many things that can be done to encourage more cycling including the acceptance of multi-modal methods; eg ride from home to the train or from the bus to work.

At the political level the powerful message is the overall public health benefits as well as positives for the environment, economy and social cohesion. Evidence was presented that children who walk or cycle to school have better social skills and arrive at school more alert and prepared for learning and emerge better adjusted young people.

Cycle groups need to form both horizontal and vertical alliances, not only with each other but with environmentalists, health advocates, sporting groups and even developers (Lend Lease presented a popular workshop and were widely credited for active transport planning in their new suburban green-field projects in Queensland). Best practise from overseas should also inform our work. Our Danish speaker, Troels Andersen was aghast that Australians think 50 or even 40kmph is cycle and pedestrian friendly! In Denmark the national speed limit for residential streets is 30 kmph. Finally the point was made that cycling should be seen as ‘normal activity’ and not be seen as a cult. That ‘lycra’ is the exception and not the norm on a bike!


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