Half the students of the 1970s rode bikes to school. Today, only 20% do. And it’s been proved that those who cycle arrive at school mentally brighter and their absenteeism rates drop. According to Gaylene Fehlberg, principal of a primary school that for 16 years has been pursuing an active Bike Education program, students gain a lot of confidence from cycling, which helps throughout their lives. Malvern Valley Primary School is surrounded by bicycle paths and is in a residential area not bisected by many main roads.
Starting in the school grounds, and with the “ABC checklist” of “air, brakes and chain”, the classes of Grade 4 students eventually take to the streets to learn in real situations how to signal, get around parked cars, negotiate intersections and become “decisive, skilled riders”.
Gaylene says on a normal day, 60% of the students ride to the school. “On a Ride2School Day, 70-80% do, and the bicycle racks are overflowing.”
Some of the children ride with parents. Those who travel unaccompanied have a device that messages their parents when they have arrived safely. The tag-on, tag-off system has another incentive as part of a competition.
By allocating one point to their house for a child who walked to school, and two points for those who rode, “we wanted to see whether the digital encouragement would get more kids riding or walking?” Gaylene says.
The overwhelming majority of the taggers were riding.
And this gives credence to the argument by the national cycling organisation Bicycle Network that to create behavioural change and get more of the people back in the saddle, the right conditions need to be created.
If you build integrated bicycle-path networks, provide cycle parking at schools, train stations and workplaces, and, ideally, if more offices had change and shower facilities for the cyclists, the riders will appear, and in numbers.
While more people per capita rides bikes in the ACT and Darwin, figures show that the greatest proportion of daily bike commuters are in Melbourne, where about 16% of CBD workers ride in. The average bike commute is five kilometres.
They also get to work “more mentally on the ball”, says Chris Carpenter, who rides from his Middle Park home to the city in about half the time it would take him to drive.
“In workplaces that are bike friendly,” he says, “there is an 80% lower rate of absenteeism.”
Chris, the general manager of Government and External Relations for Bicycle Network, explains the multiple other reasons for encouraging a strong civic bicycle culture: Traffic congestion, “estimated to cost (metro) Melbourne about $5 billion a year. More if you add in health costs”. Ever-growing pressures on rail and bus commuting. Pollution and the space taken by parked cars in residential, office and shopping areas, “which is a really inefficient use of space”.
On the plus side: “Riding is pleasurable and free. It has social benefits”. The 15,000 weekend riders along Beach Road aren’t all grimly pushing personal-best times. It is accessible for the relatively unfit and for seniors. “It’s an easy way to start exercising that is low impact and gets your heart racing.”
Given a practical distance compared to car commutes “it’s just easier and so much less stressful”, Carpenter says. “I spend a lot of time passing people stuck still in cars.”
Of all the issues Bicycle Network promotes, physical health is the most urgent. The Network wants to normalise bike culture because our young are the first generation with a high chance of “dying younger than their parents because of inactivity”.
The replacement of physical activity by technology means that, for young people, “the culture of riding a bike is almost gone”. Bicycle Network’s long-term aim is to rebuild that to 50% of children cycling either as commuters or for recreation.
The National Ride2School Day that has been running for 10 years recorded its highest figures to date in March this year with 350,000 children from 2000 schools on bikes on the day.
The potential of a young pedalling nation is there. The practical work the Network is doing is mainly about “removing the barriers to get kids riding” by working with local governments, councils and with schools.
Chris says the increases can register quickly “once we remove the barriers. Another essential, is to get the parents modelling bike-riding behaviour “as easy and fun”. He says there has been a big shift to women riding bikes. They’ve become the key indicator that shows that where you create an environment where it’s easier to ride, more people will do it.”