Australian Cycling Levels Return to Steady Fall: CWANZ Survey Confirms

Cycling participation levels are falling in Australia, dropping to a rate lower than in 2011, as the Covid pandemic surge quickly peters out, according to a national report released this month.

The National Walking and Cycling Participation Survey, conducted by Cycling and Walking Australia and New Zealand, found the number of people who rode a bike in the week leading up to the survey has declined to 15% – just one in six people – compared to 18% in 2021.

While the rate is still higher than the 13.8% recorded in 2019, before the Covid pandemic brought a spike in cycling participation, it is still lower than any other recording since the biennial survey began in 2011.

The inaugural survey reported a cycling rate of 18.2% but that level progressively declined over the next eight years, until the pandemic encouraged many Australian to begin or return to riding.

This month’s survey reveals that recovery has been short-lived, contrary to hopes the pandemic had brought a change in community and government attitudes to cycling as a transport option.

Similarly, the proportion of Australians who reported cycling at least once during the previous 12 months dropped from 40.1% in 2021, to 36.7% in this year’s survey. This compares to 40.2 in 2011 and 35% in 2019.

The declines were experienced in almost every State and among nearly all demographics.

NSW was the only State to buck the trend. While its level of participants in the preceding week fell slightly, to 15%, the number of NSW residents who had ridden in the previous year actually climbed to 38%.

And while riding levels in Sydney have been boosted by new cycling infrastructure in recent years, it was considerable rises in regional NSW that brought the greatest boost to the statewide figures.

Similarly, regional Victoria also reported healthy increases, ensuring Victoria’s overall rates declined significantly less than the national average, which was dragged down by the results in all the other States and Territories.

Over 50s Follow Own Path

In the age demographics, it was only the Over 50s bracket that recorded an increase for participation in the previous 12 months. That figure has been steadily and consistently rising since 2017.

“However, the overall participation rate among older Australians is much lower than among children, such that this growth has not arrested the overall decline in participation,” the survey report states.

The 18-29 bracket achieved a marginal increase in participation levels in the month leading up to the survey and a very slight drop for the weekly figure, but all other age brackets recorded major declines.

Notably, that includes children aged under 17, in line with a constant decline in the number of children riding to school. The reports notes that the percentage of children who walk or ride to school has dropped from 75% to 25% during the past 40 years.

Interest Still Solid

Some insight to the cause of falling participation levels could be found in two other discoveries by the study – a rising in rates of walking since the 2021 survey and a virtually unchanged level of interest in people taking up cycling. Respondents in every State except Tasmania said they were walking more frequently compared to a year ago.

Forty-two percent of non-cycling respondents indicated that are interested in taking up riding, a figure unchanged from 2021. The percentage of cyclists who considered themselves to be ‘cautious’ riders, as opposed to being confident on the roads, remained stable at 14%.

Micromobility researchers Matthew Mclaughlin and Peter McCue, in a joint article in online publication The Conversation, speculated the drop in participation – in contrast to ongoing levels of interest – could be attributed at least partly to Australia’s shortfall in safe cycling infrastructure.

That opinion is shared by the heads of two peak advocacy groups, Pedal Power ACT and Bicycle NSW.

Pedal Power executive director Simon Copland said the survey figures illustrated a vicious cycle that government needed to break.

“It does come down to a perception that there is more traffic and roads being more dangerous, and that is partially true. But then it becomes a perpetuating cycle because of that perception, because more people drive their cars instead, and governments continue to invest in roads,” he said.

“It’s pretty disappointing to see this longer-term decline and it speaks to the failure of governments across Australia to really be thinking about the next steps in how to push active travel in our cities.”

“We need a break in that cycle, through government shifting some of that investment towards cycling infrastructure, so that perception can be taken away and people feel more comfortable getting on bikes.

“You can’t just spend years and years going around in circles, consulting with the community or educating the community.

“In Europe, they have shown you consult by testing. You have to just go out there and do it, so people can realise how good it is.

“It’s pretty disappointing to see this longer-term decline and it speaks to the failure of governments across Australia to really be thinking about the next steps in how to push active travel in our cities.”

Simon said the decreased rates since 2021 “speaks to the failures of government during the Covid period to not really use the opportunity to transition how we think about travel and what that looks like.”

“One of the bright spots for me has been the City of Sydney. We travel to Sydney pretty frequently and every time I go there, they have a new cycling lane. Their data shows a six-fold increase in cycling levels in those locations,” he added.

“It shows when you provide that infrastructure, people use it. It’s something that gives me some hope.”

Bicycle NSW Response

Similarly, Bicycle NSW CEO Peter McLean said he believed increases in participation will be directly aligned to infrastructure and safety.

“When you build good roads then more people will drive on them and when you build good cycleways then more people ride,” he said.

“We need to see more of the latter because it provides a much higher return on investment.

“We do see pockets of increased participation where there are safe and efficient bicycle infrastructure.”

Peter said a five-year trend in count data in and around Sydney shows a 1.4% increase, “so more people are riding than pre-pandemic”.

He also pointed to one-month trend data on the Transport for NSW cycling count, which shows a high increase in counts due to better weather and seasonal conditions in and around Sydney.

“The counters picked up 1.23 million rides in a month, which was up 31.8%,” he explained.

Peter said while Bicycle NSW meets with Ministers, MPs and councillors every week to discuss cycleways and other infrastructure, the organisation is also focused on pushing for changes to legislation and addressing culture on NSW roads.

“For example, we are currently advocating to enshrine road user space allocation policy into legislation, mandate active transport projects in tier one infrastructure projects and increase the prosecution of drivers who disobey minimum passing legislation,” he continued.

National Tragedy

We Ride Australia’s director – national advocacy, Stephen Hodge, said the survey figures are indicative of a “national tragedy”.

“It is very disturbing that in an era where transport crashes kill 1200 people each year and air pollution has been reported to kill many thousands more, that bikes are not getting a better look in across the board,” he stated.

“The decline in use of bikes revealed in the latest national participation survey, in a nation where half of all trips for all purposes each and every day are just five kilometres or less, is of major concern as our transport emissions continue to grow.

“When riding a bike from A to B has so many additional co-benefits for health, congestion and cost of living, it’s a national tragedy we haven’t been more successful in articulating the benefits to the public at large.”

Stephen said there has been progress on the left and on the right of the political spectrum. Former Liberal NSW Minister for Active Transport Rob Stokes facilitated changes that took NSW to a leading position nationally in a single term in office, while WA Labor Minister Rita Safiotti is spending $347 million on bikeways and bridges during the current term of government.

Similarly, Queensland Minister Mark Bailey has just released another four-year Cycling Action Plan to ensure his government is held accountable for its investments in active travel.

“But nationally, we couldn’t even get e-bikes included in the tax incentive legislation that reduces the cost of electric vehicles,” he said.

“It’s an issue that keeps many of us awake at night when international experience shows us just how much of the passenger transport task could be assumed by walking and cycling.

“But it’s also why we get up each day and continue our national advocacy knowing that Australia’s a greener, healthier, better place to be because more people are riding bikes.”


  1. Steve on 16th September 2023 at 6:47 AM

    I don’t think this should be seen as all bad news, it is likely a result of people not returning to the office post pandemic. During the pandemic cycling spiked as there was nothing else to do. Since then, normal activities are back on EXCEPT nobody wants to return to the office, so there’s a whole cohort of cycle commuters who now aren’t getting on their bikes. The challenge now is getting those people who use to kit up every morning and every afternoon to get to work, to do the same thing to get down to their local shops.

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