Australian cyclist numbers
1985/86 - 2019
The fifth and final of Australia's National Cycling Participation surveys confirms that the equivalent of more than a million fewer people were riding bicycles each week in 2019 than was the case when the survey series began in 2011.
The 2019 National Cycling Participation Survey results published by Austroads and the Australian Bicycle Council suggest that Australian cycling is in free-fall, and has been since the National Cycling Participation strategy was launched in 2011 with the aim of doubling Australian participation by 2016.
The 2019 survey results also suggest 35.1% fewer Australians aged 9yo+ were cycling each day than in 1985/86, despite 62% population growth.
The cycling reduction has mostly been among children and young adults, a trend apparent since Australia's bicycle helmet laws were introduced in 1990-92, with growth in the 40yo+ demographic due to predominantly baby boomers continuing the cycling activity they learned as children when they were not discouraged by helmet laws and the resultant implication that riding a bike is dangerous.
The NCP 2019 authors concede that the strong correlation between age and cycling participation means the decline is likely to continue as the population ages and elderly cyclists become too frail to continue riding.
This reduction has had and will continue to have a profound impact on issues such as public health, obesity and traffic congestion across Australia.
Baby boomers recall when Australian streets were peppered with people riding bicycles, a recreation activity enjoyed frequently by many because it is a fun, convenient form of transport. Regular exercise is a consequence of cycling but usually isn't the primary motivation for people who ride bicycles.
Political, medical and academic justification for Australia's bike helmet laws is that they reduce cyclist injuries, primarily head injuries. However, this ignores the fact that Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data shows there were 7,520 cyclist hospital admissions in 1990 and 12,027 in 2016, a 59.9% increase (data), with heads injuries decreasing proportionally but increasing in number (e.g. 30% of 7,520 hospital admission is 2,256 but 25% of 12,027 is 3,007 head injuries).
From 2011 to 2019, the data show the equivalent of more than a million fewer Australians aged 2+ riding a bike at least once per week and more than 1.2 million fewer having cycled in the year prior to survey. The number of children aged 0-9yo cycling per week has plunged by 13.4% from 2011 to 2019.
The more than a million equivalence is if the 18.2% of population aged 2+ surveyed as cycling at least once per week in 2011 is applied to the June 2018 Australian population, as is the 13.9% surveyed as cycling in the NCP 2019 report. If the 18.2% recorded in 2011 is applied to the June 2010 population, the national decline from 2011 to 2019 is 539,046. The relevant point is the population percentage cycling weekly, not the population in any given year.
Put another way, if the 13.8% recorded in 2019 is applied to the June 2010 population, 2,958,845 people would have been cycling weekly instead of 3,902,244 - meaning 943,399 fewer people would have been cycling weekly in 2011. However, readers preferring 18.2% applied to the June 2010 population are entitled to favour the lesser of the two alternative disastrous survey results.
Below are key results from the 2019 National Cycling Participation Survey.
- In 2011, 48.3% of 0 to 9 year olds cycled in the previous week, compared to 34.9% in 2019.
- In 2011, 33.6% of 10 to 17 year olds cycled in the previous week, compared to 32.7% in 2019.
- In 2011, 12.8% of 18 to 29 year olds cycled in the previous week, compared to 8.2% of 18 to 29 year olds in 2019.
- In 2011, 14.0% of 30 to 49 year olds cycled in the previous week, compared to 9.8% of 30 to 49 year olds in 2019.
- In 2011, 6.7% of 50+ year olds cycled in the previous week, compared to 6.6% of 50+ year olds in 2019
NCP 2019 provides a comparison of the average number of hours cycled per week in 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019, as charted below, and the 9.4% reduction in cycling duration from 2011 to 2019 supports the evidence that the average number of daily bike trips has fallen substantially.
The 2019 National Cycling Participation Survey states: "The person-level data are weighted at the gender and age level (2 – 9, 10 – 24, 25 – 49, 50+) to the ABS census 2011 population. The household-level data are weighted to ABS census 2016 household size (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6+ usual residents). The number of persons cycling is estimated by expanding the 2016 weights to estimated resident population for 30 June 2018 provided by the ABS." All calculations below are based on the estimated resident population for 30 June 2018 provided by the ABS.
The tables below show NCP estimated state and national weekly, monthly and yearly cycling percentages, with cyclist reduction estimates based on the survey year percentages applied to the June 2018 population aged 2+ in each state.
The table below calculates that the 1,645,900 bicycle trips per day by Australians aged 9+ in pre-helmet 1985/86 was 35.1% more than the 1,067,862 who cycled on any given day in 2019, despite a national population increase during that time of 62.0%.
1985/86 daily cycling estimates are sourced from Day to Day Travel in Australia 1985-86. The estimated number of times cyclists ride per week (e.g. 2.8, 3.1) are derived from the NCP 2019 survey reports from each state (NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia, Northern Territory, Australian Capital Territory).
It should be noted that the 1985/86 and 2011 NCP surveys averaged the number of trips cycled over the previous week by respondents, whereas the NCP 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019 surveys averaged the number of days cycled over the previous week. The NCP surveys define bicycle as a method of transport including riding in your backyard. In 2011, respondents were asked their best estimate of the total number of bike trips they had made in the prior week, whereas since 2013 they have been asked on how many days did they ride a bicycle in the prior week. This redefinition may contribute to the significant national fall from 5.4 trips per week in 2011 to 3.04 days per week in 2019, and may bias the comparison.
The table below extracts the official NCP 2017 and NCP 2019 survey estimates of cycling at least once per week in each jurisdiction, and the resultant national total. This is the official reduction in weekly cycling in the two years and supports the equivalent estimates of more than a million fewer Australians cycling weekly from 2011 to 2019.
The table below shows the breakdown of different age demographics used to calculate total weekly and daily cycling participation in each state and territory, and nationally, in 2019.
Although Canberra is not interested in continued funding of National Cycling Participation or helmet use surveys, AusPlay has surveyed most organised and recreational sports including 15yo+ adult cycling participation since late 2015.
AusPlay estimates significantly fewer cyclists than the NCP surveys, but calculations for the 2019/20 financial year suggest an increase in participation most likely because of the COVID-19 society lockdowns that began in early 2020.
It should be noted that from 1 July 2019 some methodological changes were made to AusPlay. These are believed to be minor and concern sports participation over the preceding seven days, but AusPlay cautions that any comparison with earlier data should take these changes into account.
The AusPlay surveys count cyclists as respondents who have ridden a bike at least once in the previous year, and this data can be compared with the NCP estimates for cyclists who had ridden at least once in the previous year.
NCP 2017 18yo+ : 4,484,415
NCP 2019 18yo+ : 4,916,553
AusPlay estimates for 15yo+ cyclists at least once per year:
AusPlay estimates 1,440,628 Australians aged 15yo+ cycled at least once per week in 2019/20. The NCP survey estimated roughly 1,879,259 Australians aged 15yo+ cycled at least once per week in 2019. The Australian Bureau of Statistics CR69 survey estimated 1,645,900 Australians aged 9yo+ cycled every day in 1985/86. The Australian 15yo+ population increased 69.7% from 1986 to 2020 (12,318,832 > 20,904,421).
AusPlay estimates 15yo+ cycling participation increased 5.6% from 2001 to 2020 (basing the estimate on Exercise, Recreation and Sports Survey data collected from 2001 to 2010), although it should be noted that Australia's 15yo+ population increased 36.5% from 2001 to 2020 (15,314,468 > 20,904,421).
AusPlay aggregated average demographics for cycling from 2015 to 2019/20 suggest that the NCP surveys since 2011 have significantly overestimated adult cycling participation in Australia:
The 2019 National Cycling Participation Survey authors state: "The absence of an increase in cycling participation may appear contrary to the investment made by state and local governments over this period in promoting and encouraging cycling."
Academics, politicians and media consistently blame a lack of cycle path infrastructure for Australia's abysmal cycling participation levels. This is despite almost half a billion dollars being invested in cycle path infrastructure from 2011 to 2019, with $121.8 million spent nationally on cycling networks across Australia in 2016. As an example, Melbourne had 1,900km of cycle trails in 2014.
The 2019 NCP survey results prove that increased cycling infrastructure hasn't encouraged more cycling in Australia.
The cause of the decline is bicycle helmet legislation that has discouraged cycling since 1990-92. Thirty years later, baby boomers who grew up learning and loving helmet-free cycling are starting to retire their bicycles but aren't being replaced by discouraged younger generations.
The 2019 NCP survey authors state: "These broader changes include the gradual ageing of the Australian population; the strong correlation between age and cycling participation means that over time we would expect cycling participation to decline without significant policy intervention or natural cultural shifts."
The policy intervention and cultural shift required is repeal of mandatory helmet laws that punish people who ride bicycles.
Click here for a comparison of daily cycling participation with hospital admission injuries and population growth since 1985/86.