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Investing in cyclists and pedestrians will create a healthier, happier and safer society

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 6 Mar 2015

 Last Friday afternoon, just down the road from my office in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, a young man by the name of Alberto Paulon was riding his bike along Sydney Road with his fiancee. Albi was an Italian making a new life here in Australia. He had been given his bike as a Valentine's Day present from his partner. A parked motorist saw Albi's fiancee riding past and, believing that the coast was clear, opened her door, sending Albi into the path of a truck and killing him instantly.

Police have said that Albi was not riding too fast and that the truck that collided with him was under the speed limit. Members of the police were driving just two cars behind. They tried to resuscitate him with CPR but failed. Albi simply did not stand a chance.My heart goes out to his family and his loved ones. The cycling community and the wider Australian society are feeling for you.

Sydney Road is one of Melbourne's most dangerous routes for cyclists, who have to contend with cars, trucks , trams and pedestrians. But staying alive on our roads should no t be too much to ask for. I stand here today as a passionate cyclist. I rode my bike from Melbourne to Canberra t o take up my seat in this place. I listened to people's stories and concerns along the way. It is from listening to people that I know that feeling unsafe on our roads is the biggestfactor that prevents people from getting on their bikes.

Although the death of Alberto Paulon sent a collective shudder through the Australian cycling community, the message and legacy from Albi's death has to be to make cycling safer, not to stop cycling. It is fortunate that, despite the tragedy, Melbourne's bike riders continue to ride. The Bicycle Network held their annual Super Tuesday bike count this week, with numbers up by as much as 17 per cent in some areas. We need to make sure this trend continues by giving people safe cycling infrastructure. This is only going to happen with the cooperation of local, state and federal governments. There is huge potential to increase cycling numbers.

In Melbourne, around half of the trips made by car are under five kilometres —which is an easy distance for most people to ride. If just some of these trips were made instead by bike or on foot, the benefits would be enormous. If we create smooth, connected bike paths and lanes, safely away from car and truck traffic, people will ride. If we provide well-lit and shaded walkways, people will walk.

The health benefits of walking and cycling are clear. They are great ways to lose weight. If you have a 15-minute ride to and from work or school, you will burn nearly five kilos of fat every year. We all know that rates of type 2 diabetes in our community are skyrocketing. But that same ride to work can lower your risk of developing diabetes by 40 per cent. And it reduces your chances of stroke, cardiovascular disease and heart attack.

Being out and about on your bike is also good for your mental health. It has been shown to reduce stress, depression and anxiety, not to mention the social opportunities that come with meeting other people in cycling groups. This reduced strain on our health system should be enough in itself for us to be taking active transport seriously.

Investing in this active transport, however, is incredibly cost effective too. People who cycle and walk enjoy big savings to their household budget, spending less on petrol and maintaining their car. Looking at the bigger picture, this investment generates economic activity in the manufacturing and retail sectors, and creates huge savings to state and federal budgets. Building and maintaining cycling infrastructure makes sense when it comes to jobs too. Dollar for dollar, cycling infrastructure creates almost twice the number of jobs than other road projects. Replacing car parking with bike parking in shopping areas is also efficient because you can fit eight bikes into the place that would only fit one car parking bay, meaning more people can get to the shops.

Working as a transport planner at Hume City Council was an eye opener for me. Despite almost universal acceptance that we face massive planning and transport problems, despite agreement about potential solutions and despite widespread knowledge of the benefits of walking and cycling, we are no closer to creating real alternatives to car dependency than we were twenty years ago. We have a federal government that has made the bold commitment to contribute no funding to public transport, and, sadly, our Prime Minister's love of cycling does not extend to investing in bike infrastructure.

While members of the government are all too eager to put on the hard hat and announce new infrastructure, the only infrastructure we see from this government are expensive, polluting tollways; freeway interchanges; and more ring roads. The last federal transport budget trumpeted its investment of $50 billion to deliver 'vital transport infrastructure for the 21st Century'. None of that is directly tied to walking, cycling or public transport, zero. And when transport projects do include cycling projects, they are conditional on building more and more roads. The $70-million upgrade to Melbourne's bicycle and pedestrian network that was tied to the $18-billion East West toll road. This active transport afterthought was just a fraction of one per cent of the total cost, and most of that was to fix up the mess that the tollway would have created.

The fact is that when you build more and more roads, you get more and more cars. With this comes more and more congestion, and calls for more and more roads. We need to break this cycle. The $18 billion slated for the 6.6 kilometre East West toll road would buy a lot of bike paths—18,000 kilometres of them, at a rough calculation. Imagine the difference that would make for cycling round the country.

This week, I have met with representatives of bicycle organisations from all over Australia who were in Canberra for the Australian bicycle summit. The summit identified three key issues and proposed solutions that would be first steps towards a healthier and more productive Australia. The first overarching issue was related to transport infrastructure and the lack of comprehensive active transport infrastructure. The summit proposed that infrastructure projects funded at all levels of government should reflect all transport modes including riding and walking. Secondly, the summit identified that bike rider fatalities were rising while the overall road toll was falling. The summit called on the government to carry out a broad safety review including assessing a minimum overtaking distance as part of the model Australian road rules.

The third issue was related to inactivity related illnesses which are on track to become the biggest killer of Australians at a cost of $58 billion in indirect costs per annum. The summit identified that Australia needs a national approach to physical inactivity to address chronic diseases, which should prioritise the active travel options of walking and cycling. The need for an effective and funded national approach to encourage walking and cycling is overwhelming.

We have a model to follow. The UK parliament has just legislated for a national 'walking and cycling investment strategy', which commits to setting objectives for walking and cycling in legislation and sets out what funding will be allocated to reach these objectives. We have the opportunity to do the same thing here. The Senate agreed today to call on the government to follow the UK's lead, and I hope the government is listening. By working with our counterparts at state and local levels for better active transport, we can create a healthier, happier and safer society.

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