Please, Tony! Spend $7.5b

Planes, trains and automobiles were all big winners in last week’s budget of pain. In the post-mortem there was no mention that bike infrastructure got nothing at all - a doughnut. Tragically, our lycra-clad, bike loving PM ignored two wheels, even though it has the potential to do the most good.

Maybe he thought bike riding is doing OK on its own. Like you, he’s probably swayed by seeing more lycra on the road than most people’s senses can handle.

Even though bike riding is booming, a staggering 56% of Australians still don’t get enough exercise. Not exercising is the second worst thing you can do for your health. It’s worse than being overweight. It’s worse than too much alcohol.
Tony’s tough budget will lead to even more inactive Australians. We’ve been warned we’re going to have to work more and longer to make ends meet. This means less time and energy to pop into one of those 24 hour gyms at 2am 5 times a week.

Our PM’s favourite activity can solve the inactivity crisis. Getting around on a bike swaps inactive time sitting in a car for active time riding. It also helps ease the financial pain. Oh, and even with the hills it feels incredible.
The good news is millions of Australians want to ride. 59% are interested. 56% inactive. The maths screams ‘solution!’.  

But there’s a big barrier in the way. And that’s why we need Tony to pony up and spend $7.5b on bike infrastructure. The 59% aren’t riding because they’re concerned. No they’re not worried about wearing lycra in public – like me, most have no intention of lycra-ing up. They’re concerned that if they share the road with cars and trucks that weigh tons and move fast they may not make it home in one piece.

We know how to eradicate this concern. For 30 years we’ve been successfully campaigning for separated bike lanes. Every time the government provides a separated lane or off road path, the rider numbers soar. But progress is slow, piecemeal and difficult. A few kilometres of lane here, a bridge there. It’s like building a pyramid one brick a day.

The government figures are murky. But our best guess is the governments in Australia spent approximately $220m on bike infrastructure a year. At that rate we should have a decent network of separated paths and lanes within, say, 50 or 60 years.

We need to act faster or else the inactivity problem will gobble us up. Now is the time to stand up on the pedals, take off and build the bike network in one hit, rather than a brick a day.

Bicycle Network’s mission is to get the government to improve conditions for riders. Conventional wisdom says the best way to do this is to politely and gently persuade politicians and bureaucrats at all levels.

Unfortunately, Australia’s constitution doesn’t make it clear which government is responsible for bike infrastructure.

With 563 local governments, 6 states, the territories and the feds, it will take many years to persuade them all.
So it’s time to throw out conventional wisdom and go straight to the top.  Which means whispering politely in the ear of Australia’s second most famous lycra wearer (sorry Tony, Cadel did win the Tour de France) and asking him to build bike facilities we so desperately need.

We’re asking for a big number: $7.5b. That would buy us an amazing network of 7,500 kilometres of separated bike lanes and paths that would get the 59% riding.

We’d be able to build eight 40 km cycleways in our 5 cities with more than 1 million people. Four 25km cycleways in our 11 cities with between 100,000 and 1 million people. Four 10km cycleways in our 29 cities with between 30,000 and 100,000 people. They’ll also be enough left for a decent network of feeders onto the cycleways and for great rural paths. It will transform Australia into the most bike friendly, active country in the world.

It’s easy to be glib about $7.5b when talking about government money. After all, the government just committed to spending $12.4b on fighter planes and if it goes ahead Melbourne’s East West tunnel will cost more than $7.5b for just 7.5km. Against that background, $7.5b for 7,500kms of separated bike lanes and paths sounds like a bargain.
But we need to take the amount very seriously. It’s like asking every Australian to reach into their pocket and hand over 7 pineapples. After last week’s budget we all know that $350 is a lot for everyday Australians.

But the economics stacks up. Every year inactivity costs Australia $13.8b in healthcare, deaths and lost productivity. So if we get the 59% of people who are interested but concerned riding we’d save $8.1b - every single year. So asking Tony to spend $7.5b for a one off investment in bike infrastructure is a no-brainer.

Emotionally the case is even more compelling. The odds are that because of inactivity, either you or a person you love dearly is going to suffer a major preventable illness. I’m sure most people would find 7 pineapples if they could avoid either them or the person they love most in the world suffering heart disease, cancer or Type 2 diabetes.
So I’m writing to Tony and asking him to spend $7.5b on separated bike lanes and paths. I’ll tell him it’s his chance to be remembered as the Lycra Liberal who used his love of lycra to benefit ordinary Australians.

But if I’m the only one who asks, despite a compelling argument and a 'never give up' approach, I’ll be easy to politely ignore. So I’m asking every bike group, bike rider and person interested in riding to also ask Tony. Log onto www.bicyclenetwork.com.au to find out how to send a ‘Please, Tony’ email or old fashioned letter.

Getting all bike people to unite is a challenge. Bike riders are fiercely independent with wonderfully forthright views.

This means that, despite the fact that bike riding is much easier and safer when people stick together, riders are more inclined to fight each other than a common cause.

But now is the time for bike riders and those who want to ride to put their differences aside. If we can show Tony we’re serious and united, bike riding and defeating inactivity can become the good news headline in next year’s budget.

- Craig Richards, CEO, Bicycle Network

Learn more about our 'Please, Tony!' campaign, here.