Active Transport

Active transport is the key to achieving sustainable mobility

For decades, transport in countries such as Australia and New Zealand has been dominated by the car. Fortunately, more environmentally benign alternatives are now being taken seriously for local travel, propelled by issues such as climate change, traffic congestion and the health effects of being too sedentary. However, compared to parts of the world such as Europe and Southeast Asia, both Australia and New Zealand have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to active transport.

Active transport is a term that refers to a range of mobility options that avoid the need for a vehicle or public transport. These include walking, pushbikes and battery-powered e-bikes, and a range of other personal mobility devices that include scooters, skateboards and hoverboards. The new term “micromobility” refers to forms of one-person wheeled transport designed to operate over a relatively short distance.

According to recent figures, transport is responsible for about 18 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse emissions. Walking and cycling both help to curb climate change. In cities where vehicle traffic is contributing to dangerous levels of pollutants, including particulates, these low-impact methods of transport offer a means of clearing the air.

A 2021 study led by Christian Brand from Oxford University looked at the habits of 4000 people in various European cities. It found that cycling can involve 30 times fewer greenhouse emissions than fossil-fuelled cars and 10 times fewer than electric cars. Just switching one trip a day from car to bike or e-bike resulted in a saving of half a tonne of CO2 per year. This type of substitution works best for shorter-distance trips, which are also the least efficient to travel by car because the engine has not fully warmed up.

Giving walking a leg-up

Governments and planners have an important role to play in creating urban environments that are designed with pedestrians in mind and which make walking more appealing. Planning strategies to encourage walking include:

• In outer suburbs with a high level of car use, providing a footpath on at least one side of the road, which sends the message that pedestrians are being catered for.
• An aesthetically appealing and stimulating urban environment that might include things such as shady trees, small independently owned shops and murals.
• Environments that are not affected by litter and are looked after — weeds and graffiti signify neglect.
• Having more eyes directed towards the street from nearby houses or shops — conversely, desolate and uninhabited areas feel relatively unsafe.
• Providing good street lighting at night.
• Encouraging connectivity, including elements such as direct footpath-only routes — walking is discouraged by cul-de-sacs, characteristic of car-dominated urban design, that require more circuitous walking routes.
• Small blocks and through-block links as opportunities for pedestrians to vary their route (identified by Queensland planning academic Arnis Siksna), making walking less monotonous — conversely, large block sizes deter walking.

Pedal power

The pushbike is a very efficient way to translate human energy into motion, and a far more economical use of road space than the car. Cycling pioneers such as the Netherlands and Copenhagen are helped by their relative flatness, coupled with decades of forward-looking government policies. However, take-up in Australia and New Zealand is low, with only 1.4
per cent of commuters in Australia and 3 per cent in New Zealand cycling to work. Starting from a low baseline, there is a lot of room for growth.

As with walking, there is a lot that policymakers can do to boost the take-up of cycling. Accident rates for cyclists are significantly higher than for car drivers, and unlike drivers, cyclists are not shielded by a tough metal protective structure. Safety is a key concern.

A common way to segregate cyclists from other traffic is via the creation of bike lanes, and these are more effective when separated from cars by a low barrier. Even better are signposted bike/pedestrian paths located away from roads, that join up and connect to public transport.

Western Australia’s Safe Active Streets program involves quiet local streets designated for ease of cycling, with
a speed limit of 30km/h to aid cyclist and pedestrian safety. These routes are mapped to interconnect local destinations. Safe Active Streets is being rolled out in the Perth metropolitan region and elsewhere in the state.

A 30km/h speed limit on residential streets more closely equalises the speed of bikes and vehicles, and globally it is becoming increasingly common as a means of protecting active transport users on the roads. As well as many European towns and cities, is it also used in central Wellington, New Zealand.

Dangerous close passing by motorists puts people off cycling. In Australia, most states and territories require a one-metre berth when overtaking, and this is also common in Europe and the US. New Zealand has a voluntary guideline of at least one metre and is investigating whether to make it a law.

Other factors that make a difference include bike-friendly public transport, the availability of bicycle parking that matches demand and employers who provide shower and changing facilities for cyclists.

Sydney in particular is growing out of its reputation as “the city that hates bikes”, a newspaper headline from 2010 that referred to an aggressive attitude coming from motorists. Hostility to cyclists often comes from right-leaning libertarians who consider that sharing the road with bikes represents an attack on their individual freedom. It would be a helpful first step for Facebook to delete its anti-cyclist hate groups rather than giving them a free pass, as these hostile sentiments can spill over into real life.

The pros and cons of e-bikes

In the last decade electric-boosted battery-powered e-bikes have really taken off. This has the advantages of extending the range that the average person can easily cycle, increasing the speed that can be achieved and facilitating cycling in hilly areas that deter many cyclists. E-bikes open up cycling to older people and those who are unfit. This is the fastest-growing area of cycling, and is an effective means of commuting. Public charging stations for e-bikes are starting to appear.

However, like all electric-boosted micromobility involving lithium-ion batteries, e-bikes are coming under increased scrutiny due to incidents where these batteries malfunction and cause domestic fires. Risks can be reduced by avoiding charging them overnight and by charging them outdoors, although batteries can still ignite spontaneously when not being charged. It is recommended to avoid items with second-hand lithium-ion batteries. In December 2022, one model of e-bikes made by Gyroor was recalled in the US due to the number of igniting battery incidents.

Share it

Borrowing rather than owning bikes and scooters, as a means of boosting uptake, is now a central part of the micromobility landscape, but it also goes back a long way. In Amsterdam in the mid-1960s, an anarchist group called Provo dreamed up the idea of a fleet of white-painted bicycles that anyone could borrow for free. Fifty of these were left on the streets for public use.

More recently, the Vélib free bike-share program was launched in Paris in 2007 and is now the largest of its kind in the world outside China. The idea quickly spread around the world, but eventually its shortcomings became evident. Supply outpaced demand, and many businesses failed. However, some of these bike hire programs are still running.

Phase 2, which still dominates, involves e-bikes and e-scooters, docking stations, pay-per-use and app-based systems that allow real-time location tracking. These mobility devices are kept charged in special charging docks, or often in the case of e-scooters, people are paid gig economy rates to locate those that need a charge and take them home for a top-up. All metropolitan centres in Australia and New Zealand have at least one micromobility option, often several.

In states and territories where they are permitted, e-scooters have a number of downsides, including only being allowed to be ridden on the pavement, competing for space with pedestrians. They are more accident-prone than other forms of micromobility, and dockless scooters are often left on the pavement where they represent a trip hazard. For hiring either an e-bike or e-scooter, a smartphone is usually required, which can be regarded as discriminatory against people who do not own one.

Transport to school

For children, to walk or cycle to school was once considered totally normal, but social values have changed. In Australia over the past 40 years, the rate of children using active transport to go to school has dropped precipitously from 75 per cent to 25 per cent. For New Zealand, the percentage of children walking or cycling to school dropped from 56 per cent in 1989–90 to 31 per cent in 2010–14. Contributing factors include concerns about road traffic growing busier, perceptions of stranger danger and a more spoiled and sheltered upbringing.

In recent years, the norm has been to drop off children at the school gate by car, with the resulting tendency toward greater obesity due to lack of exercise. In Australia, about 25 per cent of young people are classed as overweight, and in New Zealand this figure is even higher. The key is to find ways to encourage children to cycle or walk.

In the Netherlands, pedal-powered school buses are a social, active way for children to travel to school. These fit 11 children, have eight sets of pedals, and are powered by the passengers cycling. This allows them to travel at about 16km/h, and a backup motor is available if needed. A rain cover is an additional optional feature.

Another solution is for children to cycle their own bikes to school in formation, following a pre-arranged route and time schedule, and accompanied by adults cycling on the perimeter of the group. This model was pioneered in Barcelona, where it is known as the bicibús, and later spread to San Francisco and Scotland. In Australia, it has been used at Mareeba State School in Queensland.

Density and sprawl

Car-dependent suburban sprawl is a late 20th century phenomenon that encourages driving instead of active mobility, leads to greater levels of obesity and offers little stimulation as an environment for regular exercise. Conversely, greater urban density shortens distances, making suburbs more easily walkable or cyclable. The Heart Foundation in Australia has advocated for increased urban density in order to improve health outcomes.

In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs found that a higher concentration of people creates an interesting street life, vibrant communities and also more economic opportunities.

Her ideas were echoed by Australian activist and writer David Engwicht in his 1992 book Towards an Eco-City: Calming the Traffic, which explored the tensions between car-dominated planning and pedestrian-oriented development designed to maximise social, cultural and economic exchange opportunities. “Placemaking” is a more recent term for designing cities for human wellbeing and engagement.

New Urbanism is an American movement that arose in the 1980s, and which promotes a medium-density walkable model. It aims for suburbs that are more liveable and which make non-motorised active transport more viable.

For Australia and New Zealand, increased density means a substantial shift away from traditional ways of looking at suburban development. It can be done sensitively, with an emphasis on medium density instead of radically changing the urban character via the building of high-rise residential blocks.

Another relatively high-density idea is the 15-minute city model, developed by Carlos Moreno, a professor at Sorbonne University in Paris. The idea behind the 15-minute city is that a range of facilities can be reached via a 15-minute walk or cycle ride, effectively making each suburb more self-sufficient. This has been actively pursued by the city’s mayor, Anne Hildago, and was central to her 2020 re-election campaign. Already a dense city, Paris goes a long way to meeting the 15-minute goal; when I stayed in a central Paris hotel, the distance from the front door to the closest Internet café, supermarket or wholefood store was shorter than the walk down from the seventh floor to ground level. In Australia, Melbourne is pursuing a “20-minute neighbourhoods” vision under the name Plan Melbourne, with most needs available within a 20-minute walk.

This is part of a big picture in which the modern addiction to car mobility is reduced, and drivers more frequently stay within the boundaries of their neighbourhoods. In the historic British cities of Oxford and Canterbury, there are plans to divide residential areas into zones, with restrictions on direct car travel between them. There would however be no similar restrictions on walking and cycling.


  • Cycling and Walking Australia New Zealand reference group
  • Bicycle Network (Australia)
  • Safe Active Streets Program (Western Australian government)
  • New Urbanism
  • Melbourne 20-minute neighbourhoods

Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore.

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver writes for several Australian holistic publications including WellBeing on a range of topics, including environmental issues. He believes that the world is going through a major transition and he is keen to help birth a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable reality.

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