Improving Active Travel in Canberra

During my recent trip to Australia I stayed all of 30 hours in Canberra. A short, but at the same time very rich visit. I met many interesting people from a broad field. Not only the very nice people from Transport Canberra and the Dutch Embassy*, but also some passionate cycling advocates. I wrote about my stay earlier, especially about what I did and whom I met, but this time I would like to show you in more detail what is going on in Canberra with respect to cycling, or as the people there would broaden it: active travel.

An on-street cycle lane on Northbourne Avenue. A street with six lanes for motor traffic and soon the light rail track in the verge.

Some may argue this is a blog about cycling in the Netherlands and this would be off topic. But then I would say: we can all learn a lot from each other. It is not only good to look at the Netherlands, but it is also good to see what other countries are doing. What novelties they came up with and what ideas they borrowed from other places and how they adjusted them for their own situation. Some of their adjusted solutions might even be copied easier than the original examples.

Park & Pedal

Cycling is great, but -when distances become too large- cycling cannot always be a viable alternative to the car. In the Netherlands, we are fortunate that we have a vast train network. Doing a large chunk of your journey by train and then finishing the last bit on a bicycle is an unbeatable combination. Canberra shows us what you can do if you don’t have that train network. They have designated existing free car parks with excellent access to the cycling network as so-called Park & Pedal sites. When I visited the city, the first one had been in use for a month or so. In the meantime, 4 more locations have been opened. In the words of the Minister for Transport for Canberra, Meegan Fitzharris, “The car parks all provide free parking, good connections with major road networks and off-road paths to nearby suburbs. Each site offers a bike ride of around 30 minutes to key work locations. Most of the paths are sealed and one from Hackett offers a unique, off-road mountain bike experience to the city.”

The first Park & Pedal site at the Lindsay Pryor National Arboretum carpark.

The downside of this scheme is that you have to bring your own bike. It would be more convenient if the parking lots had secure bike hangars. In that case, the scheme would be exactly like the Park & Bike facility in the Netherlands that I wrote about earlier. Secure bicycle parking, or even personal lockers, certainly aren’t ruled out for the future, but that would be step 2. So far, the only facility on-site is a coffee van, but this scheme is already much better than doing nothing. If your budgets are limited you need to be resourceful and creative to get people to implement physical exercise in their daily routines. Fortunately, bringing your bike isn’t too hard in a country where on average cars are much larger than in Europe. This is making use of the local situation in a good way.

Stephen Hodge of the Australian Cycling Promotion Fund demonstrates how easy it is to operate a bike rack on this brand new Canberra bus, that was on the streets for the very first time that day. Another way of making multi-modal transportation possible.
Active Travel Streets

Taking advantage of the local situation is also done with the so-called Active Travel Streets, one of which is planned parallel to Northbourne Avenue. At this moment, a 6-lane main road into the city centre. It has on-street cycle lanes, but you would like separated cycle tracks on such a big road. Canberra’s first light rail to the north is currently under construction in the verge of this road. If only the city would take the opportunity to reconstruct the road to 2-lanes per direction for motor traffic and implement protected cycle tracks. Instead, Canberra is planning an Active Travel Street in a parallel back street. We don’t like routes in back streets in Europe. In the Netherlands, we usually build a detour for cars and then give the old -more direct- route to cycling. Back street routes, such as the ones in London, always send people cycling the long way around, into streets that weren’t designed for cycling,  and which aren’t in people’s mental map either. But in Australia (and most of North-America) cities have a perfectly straight street pattern. A route in the next parallel quiet street is exactly the same distance as the one on the main road and since it runs perfectly parallel, people can also understand where they are. In that case, it may not be such a bad idea at all. However, you would have to make such a street very clearly a main cycle route. I am not entirely sure yet that this will work out perfectly fine in Canberra.

This will be an Active Travel Street, Canberra’s equivalent of a Fietsstraat (Cycle Street).


Active Travel Streets are low-speed (30km/h limit), low-volume, traffic calmed streets optimised for pedestrian and bicycle travel. In other jurisdictions where this type of facility has been specifically developed for cycle routes, the facility is often called a “Bicycle Boulevard”. In the ACT this type of facility is always designed to cater equally to pedestrians (off-road with additional crossing facilities) and cyclists (on-road, mixed-traffic environment with additional traffic calming measures).

Active Travel Streets provide priority access along a major transport corridor by utilising traffic calmed local access streets usually paralleling a major arterial road. Active Travel Streets can be used for Main and Local Community Routes in both Estate Development and Retrofit situations and are particularly suited for retrofit use in inner urban environments.

From the DRAFT Municipal Infrastructure Standards Part 5 – Active Travel Facilities Design; Section 4.6.4

There are also things in Canberra that we do very differently in the Netherlands and for a good reason. On-street cycle lanes on a motorway are one example. Someone asked me: “How can we make the crossings of the cycle lanes and the slip lanes (the motorway exits and entries) safer?” to which there is only one answer: “You can’t!”. With speed differences that high, there is no way to make crossings of motorway exits safe. Sometimes crossings on motorway entries or exits do exist in the Netherlands, but we build them all the way at the end of the exit and at the exact beginning of the entrance. Because that is where the speed of motor vehicles is brought to an absolute minimum. This is where drivers need to be prepared to stop to merge with local traffic, or they have not yet started to gain speed to enter the freeway. We never build crossings at the location where drivers have just left the motorway and their speeds are still at motorway levels, or where they have just gained enough speed to safely merge with fast moving traffic on the motorway. You need to create cycle routes completely away from freeways and luckily Canberra already has many such routes.

Hair raising, this type of ‘cycling infrastructure’. On-street cycle lanes on a motorway are not a good idea. Note how invisible the person on a bicycle is in this picture. Even with a tail light on!

It would be an improvement for cycling if different parts of that network were connected better and if there would be more short cuts. Canberra is improving this off-road network. The paths, originally built for recreation, are being widened and crossings with roads are being improved. The team* showed me the new crossing of Masson Street. A crossing that now gives priority to cycling and walking over motor traffic. Every driver I saw gave cycling the right of way. And there were many people on bicycles that day, despite the rain. We would design the crossing a bit different in the Netherlands. We would make it flush for cycling. But in Australia the speed of the average person on a bicycle is much higher and it could be dangerous if they would take this crossing at that higher speed. A driver would have less time to react to these people on bikes. So it may not be such a bad idea to slow down cycling in the approach, as is done for motor traffic. It also gives storm water a place to run off to the gullies. And that that is very necessary, was clearly demonstrated on the extremely wet day I visited.

The former crossing at Masson Street (picture Google StreetView).
The current crossing at Masson Street. That excess water should have run off quickly. Canberra experienced record breaking rains the day I visited.
Light Rail Network

The new light rail network that Canberra is developing and building offers unprecedented opportunities when it comes to active travel. It is a pity Northbourne Avenue won’t likely get protected cycle tracks now that it will have to be redesigned anyway when the light rail tracks are finished, but other opportunities shouldn’t be missed. Any station in the suburbs could become a transport hub. Stations always function as a new neighbourhood centre. Many people passing will attract businesses; such as coffee corners and (small) supermarkets. If good and safe cycling infrastructure would be created as well as secure bicycle parking facilities, people could cycle to the new stations and continue their journey to the city centre by light rail. Very similar to how this works in the Netherlands. This would be a major step in normalising cycling for every day purposes. (Relaxing the mandatory helmet laws in Australia would also help very much, but that is a different story altogether.) Creating cycling infrastructure in suburbs is a lot easier than in city centres. A win-win situation.

A detail of Canberra’s Cycle Map., the red dotted line represents the future light rail route.

But this requires political leadership with a long-term vision and larger investments. I know the people in the department for Transport are more than ready for this step, but whether politicians and the general public are on the same page, is something I cannot judge. If you could link this to other challenges in society, such as the rate of overweight and obese people in Canberra (63% of adults and about 25% of the children!), for which active travel could do wonders, more could possibly be achieved. In any case, interesting things are already happening in Canberra. I am looking forward to following future developments.

My video portrait of Canberra.

* I was shown parts of Canberra by Anna Gurnhill, Andrew Pedersen and Chris Hocking of the ACT Department for Transport and Lilian Mellink of the Netherlands Embassy, for which I cannot thank them enough.

15 thoughts on “Improving Active Travel in Canberra

  1. Great to hear your thoughts on cycling in Canberra – I still find some parts of it terrifying!!

  2. I would like to thank You for a brilliant job You have been doing. I love the films and your passion for bicycles. If somebody asked me : Have you ever seen a kind of bicycle heaven, I would reply< of course I have, It is Holland 🙂 Great job man, hat off my head to you

  3. Dutch cycle route crossing slip road: this example in Delft. Admittedly, it’s not a motorway (70 kph trunk road), the crossing is at a 90° angle and visibility is good… but it’s not at the very end of the slip road.

  4. Bicycle Hub opening this month at Hollywood/Vine subway station in Los Angeles, Parking for 65 bicycles. More of these are going to be built along the 100 miles of rail lines in LA county. Bicycle Hubs, bicycle sharing and an increasing number of miles of protected bike lanes are going to be installed in LA county in the next few years.

    1. I can not understand why anyone would want to drive a car in LA (or anywhere for that matter) and not ride a bicycle. The health, environmental and financial benefits are real, measurable and spectacular. The right efforts need to be put in presenting this vital information to the masses. We need to change the cultural mindset, and the grossly expanded waistlines and all the grief that goes with it!

  5. Great blog.
    The green bike lanes are not as terrible as you think. Evidence from my Fly6 camera shows that drivers slow down or speed up to give plenty of space to me.
    The lanes also have a ‘safe option’; an area on the left to stop and wait before riding across the exit or entry lane.
    I ride quickly, so I try to merge with traffic without either me or the driver slowing down too much.
    But a separated, wide lane for bicycles on more roads would be nice.

  6. Hi Mark,
    Very interesting post mate.If you ever come to Adelaide look us up at the Port Adelaide BUG. We’d like to show you a new 14km Greenway into the City Centre which will be open around about then. It’s an off-road/quiet-road ‘bike highway’ strategy which we’ve been working towards for the past 12 years. We think it’s another important strategy to consider in an urban landscape that forgot about bikes for many decades.
    Sam, PortBUG.

  7. Great Post!
    Will we see a post on helmets? and Will we see a post on Perth?

  8. Almost.

    I lived in Canberra for about 8 months a while ago and my one word description of the place quickly became…Almost.
    Canberra is considered a leading light in Australia for cycling infrastructure. There are some very good sections…mostly not connected. Bike symbols painted on the road shoulder on high speed motorways. Away from the road you can enjoy meandering, ancient, narrow, dilapidated footpaths.
    Good cycling infrastructure…Almost.

    I would be able to use my Adelaide Zoo membership in Perth, Melbourne or Sydney. Can I use it in Canberra? No. The National Zoo and Aquarium is a private zoo.
    National Zoo?…Almost.

    The National Arboretum is a massive coffee shop, playground for the kids and acres of trees…about 2 feet high. It will be fantastic in about 100 years. Almost.

    Canberra often makes me smile. It’s great…Almost.

    1. The Arboretum has a great climb loop. Dairy Farmers Hill (clockwise) is a relentless challenge. Anti-clockwise the climb is in sections, but it is easy to blow up. The first time I reached the top I was seeing stars!

  9. If you could show the real benefits of using a bicycle as the major form of transportation to the masses then it is possible to have safe, dedicated bicycle paths connecting everywhere in the world.

    The smartphone caught on very quickly. I believe the same can happen with bicycling. The benefits, which are dramatic, have to be presented in an effective way.

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