‘A hostile environment for cycling’: decline in children’s bike imports to Australia raises red flags among health experts

Learning to ride a bicycle considered ‘a basic rite of passage’ but fewer Australian children are participating

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 4:59pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 5:01pm

The number of children’s bicycles imported into Australia for sale has fallen by 22 per cent in the past decade, prompting concern that children are not being encouraged to be active.

The data shows that 492,000 child bikes were imported by wholesalers in 2007-08, compared with 382,000 in 2016-17.

Bicycle Industries Australia’s general manager, Peter Bourke, has been compiling the data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics for the past 20 years.

He said the numbers were concerning when considered alongside data from the Australian Cycling Participation survey, which found modest declines in cycling participation among children under 10 in particular in the past two years.

“There’s certainly a number of challenges to children cycling, especially to school, with kids perhaps not living close to their school or having to cross major roads on their route which their parents believe are unsafe,” Bourke said.

We need to start designing cities for people to be able move and not just for cars to be able to move
Peter Bourke, Bicycle Industries Australia

“There are also a lot of other barriers including in the way we build our communities, which are not always welcoming to people walking and riding, even for those making a short trip to school or the shops. There might be a lot of traffic or a lack of bike paths, and if parents don’t feel safe cycling then they probably won’t let their kids cycle either.

“We need to start designing cities for people to be able move and not just for cars to be able to move. And we have to design for children, and for mothers and fathers.”

Bourke said the import data was the best reflection of how many children were taking up cycling, as less than 0.01 per cent of bikes sold were made in Australia.

“We don’t actually have data on sales of the bikes from the retailer but we do know that 99 per cent of bikes imported by the wholesalers are sold, whether it be within one week or several months,” he said. “We have also seen a decline in the number of adult bicycles being imported into Australia but the decline is nowhere near as severe.”

Prof Chris Rissel from the University of Sydney’s school of public health co-authored a national report on barriers to cycling participation. He said learning to ride a bicycle should be “a basic rite of passage for children”.

Rissel said cycling was also an easy way for children to be active.

“While there has been a steady decline in bicycle sales over the years, what we are now seeing is a drop that is dramatic,” he said. “This is most likely to be due to concerns around cycling safety, which is the biggest deterrent for adults, who are then reluctant to let their kids participate in what they perceive as being a risky environment.”

He added that cycling laws in New South Wales were among the most onerous in the world, with cyclists facing hundreds of dollars in fines for riding without a helmet or failing to stop at a pedestrian crossing.

“The penalties are out of proportion and create a hostile environment for cycling,” Rissel said. “We do know that what we need to do to make cities more cycle-friendly is build bike lanes and make cars slow cars down.”

However, he said the plus side of more cars on the road was heavy congestion that slowed traffic or brought it to a halt, making roads safer for cyclists.

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On Tuesday, the Australian Health Policy Collaboration and the Heart Foundation will hold a round table to discuss a national approach to active travel to and from school for children, as 71 per cent of children and 92 per cent of those aged between 12 and 17 do not meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity.

The National Heart Foundation chief executive, adjunct prof John Kelly, said children should get one hour per day of exercise.

“It is vital we encourage daily physical activity for all our children and the daily trip to school is one of the best value investments we can make for their future health,” Kelly said.