Biggest Barrier to Biking Is the Fear of Cars

A study confirms that if we are serious about getting people on bikes, they need a safe place to ride.

Biking in Melbourne

Prasit Photo / Getty Images

It is a mantra on Treehugger that three things are needed for a bike and e-bike revolution: good affordable bikes, safe places to ride, and secure places to park. But all three things are not of equal weight. A new study, "Barriers and enablers of bike riding for transport and recreational purposes in Australia," based on surveys in Melbourne, finds that the fear of being squished by a car far outweighs any other consideration.

One would think that Melbourne would be bicycle heaven, with its relatively flat topography and moderate climate. Yet overall, only 1.7% of trips are made by bike.

The cycling rate gets higher in the inner city areas but is still very low. Study author Lauren Pearson noted in an earlier article that the infrastructure is not terrific, with 99% of existing on-ride bike infrastructure being painted bike lanes with no separation. The bike lanes also don't necessarily go where people want to go:

"Common to many cities in Australia and around the world is what’s known as the 'radial planning fallacy,' where transport systems are designed to optimise trips from outer-urban areas to city centres or businesses, rather than to facilitate local trips. The majority of protected bike paths or lanes in Melbourne are radial in design, with a lack of connectivity between existing paths."

The new study differentiated between recreational riders and those using their bikes for transportation, asking which factors deter them from riding and which encourage or enable them.

Barriers to cycling

Lauren Pearson, et al.

As seen in the table, three of the top four reasons for not riding were directly related to being squished by cars. The study notes, "Consistent with previous literature, over half of the sample reported barriers that related to physical separation between people riding cars and motor vehicle traffic. These included not wanting to ride on the road with motor vehicle traffic, concern about collision with a motor vehicle and concerns about motorist aggression." 

Precipitiation in Melbourne
Precipitation in Melbourne, Australia.


The high number of people put off by bad weather was surprising, although a look at Weather Spark shows a fair amount of rain. However, a look at the same chart for Vancouver, Canada, shows twice as much rain, and the cycling rate there is 7.3%. But even the weather complaints may also be about the lack of decent bike lanes.

"While often assumed to be due to appearance-related issues and comfort levels in colder or warmer weather, there is some evidence that people perceive severe weather as a safety-related issue. This includes concern about surfaces that become slippery when wet such as tram tracks, lower visibility when riding on the road with cars, and other safety-related concerns about being on the road with motor vehicle traffic in suboptimal weather conditions. There is evidence that the impact of weather as a barrier to cycling is dependent on the infrastructure available."
Enablers for cycling

Lauren Pearson, et al.

The other side of this study is the look at enablers—about what encourages people to ride bikes. They want to ride to improve their physical and mental health, reduce their environmental impact, and save money, but what would enable them to do this is a physically separated bike lane.

The study concludes that people want to ride but are afraid to. It broke the respondents up into groups, and even 60.6% of "strong and fearless/enthused and confident" riders said a physically separated bike lane would encourage them to ride more. Among the "interested but concerned" prospects, the biggest group in the survey, 73.9%, put the bike lanes as the top enabler. So it's clear that if a goal is to get more people on bikes, to move them from "interested but concerned" to "enthused and confident," you need proper physically separated bike lanes. And not just on the radial commuter routes—a big barrier was "bike lanes do not go to my destination."

As the study concludes:

"This study provides important context to an area of substantial latent potential in cycling, but low participation. We demonstrated while people experience a range of barriers and enablers to cycling for transport and recreation, factors relating to riding on the road alongside motor vehicle traffic were most prominent." 
Precipitation Montreal
Precipitation in Montreal.


The study also shows the lines we hear all the time from those complaining about bike lanes— "nobody uses them, it rains too much," or "nobody rides in winter"—are not true. There seems to be little correlation between weather and cycling rate. Montreal, which is freezing and snow-covered in winter and has more rain than Melbourne, has an 18.2% rate of cycling usage. It's all about the bike lanes.

View Article Sources
  1. Pearson, Lauren, et al. "Barriers and enablers of bike riding for transport and recreational purposes in Australia." Journal of Transport & Health, vol. 28, Jan. 2023. doi:10.1016/j.jth.2022.101538

  2. Chan, Kenneth. "Vancouver ranked the 2nd best city in North America for cycling." Urbanized. Daily Hive. 14 May 2019.