Cycling in Sydney – is it riskier than it used to be?

Cycling in Sydney - how risky is it really?

Cycling in Sydney – how risky is it really?

In the last few weeks, there have been some nasty cycling accidents in Sydney. I’ve been a cyclist commuter in Sydney off and on since 1996, and my first reaction (particularly as one of the cyclists killed was a neighbour of mine) is to think that I should stop cycling, because it is just so risky these days.

But is it? I decided to see what I could find out, and in particular, whether the number of kilometres of cycling had increased by more than the number of deaths. And I thought I would see what I could find out about injuries, too.  The first place I looked was a report entitled Cycling in NSW – What the Data tells us. According to this report:

There is no single central source, repository or clearing-house for data about cycling in NSW. Data is collected by a variety of NSW Government agencies, local councils and cycling organisations. Available bicycle usage data is recorded at varying levels of detail, reliability and quality. Datasets on cycling infrastructure are updated intermittently and standard terminology is often applied inconsistently. Richer datasets are available on commuter cycling than recreational cycling.

My favourite comment:

Injury data may be both under-reported and double-counted.

For anyone interested in cycling statistics this is a fantastic report (despite the initial disclaimers about the data), and well worth reading in its entirety. But for my purposes, since it was written in 2008, it doesn’t really tell me what I want to know, which is what is happening in the trend. To understand this, we need to know two things. First, we need to have some view of the number of serious accidents and deaths involving cyclists, with a trend. Second, we need to have some view of how much cycling is happening. As the report notes above, this data isn’t great.

graph of cycling stats since 1996So what I did was look at three different ways of adjusting the population for changes in cycling rates:

  • Looking at the census measure of proportion of trips to work that were cycling trips (in 2001, 2006 and 2011) and adjusting the population for that change – this proportion grew by  3% more than the population growth in NSW over the same time period, a total of 34% over 10 years (but this is only a commuter measure).
  • Looking at the number of trips over the Harbour bridge and Anzac bridge per day and how it changed between 2007 and 2013 – the number of trips (averaging the two bridges) increased by 10% per annum over that time period, a total of 80% over six years – this measures weekday and weekend use, so might be a better measure of exposure.
  • Looking at the information from the NSW Household Travel Survey of the proportion of trips that were made by bicycle (this proportion was so small it only could be seen in the detailed tables, and reduced from 0.64% of all trips to 0.55% of all trips between 2001 and 2011). In other words, this survey shows the opposite to the other two.

So for two of my measures, the proportion of the population cycling went up since 2001, and for one, the proportion went down. On balance, I do believe that there is more cycling happening now than there was when I first started riding a bike on Sydney’s streets nearly 20 years ago. The census has the biggest coverage (which matters, with the small numbers we are talking about), and is backed up by real numbers on the streets.

So am I safer now than I was then?

In 1996 there were 218 reported cycling injuries and 2.1 deaths per million population in NSW. In 2012, my three different possible measures give between 81 and 149 injuries per million population (after adjusting for the amount of cycling happening). I don’t have injury figures for 2013, but for deaths (which went up between 2012 and 2013) there were between  1.0 and 2.0 deaths per million population (with various adjustments for exposure to cycling deaths). The injury statistics have more chance of changes in reporting in that time, but (fortunately) the numbers of deaths are small enough that any individual year is quite volatile.

Even if I believe the NSW Transport study, I still seem to be slightly less likely to die on the streets, and quite a lot less likely to get injured.

Judging by the number of deaths, cycling does seem to have got a bit riskier in NSW in 2013 and 2014 than it was in the previous couple of years. But overall, it is still safer than it was when I started.

I will mourn my neighbour, who used to wave cheerily at our family on our Sunday morning bike rides, while he worked on his bike. But I’m going to keep riding Sydney’s streets.



NSW Household Travel Survey 2011/12

Bicycle Usage Data for NSW selected data collection points

Australian Bureau of Statistics (Census data about mode of travel to work on census night)

Transport for NSW annual Statistics on Road accidents and monthly information

Bonus graph since 1961

Bonus graph since 1961


  20 comments for “Cycling in Sydney – is it riskier than it used to be?

  1. Daniel
    May 26, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Hi Jennifer – great job of pulling all the data together from a range of sources! It is interesting to note that injuries appear to be trending down overall, despite all the recent attention on how risky cycling is!

  2. May 26, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    Hi Jennifer,
    Really interesting post – thank you.
    I’m presently working on a cyclist safety awareness campaign so all of this information is front of mind right now.

  3. James
    May 26, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    It would have been nice to find the number of deaths and injuries per trip, hour and kilometer, so that the current figures could be compared with the ATSB report that showed cyclists to be at about the same risk as motor car drivers. 0.86 fatalities per million trips in 1985-6.

    • Jennifer Lang
      May 26, 2014 at 6:17 pm

      Yes, I was trying to find good measures of exposed to risk (in actuarial jargon) but in my Sunday afternoon exploration failed to find any. If any other readers can point me in the right direction, I’d love to do better analysis.

  4. Canberracyclist
    May 26, 2014 at 7:50 pm

    Great article. Thanks for posting.

    I hope that your article is also representative of another trend in Australia: increased advocacy for cycling and cycling safety.

    After living in Denmark for 3 years, I truly hope we can invest (over time) in a comprehensive network of separated bike lanes. It’s the best way to keep commuting cyclists safe. But until then, articles like yours keep the message to motorists fresh, that is: watch out for the growing numbers of cyclists on our roads.

    Keep up the good work. Cheers.

    • James
      May 27, 2014 at 8:17 am

      You are correct of course, Canberracyclist, that a comprehensive network of high quality separated bicycling facilities would provide the safest opportunity for people to ride.

      For the most part, however, I consider this little more than a pipe dream. I know Clover Moore has put in some bike lanes and increased ridership in Sydney. In Melbourne also, there are new facilities arriving frequently. Sadly the one’s I’ve experienced fall way short of what a Dutchman would describe as good quality. So much so, I refuse to use the majority of them, because I feel in more danger.

      The sad part is, there are well established methods for cyclists to ride as part of road traffic in relative safety, yet many advocacy groups refuse to try to educate cyclists on these methods. What hope is there of teaching our children to ride properly given the facilities we have, if the advocacy groups wont step up?

      Then there is this fascination with a secondary safety device (a helmet), while primary safety devices, like proper bicycle lights and good working brakes, are laregly ignored by safety campaigns. Even driving instructors don’t know how to behave around cyclists. I had stern words with an RACV instructor not so long ago. The police too, can often be unhelpful, unwilling to push for more onerous charges than the bare minimum. A friend ended up with multiple fractures and life threatening injuries as the result of a truck driver being impatient and not passing at a safe distance. The truck driver only got an on the spot fine and 1 demerit point. The rider was left with life changing injuries – nearly dead.

      What we really need is a shift in road use culture. In Italy, for example, there are very few bicycle facilities, yet people ride without helmets, drivers are patient, proceed with caution, and are not afraid to cross the white line to give cyclists as much room as possible.

      One reason for this is that a far greater portion of Italians ride a bicycle for utility purposes and leasure. Bicycle transport is part of their culture. For us a bicycle has been a kids toy for generations, and someone riding a bicycle is a hinderance – little more.

  5. Russell Miles
    May 26, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    I follow a cycling link to your fascinating site. Very interesting about injury and death rate amongst cyclist declining. There has long been a contention in cycling fields that mandatory helmet use may have increased dangers by discouraging cycling, eg, with fewer cyclist the incidents of head injury and death went up, even though in total numbers hospital trauma declined. I guess like reducing the road toll by taking many cars off the road. Anyway, like you I have a bemusement by actuarial data. One interest is spectacular decrease in violence toward women and children in recent years, whereas popular impression is that such is worsened. I learnt to avoid phrases like,”the current number of infant deaths is the lowest since records were made” as folk would accuse me of suggesting that some level was acceptable. I now try to say “that is if trends had continue from 1997, there would have been two thousand more suicides today in Australia.” I certainly avoid quoting death rates per 100,000 as eyes just glaze over. So I like seeing your work.

  6. Rick Harker
    May 28, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    Interesting stats despite being not comprehensive enough to declare any sort of quantitive decisions. I used to cringe at the adverse news of cyclists but for my own self assessed records I have seen many potentially dangerous situations.
    When I now hear or read of bad news I question the circumstances first. There are many cases where a cyclist would put themselves in a precarious position and make themselves vulnerable.
    Many complain about bad cycling situations but I’m sure there are alternatives if you feel at risk.
    I cycle often and choose when and where I ride. Being completely defensive helps. Despite that there is still that one bad element of chance.

    • James
      May 29, 2014 at 8:30 am

      Rick, exactly my point about cyclists education of Vehicular Cycling techniques.

  7. suze
    May 29, 2014 at 10:25 pm

    I’ve been cycling in Sydney (and London) for (eek)almost 40 years now. I have no doubt that numbers have increased dramatically. I recently saw a stat about increase in numbers in past few years of cyclists going into the CBD each weekday – it was a very high increase (probably counted by Clover Moore/city of Sydney). I know when I returned to live in Sydney from London, I was aware of being almost a rarity as a woman cyclist aged over 40. Now I see many women cycling and some over 55 (like me). I’m sure cycleways are having a big impact – for me, living very centrally, I can travel to most places within a 5km radius using a big proportion of cycleways. I ride to work every day and 85% of my ride is off-street. That feels safer (except for the risk of collision with other bikes!) My only major accident during my riding ‘career’ happenned on a street that was empty of motor vehicles – therefore a driver entering from a side street did not visually register me on my bike, he just thought he saw an empty strip of road and drove straight into me.

  8. suze
    May 29, 2014 at 10:30 pm

    By the way, I also ride very defensively – I have no qualms about going onto a footpath to keep myself safe. I avoid major roads and will always take a quiet back route that’s a bit longer rather than a busy street that’s direct. I get upset when I see cyclists riding along in places like Cleveland St – there are plenty of back lanes nearby, much safer.

    • James
      May 30, 2014 at 8:32 am

      Hi Suze. I applaud your 40 years or relatively accident free cycling. If only you could pass on your methods and wisdom to others. I’m sure you’ve encountered drivers and riders alike who could benefit from some pearls of wisdom.

      I’ve spent most of my life riding around Melbourne and country Victoria. I’ve made a few trips around Brisbane and Maitland/Newcastle, and I spent a couple of weeks riding around the country South of London, around Crawley.

      I’ve never cycled in Sydney or London though, and curious to know how you feel they compare?

  9. suze
    May 31, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    London is a much more cycle-friendly city than Sydney. It’s flatter, the streets are generally broader with more space between parked cars and moving traffic. The traffic generally moves much more slowly than in Sydney (and with the congestion charge there’s now much less of it) and drivers are not as impatient.
    Of course it’s not Nirvana and there have been too many deaths in London in recent years – partly because it has also seen a huge increase in commuter cycling (even though it was always more of a cycling city than Sydney.) The other thing I like about London is that all sorts of people ride bikes and they ride in their ordinary clothes – you don’t see as many lycra-cyclists.
    When we were living there a few years ago and my son was in primary school, the kids did a ride-safety course and it was actually designed for them to become street cyclists, whereas here such courses are usually about teaching kids to learn to ride in parks. But maybe things are changing here – I now know some teenagers who ride to school – a return to the past!
    I have noticed that many of the deaths in London occur at big roundabouts. I would always try and avoid such roundabouts (often 4-8 streets converging and very chaotic conditions in the roundabout) – but if I had to go through one, I would either get off and walk or ride at the edge and stop if necessary – I’d never go through the middle where lots of lanes of traffic are doing different things.
    I did read an article in (maybe) The Guardian in the past year that speculated about the possibility of more deaths of women cyclists in London and wondering whether that’s because they weren’t as fast and aggressive as men and so stayed in risky situations rather than accelerating away (such as trucks or buses turning left at an intersection and squashing the poor cyclist who’s stopped there – has almost happened to me once in Sydney, luckily I was able to fall onto the footpath to get out of the way).

    • James
      June 2, 2014 at 8:38 am

      An excellent comparison. Thanks, Suze.

  10. Fiona
    June 1, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    Thanks, Jennifer. Good work pulling together the available data.
    It’s a shame that there has been no exposure data since the 1985 INSTAT study.

  11. Jennifer Lang
    June 4, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    Thanks for all the comments everyone, it has been fascinating. The alert reader might notice that the picture accompanying this article has my two sons with their bikes at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair (early on a Sunday morning). They are 12 and 11, and to get there, had to cycle through the Sydney city and up Macquarie St. Interested in people’s views as to whether that is a sensible idea or not. It felt a bit scary at the time (certainly scarier than the quiet North Shore at that time of the morning.

  12. suze
    June 5, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    I find that I want to encourage my son to ride and not rely on car transport, on the other hand if I think about him actually making trips by road to get anywhere, I feel afraid. Partly as he’s not very street-smart. In the coming school hols he’ll be doing a workshop at Redfern which is convoluted to reach from our place by public transport but quite quick on a bike. If I can find some time I’ll try and ride there with him the weekend before, to show him all the cycleways and back routes. But I know it will make me nervous.

  13. Scott Collings
    July 20, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    Hi Jennifer
    Love the article, an issue I have often thought about too. I’ve been cycling for fitness seriously about 8 years now and I can’t say I have noticed the roads getting any safer, but a sample of one is not exactly statistically significant. In my observation the attitude of drivers is a big difference between Sydney and Europe. In Sydney verbal abuse and even physical threats are things I have witnessed first hand on multiple occasions, cyclists seem to inspire rage in a certain section of the driving community (ute driving young tradesmen most particularly). What else explains a car slowing down to hurl abuse at you on a quiet traffic free and 4 lane suburban road at 6 in the morning. In stark contrast the amount of respect shown by French, Italian and Spanish drivers is almost disconcerting. Attitude towards road ‘sharing’ is clearly part of the problem here.

    As far as data goes I think you have a gold mine in the making and it’s called Strava. It is the cycling equivalent of telematics for cars, recording the precise GPS coordinates of every cycling trip. It’s mostly used more as a training tool by cyclists so commuting exposure may be underrepresented but like most social media it is taking over and in due course it will provide a very good idea of where and how much cycling happens, pretty much everywhere. Of course, the problem of too much data will then be the issue, but as actuaries that’s a nice problem to have.

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