Bike Futures is a Melbourne-based annual conference, organised by Bicycle Network Victoria. Now in it’s 5th year, it attracts expert thinkers and practitioners in cycling from around the world. With the vision (coincidentally parallel to the vision of Bicycle Network Victoria) of building the capacity of local governments to get More People Cycling More Often, this is the range of themes to be explored at the 2013 conference:
- How to design intersections with riders in mind
- Separation on-road
- Behaviour change – effective programs, strategies and case studies
- Data – quantitative and qualitative including census analysis
- Effective Bike Parking – on-site and on-street
- Bike planning in outer-suburban and peri-urban environments
- Making the case – economic analysis and bikes e.g. Benefit cost ratios
- How to make bikes and public transport work together
- Health imperatives in local government and the essential roles that bikes play
- How to Community engagement and consultation with riders
- Developing the environment for recreational riders
- Overcoming barriers: The politics of bikes
- Around the next corner - the implications of electric bikes
- Reducing speed limits
- Bike tourism and regional rail trails
- Closing city streets to promote bikes and physical activity
In a city that prides itself on how many people get around by bike on a daily basis – amongst those who ride that is, and those who are advocates for sustainable and active transport solutions – it has become somewhat poignant (that’s being kind, it’s actually dreadfully ironic,) that in the 2012 conference, the Keynote Address, given by the Honorable Terry Mulder, Minister for Public Transport & Roads, stated unequivocally the Victorian Government’s position that cycling has a future in the state of Victoria.
A YouTube clip of his address is below, but from the Bicycle Network Victoria website, this is a summary of what Terry Mulder had to say:
“I want to use today to formally restate the government support for cycling.
“Our position on cycling is quite clear – we recognise cycling as an important transport mode.
“We want to lift the status of the two wheeled option beyond solely recreational and into realms of very serious transport, to encourage cycling as a means of replacing the many short trips undertaken by car or public transport and to integrate cycling into the mainstream of private transport.
“I’m certainly keen to remove any stigma that might be attached to cycling that it’s not a valid mode of transport.
“I recognise that cycling is one of a number of ways we can meet the huge growth in demand for transport, particularly peak hour transport.”
What does a Keynote Address at the Bike Futures Conference have to do with bike mechanics, or bike technicians, servicing bikes?
I am an everyday cyclist. Riding off and on for 40-something years now, daily bike riding is a means of getting around. It is not an exclusive means, but it is a means I prefer. Cycling as transport is ranked above public transport, walking, and driving a motor vehicle, in that order. I ride to be healthy. I ride to make a small footprint on the planet. I ride because I enjoy it: no, I ride because I love it.
Especially with my kids.
I lead a reasonably busy life. I’m employed in a public health service 4 days a week, I’m a Dad to 2 children under the age of 7, and I need to do the ordinary things on a daily basis, such as taking kids to and from school or kinder, getting to and from work, housework, shopping, playing with the kids, going to the footy, so on and so on.
What I find difficult to fit in is regularly servicing my bike(s). I leave that to a short list of reputable Local Bike Shops in inner Melbourne, that I have come to know and trust over the last decade or so. Local Bike Shops such as Commuter Cycles in Coburg, Human Powered Cycles in Thornbury, VeloCycles in North Carlton, and Abbotsford Cycles in Richmond. Depending on what’s on in my weekly schedule, and where I’m going to be geographically, I’ll book into any of these shops with confidence.
I rely on these Local Bike Shops to expertly and efficiently service my machine(s). My trust in them is based on their professional expertise. What is most important to me is that these Local Bike Shops all employ qualified (and if not fully qualified, expertly supervised,) Bike Mechanics.
However, and this is the nub of my argument, it would appear that the expert trade of Bicycle Mechanics is going to be actively extinguished, by State and Territory-based governments across Australia ( the Victorian Liberal Government in particular), from an arbitrary, or at least misinformed view on the worth of Cycling as valid transport, Cycling as a valid career path, Cycling as an industry that generates billions of dollars of revenue and millions of dollars in tax revenue annually.
On the one hand, the evidence for a steadily growing uptake of cycling in Australia is clear. Naysayers may dismiss cycling as the exclusive domain of middle-aged males in lycra or ‘MAMILS’, first described in this BBC News Online piece in 2010, and now adopted as a term of disparagement in Australia, but 6 years of evidence obtained through the Australia-wide Ride2Work Day indicate that more people are in fact, cycling more often.
Why do people take up cycling? And what keeps them riding?
Recent evidence supports personal health, and a means of getting from A to B as the most important reasons. At least once a week, it’s reported in any reputable media outlet that Australia is in the midst of an obesity epidemic. As new housing pushes to the fringes of capital cities, obesogenic environments are created. New housing developments encourage a sedentary lifestyle; getting from A to B is in a motor car, because there isn’t public transport, let alone bicycling infrastructure, and it’s usually a short trip, less than 5 kilometres. A recent Victorian Parliamentary inquiry into Environmental Design and Public Health clearly stated that Australian people are becoming more obese. The findings of the Committee were: Urban planning contributes to obesogenic environments; as does car dependance, and infrastructure that discourages walking or cycling; a paucity of public transport also contributes. Most pertinent is ‘Recommendation 31′:
That the Victorian government:
- reviews cycling infrastructure, with a particular focus on improving for Melbourne’s outer suburbs and Victoria’s regional cities
- sets measurable targets and promotes activities such as the Ride2School Program to increase cycling participation, and review targets on an annual basis.
A slowly growing trend of cycling commuters choose to make a decision to confront hostile vehicular traffic, a dearth of infrastructure, and actively manage their health on a daily basis. In the Melbourne City Council geographical area, there is a daily average throughput of some 80,000+ cyclists. The Council recently put out a Draft Bicycle Plan 2012-16, with the clear aim of making Melbourne ‘a cycling city with safe and connected bicycle routes.’ The City Council’s goals with this Bicycle Plan are to:
- plan and deliver a connected cycling network
- build high quality routes for local cycling trips
- increase participation in cycling
- make cycling safer.
Melbourne City Council’s Bicycle Plan mirrors world’s best practice in encouraging and facilitating greater participation in cycling as active transport. This is encouraging more people to cycle more often.
There is a clear evidence based argument that cycling contributes very well to the Australian economy. Bicycle Industries Australia reported in 2011 that collectively, Local Bike Shops employ over 10,000 people, and raise $139 million in tax revenue a year.
In 2011, a consortium of the Australia Local Government Association, the Bus Industry Confederation, the Cycling Promotion Fund, the National Heart Foundation of Australia and the International Association of Public Transport, put together a submission to the Australian Government – ‘An Australian Vision For Active Transport.‘
The Report urged the Australian Government to:
- Develop an integrated national active transport strategy that empbraces policy and planning for the major components: walking, cycling and public transport.
- Develop clear and realistic targets for active transport and physical activity outcomes.
- Provide local government authorities with substantial, sustained and targeted funding for active transport.
- Support the development and widespread application of Healthy Spaces and Places planning principles.
- Encourage active domestic tourism by funding major regional projects such as rail trails, cycle routes and hiking tracks.
- Promote a safe environment for people who choose to walk, cycle or take public transport and review jurisdictional approaches to the legislative protection of vulnerable road users.
- Fund social marketing programs to promote the many benefits of walking and cycling for people of all ages.
- Support cycle training and pedestrian education in schools.
- Provide incentives for employers to encourage employees to walk, cycle or take public transport to work.
What can be concluded from the overwhelming evidence that cycling participation in Australia is going to continue to grow at an exponential rate?
Potentially more retail sales of bicycles, parts and accessories. Potentially more bike shops selling more bikes: to MAMILS, Mums with kids, tertiary students in need of cheap transport, school-age children, the retired – all of them in need of personal transport, exercise and a social activity.
As this growing daily uptake of cyclists and the next generation of cycling consumers procure their bikes, how do they keep the bike in good nick? Do they hop on the Internet, go to a library to find books on bike maintenance, put up a notice in their local coffee shop looking for cheap (dodgy, backyard) bike maintenance?
No. They go back to the Local Bike Shop they bought the bike from.
After all, even VicRoad’s definition of a bicycle is that it is a vehicle that has two or more wheels, built to be propelled by human power through a belt, chain or gears.
This bikely vehicle, as a form of machine (some would say ‘The Beautiful Machine’), needs regular maintenance, to principally keep the operator of the vehicle safe, doesn’t it?
Who carries out the maintenance?
A qualified Bike Mechanic, surely…..
For now that is the case. But within a generation, probably not.
In Australia, the tertiary level business of educating young men and women with a technical trade is moribund. It’s official. In most States and Territories of Australia, there is a real skills shortage in trade level qualifications. COAG – the Council of Australian Governments – early in 2012 all signed up to ‘transform the nation’s training system’, and fix the skills shortage. So the Australian Government launched a website, for prospective trainees to find a course they’re interested in. MySkills purports to make the job of sourcing a traineeship easier. However, in the case of a Certificate III in Bike Mechanics, even though the course content is listed, according to MySkills there appear to be no providers that offer the training.
On the other hand, a quick Internet search finds 3 TAFE providers in the whole of Australia that do provide a Certificate III in Bike Mechanics: SkillsTech Australia, in Queensland; rather obscurely, the Motor Trader’s Association of New South Wales offers a New Apprenticeship in Automotive Bicycle Mechanics – I kid you not! And in Taree, on the mid-North coast of New South Wales, a picturesque seaside town with a standing population of 20,000, you can do a Certificate III in Bicycle Workshop Operations.
Locally, in Victoria, the one institution that had provided professional training in bike mechanics closed it’s doors to that option as recently as April this year.
In a city that has 80,000+ cyclists riding through it on any given day there is no longer training available in Bike Mechanics.
Remember Minister Mulder’s Keynote Address at the 2012 Bike Futures Conference? It just doesn’t add up.
12 months ago, the Liberal Government of Victoria dismissed trade qualifications in bicycle mechanics as a ‘lifestyle course’, which caused outrage amongst cycling consumers in the know. Cuts were made to other programs in the TAFE sector. The Federal Labor Government reacted, by threatening withdrawal of existing funding arrangements to Victoria’s higher education budget. Only June last year, the Victorian Minister for Higher Education and Skills, The Honorable Peter Hall, reported to The Age newspaper he ‘shared the “emotions of shock, incredulity, disbelief and anger” of TAFE leaders when he had to inform them of the cuts. He got to keep his job, despite speaking out of turn.
With a change of Premier at the beginning of 2013 – not a change of Government, though – the new Premier Dr Denis Napthine granted $200 million in extra funding to Victorian TAFEs. It looked like an admission of a mistake. But the money wasn’t earmarked for delivery of training. At the same time, Property Titles of all Victorian TAFEs were transferred from the Government to the TAFEs themselves, allowing them to ‘re-invest proceeds of sales of infrastructure,’ or in other words, to cash in what is deemed as no longer necessary: obviously, no more funding will be coming in the forseeable future. The Victorian Government wants TAFEs to operate in an ‘open and competitive market’. That is, to only provide courses they might deem to be a cash cow.
And there is still no training in Certificate III Bike Mechanics in the state of Victoria, or 6 of the other States and Territories of Australia, for that matter.
Why does this matter? And who cares?
The slow death of trades-based learning undermines the capacity of a society to be sustainable. With a skilled trades-based workforce, new infrastructure is developed, and can be maintained. Without trades, the tangible fabric of society slowly dies, while demand grows. ‘Trades’ is an organism that breathes life into any modern society. Trains run on time, traffic flows, goods are imported, exported, manufactured, assembled, and distributed.
The cycling industry is no different. Trades associated with the bicycle industry will struggle very soon to breathe life into cycling as a viable, sustainable, and active transport option.
For years the cycling industry (of which the servicing and mechanics of bikes is a significant part) has operated in a retail environment that has come to guarantee that any individual taking up the challenge of entering the cycling retail industry won’t be making a comfortable living. To be an operator in the cycling retail industry is pretty much to offer a community service. There’s no ‘money’ in it. The Australian Government held an inquiry in 2010 into the state of the retail industry in Australia. While the Australian dollar reached parity with the US Dollar, and then went above parity and stayed there, the retail sector in Australia found itself in the grip of a vice: consumer demand on the one side, financial regulation on the other. The disadvantage of competing with online sales continues to hit the cycling business very hard.
Local Bike Shops – that somewhat quaint notion of a shopfront retail business – cannot compete equitably with online consumerism. Don’t think you can’t buy a bike online. If there’s a particular bike you want, or there’s a certain type of bike you feel capable of building yourself, you can order whatever you want over the Internet, and have it delivered to your front door, often for less than the cost of buying a new bike from a Local Bike Shop. All too often, Local Bike Shops suffer the loss of loyal consumers to online shopping, for the very same products gathering dust on the shelves of the Bike Shop. And all too often, Local Bike Shops find themselves in the invidious position of assisting their once loyal customer to build or service the bike and associated accessories that haven’t been bought from their store.
Within a generation, Local Bike Shops won’t be able to assist disloyal customers build and maintain their bikes: the Art and Science of Bicycle Mechanics will become a lost trade, going the way of Coopering, Blacksmithing, Sailmaking, and Shoemaking, to name a few.
What is the solution? It’s possible to mount an argument for restoring what has been lost in funding cuts to the TAFE sector. In Victoria, the Shadow Minster for Higher Education and Skills, Steve Herbert, has taken it upon himself to mount a public awareness campaign, hoping to shame the current Liberal government into a change of heart. The current Victorian government seems to be confused about what this cycling business is all about.
What will help fix this mess?
Should the bicycle industry in Australia be helping itself? Is it time for a new business model? Maybe the bicycle industry has to orchestrate and manage it’s own survival, in line with a user-pays – in other words North American consumer model – way of business. If there’s money for sponsorship of Australia’s first Pro-Tour Professional Cycling Team, and there’s money to be made in hosting the only Pro-Tour cycling event in the Southern Hemisphere, maybe that same sponsorship can fund the training of the skilled mechanics and technicians to keep cycling as a sport, cycling as a daily transport activity, cycling a s a ‘lifestyle choice’, alive?