What impact has the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic had on cycling patterns in Melbourne?

There has been talk about about a boom in cycling during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 (e.g. refer The Age), but has that happened across all parts the city, across lanes and paths, and on all days of the week?

In Melbourne there are bicycle counters on various popular bike paths and lanes around the city (mostly inner and middle suburbs), and so I thought it would be worth taking a look at the data (which may or may not reflect total cycling activity, we don’t know).

But before plotting the data, it’s important to understand data quality. Since 2015 there have been 36 bicycle counting sites in Melbourne. But for whatever reasons, data is not available at all sites for all days. Here is the daily number of sites reporting from January 2015 to 13 May 2020 (at least with data available as of 14 March 2020).

There are notable gaps in the data, including most of the latter part of November 2017, and around mid-2018.

So any year-on-year comparison needs to includes sites that were active in both years. For my first chart I’m going to filter for sites with complete data for 2019 (all) and 2020 (to 13 May). I’ve also filtered out a few sites with unusual data (very low counts for a period of time – possibly due to roadworks).

Here is a chart showing average daily counts by month, dis-aggregated by whether the site was a bike lane (5 sites) or path (22 sites) and whether the day was a regular weekday, or on a weekend/public holiday.

Weekday bike lane travel was way down in April and May 2020, which makes sense as most of these sites are on roads leading to the CBD, and many workers who normally work in the CBD are likely to be working from home.

Traffic in bike lanes on weekends was very similar to 2019. This might reflect bike lanes not attracting additional recreational cyclists, or perhaps an increase recreational cycling is offset by a decline in commuter cycling.

Weekend path traffic was way up in April 2020, which also makes sense, as people will be looking to exercise on weekends in place of other exercise options no longer available (eg organised sports, gyms). The first half of May 2020 was a little quieter than April, which might be partly related to cooler weather (but also note the data only includes 2 weekends – at the time of extraction).

Weekday bike path traffic was down in 2020, although not as much as for bike lanes. I’ll explore this more shortly.

Here’s a look at the percentage growth at each site on weekdays. I’m comparing weeks 14-19 of years 2020 and 2019 (33 sites have complete data for both periods):

You can see significant reductions near the CBD, and on major commuter routes (lanes and paths). The biggest reduction was 71% on Albert Street in East Melbourne.

The blue squares are mostly recreational paths where there has been massive growth, the highest being the Anniversary trail in Kew at +235%! However I should point out that these growth figures are often off very low 2019 counts. It may be that people working from home (or who have lost their jobs) are now going for recreational rides on weekdays.

You might notice one square with two numbers attached – the +27% is for the Main Yarra Trail (more recreational), and the -32% is for the Gardiners Creek rail (probably more commuter orientated at that point). The two counters are very close together so the symbols overlap.

Here is the same again, but with the changes in average daily counts:

Many of the high growth percentages were not huge increases in actual volumes. The bay-side trail experienced some of the bigger volume increases.

On weekends and public holidays, there were smaller percentage reductions near the city centre, and large increases in the suburbs:

The percentage increases on weekends are not as high because there was a higher base in 2019. The reductions in the central city are smaller, but still significant – this may reflect fewer CBD weekend workers with a downturn in retail activity.

Again, here is a map of the changes in volume on weekends:

Here’s another way to view the data – sites by distance from the CBD:

Bike lane volumes are down significantly at most sites, particularly on weekdays. Bike path volumes are down on weekdays at most sites within 6 km of the CBD, but up at sites further out, and up at most sites on weekends.

I’m curious about the volume changes on paths on weekdays, so I’ve drilled down to hourly figures. Here are the relative volumes per hour:

We find that the story of bike paths on weekdays is a mix of increases during the middle of the day, and significant reductions in the peaks. The peak reductions likely reflect many people working from home, while the middle of the day increase is perhaps people breaking up the day when working from home, or people who are no longer working.

Bike lane volumes on weekdays are significantly down in the peaks and evenings, but less so in the inter-peak.

On weekends there has been little change in the already low bike lane volumes, but a substantial increase in bike path volumes – suggesting people seeking recreational riding opportunities on the weekend are choosing the much more pleasant bike path environments.

Of course this data only tells us about what’s been happening during the lock down. There may well be a boom in cycling (particularly on bike lanes) when more people start returning to work and look for alternatives to (what might be) crowded public transport.

I’ll try to keep an eye on the data over time.

3 Responses to What impact has the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic had on cycling patterns in Melbourne?

  1. David Blom says:

    The counters don’t measure Footpath traffic. They also don’t measure back streets – close to peoples homes. Most people are taking the kids around the block, going for a jog from home or a simple ride on their local streets which became more available as there were far fewer cars on them.

    My strava Flybys are noticing the huge bump in the number of people on foot or bike when ever I leave the home for a workout…


  2. Kathy says:

    Great analysis Chris – any increase is a win for public health for sure! Thanks for sharing your thoughtful work.


  3. Nick Wade says:

    Hey Chris,

    Great stuff, would love to see May and June follow up to get a better trendline, and see how that Path increase smooths out.



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