What are cyclists most concerned about?

What issue most concerns cyclists? And what is the thing people most want to know about bike riding?

An intriguing answer to this query was published by the digital news outlet Quartz last week. Using Google Trends data going back a decade, and examining what terms were used along with "cycling" when people used the search engine, this was the discovery:

"How many calories does cycling burn?" or a variation about weight loss was the top query in seven of the 12 capitals we looked at closely: London, New York, San Francisco, Sydney, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Copenhagen. Search terms containing "exercise" were top in Beijing and Shanghai.

People in Rio asked "mainly technical questions" while Parisians were most interested to know why riders shave their legs.

Questions about safety or life expectancy were not part of the pattern, the article noted.

I asked Google for info on the most popular searches for Sydneysiders: the top three were "is cycling good for weight loss?" followed by "is cycling good for you?" and "what muscles does cycling work?"

There are a few things to consider. First, it wouldn't just be regular cyclists doing the searches – many of those asking might be researching the benefits of bike riding with a view to taking it up.

Also, it's probably a lot easier to frame a question about health and expect a useful result. I just tried googling "how can I get more bike lanes built?" and the results didn't offer ready solutions.

But what would a more focused study of cyclist concerns find?

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Health and safety

In one such report, the Cycling Promotion Fund and the Heart Foundation produced "Riding a Bike for Transport", an online survey of 1000 respondents.

One key finding was: "The majority of respondents cycle due to the health and exercise benefits obtained from cycling."

Asked for the main reasons why they rode (with multiple options given, none specifically mentioning weight loss), nine in 10 people who had ridden for transport in the past month nominated health benefits. Other top reasons included economic and environmental advantages.

But the safety issue loomed large when respondents were asked about the major disincentives to riding more often. With multiple responses allowed, 67 per cent cited "unsafe road conditions", 53 per cent ticked "speed/volume of traffic", and almost 50 per cent nominated "lack of bicycle paths/trails". Weather and distance issues rounded out the top five.

And remember – these were people who had ridden a bike for transport in the past month.

Short tripping

When the survey turned to people who didn't currently ride a bike for transport, "just over 60 per cent indicated that they would like to be able to ride for transport or short trips".

The reasons they didn't mirrored the reasons given by riders who were discouraged from riding more often: safety concerns and lack of infrastructure.

The "transport or short trips" interest by people who aren't cyclists reminded me of a recent article on the People for Bikes website which argued that bike lanes needed to be on main streets – and not just focused on commuter corridors – in order to encourage transport riding.

"Cities with lots of biking are not filled with athletes," it said, pointing out that in places like the Netherlands, the majority of bike trips are just a few kilometres long.

The benefits of such trips are nevertheless considerable – the health effects of active travel and the reduction of congestion and pollution.

Reap the benefits

Cycling is, of course, a form of exercise, but there's a widespread perception in Australia that riding a bike is purely a sports or recreational pursuit - and that we're wedded to cars because of the vast distances we must travel, including in our sprawling cities.

But Transport for NSW figures show that on an average weekday in the Sydney region, more than a third of private motor vehicle journeys cover less than three kilometres, and half of all journeys are under five kilometres.

A spokesperson told me the government "understands the health benefits of cycling and is encouraging people to lead an active lifestyle", with a recent budget commitment of $80 million to cycling projects.

It was interesting to note that Wednesday's announcement of the $31 billion Parramatta Road redevelopment contained artists' impressions showing bike lanes running through the reworked conduit.

The future of cycling is to convert increasing numbers of those short trips into two-wheeled ones, by reducing safety concerns and encouraging more people to reap the benefits - including those being searched for on Google.

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.

Follow Michael on Twitter or Facebook, email him or read more of his blogs.

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