In the intervention area the Cycling Connecting Communities project appears to have increased awareness of the project, increased use of bicycle paths, increased cycling among novice or beginner riders, and increased the mean number of minutes cycled in the past week among participants riding at both baseline and follow-up. However, there was no overall increase in the population frequency of cycling, or overall increase in physical activity levels.
The increased use of bicycle paths in the intervention area may have resulted from increased awareness of the network of cycling paths through distribution of project resources such as the new bicycle map (Discover Fairfield and Liverpool by Bicycle). As there was no overall increase in the frequency of cycling, it is likely that the project redirected existing cyclists to bicycle paths. The bicycle paths (in both the intervention and comparison areas), while relatively new, already had one in five respondents using them. This level of use indicates that they were not really new facilities.
The stable level of cycling in the intervention areas may represent a positive achievement given the generally declining levels of cycling (8.6% decrease from 1996 to 2006) in the outer areas of Sydney [14, 23]. Previous monitoring of travel modes for the journey to work using Australian Bureau of Statistics Census data indicate that there was a relative decline of 27% in bicycle trip mode share in Liverpool from 1996 to 2001 (10% decline in Fairfield) . There were further declines in Liverpool (13%) from 2001 to 2006 while the Fairfield bicycle mode share for the journey to work increased 11% back to 1996 levels .
Among those people who had cycled in the past week, there was an increase in the mean number of minutes cycling in the intervention area, with those people using the bike paths and cycling more therefore gaining a health benefit. It is possible that an increase in the overall community prevalence of cycling would lead to an overall increase in population physical activity , but this conclusion cannot be reached in this study. Cycling was a significant component of their total minutes of weekly physical activity for those people who cycled, with 40% of cyclists achieving all the minimum 150 hours of moderate intensity physical activity just from cycling. However, there were not sufficient respondents cycling in the past week to influence the overall levels of physical activity.
A US study found that sixty per cent of the cyclists surveyed rode for more than 150 minutes per week during the study and nearly all of the cycling was for utilitarian purposes, not exercise . A disproportionate share of this cycling occurred on streets with bicycle lanes, separate paths, or bicycle boulevards.25 Other research from the US has found positive associations between miles of bicycle pathways per 100, 000 residents and the percentage of commuters using bicycles , and that new bicycle lanes in large cities will be used by commuters .
Being aware of the CCC project was also associated with a higher frequency of cycling in the intervention area, but the relatively low recall of the project in the community would have minimised possible impacts. A much stronger communication strategy is needed to have an impact at a community level. The overall budget for this project was about $300,000 (AUS) over three years, with the pre- and post- evaluation telephone surveys costing a third of the budget. Crudely, this represents about 35c (AUS) per person per year. This meant there were limited funds for the communication strategy, which had to rely on editorial stories in local newspapers, advertising, letterboxing, and other forms of distributing written information. By comparison, demonstration cycling towns as part of the Cycling England project, received funding of €500,000 per year (approximately €5 per head of population per year), starting in October 2005, and matched by the respective local authorities so that the total level of investment in cycling was at least €10 per head per year (equal to about $25 AUD) . These funds were spent on a mix of infrastructure and behavioural programs. While there is reasonable evidence that the individual project strategies are effective in increasing cycling, the limited project resources meant that only a relatively small proportion of the population were exposed to or participated in project activities. Early results from the Cycling England project indicate increases in cycling and increases in population levels of physical activity .
It was disappointing that there was no overall increase in the frequency of cycling in the intervention area. Possible explanations were low levels of exposure to the project and its activities, and long distances to destinations of interest (identified in the baseline survey as a barrier) . Use of higher exposure media such as television or radio may be necessary to achieve adequate dissemination of the message, but this will make the definition of comparison areas more important. It is also possible that a longer period of time is needed to allow for diffusion of innovations to translate into new behaviours.
At baseline, there was an association between cycling in the past year and being sufficiently physically active for men, but not for women. This is consistent with other health survey research that found that men who cycled to work, but not women, were less likely to be overweight or obese compared with other journey to work modes [4, 30]. Cycling to work for weight loss or management could be a marketing angle, if it were perceived to be safe.
At baseline the factor most predictive of cycling in the past year was perceived ease of cycling in the respondent's neighbourhood . Having good cycling infrastructure will obviously increase the perception that cycling is easy. Being close to destinations was another significant factor associated with recent cycling .
This study highlights that in this outer western Sydney intervention area, which is heavily car dependent, a shift to cycling will require a change in urban planning and density (making destinations of interest much closer), and greater investment in cycling infrastructure where riders want to go, behavioural programs and social marketing. It would be important to repeat this study in a more densely populated urban area, where trip distances were not so great a barrier.
This project raises some questions about the value of limited local social marketing. Policy changes that make car use less appealing (eg increased costs of fuel, less parking availability) are likely to have as much, if not more, impact as information and persuasion campaigns. If only a small amount of resources are available, then maps and bicycle path signage may be a better investment than other forms of communication. Alternatively, targeting a more narrowly defined target group might achieve better results within that sub-population.
The bike count data confirmed the self-reported use of the bicycle paths in the intervention area, confirming the lack of change in the frequency of cycling before and after the intervention. Limitations of these counters were that they were prone to damage and took some time to be repaired, and that they were only in two specific locations in the intervention.
A limitation of the evaluation was that the actual number of people who had cycled in the past week, month or even past year, was relatively low. This meant that statistical power to compare the intervention area with the comparison area was weak. A much larger sample was needed. However, a strength of this project has been the high degree of rigour involved in conducting the pre- and post- evaluation with a control group, with excellent response rates for both surveys, and a high quality data-set provided to the investigators for analysis. The use of bike counters to cross-calibrate the self-reported data is also a strength of the study.