End of the road for Sydney cyclists

Cycleway, by Chris JohnstonWe passed them on a recent Sunday: a huddle of confused cyclists. They had powered their way up Sydney's King Street bike path, opened in May this year. It is a protected haven between the footpath and the cars that honk their way across the city.

And then, presto! The cycleway suddenly disappears. Only two short streets away are the intersections described in 2007 by Danish town planner Jan Gehl as part of one of the most car congested city centres he has ever seen.

Bicycle NSW and Bicycle Victoria have called on their members to support the development of the King Street cycleway with its phased lighting, arguing that the cycleway has national significance because it is bi-directional.

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has promised $70 million more worth of cycleways through the city, so maybe Sydney cycling will get safer. But cycleway proposals in Sydney seem to upset people. Surprisingly even Royal Prince Alfred Hospital has objected to one planned to pass beside its perimeter.

These days it's serious business riding to work in Sydney. To my endless admiration my sister and brother-in-law cycle in and out several times a week. They have regaled us with stories of Sydney cycleways that suddenly finish. At those points, as they turn to car drivers to plead for their lives, they face snarled teeth. And recently, when one of their sons was hit by a car while cycling, instead of getting out to check on his injuries, the driver got out and roundly abused him.

You can understand the response of Sydney cyclists: to ride in protective bunches, dress in lycra and wear space-age helmets and Darth Vader sunglasses. This garb helps to sheer the wind but it seems also to be a subconscious effort to say to drivers, 'Don't mess with us' — a message as outsized as their vulnerability.

In Sydney the car completely dominates.

For all Moore's creativity, she cannot escape the consequences of the state government's inertia in developing public transport. Whatever it does, the City of Sydney is eventually hamstrung by the historic lack of government investment in public transport and by the current government's lack of vision and budgetary provisions.

Ride through any suburb in Sydney, such as Willoughby. It has 'cycleways' but these usually leave the road to cars, and squeeze cyclists into the kerbside lane that they must share with parked cars. 

Melbourne is luckier. The city's new Eastlink cycleway, built at a cost of $26 million and completed in June 2008, covers 35 km of terrain stretching from Donvale to Dandenong South, through a series of connected bike tracks. Overall, the response has been positive, although a recent Bicycle Victoria forum reported that of 34 riders who offered feedback, only five thought it was perfect and 15 thought it could be better.

Eastlink combines pedestrians and riders, not always a safe and happy mix. Critics have focused on wooden bridges that are slippery and dangerous when wet, and a series of corners that are too sharp for cyclists, especially when they occur on steep sections. Cyclists must also cross several roads.

Although one blogger wondered whether any of the cycleway designers had ever ridden a bike, others were happy that at least this cycleway now makes a substantial contribution to riding through Melbourne.

This year, too, Melbourne trialled a bike rental scheme, a foretaste of the much more extensive one planned for 2010. It brought the city a little closer to the brave decision of Paris, to ban cars altogether and introduce low-rent bicycles for anyone who wants to traverse the city.

Even some car-obsessed American cities have managed to become bike friendly. In every part of the city of Oregon, for example, bicycle routes are planned. Laws have also been passed ensuring that all state roads, including freeways, are open to bicycles. When cyclists would be at risk, they must be provided with a reasonable detour. Cycles, not cars, have the right of way and when a cycleway is to end, notice must be given 800 m in advance.

And in Copenhagen, home town of Jan Gehl, where 36 per cent of people ride to work by bicycle, residents are demanding that bike paths be widened to ease congestion.

The car does not everywhere dominate as it does in Sydney. And if we were to introduce the Oregon system, we would have signposts warning that the King Street cycleway was to finish, 600 m before it had even started.

Margaret RiceMargaret Rice is a Sydney-based freelance journalist.

Topic tags: Margaret Rice, cycling, sydney, cycleway, bicycle nsw, Lord Mayor Clover Moore



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Existing comments

Great article, Margaret! There seem to be two over-arching benefits to riding bicycles: increased individual health and pollution reduction.

These are two goals the Government also strives for. The way to reach these goals is through incentives. Therefore creating new bicycle lanes is one step towards inviting people to start riding their bikes more. Let's work for it!

Look forward to the day when cars are seen as an unnecessary commodity in the core CBD.

Tim Graham | 21 July 2009  

It is an unfortunate truth that in many areas bicycles are just about the most inappropriate form of transport which could be chosen. They are the wheeled equivalent of tightrope walking with one foot tied behind your back! It's just asking for trouble.

Jeremy Wilson | 21 July 2009  

I have just returned from Germany and there the number of bikes was just wonderful to see. What was even better were the people riding. Women and men in 70's, the overweight, the svelte, mums with toddlers riding alongside or pulling a little carriage with the bub inside. Cars and bikes happily acknowledge each other. Cycle ways abound.

Perhaps it is beacuse so many towns have narrow winding streets that everyone has to take care. But even in the cities (Berlin, Munich) the same situation existed. I ride a bike (in my 60's). Scary in Sydney, lovely in Mudgee and Gulgong where I now live.

Jorie Ryan | 21 July 2009  

Was drooling in Brisbane last weekend how good the bike tracks are there, Yarra trail in Melbourne is good too. Lucky I have frequent flyer points and a fold up bike. Otherwise living in Sydney would be very basic.

Nick | 29 July 2009  

I've just returned to Sydney after 8 years living in Melbourne, Canberra & Perth. I'm a keen cyclist (touring & mtn bike) and have regularly ridden to work in all these cities.

I am disappointed and appalled by the intertia displayed by Sydney planners, particularly in regards to cycling. If they paid attention to the statistics that show that bike sales are growing while car sales are stagnating.

I miss riding to work without becoming the equivalent of a shooting game duck for motorists. Shame Sydney planners, Shame!

Yvonne | 13 August 2009  

Margaret, your observations are keen and the news about the Melb Velib. trial is good. What are they doing about helmets, though? These are the bane of any such scheme I've started blog called, And So To Bike.

The easiest way to access it currently is via Copenhagenize.com. Mikael recently ran a movie of mine, Sue Head for Court, the story of Sue Abbott of scone who goes to court at the end of the month to fight a helmet ticket.

I have a draft article I'd like to share with, highlighting one point on which we differ. I think the retreat to lycra and dark glasses you describe, has little to do with motorist hostility, and it's the wrong response anyway.

The way to open up better relations with motorists is to stop speed training where there is car congestion, and ride sit up straight bikes, as do the Europeans.

That supposedly daggy look is the friendly open faced posture which can start us making commuter progress.

Mike Rubbo | 17 September 2009  

Margaret, a google alert took me to your article, indicating that you'd seen my blog. "And so to Bike" http://datillo.wordpress.com/ And yet I find no evidence here that you have come on it.

The search probably fixed on a previous comment I left.

You might like to take a look at the blog. My current argument is that Bike Share is the way forward, that this program which now spreads like a bushfire around the world, can bring in masses of new utility riders to our streets and of course there's safety in number as everyone says.

But bike share can only work if only we can solve the helmet problem.

Cheers, Mike Rubbo

mike rubbo | 10 November 2009  

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