Growing calls for COVID-19 recovery to mark a turning point for active transport

Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

This week NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance announced that the state would spend $4 million establishing 6 temporary cycleways in Sydney to increase cycling participation during the COVID-19 recovery.

Around 10 kilometres of line markings, barriers and lane dividers will be established on Bridge Road in Pyrmont, Moore Park Road in Paddington, Dunning Avenue in Rosebery, Pitt Street North in the CBD and a number of other locations throughout the city.

The news comes after weeks of lobbying from cycling advocates, who are urging governments to place active transport at the centre of both the coronavirus recovery plan as well as ongoing efforts to reduce car dependency in Australian cities.

In announcing the temporary cycleways, both Constance and Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore acknowledged that cycling traffic in Sydney had doubled since 2009, and that in particular during the pandemic cycling activity had reached record highs.

The announcement was met almost immediately with calls to guarantee that cycleways constructed during the recovery period be made permanent, rather than temporary.

As Bicycle NSW general manager Bastien Wallace told 7 News, “these are cycleways that already should have happened.”

UNSW urban design lecturer Mike Harris told reporters that Sydney was far behind other cities in terms of spending on cycling infrastructure and that making the lanes permanent would reduce congestion and improve public health.

To mark the shift, Committee for Sydney chief executive Gabriel Metcalf is calling on state and local governments to make both largescale and symbolic commitments to a transition away from private car use.

As The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Tuesday, the Committee is asking for one of the lanes on the Sydney Harbour Bridge to be given over to cyclists.

“A bike lane across the Harbour Bridge is a fantastic idea. It would make a huge statement, as well as creating one of the world’s great urban bike paths,” Metcalf told The Herald.

There has been talk of the coronavirus recovery period being a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ for Australia to turn the corner and finally start building more cycling-friendly cities. However, proponents warn that the rise in cycling participation will not be sustained if riders are met by dangerous roads, hostile drivers and poorly built cycleways.

“People who’ve bought all these bicycles will think: ‘I could try my ride to work’. They’ll do that once, they’ll get a horrible scare or they’ll get knocked off their bike and they won’t ride again,” Bastien Wallace told ABC News.

The problem is that planning and constructing safe cycling infrastructure remains one of the most bitterly contested areas of local urban development. And it will take a lot more than a few temporary barriers and paint-strips to change that.

As a recent example shows, Brunswick and Coburg residents in Melbourne are split on how a stretch of Sydney Road should be redeveloped. A Freedom of Information inquiry launched by reporters from The Age revealed that none of the plans put forward by VicRoads were able to secure a clear majority of community support.

As The Age reported, VicRoads conducted a survey of more than 7000 residents asking their views on five possible redesigns that incorporated either fully separated bike lanes, on road cycling or a bike lane alongside parking. Most options secured less than one-third popular support, and the most popular option only secured 52 per cent.

Data from the survey suggests a clear split between traders who supported more parking, and local residents who were in favour of removing parking to introduce more public space and protected bicycle lanes.

The most popular plan involved removing all parking, extending footpaths and the creation of a fully protected cycle path, however 48 per cent of respondents still rated this option as poor.

As a local business association manager Claire Perry told The Age: “we believe that removing all the parking and just making it a transport thoroughfare, will probably destroy the businesses. It’s gambling with … our community vibe.”

In Queensland, community groups are currently organising to oppose the construction of a 6 kilometre fully protected cycleway between Maroochydore and Mooloolaba. Local residents are concerned it will remove green space, cut pedestrians off from the beach and result in an ugly streetscape.

A consultation map set up by the local council has already attracted dozens of comments from locals who are generally polarised on the project, with some arguing the divided cycleway would be safer and promote a healthier lifestyle and others decrying the loss of parking or the alleged privileging of cyclists over local beach users.

While much of these debates take place on the fringes of communities, those strongly in favour of or strongly opposed to development, public stoushes over cycling infrastructure can and do have political implications for local government.

To cut through the politics as usual and take advantage of the post-COVID cycling surge, advocates, governments and planning authorities are going to have to work together to convince ordinary Australians that active transport is an issue worth thinking about.

This means communicating to all stakeholders, business owners included, that the benefits of changing our urban landscape far outweigh the risks. It also means encouraging those who are supportive of change, but are not particularly vocal or politically active, to get involved in the conversation.

“The turning point” cannot be achieved by policy and politics alone, it can only come with the popular acceptance of and support for the ideals of active transport.

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