The road to the future.
IMAGINE: you are driving north across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Suddenly the road ends abruptly in five flights of steps. OR THIS: you are driving out of the city by the main trunk route to the west. At the first set of lights, you are obliged to steer onto the footpath, dodging trees, poles, bins and pedestrians for a short distance before you can get back onto the road. [Murray St, at Pyrmont Bridge]
For drivers of cars, these sound like nightmare sequences from a movie; change the mode of transport from car to bicycle, though, and they are everyday life. Small wonder that a consultant's report has found Sydney residents are less likely to cycle to work than those in comparable cities in Australia or overseas. Cycling may be healthier, often faster and always better for the environment than commuting by car, but in Sydney government neglect makes it too hard for most people to bother.
Here 0.8 per cent of commuter trips are made by bicycle - the lowest share of any Australian capital. In Melbourne the share is twice that. Sydney's hills are overstated as the problem. Multi-geared bicycles allow even relative novices to negotiate most hills with little difficulty. A focus group study for the City of Sydney council's submission to Infrastructure Australia found only one in 10 non-cyclists gave hilly terrain as a reason for not cycling to work. Far greater deterrents cited were heavy traffic, the danger of riding along lines of parked cars, and the lack of facilities, including dedicated bicycle lanes, for cyclists. To those may be added the lack of a joined-up bicycle path network.
Reacting to the consultant's report, the Roads Minister, Michael Daley, said the Government wanted to turn the commuting statistic around and get people out on their bikes. Good, but that will require political support and - especially - money, which hitherto has been denied cyclists.
In the $2.2 billion capital expenditure budget for the Roads and Traffic Authority this financial year, 0.8 per cent would represent $17.6 million - yet the budget only provides $6.7 million specifically for cycling. Most roads, of course, should be shared by cars and bicycles - although the aggression Australian drivers show towards cyclists casts doubt on that proposition at times. But high-traffic areas such as city centres are different. There, special provision needs to be made for cyclists. And drivers should not resent resources diverted to cycling. More cyclists should mean fewer cars and less traffic.
The future on two wheels
WE KNOW Sydney has cycleways because the many bicycle symbols sprayed on roads tell us so. Some even have destinations marked on a miniature version of highway signs. That might suggest that they are part of a network - but that, unfortunately, is an illusion. The Roads and Traffic Authority publishes several maps of Sydney's cycling routes. One glance shows a major problem: they don't link up. They just end. If main roads petered out this way, turning into footpaths at the base of a tree, or stopping in bushland, motorists and their vociferous lobbyists would be up in arms. Cyclists are another matter. With some honourable exceptions, the present City of Sydney council among them, relevant authorities tend to marginalise cycling, and with it a legitimate transport option which is attracting a growing number of commuters.
The RTA's maps show cycling routes which are more akin to tracks for ramblers than main transport routes. That is why they can meander beside rivers, or cross them on bridges with many steps, like the one at Thackeray Street, Camellia - or the Sydney Harbour Bridge. There is a reason: cycling is still seen in parts of the roads bureaucracy, and in some local councils, as mainly for leisure, not transport. Motoring may have been like this once, but no one drives for fun now. Traffic, pollution, tolls and road rage make our roads serious places indeed. Cyclists, however, can still ride and enjoy it. That simple difference seems to have produced an ugly clash of outlook which bedevils transport politics.
For many motorists, cyclists are just a nuisance: people who pay no registration, demand to be taken seriously as road users, but ride (for obvious reasons) slowly enough to hold up traffic and flout road rules as basic as stopping at red lights. Anger and frustration can turn motorists into bullies - and dangerous ones at that. Cyclists, often enough, use genuine claims - cycling's environmental and health benefits - as the basis for an aggressive self-righteousness which does little for their cause. Empathy is in short supply on either side. Any slight elicits a destructive combination of defensiveness and aggression.
The State Government has said it wants to encourage cycling. That is good. If cycling is to live up to its obvious potential as a commuter transport option much will have to change. In particular the divide between riders and drivers, which only perpetuates Sydney's pointless anti-bike culture, has to go.