Cycling wars resume in Australia’s biggest cities – but is it a ‘bikelash’ or just nimbyism? | Transport – Help US
Council committee meetings aren’t renowned for attracting a crowd, especially on a cool Melbourne winter’s evening.
But the Town Hall Commons was packed in June, with protesters waving placards outside, as Melbourne city councillors gathered to vote on a proposed pause of the installation of new cycleways in the city’s Hoddle Grid area.
The advocacy group Bicycle Network had mobilised its members, contributing the lion’s share of 1,000 written submissions and 49 speakers opposing the motion, in what turned into a marathon five-hour meeting.
“We were the final item on the meeting agenda – late into the night,” says Leyla Asadi, the Bicycle Network’s public affairs manager. “We think that was strategic – to see how many of us would stay the course. We all did.”
The mood was optimistic. “It was heartening to see how many people cared about safe spaces for bicycles – there was a buoyant, brilliant energy to the room,” she says.
Such energy was “really deflated”, then, when the motion for the year-long pause was voted in. “We were disappointed and surprised,” Asadi says.
The return of workers to central business districts has sparked a renewal of dormant cycling wars in Australia’s largest cities, with Melbourne and Sydney in particular witnessing increased jostling for kerb-side space.
Paul Nicolaou, the chief executive of Business Sydney, wants a two- to three-year moratorium on any new CBD cycleways, a plan supported by the New South Wales Taxi Council and Tourism Accommodation Australia.
The suspension should, he says, be in place “until the city has better recovered from the Covid disruptions and the many major construction projects in the CBD”.
But cycling advocates point to evidence that suggests the cycleways will aid recovery by increasing footfall and reducing retail vacancies.
With strongly held views on both sides, the challenge for city planners and elected officials is to discern legitimate concerns from emotional reactions to change, and chart an evidence-backed course for the future.
‘They’re getting in the way’
Roshena Campbell, a Liberal Melbourne city councillor, didn’t back the year-long pause on cycleways – because she wants to go much further. She wants them ripped up and the experiment declared a failure.
“Melbourne’s CBD simply doesn’t have the wide boulevards of European cities,” she told the Herald Sun ($). “Cramming them into city streets by forcing motorists out is like putting up a giant ‘Go home’ sign … when city businesses are begging us to get people back.”
In Sydney, a leading barrister has claimed the city’s pandemic pop-up cycleways are now “unlawful”.
Backlash has been reported against the new cycleway on Melbourne’s Exhibition Street and the proposed cycleway along Sydney’s Castlereagh Street.
Concerns vary, and range from a loss of parking and delivery zones to fears of footfall reduction, the timing of the construction period – and even where the governor general will park.
Richard Olsen, the secretary of the NSW Transport Workers’ Union, tells Guardian Australia its members would like to see Sydney’s cycleways “gone” because “they’re getting in the way”.
“Since Covid, deliveries have exploded and companies like FedEx are pressuring our drivers to deliver more but cycleways slow them down because they remove or obstruct loading zones,” he says.
The general manager of the NSW Masonic Club and the Castlereagh Boutique Hotel, Paul Brasch, cites the hotel’s “elderly patrons” who will now have to get out on the passenger side into oncoming traffic. “We’ll need to employ a porter so people can get their luggage without getting fines,” Brasch says. “Plus, the governor general, when he visits, must have his Rolls-Royce parked directly outside for security reasons.”
Some of my best friends are cyclists
Pre-Covid census data from 2011 and 2016 suggests 3% of commuters in Sydney arrived at work by bike, compared with 22.1% by car. But that counts only full commutes and excludes part-of-the-way trips and non-work-related rides. City of Melbourne cycling trips sit at a similar rate: 4%. According to the City of Sydney bicycle count, carried out in 100 locations in fair weather conditions, cycle trips in the city have doubled from 248 a day in March 2010 to 530 a day in March 2022.
Almost everyone interviewed for this piece began with the caveat “we’re not against cycleways”. They just don’t want them on their street, leaving them open to accusations of nimbyism.
Business Sydney argues that Sydney’s CBD is “already well-served by north-south bike lanes” and so does not need another on “the narrow and congested Castlereagh Street”.
But Clover Moore’s mayoral team won a decisive fifth term on a clear platform of increasing cycling infrastructure. Just one councillor voted against the Castlereagh Street cycleway and, when asked, 72% of City of Sydney residents say they want separated cycleways.
When Guardian Australia visited several businesses along Castlereagh Street, there was either ignorance of, ambivalence towards or in-principle support for the cycleway.
Eric Harrison, who owns Chapter 5.1 cafe next door to the Castlereagh Boutique Hotel, said: “It’s a fantastic idea – with a pedestrianised feel, you’ll get more people walking down the street and it’ll be good for business.”
His concern was about the construction period, having had another cafe he owns impacted by the pedestrianisation of Little Eveleigh Street in Redfern.
“If that was replicated on Castlereagh Street, it’d kill this business,” he says, asking for more government support and a snappier construction period.
Guardian Australia also approached 10 businesses along Exhibition Street in Melbourne; just one felt strongly enough to comment on the controversial cycleway.
Scott Poynton, the venue manager at Farmer’s Daughters restaurant, says: “I fully support the cycleway. It helps our business because it slows people down. That’s what you want when you have a shopfront.”
Harri Bancroft from the urban policy thinktank the Committee for Sydney says cities worldwide report increased footfall when cycleways are installed.
“When it’s safer to walk/cycle in a city, people want to spend longer there, which is a big uplift for businesses,” she says. “We simply don’t have enough room for more cars in the CBD.”
Bill Lang, the executive director of Small Business Australia, says there’s a fear of speaking out. “Most business owners won’t speak publicly because they fear retribution from activists and public officials,” he says.
But Sebastian Smyth, the executive transport manager at the City of Sydney, suggests naysayers compare the number of boarded-up businesses on Sydney’s Bourke Street (which has a full-length cycleway) and Parramatta Road or Oxford Street, which don’t.
“The boarded-up shopfronts are actually only on the streets without cycleways,” he says.
How London overcame resistance
Unlike their European counterparts, London’s cyclists have had to fight hard for greater access to the city’s roads.
Simon Munk from the London Cycling Campaign says business opposition has had to be overcome on a local level – and that starts with challenging the inaccurate assumptions of traders.
“We know traders, particularly independent ones, endemically overestimate the importance of cars and underestimate the importance of other modes for trade,” he says.
During one divisive debate about a bike lane in north-east London, the organisation asked businesses what percentage of customers they thought arrived by car: they said 63%. In fact, just 20% did.
“We see this again and again,” Munk says. “Their conservatism is understandable. High street businesses are fighting for their survival, and they fight tooth and nail for that parking space right out the front of their shop – but their customers aren’t using them in the way they think they are.”
Decisions to block off some streets to traffic have prompted violent protests, including arson, supportive councillors being doxxed or receiving death threats and oil poured on to the spaces left for bikes to pass through – mainly because objectors spread powerful myths.
“In Walthamstow, a coffin was marched down the road in protest – traders were that convinced it’d be the death of the high street,” he says.
There are, Munk says, growing pain lessons for cities like Melbourne and Sydney: “By just listening to the loudest nimbys, you’re listening to the angriest people most resistant to change, not the quietly content people.”
Back in Australia, Smyth agrees leaders need to focus on evidence over passion.
“You have to detach the assertions from reality,” he says. “People get very passionate when they feel deprived of their ability to access somewhere easily by vehicle.
“But what seems like a big ‘bikelash’ is actually a very strongly held reaction by a small number of people. And there’s some reality to it always: ‘I can’t park where I used to, I can’t get deliveries.’
“It comes down to convenience, and sometimes that gets dressed up as safety concerns.”