7 News Sydney received information from the NSW RMS that the number of people riding bicycles is down at three key entry points in the City of Sydney. Rudy, one of our NSW directors and also a bicycle commuter in Sydney, was interviewed on this.
His thoughts can be summarized by saying that he believes the City of Sydney is doing a great job in establishing bicycle riding as a practical commuting option, but that their efforts are hampered by the state government, headed by the Road Minister Duncan Gay, who is not using evidence-based policies (See section “In the name of safety”) when dealing with bicycle riding matters. Below is the 7 News story, followed by his thoughts.
The battle ground: City of Sydney
On the one hand, you have the City of Sydney with its independent Mayor, Clover Moore, who has been running the show for the last 12 years. On the other side, you have the Coalition State Government that has a strong influence and power over key issues inside the borders of council.
Transport matters are at the heart of this. A good example is the College Street cycleway, which was put in by the council in 2010 and the $4.6M infrastructure was paid for by rate payers. It carried an average of 2,000 people per day until 2015, when was ripped out by the State Government, despite protests by Clover Moore’s council. This seems to be a theme in Sydney and to understand what is happening, it is important to understand the influence of the State Government, most noticeably Road Minister Duncan Gay.
The City of Sydney has a vision aligned with other world cities that are working hard to make their cities livable according to modern urbanism concepts, and a part of that is active transport. As a result of this, more than 7000 people commute by bicycle in the city every day, enough to fill of 116 full buses, seven trains, or 7000 single-occupant vehicles.
The NSW State Government legislates the road rules, traffic speed limits, controls roads in the city, manages traffic lights, and obviously has the power to rip out cycleways even against the will of the council.
Are their less people riding in Sydney?
There are some statistics pointing to a possible decline in people riding, and the critics will be quick to point out that the vision of bicycle commuting is not working.
We requested raw data of the automated bicycle counter data from the City of Sydney. The amount of people riding bicycles in the City of Sydney is possibly dropping post 2013, or at least flattening out. Also, data from the RMS at 3 key Sydney entry locations shows a similar pattern. Interpreting data like this needs to be done by experts, to make sure that it indeed points to a downward trend (i.e. if the numbers represent reality), but in the meantime, we are left to speculate.
This chart on the left is from Union Street and it shows a trend change in August 2014, and lower figures since. Kent street also has lower figures in 2015 (counters were not 100% operational in 2014). The same data source indicates Bourke Street shows a bit of a drop from August 2014, but surveys done show a strong growth up to the beginning of 2014. Bourke Road shows growth in 2013, but then it appears to stay fairly constant up to 2015, but it had 3 strong months in 2016. RMS data shows average counts on workdays dropped since 2013 at Anzac Parade and Anzac Bridge, but there is a slight comeback in 2016.
To some extent, this possible trend is suprising. Every place in the world, from London and Vancouver with its wet climate, Calgary and Copenhagen with its snow and San Francisco with its hills, where integrated bicycle infrastructure is put in place the numbers go up, the diversity of the people riding increases and injury trends go down. Sydney council continues to improve infrastructure (for example the recently finished contraflow lanes), so we would expect to see a growth.
The pushback against bikepaths
The Minister of Roads, who is basically in charge bicycle riding matters in NSW, has referred to himself as "the biggest bike lane sceptic in the government". He started pushing for the removal of College Street Cycleway in 2011, right after he got into power, and said “You see cyclists every day not using it”, despite figures showing that in peak morning times, more people are riding bicycles on this and other paths than cars in adjacent traffic lanes. He finally bulldozed it in 2015, citing the need to redirect traffic due to the Light Rail construction. He also repeatedly pushed for registration of bicycle riders, despite earlier admitting that it is not a practical solution and being advised against by his own department.
College Street was to be replaced by a path along Castlereagh Street, but Jai Martinkovits started the seemingly grass-roots “Save our Streets” campaign to stop it, saying that bikelanes in the city are not being used, the city is too hilly and that deliveries, tradies and taxies will adversely affected by the bikelane.
The media is also involved in the pushback. The Daily Telegraph and Alan Jones spread Martinkovits’ message far and wide, and Cricky revealed that he had prior ties with Alan Jones and the Liberal Party.
The Minister then announced that the northern part of the bikepath will be a part-time bike lane, which was strongly criticized by Bicycle NSW and others. Eventually it was postponed until after the Light Rail project has been completed, leaving Sydney without a replacement for the College Street.
A fall in cycling numbers was reported in 2013 in the Daily Telegraph, contradicting Clover Moore’s claims of a 110% increase. This relentless campaign against bikepaths (sometimes using figures and photos taken outside the council’s borders) was in the end proven to use misleading figures to claim that riding numbers are falling, which landed them press council complaints.
In 2014 we saw an increase in the level of enforcement of road rule compliance for bicycle riders. The first Operation Pedro occurred at the end of May 2014. Police would regularly patrol where Pyrmont Bridge and Union Street intersects, and we see a decline at this location soon after. But Union Street has other problems as well that might influence the numbers. The traffic lights puts riders at a red bicycle lantern while the traffic lane next to it has a green light. A lot of riders choose to avoid the bicycle path because of this problem and since the data is based on automated counters, riders riding on the road will not be included in the count.
Since then we saw:
Repeated occurrences of Operation Pedro
Other more frequent patrols at key locations
A massive increase in fines, some up to 500%
A surge in the number of fines issued to riders
Police setting up at locations with confusing intersections, one example is in Bondi Junction
And a few shocking cases:
Riders fined $425 for “track standing” at traffic lights (standing still without putting a foot down) under the offence of “riding dangerously”
A woman told she shouldn’t ride in high heels by an officer
A rider fined for having a phone in his hand (he got the fine reversed)
A bike rider pushed off his bicycle by a motorbike police officer because he wasn’t wearing a helmet
What is very notable about these operations is that they are mainly contained to the borders of the City of Sydney, sometimes going a bit further to locations like North Sydney. During this period I’ve once seen kids ride on a footpath without helmets in Richmond, while police officers walk past them. Neither groups even noticed the other. At a tiny beach town north of Sydney, I once saw dozens of kids happily riding to the beach without helmets, some of them giving a friend a ride on the handlebars. I myself regularly ride on footpaths when I am not in the City of Sydney and I never had any issues.
It seems indeed that the City of Sydney is the battleground.
In the name of safety
But aren’t this measures just common sense? Forcing people to make the right decision surely will keep them safer? Most people’s “gut feel” will agree with that, and it seems the Minister of Road, the NSW Centre Road Safety and the NSW Police Force is also following this thinking.
The underlying assumption is that if bicycle riders would not break these rules, they would be safer, but this is where it all falls apart. According to a study by UNSW, riders say they break the law to protect themselves, but let’s look at some of the type of fines given.
The easiest explainable example of breaking the rules for safety, is footpath riding, which is now legal in most states in Australia. The Australian College of Road Safety had a study that concluded that bicycle riders don’t pose a significant risk to pedestrians when sharing the same space and that there is no reason to stop them from using footpaths. A study by the RMS themselves showed there are very few issues when pedestrians and bike riders share space. People who ride on footpaths, do so because they don’t feel safe in traffic and they would rather risk a fine than mixing with traffic. If they are bombarded with fines, they will stop riding.
Crashes between motorists and bicycle riders
Another assumption is that if bicycle riders break rules, they will be involved in crashes with motorists. But research done by the Queensland University of Technology (using police reports) shows us that for most crashes between bicycle riders and motorists, the motorist is at fault and when the rider is at fault it is most of the time not due to traffic violations. Similar results were found by Adelaide University and overseas.
Let’s look at crossing traffic lights on red. Michael O’Reilly explains here why the issue is blown out of proportion. In Brisbane, the council started the “Left turn on Red” project, which allows riders to turn left even when the traffic light is red. This allows riders to move away from the line of motor vehicles queued behind them at lights – making it safer and more convenient for all. In Idaho, riders are allowed to treat red lights as stop signs for more than 30 years and the because of its positive safety results, it is starting to catch on around the world. Riders also ignore traffic signals at manually triggered traffic lights that don’t pick up bicycles, bicycle lanterns that are red when lights for general traffic is green, which is common in Sydney.
Bicycle bells are a non-issue. They can be handy, but mandating them has limited value. They could only possibly useful when interacting with other riders and pedestrians, and for that your voice can be more effective, because you can give a much clearer indication of intensions. A lot of riders find that when using a bell to warn pedestrians, it often sends them in a panic which makes the situation more dangerous. When there is a real emergency, a loud voice is a lot more effective than the tinkle of a bell.
The most common fine is for not wearing bicycle helmets. This is a highly contentious issue and the debate is usually full of fallacies and it would not be possible to settle it here, especially since after 25 years under the law, the idea of riding without a helmet is very foreign to most Australians. But it is worthwhile noting that Australia is one of a handful of places in the world that has such laws and that riding without a helmet is actually the norm in most places.
There are experts that doubt the safety offered by bicycle helmets, studies that indicate that helmet laws lead to a reduction in people riding (which wipes all health gains made by the possible prevention of head injuries), studies that suggested that people take less care around bike riders with helmets and that bicycle riders riding with helmets take more risks (risk compensation).
In the U.S. where most states don’t have adult bike laws (and the infrastructure is generally speaking not superior to Australia), bikeshares operate without helmets and after 23 million rides, no fatalities occurred.
Evidence in Australia and in the few places abroad show helmet laws lead to a significant drop in people riding bikes, which is one of the main concerns. In Brisbane, Deputy Mayor Adrian Schrinner supported a relaxation of the laws to help increase the uptake of bicycle riding and Brisbane’s bikeshare scheme. The wheels are already in motion to start a relaxation of the law in Canberra.
This year the final report of an inquiry in the Australian Senate recommended that a data bank be established in order to further investigate the issue.
In the Northern Territory, it is legal to ride on a footpath without a helmet, while in NSW it could lead to a fine of more than $500.
In March 2017, bicycle riders will face a fine if they are not carrying a form of RMS approved identification on them (a driver’s licence or RMS photo card). The government said that this is for the sake of safety, so that family can be contacted in case of an emergency. Mike Baird said that a photo of your ID on your phone would be good enough, but most phones have security locks which will make it impossible for someone to get access to it. A spokesperson for Ambulance NSW said that ID makes no difference in medical outcomes. This places a lot of doubt on the claim that mandatory ID is to improve bicycle rider’s safety and bicycle advocates claims it is just another barrier to cycling.
The Damage being done
The flag bearer for bicycle riding in the NSW government, is a man that doesn’t believe in the cause. NSW has one of the lowest investment per head when it comes to bicycle riding, but what makes it worse is how the money is spent: One year half the state cycling and walking budget was spent on a short $38M bridge, after being warned that it is built at a location where it will not get proper use.
The minister and those who he influences, doesn’t listen to the science, but instead seems to operate on gut feel. He doesn’t follow the examples set by cities that got it right. In an interview he said he considered it a good thing if someone stopped riding his bike, instead of breaking one of his laws, claiming he saved a life. Bicycle riding participation is not his priority and we are possibly starting to see the damage being done.
To get more people to ride, everything needs to come together. The City of Sydney is fighting a good fight and achieved a lot over the past few years with dramatic growth, as we have seen other places. But now we might be starting to see the damage being done and it is dampening the growth, possibly even reversing it.