Bike registration. Rider licensing. Removing cycleways. Increasing fines for cyclists. Slaps on the wrist for dangerous drivers. If you trip over any of these concepts on a daily basis, then you probably live and cycle in New South Wales, home to the city of Sydney, the “world’s worst place for cyclists”. No, this article isn’t going to be another rant about driver behaviour, rather we (and by we, I mean BNA publisher Christopher Jones and myself) are documenting our first concrete steps into some bike advocacy. How are we doing this? We’re going to work “The System”.
Remember back in primary school when we were all taught about the way our democracy worked? In between colouring Malcolm Fraser’s hair green and drawing vampire fangs on Gough Whitlam, I’m sure the teacher said something about people electing politicians to represent them to make decisions and manage the country. That’s The System, and I cast my vote every few years like everyone else, but have no other direct contact with The System. Given the way cycling is heading in NSW, that had to change.
Bruce Notley-Smith was waiting on a call from NSW Premier Mike Baird, so he kept an eye on his phone, but despite this was very attentive to our questions and seemed free with his opinions for the hour he spoke with us. Bruce is a well presented, fit looking man in his early 50s; a former contract cleaner who became the Mayor of Randwick before moving into state politics and getting elected the member for the eastern suburbs seat of Coogee in 2011.
We approached Bruce for a chat because he made a speech in parliament about cyclists that made a lot of sense and, let’s face it, not much that has been said by politicians, both in and out of parliament, about cyclists has made a lot of sense lately. You can read the complete speech from the Hansard transcripts, but you can see what page he is on from this excerpt.
Legislative Assembly, 12 May 2015, Bruce Notley-Smith:
“However, we should be providing for those who want to get on their bikes and commute into the CBD. I always scratch my head when I hear people complain about cyclists in front of them. If they stopped for a moment and visualised those five, six or 10 cyclists ahead of them as being cars instead of people on bikes, they would probably think again.”
From the horse’s mouth
I wanted to know the context of the remarks he made, especially given that they seemed to say the opposite of what his party colleagues are actually doing, and I also wanted to get some advice on how cyclists could get their voices heard. If we were going to work The System, an insider’s advice would be invaluable.
“Well, that wasn’t the first time I had spoken or written about cycling. Probably the first time in Parliament I’ve spoken about it…which is a terrible oversight really, because I’ve been a vocal advocate for cycling and cycleways in many other fora”, Bruce said when we interviewed him. “I was a cyclist when I was in my teens, in fact I spent more time on my bike than not and it was a fantastic form of transport, of freedom, and it also allowed me to explore my interests in historic places around the eastern suburbs.
“I got very excited once when they said they were putting in cycleways, it must have been in about 1981, along Anzac Parade and was very disappointed when it turned out to be just a bitumen path and not much more than that.
“I actually deliberately, a few years ago, went to Europe just to experience the cycling culture in some of the major centres there and frankly, why I spoke out a couple of weeks ago, was just this ridiculous conversation which is going on, it’s not even a conversation, in the media at the moment. More people with polarised positions shouting at one another, and I just want to make people aware that those that are in support of cycling, and those that are serious about it as a sport or as a means of commuting or as a recreational activity, a lot of them vote for me. And so I’ve got to stand up and represent them and let those in the parliament know that it’s not fringe dwellers in support of cycling; it’s mainstream and it will become more so in years to come.”
Alternative transport – who needs it?
At this point in the discussion, I felt that it was worthwhile pointing out to Bruce that I was one of the pasty-faced vegan socialists he mentioned in his speech; stereotypes may not always hold, though often there is grain of truth in them. Bruce seemed to be breaking the current political stereotype, at least when it comes to cyclists.
The discussion then turned towards transport infrastructure, which was one of the main topics on our agenda. Research on transport sustainability has repeatedly told us that improved infrastructure leads to more people cycling. Infrastructure, and changing driver’s attitudes, are where we think the government needs to begin making a serious effort.
Christopher and I both travelled on public transport to speak with Bruce. His office is a short walk from Bondi Junction train station and one of the things we both noticed on our stroll to the office was the number of bikes parked in the local CBD. The main plaza even has a dedicated bike lane through the middle of it. It reminded me of Premier Mike Baird’s electorate of Manly, which has a daily bike parking problem with racks overflowing near the station. We asked Bruce about his take on this.
“Each station should be a hub for cyclists; it makes sense. Putting in the infrastructure to ensure that people can get to those transport nodes to change modes is essential to getting there safely. You would get so many more people on their bikes if it didn’t require them to mingle with the traffic.”
So why, we asked, is there a disconnect between the government’s move to big car based infrastructure and the facilitating of multi-mode transport options?
“I don’t subscribe to the either/or idea with cars or public transport. I ran a business for 16 years which relied on cars. We were a contract cleaning business, and it meant that we had to get across the city in all directions as quickly as possible in order for it to be economically viable to stay in business. The motorways allowed us to do that, and it was actually still cheaper to use the tollways.
“We’ve got some major missing links in the motorway network in Sydney. In the peak hours they will reach capacity, and you’ll never build enough capacity for the peaks, nor should you try, but the fact is that the other 18 hours of the day they can accommodate the traffic demands.
“For industry to prosper, you do need a motorway network which allows business to be competitive. Businesses thrive, they pay taxes, and governments get more money to invest in public transport and more services that are required.”
Complete Street in Vancouver, Canada – photo © Gary Howe
Long term sustainability versus politics
But what about “Complete streets”? This is the approach to designing roads which support all modes of transport and which has been adopted in many parts of Europe and and some US and Canadian cities. In Sydney there is a huge contrast between the M7, for example, which has excellent and well used cycling facilities, and the M2, or M4, which are actively removing the cycling “facilities” that they once provided, and which were required in the original motorway plans. What is the government doing to make our roads multi-mode?
“Well, I can’t speak for the government, though my side of politics forms the government. I don’t speak for the minister, but this is something that I am certainly advocating for, and have been, with Duncan Gay [NSW Minister for Roads], and previously Gladys Berejiklian who was transport minister and now with Andrew Constance [Minister for Transport and Infrastructure], to make sure that cycling is not an afterthought in how we plan and build our future infrastructure.“
But how much power does a backbencher have to make a difference?
“Well, we have a party room, a joint party room [for the Nationals and Liberals, the state government is a coalition], and that’s where the backbench has their opportunity to get up and voice its opinion on any legislation that’s been proposed by the executive, but also to express their feelings on where the government might be going down the wrong path. The party room is a very powerful aspect of our system in NSW and so getting backbenchers on board is very important because, if a sudden epiphany strikes Duncan Gay and he turns up in the lycra and the clips and starts pushing the cycling agenda, it’s backbenchers whose electorates are going to be affected, and they’re going to want convincing.”
Hear me ROAR!
So how do we go about talking to the politicians and getting our points of view heard?
“It’s fairly easy. You can make contact with any parliamentarian, whether in the lower house or the upper house and request a meeting to spell out what your agenda is and what concerns you have with the government. With regards to getting a meeting with a minister, you can request that, spelling out what exactly you want to discuss.”
Wait a minute. That’s the way it’s meant to work, but does it really work that way?
“Seriously, that’s how it does work! That is, getting in to see members of parliament and, then at some stage during the week, you plonk yourself down with a minster and start chatting away.
“The most appropriate thing is to go to the local members, put your case to them, and they can then take that further up the line.”
One of the problems, as we see it, is that politicians aren’t going to lose a seat over cycling (well, maybe if they support it). Cyclists aren’t concentrated enough in any particular area to make up the numbers; we’re not a fixed demographic. Do we still have any power?
“I suppose one of the difficulties that people like yourself have is that you’re not a cohesive group and there are different peak bodies, and those peak bodies only appeal to a certain number of people or certain cyclists. There are cyclists who never come in contact with Bicycle NSW or Randwick-Botany Cycling Club and others have a whole different experience, so it’s difficult for you to be representative of the entire group.
“There’s so many issues that get taken to parliament which don’t win or lose seats, but are treated as equally as important. It’s really about educating your local politicians about what you actually want and laying out a reasoned argument as to why they should support you. There’s a lot of competing interests and a lot competition for politician’s time and headspace, so you’ve got to be in there and make it a powerful, but short, presentation and be very clear about what you’d like to see, and also what you realise is realistic and what’s not. So asking for things which are never going to, or not likely to, succeed only frustrates your case. Go for what you can conceivably and reasonably ask for.”
The lucky country, the obnoxious country
We asked Bruce what he sees as the biggest hurdles we need to overcome and how we might do that.
“I mentioned in my speech in parliament a couple of weeks ago that in NSW, mainly in Sydney but perhaps all over Australia, we do have a lack of mutual respect for anybody else that is on the road, whether it be another driver (we see them as just someone who is holding me up, or taking my car space) or that pedestrian who just almost got themselves killed for one reason or another. We’ve got to become a lot more respectful and cyclists are an easy target because, first of all, there’ a lot of them that don’t do the cause a great deal of good; like the couriers in the city that are just as big a curse to the pedestrians as they are to the motorists.
“So my feeling is that we’ve got to start emphasising that all of us have got to be a bit more respectful of one another in all the public spaces that we use, whether we’re pedestrians, whether we’re cyclists, whether we’re car/truck/bus drivers. We’ve all got to say that everybody else has a right too.
“When I was in Europe I saw two people in lycra out of the thousands of cyclists. The cyclists were dressed like I am, because they were all commuting to work. In Munich it just all seemed to mesh together so easily. I almost got myself killed a few times, because I didn’t realise I was walking on the bike path, but that’s where I noticed it the most; people had this courtesy and respect and awareness of what was going on around them with cyclists, with pedestrians, and the drivers, and it all just worked together so beautifully.
“We’ve really got to shift the culture in this city because it’s becoming less and less tolerable all of the time. One of the ways for the government to do this is through public campaigns, such as ‘The road is there to share’. There’s been some spectacularly successful public education campaigns which have really changed behaviour in Australia. ‘Do the right thing’, is the one I remember best from the late 70s, and into the 80s. It really turned people’s attitudes to littering on its head and it became totally socially unacceptable to be a litterer. We’ve got to have some campaigns where we educate all of our community that some sort of behaviours are completely unacceptable; abusing, driving in a reckless manner that could endanger cyclists, cyclists not to run red lights, and cyclists not to one minute be a cyclist and then swerve onto a pedestrian crossing and expect to be treated as a pedestrian.
“So we’ve all got to work on it. At the moment, with all of the talk in the media and politics where it’s just becoming more polarised, none of us are going to benefit from all of it. The reality is that cycling is going to increase and increase and increase, and you’re not going to reverse that tide. The floodgates are open, so people better start getting use to it.”
Pushing transport along
Christopher, a frequent visitor to Germany where he used to live, bought the discussion back to facilitating the mixed mode transport system. He compared public transport and cycling in Europe and related how he would have to catch a train, then a bus home after the interview, followed by a 4km uphill walk from the bus stop to his house because there is no other way to get there without car or a bike (and a fit rider).
“I’ve got my project – the light rail, the Eastern Suburbs Light Rail, that I’ve been advocating for years. It’s becoming a reality. It’s gong to remove a lot of on-street parking, and I’ve been smacked about for that. But the fact is that in congested areas on-street parking in many major cities is just not available. You don’t drive into central London expecting to get a parking spot.
“Every government, of every shade, even those that don’t form governments such as the Greens, they talk about increasing density because it’s more ecologically sustainable. When you’ve got people who don’t need to make long commutes, you get more bang for your buck with public transport. Whereas it’s just you [Christopher] walking home alone tonight, in more densely populated areas there’d be 50 people and that would justify putting a bus service on.
“For those that grew up on the quarter acre block, the whole idea of a congested, densely populated area seems frightening, and yet the fact is that people gravitate to them and enjoy the ambiance of having lots of people around doing all sorts of different things. The opportunities it provides you of just being able to say, “I’m not cooking tonight, let’s go down 12 floors below us and pick up a pizza”, or something like that. That’s where the city is going and we’ve got an extra 1.6 or 1.9 million people coming to the city in the next 15 years. We are going to have to accommodate them somewhere, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of our green spaces, and the way that these people are going to be getting around will be on bikes, because that’s going to be the most sensible way to move around the inner city area.
“You have the longer trips by public transport, which we are improving. The light rail is going to revolutionise central Sydney, though the Telegraph at the moment is going hammer and tongs, but that doesn’t surprise me because my local paper has been going hammer and tongs against it for the last 3 years, so it’s the end of the world as we know it. But people are frightened of change. Australians love innovation, but they hate change. I want you to be innovative, and I love the new way of doing things, but I don’t want to change to it… it’s very conservative.”
Euro Cycles and Gazelle along with cycling industry representatives promoting cycling in Canberra
Throwing down the gauntlet
Our time was almost up with Bruce, so we left him with an invitation; if Bruce, or any of the state politicians really want to understand the plight of cyclists, the best way to do it is to become a cyclist, at least for a day. We invited Bruce and his colleagues to ride to or from Parliament House from anywhere in Sydney. We would accompany them on the bike, form up a group of experienced cyclists, and show them cycling in Sydney – the good and the bad.
Bruce thanked us, but hasn’t taken us up on the offer yet. But it is a marvellous idea and both Gazelle and Euro Cycles (with Gepida and Peugeot) have embraced this notion and will loan a regular bike or an e-bike to our state politicians to experience Sydney by bike. We are preparing this program so stay tuned!
Christopher and I would like to thank Bruce for taking his valuable time to talk to us seriously about cycling in New South Wales.
Disclosure: Christopher Jones is a member of the Australian Cyclists Party and David Halfpenny is a member of the Socialist Equality Party