November 11, 2009
“As a former roads minister, I thought cycling needed to be done in the appropriate context for the safety of all road users.”
I have always respected cycling as a healthy means of exercising and socialising with others. In fact in my earlier years, I too, enjoyed cycling as a way of relaxing and exercising.
As a former roads minister, however, I thought cycling needed to be done in the appropriate context and venue for the safety of all who use the roads.
For these reasons, I endeavoured, perhaps more than any other roads minister, to provide safe cycle ways and invested millions of dollars in the process.
Over more than eight years from November 1996 to January 2005, I spent a lot of time building road infrastructure and ensuring ways to make our roads safer.
Unfortunately, the recent extraordinary event of a road raging cyclist hopping on a bus and assaulting its driver demonstrates exactly what I am talking about and the sometimes quite volatile interaction between motorists and cyclists.
Early on as roads minister, I was concerned that not enough had been done over a number of years for cycling safety and facilities.
My initial views were confirmed when I asked the RTA for a detailed briefing on its cycling policies and achievements.
Instead of the usual serious and senior operative I always got when it came to discussing plans for motorways and road upgrades, I was sent a kid with jeans and a beard, and not much to tell me.
The RTA lifted its game, actually appointed a general manager for cycling and we were able to produce Action for Bikes 2010 and for the first time a substantial commitment on cycle way infrastructure and safety over a sustained period of time.
Despite a massive increase in funding, policy and delivery, the bicycle lobby groups remained at best sceptical, and at worst disappointingly hostile.
Perhaps this was because I made it quite clear that I believed riding a bike on a road was profoundly unsafe and that where I could I would shift them to off road cycle ways.
I am still surprised as to how someone willingly gets on a bike and takes a huge risk with cars, trucks and buses, often travelling well over 80 km/h.
Motorists get fined for not wearing a seat belt and not strapping their children in properly, for good reason. It is unsafe to be in a vehicle without being belted in properly.
That leaves cyclists very vulnerable. No one would suggest it is safe for pedestrians to be on the roadway, so why should it be any different if a pedestrian gets on a bike?
While individuals do take all sorts of risk voluntarily every day, either by necessity, or for the thrill of it, the road is quite a different environment.
Government with its regulatory powers is the only way a safe playing field can be set for all who wish to use our roads.
The claim put to me often by cycling lobby groups, “that bicycles are non-motorised vehicular transport and have as much right to be on the road as any other vehicle”, was a claim I rejected firmly every time. And they never spoke up at all for the thousands of mums, dads and kids who wanted to ride their bikes on a weekend and couldn’t because there were no safe facilities.
In rejecting the “we have a right to be on the road” mentality of cyclists and their lobby groups, I also took a measured and balanced policy position on how best to separate bicycles and vehicles from our roads over time.
Shifting cyclists off our roads or even banning them was neither fair nor entirely possible without providing off-road alternatives. I made a decision that all future major road infrastructure would be built with off-road cycle ways.
This included any major cyclical maintenance on road surfaces, which would include a section of off-road cycle way along the length of the newly refurbished road.
This policy along with cycle ways along some rail corridors, started with the Wolli Creek Valley Cycleway with the M5 East, the parallel off-road cycle ways along bus only T-ways, running from Liverpool to Parramatta and on to Rouse Hill and finally the best of them all, the 40-kilometre, 3.5-metre wide, grade-separated, off-road cycle way along the length of the M7 motorway.
The M7 cycle way is probably the longest and best engineered off-road cycle way in the country. To ensure a person could safely cycle non-stop for 40 kilometres, without crossing a road, or passing through a set of lights, the cycle way needed to go over and under numerous off ramps and intersections along its entire route.
I thought, and in fact assumed, that the cycling lobby would heap praise on the Government for this cycling Manna from heaven. Instead, I got roundly condemned for not building a cycle way that was flat and easy to train on!
Having committed tens of millions of toll-paying motorists’ dollars on this fantastic project, I was more than a little disappointed with the reaction.
As I suspected at the time, this was the high point of Government interest in building major off-road cycle facilities. Had I kept the roads portfolio until the opening of the M7, I had intended to ban cyclists from using the M7 motorway itself.
Instead, every day we see cyclists travelling in the break-down lane next to trucks and cars travelling well over 110 km/h with a perfectly suitable off-road cycle way sometimes only metres away! This is incredibly dangerous to both the cars and bicycle riders themselves.
I am not aware of any substantial building plan for the future, so we are left with cyclists using roads, which are simply unsafe for them. Without infrastructure alternative for cyclists, it may be necessary to regulate the manner and time in which they may use our roads.
Many roads do have wide shoulders that can be used by cyclists. If cyclists choose to travel in packs on early Sunday mornings, that is OK for most.
But, the lone cyclist travelling in the middle of a vehicle lane at morning or evening peak hours is not only unsafe for the cyclist, but is often quite unsafe for motorists as they weave around them.
I would be happy to see a ban during morning and evening peak times. Time-of-day cycling would ensure that our roads during peak periods are for the sole use of vehicles and not for the use of cyclists. If pedestrians and cyclists can share off-road cycle ways, then why not where appropriate, share footpaths?
Local councils would have to step up and start building much wider footpaths and cyclists would need to take greater care of pedestrians.
Cyclists are unlikely to be happy being regulated to time-of-day cycling or to footpaths and off-road facilities.
But, before rejecting this option out of hand, they should consider not only how unsafe it is to be sharing the roadway with vehicles, but also acknowledge that it is motorists who pay fuel levies, tolls, registration and licence fees, as well as the huge cost of buying and running a motor vehicle.
Apart from a negligible amount of GST on their equipment, cyclists pay nothing towards the cost of the roads they wish to use and rely on motorists to fund most of the cost of cycling infrastructure.
Being more aware of this may make more cyclists a little more sensitive to the needs of the motoring public.
Carl Scully is the former NSW minister for roads and is now a principal at Evans & Peck Pty Ltd.