The Bourke Street Cycleway - World's Worst Practice?



Surry Hills is one of Sydney's most bicycle-friendly "villages".


In December 2003 Clover Moore, then merely the Member for Bligh, stated that bicycle use in Surry Hills was the highest in her electorate and praised the South Sydney Bike Plan - introduced in 1997 and then under review - which was making this possible.


A few months later, with Clover now Lord Mayor of the combined City and South Sydney Councils, other more newsworthy political priorities dominated Town Hall and both the excellent South Sydney plan and the old City Council's infamously poor bike plan were abandoned.


Eventually, in April 2007, the City of Sydney Council released their "Cycle Strategy and Action Plan 2007-2017".


After internet polls and focus groups were used to gauge non-cyclists' reactions to photographs of various types of cycling infrastructure, massive changes had been made to the "Cycle Strategy" following the close of its public exhibition period. It was - in essence - converted from a reasonably balanced, albeit not particularly good, bike plan to a scheme to build separated two-way cycleways all over the inner city and to entice non-cyclists onto them.


This drastically altered "Cycle Strategy" had been passed unanimously by a full Council meeting on 02 April 2007, on the basis of plausible but totally fictitious assurances given to Council's Planning Development and Transport Committee that the changes would "create a bicycle network that a child can safely cycle on" and a recommendation that the amendments not be put out on public exhibition as this "would delay the implementation of the Strategy".


All this came as a surprise to anybody who had made submissions to Council on the draft strategy put out to public exhibition in August and September 2006, in which there was no reference to such an obsolete and thoroughly discredited inner-city "sidepath" design. No submissions appear to have recommended any such scheme.


The startling new "Cycle Strategy" was greeted with ridicule by cyclists, many of whom were aware of the overwhelming body of well-researched opinion and accident statistics indicating that, in a crowded inner-city situation with intersections every 50 metres or so, these "Clayton's" cycleways would be far more dangerous than the broad shoulder lanes that they were to replace.


A press announcement ("New bicycle lanes to improve safety") accompanied the launch, featuring a "photomontage" of a "bicyclised" Crown Street, with the buses airbrushed out. Nothing more was heard of such a plan, possibly after unanswerable questions were asked by local shopkeepers and State Transit.


Similarly impractical schemes for Missenden Road, Abercrombie Street and a host of other inner-city roads also disappeared from public view.


Informed cyclists assumed - with relief - that the whimsical plan to build "bi-directional separated bicycle roads" had been quietly shelved, particularly after Copenhagen Council commissioned and - with considerable embarrassment - published yet another analysis of the devastating effect on pedestrian and cyclist injuries of even one-way cycleways in an inner-city situation with multiple cross-streets.


Residents and local businesses were unconcerned - there is no reference to these separated two-way cycleways in Council's "Inner East Local Action Plan". They were similarly not mentioned in the flyers for the Surry Hills and City East LATM meetings in November and December 2007; we cannot locate any minutes of the LATM meetings themselves.


However, unbeknownst to the community, Council's "Sydney Traffic Committee" had quietly approved detailed draft plans for a "Bourke Street Bicycle Road" on 21 November 2007. The plans were tabled by Ms Fiona Lewis, later to be despatched into the community to defend the concept without - it appeared - permission to acknowledge the existence of these plans.


A press release from Sydney's Lord Mayor, Clover Moore on 8 February 2008 stating that a "3.2km two-way separated cycleway connecting Woolloomooloo with Zetland will commence construction late this year" went largely unnoticed by the community. Clover went on to say - in contradiction to a vast body of international evidence - that "this increases safety by removing the conflict between cyclists and cars" and alluded to the Focus Group report on the sorts of facilities preferred by "potential cyclists".


The first that most of the community heard of this was in late March and early April 2008, when a glossy leaflet was slipped under their doors announcing that "The City of Sydney is introducing a dedicated separated bicycle route along Bourke Street". The leaflet featured another "photomontage", this time of a three-lane part of Bourke Street with the new cycleway and an extra traffic lane airbrushed in.


Local residents and businesses were not impressed, particularly when they unearthed Ms Lewis' detailed plans and saw that most of the pretty plane trees - and the pedestrian refuge - in the background of the shot were earmarked for removal, along with much of the street parking around Arthur Street outside two popular restaurants and a pub.


Local cyclists, accustomed to cruising down Bourke Street with the current light 40Km/hr vehicular traffic and not being obliged to stop every 50 metres or so as they passed a sidestreet, decided that they would stick to their old habits even if the shoulder lanes were removed and the cycleway's existence meant that they would be breaking the law.


Pedestrians were dubious about Council's promises that cycleway users would patiently stop at every intersection, and that cyclists on the sizeable "shared pavement" sections of the cycleway would comply with their "obligation to always give way to pedestrians and to use their bells".


Safety issues apart, the fundamental flaw of this proposal is that its 12.8 metre cross-section (the minimum allowable under RTA guidelines) is up to two metres wider than much of the narrow, twisting, Heritage-listed part of Bourke Street that runs through Surry Hills. Even if a parking lane is removed and/or the main carriageway is narrowed by 2.8 metres to wing-mirror-threatening dimensions, the "potential cyclists" that Town Hall wishes to lure into this dangerous cycleway risk hitting the ancient kerbside trees with their handlebars and crashing to the tarmac.


Local cyclists, pedestrians, residents and businesses have showered Ms Lewis, Councillors and Clover Moore with letters, but have received no concrete answers whatsoever to their specific questions - which revolve around safety, damage to the streetscape, and the loss of street parking.


Council had been inconsistent and evasive on these issues, but it appeared that at least 12 trees (Monica Barone's undated letter to residents) and "approximately 13" west-side parking spaces had to go. Residents were understandably alarmed and unconvinced by Council's assurances that the lost parking spaces could be "relocated" to existing "No Standing" zones in narrow and already overcrowded sidestreets.


A "detailed map" released on 14 May added fuel to the flames of resident anger by showing little detail, echoed the dangerous nonsense about creating replacement parking spaces in "No Standing" zones, and continued to overstate the width of the "narrow" bit of Bourke Street. Residents with tape-measures drew this last fact to the attention of Council's "Community Liaison Officer" David Robinson and the maps were reprinted with this detail removed.


A packed and noisy public meeting at the Medina (359 Crown St Surry Hills) on 24 May saw Council officers present no evidence whatsoever to support Council's repeated claims that the new facility would be safer than the excellent cycling infrastructure which currently exists in Surry Hills.


Attempts to question the presenters on this issue were suppressed by the hired professional "facilitators". The meeting was then broken up into small groups, at which cyclists and residents were allowed to table their questions and objections.


Assurances were publicly made that this community feedback would be consolidated and placed on Council's website within "two or three weeks".


To nobody's surprise, this promise was broken.


Clover Moore returned to Australia in early June and issued several letters and press releases promising that "no trees will be removed from Surry Hills". This is to be applauded but provides no comfort to Redfern residents and - given Council's recent public statements that three additional parking spaces will be lost each time the cycleway has to "wiggle" round an unruly kerbside tree - suggests that 60 or more kerbside parking spots will be removed to accommodate the full length of the proposed cycleway.


Attempts by local cyclists and residents to privately discuss safety issues with Council staff face-to-face have generally been dismissed - often contemptuously - with the claim that the voluminous international accident data is "anti-cyclist".


In an attempt to rebut this, cyclist Friends of Bourke Street approached the renowned American cycling expert John Forester and asked him to investigate Council's proposal. John's report, which broadly shares all the cyclist and resident concerns described above, is available here.


The overwhelming overseas accident data and the Forester report were dismissed as "foreign" by Sydney Council, and the entire issue of these dangerous cycleways was suppressed until the September Council elections were over.


In November and December 2008, Sydney Council's formidable ratepayer-funded marketing team re-launched the Bourke Street plan and announced an expanded cycleway scheme, shamelessly ignoring the overwhelming evidence that it is unsafe and seeking Federal Government funds to create create over 160Km of inner-city cycleways, at a cost of over $240 million, without providing any credible economic or environmental justification for them.


On 15 December 2008, ignoring many of the undertakings made by Council staff during the community consultation and disregarding the objections raised by hundreds of local cyclists and residents, Council approved new plans for the Bourke Street Cycleway which - inter alia - will remove between 65 and 95 on-street parking spaces.


Thus, in mid-2009, we find a demonstrably dangerous intersection-riddled cycleway design which was never put out to public exhibition being shoehorned into Surry Hills' undersized, Heritage-listed streetscape by elected officials who have - as far as we can ascertain - refused to meaningfully address any of the questions raised by the cyclists, residents and businesses affected by the scheme via thousands of letters, petitions and emails.


Issues repeatedly raised by cyclists and residents south of Cleveland Street, and by the Pedestrian Council of Australia, have been similarly ignored. For example, the "cycleway" between Phillip Street and Green Square is, in fact, a plan to force cyclists and pedestrians to share an already crowded footpath, but letters and emails to Council querying the safety of this continue to go unanswered.


Similarly, businesses and residents between Green Square and Gardeners Road were given less than a week in February 2009 to comment on plans for an "Alexandria Cycleway" along Bourke Road, Bowden Street and Mandible Street. Council intends to remove a huge amount of on-street parking, making the usual fictitious claims about safety, and has subsequently dismissed the overwhelmingly negative petitions and submissions with which the local community bombarded Town Hall.


Sydney City Council's insensitive attempt to force their na•ve and unsafe cycleway design upon cyclists, residents and businesses is an absolute disgrace. The scheme should be abandoned immediately, before more ratepayers' funds are frittered away on this dangerous, destructive, undemocratic and poorly-researched flight of fancy.


We believe that the safe solution for Surry Hills may well be to slow Bourke St to 30Km/hr or less, resurface and colour it appropriately (green would complement the trees...) and run it as "Narrow Profile Shared Traffic/Bicycle Lanes" per S5.3.3 in South Sydney Council's well-researched 2004 "South Sydney Bike Plan". A recent report from Rutgers University encouraging the promotion of cycling - "Making Cycling Irresistible" pp 514-516 et al - describes the great success of this treatment of "lightly travelled residential streets" in many Dutch, Danish, and German cities.


Angle parking (as currently exists in Great Buckingham Street et al) on alternating sides of the street could further calm traffic and reduce door-opening-on-cyclist injuries, which the proposed cycleway does little to prevent.


Cyclists, local businesses and residents would be overjoyed. This sort of photogenic "Bicycle Boulevard" probably should have been created immediately after the Eastern Distributor banished through traffic from the street.


This would presumably be a good deal less expensive than building the cycleway, and would allow funds to be allocated to genuine and proven schemes which would increase cycling safety and participation - such as building the long-promised "missing links" between bicycle-friendly parts of Sydney.


We sincerely hope that this shambles is not representative of the quality of research, design and management behind "Sustainable Sydney 2030".



The above report represents the research and opinions of the Friends of Bourke Street to date. References have been given wherever possible.


We have been unsuccessful in our attempts to have Council staff confirm or deny the conclusions we have drawn from the facts that we have unearthed.


We urge you to check the references provided and email us (with URGENT in the subject line) if you discover anything we've got wrong, or if you have any additional information.




<The Friends Of Bourke Street>




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