Sydney could go Dutch |Cityhub

When it comes to cycle-friendly cities, Sydney could learn from the Dutch. Photo: Alfredo Borba/Wikimedia Commons
When it comes to cycle-friendly cities, Sydney could learn from the Dutch. Photo: Alfredo Borba/Wikimedia Commons

Joan Henson at CityHub Sydney interviewed me for the article Sydney could go Dutch. Excerpt immediately below. Full interview below that.

University of Sydney transport analyst, Professor David Levinson says that while “Sydney is slowly moving in the direction of Utrecht, in that more road space is being dedicated for bike lanes… the movement is too slow to achieve significant progress.”
He says that the City of Sydney’s 2030 target, that 10 per of all city trips be made by bike is not supported by the proposed network. While the target covers three to four times as many cyclists as today, the network “is not three to four times as large or more protected.”

BIKESydney president, David Borella, says road space needs to be reallocated to walking and cycling, as unprotected cyclists are “frightened to cycle in, and even walk near big traffic flows.. Important though they are, separated cycleways alone will not get us there”.
“You can’t ‘be Utrecht’ if you don’t first build off-road cycling trunk routes,” he says. These could include: incorporating cycling paths around the airport in projects like WestConnex, and building a City West Cycle Link, through the Rozelle rail yard, “which would be gamechangers for cycling.”

Professor Levinson says cyclists cannot travel between Green Square and other neighbourhoods via separated and protected bike lanes. Though it is “possibly the best precinct in Sydney for biking, the point is not simply what you can do in a neighbourhood.”
Green Square, which in May won the Green Building Council of Australia’s highest rating, incorporates low speed streets, pedestrian-only zones and separated cycleways.

Planning visionaries needed
Mr Borella thinks ‘going Dutch’ can happen when politicians and community members realise that it is not impossible to shift “heavily car-centric cities”. He says changes in planning laws can promote developments with better walking and cycling infrastructure, while a new street design guide (as in Auckland) can enable engineers “to create a connected network of walking and riding streets, particularly as we are now building a second road network underground”.
Professor Levinson gives a Dutch mindset to Sydney topography, suggesting that narrower streets, less suited to cars, can prohibit them for most uses.
Similarly main streets, with on-street parking, should have space for separated cycling lanes as, “what is more important, storing cars 23 hours a day or moving people?”
He says there are strategies yet to be envisaged to plan the transition: including promoting and regulating e-bikes, planning protected bike lanes from station entrances, and school cycling strategies.

The full interview below.

Questions in blockquote. [abridged]

Answers in plaintext.

1.Although Dutch cycling has become somewhat of a fantasy on social media, is there any hope for Sydney cycling aficionados having an Utrecht-styled Sydney (are we moving in that direction– why/why not – specific egs)?

Sydney will not achieve Utrecht-like conditions anytime soon. But Sydney is slowly moving in the direction of Utrecht, in that more roadspace is being dedicated for bike lanes. But the movement is too slow to achieve significant progress. I am pleased to see Sydney hopes to be a more bicycle friendly place. However the City’s plan as laid out is insufficiently ambitious. So much more can and should be done. Given the climate and topology and density, Sydney should be one of the world leaders in bicycling, but it remains a laggard, stuck in the mid-20th century. A 10% target in 2030 (3-4x as many bicyclists as today) is good (better than today’s baseline), but the network that is proposed doesn’t support that, it is not 3-4x as large or more protected.

2. Does Green Square provide a close-ish example to Utrecht? How? Are there better Sydney examples that come close?

Green Square is possibly the best precinct in Sydney for biking, but the point is not simply what you can do in a neighbourhood, but where you can get to, and it remains difficult to travel from Green Square to other places on bikes on separated and protected bike lanes. This includes obvious destinations like the University of Sydney. Certainly people can get there, but not easily or conveniently.

3. What are the Dutch approaches that fit Sydney, and what approaches would be dismissed as unsuitable for Sydney (described by one social media user as ‘Dutch cycle-‘splaining’)/ challenges? Design problems or stakeholders that provide a challenge? How could these be met?
• Rob Stokes said shape of road network an issue
• Narrow streets compared to Melbourne

Western Sydney is a huge opportunity, the streets and rights-of-way are wide and could easily accommodate bike lanes. In the crowded parts of older Sydney, it is obviously more difficult, but it’s not like Sydney is some medieval city, like say Utrecht or Amsterdam, lots of space is given over to on-street parking that could easily be reclaimed for movement. The more narrow the streets, the less suited they are for cars, the more that cars should be prohibited on them. In areas built before the automobile, it would be relatively straight-forward to prohibit private cars for most uses, (still allowing trucks for deliveries, emergency access vehicles, and access for the disabled e.g.), and require people to use public transport, walking, and biking to get around. No one is entitled to drive a car inside an office building, shopping mall, or a campus, why should high density urban centers be any different?

To start, think about the network: Every major street (say a street that warrants a traffic signals) which also has on-street parking has demonstrated space for separated bike lanes. What is more important, storing cars 23 hours a day or moving people? The value of the network increases non-linearly with its connectivity. Even most streets without on-street parking have space for bike lanes.

Similarly, every block that has on-street parking should dedicate at least one parking space to bicycle parking, particularly for shared bikes. Bike parking is cheap to install and signals priorities (i.e. bikes are valued, and the space for them should come from car parking spaces rather than the footpath), and should lead rather than follow.

4. Some of the rationale behind the cycling infrastructure, culture, etc of Utrecht is already part of City of Sydney planning ideas or have been actioned. What influence have places like Amsterdam and Utrecht had on Sydney planning policy? What about non-Dutch places, like Copenhagen?

The firm of Jan Gehl, a famous urban designer from Copenhagen, has worked in Sydney and for the University of Sydney, and written reports. I cannot answer what influence he has had.

• Approaches that seem to crossover: e.g. bringing cycling routes closer to businesses (City of Sydney Cycling Strategy and Action Plan and Utrecht merchants’ sales off the pedestrianised zones viewed as better); City of Sydney advocating lower speeds to state government and low-speed streets at Green Square which received 6 Green Star rating
5. What international research or cycling ideas seem to have influenced the City of Sydney’s cycling rationale/goals, proposals, and actioned items? Home-grown ideas taking flight overseas?

Unfortunately, there is still a “it can’t work here” mentality for things that work everywhere else. I have not seen any local ideas adopted in the more advanced cycling countries.

7. Why do you think Dutch cycling culture, infrastructure, thinking is so admired by cycling groups, environmentalists, and others? [even City of Sydney:

Because it is better than here (and elsewhere). Bicycling is a normal mode of transport. You can see the evidence in their much higher rates of bicycling.

8. Which specific Sydney routes could be improved by a different outlook on cycling, and how? Or how could City of Sydney approach be improved?

Among these which I am familiar with should be included in a protected bike lane network are Regent St/Gibbons St/Wyndham St and Abercrombie/Wattle, but there are undoubtedly more. Generally, the separated bike lane network should be as dense and complete as the arterial street network. It is nowhere near that. The networks appear to be performative, signaling that ‘we like bikes’ to the non-bicycling community, while not being serious about what it takes to provide an environment where nearly everyone can safely and comfortably bike some of the time.

9. In your cycling expertise is there a perspective to this that I have missed? Or statistic/expert/cycling-challenged Sydney location/cycling-blessed location/approach to cycling infrastructure that I should know (or something I have misunderstood)?

Regulation is still hostile to bicyclists, including heavy fines and futile helmet laws. Helmets are indicator of danger. Biking should be normalised as in Europe, where helmets are not required. Every time someone puts on a special uniform to bike, they are “othered” from the general population, and their life is devalued. (There is research on this)

A strategy for promoting and regulating eBikes would be good. Also promoting and regulating scooters, skateboards, and other wheeled vehicles (micro-mobility).

A strategy for promoting bike to train and metro and express bus stations would be good. This includes more bike parking at stations, and protected bike lanes radiating out from station entrances.

A strategy for promoting biking to school (and Uni) would be good. This includes protected bike lanes radiating out from schools in all directions.

Bikes should be counted continuously at intersections (not just 2 times a year), just as cars are. There are technologies to do this, and TfNSW can be called on to do it. Electronic signs displaying bike counts on key routes is also a good marketing tool, and is used in other countries.