In my (almost) three months in Europe I fell in love. Not with another person, or with the beautifully historic buildings or the canals or the languages, but with bicycles. But I didn’t fall in love with those sleek metal frames and soft touch handles, no, I fell in love with what bicycles gave me. Never had it been more convenient to get pretty much anywhere around town – no worries about finding parking, paying and waiting for the train or spending more half an hour legging it somewhere.
I arrive back in Sydney and think to myself, “I am going to cycle more”, so I grab my dad’s unused bike and start cycling. And my heart is broken. Gone are the separated, beautifully surfaced bike lanes and giant bike storages of Munster. Instead, I’m faced with almost no bike lanes, or poor excuses for ones at that, with cars drive dangerously close to you when they’re overtaking, and hardly any sizeable bicycle parking lots.
Why does cycling in Sydney suck so much? I think it’s easy to blame it on the lack of infrastructure – having recently gone on a much longer recreational cycle, I’ve seen many main roads having absolutely no bike lanes, or just super narrow ones right next to traffic going at 80km/h.
But it seems like culture plays just as an important part in the lack of cycling in Sydney. In NSW, 22% surveyed had ridden a bike in the last month, which doesn’t sound so bad, but out of that 22%, around 32% had ridden for transport purposes versus the almost 81% for recreation (yes there is some overlap between the two). So it’s no surprise that we think of cycling in Sydney as a sport rather than just a means of getting around. It’s often what I see when I’m skimming that soy milk at my local cafe – a group of cyclists, usually men, parking their bikes and sitting down for a coffee at the end of their ride.
There’s just no way of life that just so happens to include cycling in Sydney. Heading to your local supermarket is usually no more than a 10 minute cycle away from home, but for almost everyone, that cycle becomes a drive, particularly considering 50% of NSW residents don’t even have a bicycle in their household. Compare that to many European cities like Utrecht and Hamburg where you see people of all ages cycling just to get around, no lycra, no speedy road bikes, and the juxtaposition becomes so clear.
Whether you cycle as a sport or even as a mode of transport in Sydney, you’re seen as a “cyclist”. It’s not like we identify everyone who has a driving license as a “driver” – that’s just how we commute, but somehow this doesn’t extend to cycling. In fact in Copenhagen, 36% of commuter trips to work or education are by bike, compared to Sydney’s almost 1%.
Okay, easy, make some new bike lanes and have a new campaign to promote commuter cycling, right? That’ll fix all the issues. If only it were so simple!
One major problem that Sydney faces is it’s…size. Not population, but just its sprawl. Amsterdam’s footprint is just 220 square kilometres with is metropolitan area spreading to 2,580. Hamburg in Germany stretches 755 square kilometres, and Copenhagen’s metropolitan area taking up 2,778 square kilometres. Sydney? It’s over 12,000 square kilometres, stretching as far west as Springwood, a short 75km ride into the city. So understandably, a comprehensive network of bicycle paths that covers all of Sydney seems near impossible considering its population is just over 5 million.
Another is our history. Sydney never went through that period where bicycles dominated the streets like other European cities did, and Sydney never had a phase where its citizens wanted to keep cycling alive in the face of increased motor traffic like The Netherlands did. So because of this, cycling infrastructure has never been a focus, and Sydney Siders generally don’t care much for it. This means that any new development areas or newly gentrified suburbs won’t plan for bike lanes even if it reduces local traffic, because there’s just not the demand for it, nor government pressures.
And let’s not forget our strange bike lanes, ranging from footpaths with a painted line down the middle (which means yes, you’re sharing the path with pedestrians and yes, things like bus stops and streets signs and other odd objects can be smack bang in the middle of your path) to little shoulder lanes of major roads. In fact one look at Sydney’s bike map will show you how mad it is, with many “bike lanes” being just a small section of the road before bikes have to again integrate with cars, or “bicycle-friendly roads” literally being the normal road with a bicycle sign painted on it. Combine that with police cracking down on things like cyclists riding on the footpath (even though footpaths sometimes are shared bike lanes for a bit but it’s never really clear when it stops being a bike lane) but not cracking down on cars breaking the minimum passing distance and it’s almost as if they’re trying to discourage cycling in Sydney.
But even if all of this magically fixed, it doesn’t change the fact that Sydney is hilly AF. In fact the altitude difference just in the CBD itself is over 65 metres (Amsterdam’s is like 10). So as much as I’d like to see plenty more people cycling in their everyday clothes or formal work wear, The amount of sweaty hills you have to climb to get pretty much anywhere makes it far less appealing to cycle as a way to commute.
So despite the many benefits of cycling (general cardio health, saving fuel money and the environment, lowering traffic congestion, you know the drill), it’s hard not to feel a little melancholic about the state of cycling in Sydney. Do I want to fall in love with cycling in Sydney? Heck yes I do. But am I optimistic about the chances? Yeah, that’s a no.
So what can you do about it? Well the simplest answer is to cycle more. Cycle when you’re visiting your friend that’s a 20min ride away instead of driving for 10. Cycle to work (if it’s not a crazy distance away). Cycle to the shops. And just cycle wearing whatever you would normally wear if you were driving. The more normal cycling seems as a mode of transport, the more our culture will shift into accepting it.
And of course you can write to your local and state governments about it. Do your local shops lack a bike rack? Let them know. Is there a rather main road that lacks any form of bike lane? Write in. Buying into a new development area? Ask them to include bike lanes to get people to and from the shopping hub. Small changes can still have a big impact, particularly on the local community.