Flashback Friday: Cycling Postcards from Australia

A colleague of mine is about to go on a short holiday over to Byron Bay in Australia; another is planning a trip to Gold Coast in May. I’m also eyeing up a return across the Tasman later in the year (my first since late 2019) and it called to mind a previous family visit there back in early 2016. It will be interesting to see whether some aspects of cycling in Oz (first posted here in Feb 2016) have changed for the better since then…

Last week I returned from a 10-day family holiday to the east coast of Australia, travelling around between Brisbane and Sydney. Being on holiday (and doing most of the driving), I didn’t take too many cycling-related pictures (see a few below), but nevertheless I was able to get another useful look at how Australian towns and cities (at least the ones in NSW and QLD) are providing for cycling (or not…).

Probably the nicest cycleway I saw; a contra-flow one at Newcastle Beach

An overall impression of how Australia has developed is that it has embraced the American model of life far more than we have (including their spelling…). This is certainly evident in the retail chains that are there, the foods you can eat, and the TV programmes available, but it also manifests itself in the transport patterns. Low-density suburbia, beachfront/CBD high-rise and multi-lane pedestrian-unfriendly urban arterial routes are pretty common, with easy car access to everything of course resulting in inevitable traffic jams everywhere.

A spot of “quaxing” at the Shellharbour beach market

So what about cycling? Well it gets fitted in where it can be. Perhaps there is a roadside footpath that can be shared. Perhaps some bike lanes can be painted in places. Sometimes there is even a fancy separated cycleway or pathway under/over a busy road. But then it comes to an end and you’re fending for yourself until you find the next bit. Like many places in the world, there’s not much evidence of joined-up thinking from day one when it comes to developing coherent cycle networks that get you all the way from point A to point B.

This cycleway shares carpark space in Kendrick Park, Sydney

Along with New Zealand, Australia is the only other country in the world with a mandatory all-ages cycle helmet wearing law everywhere. So it was really intriguing to come across Byron Bay on the northern NSW coast, a very popular beach town for holiday seekers. There were quite a lot of people cycling around town, but I don’t think I saw even one person wearing a helmet! A helmetless nirvana in Australia? Apparently others have noticed this too, even if the Police insist there’s nothing special about the place. Other beach towns down the coast also tended to exhibit relatively relaxed helmet-wearing rates too.

Lots of informal contra-flow cycling was also seen around Byron Bay…

Another aspect where Australia seem to struggle is with speed limits. Partly this is a historical artefact from the time not so long ago when the default urban speed in Australia was 60km/h. Now there are more 50km/h areas, and they also make reasonable use of 40km/h areas for shopping areas, some residential areas, and around schools. I don’t think I ever saw a 30km/h speed limit though, which we know would make an even greater difference for cycling.

Downtown Shellharbour: Good to see many of these, but perhaps they should be 30?

More worrying were the 60/70/80km/h roads in urban environments that were completely inappropriate for the adjacent land use and activities (let alone the road geometry). It felt weird enough driving on some of them at the prevailing traffic speed; I wouldn’t have wanted to bike on many of them. One of them even had an advisory cycle logo slap-bang in the middle of a 70km/h traffic lane – not something I would have contemplated there!

School speed zones and a yellow “advisory” cycle positioning marking in Forest Lake, Brisbane

While the NZ Government and its agencies are currently being quite pro-active about cycling here, some of the various Australian state governments are not showering themselves in glory. NSW in particular is attacking on multiple fronts, both in ripping up existing separated cycleways and requiring photo ID for all bike riders, thanks to their very pro-roads Transport Minister. The wonderful Frome St Bikeway in Adelaide that we highlighted two years ago was also recently under threat because some City Councillors didn’t like it. The only thing where they seem to be moving more quickly than us is in introducing minimum passing distance rules, but arguably even that is only a bandaid solution.

Is this separated cycleway in downtown Sydney (Kent St) under threat like its near neighbour on College St?

Perhaps the biggest indictment of the state of cycling in Australia is the actual levels of biking undertaken. The pictures here are generally a fair reflection of what I saw; in many cases it was hard to find any people on bikes (in contrast, the small coastal beach settlements were the best places).

Good shared path signage in Forest Lake, Brisbane, but not much need for it at present

With so many cultural similarities, we often look to Australia for thoughts about how to do things in New Zealand. When it comes to cycling however, I don’t think there is a lot that we can glean from their current practices. Granted, there are still many parts of Christchurch (and New Zealand) that are not great for cycling. But we are far better off looking at the examples and philosophies from Europe and adapting those to suit the New Zealand environment.

What do you think we can learn from Australia?

3 thoughts on “Flashback Friday: Cycling Postcards from Australia”

  1. Contraflow bike lanes with no physical barriers are kinda scary – I’m not sure I could ride into oncoming traffic like that.

    Don’t assume that Australia knows best just because they’re bigger.

    1. As I mention in the article, I certainly don’t look to Australia for best-practice cycling guidance. But the appropriate contra-flow cycle separator options to use are very much driven by the relative traffic volumes and speeds – you don’t need fully separated cycleways in all cases. NZ’s guidance on contra-flow cycleways (NZTA Cycling Network Guidance) discusses all the options – and that was based on best-practice guidance from France…

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