The Problem? The Solution.

The number one reason why people don’t bicycle in Sydney (and many other cities around the world) is because of the traffic. People often say that they’re afraid of the drivers. Why? “Because drivers don’t see bicyclists. People drive really badly in Sydney, (Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth etc.) It’s not the traffic in front that is worrisome. It’s the traffic behind that you can’t see which is the most dangerous. Someone using a phone while driving, texting, checking emails, etc.  could take me out with a moment of inattention.”

In the other category of “I don’t bicycle in Sydney” I have often heard,  “I’m not fit enough to bicycle around Sydney because it’s so hilly.” Why not try an e-bike then? And my favourite: “I don’t want to mess up my hair.” Choosing between the opportunity to improve health, fitness (and attractiveness) by bicycling and eating healthily versus not wanting to mess up one’s hair, is a difficult choice for some.

When the women in my mother’s group, who are for me a great representative of society, have said that they find it too scary to bicycle in Sydney, it is because they think like drivers. They assume incorrectly that the route that they take in their cars would be the same on bicycle. 

Cycleways are part of the answer for people to start bicycling for transport. The rest lies in people themselves to make a change in their habits. Instead of taking the car to buy milk, why not bicycle? Instead of driving every day to work, try bicycling there a few times a week.

My daily commute to the office takes me to the city via Riley Street to Darlinghurst, a little bit of St. Mary’s Road, then via the Domain where there are no cars. 

The car has become an answer to everything but in fact, is now the problem not the solution. I am shocked when I hear about the amount of time people budget to travel by car in Sydney. For me, its always a 20 minute journey to my son’s piano lessons at the edge of the CBD. A 30 minute journey to my daughter’s violin lessons afterwards.  When on a bicycle, an entirely different world opens up to you. One that is less stressful, more considered, healthier and provides more solutions rather than posing problems.

And promotes a good mood in your children!

Sydney has a network of cycleways and separated cycleways which are well-known and some might say, notorious. The cycleways suit the “interested but concerned” rider who would otherwise not ride at all.  Unfortunately, some are unconnected, have been wantonly destroyed (College Street Cycleway) or more annoyingly, vanish into the road. King Street, in the CBD, is a good example.  Despite these problems, the City of Sydney, under the stewardship of Lord Mayor Clover Moore, has done a phenomenal job of installing the cycleways and in spite of an unsupportive NSW Government.

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No cycleway on Pitt Street but that’s ok. Taking it easy with the slow cars.

In 2011, I started bicycling again with the help of my husband and the Nihola cargo tricycle that we imported from Denmark. In 2007, when I first trialled riding to childcare and to my office in Chifley Tower, I gave up. Why? Because the manner in which people drove their cars frightened me.  People gave me the impression that they valued their space on the road more than my life or my child’s.  Being passed by a car on College Street back then was terrifying. Furthermore, maintaining balance with my daughter in the back of the bicycle, at Wentworth Street while facing Liverpool/Oxford/College Street, was difficult. Without the College Street Cycleway as an oasis in 2007, yes indeed, it was too hard.

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All those years ago and now they are both in school. Making them walk home after lunch.

The difference now is knowledge and practice. It all started with the Nihola. We had decided not to purchase a car after our second child’s arrival. The cargo tricycle helped my balance and an electric-motor-conversion augmented my mum-fitness-levels. This combination improved my confidence by 40%. The Cycleways to 60%. The free course that the City of Sydney offered in 2011 called “Cycling with Confidence” took me to 80% confidence. I still use use the skills that I learned from this course. When do I use them? Every day. Twice a day when I commute to work. Sometimes four times a day if I have a lunch or a meeting to attend. Even more so, if I have after school activities and/or errands with the kids. As we all know, not using the skills learned on a course is meaningless. Practice has raised my confidence immeasurably.

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Taking the lane in slow moving traffic on Pitt Street works well. Drivers are giving me plenty of space and my direction is clear by my intent.

I “choose my path” and also “take the lane.” I take the cycleways when they are available. Practice has also included: Exploring Sydney for the past five years by bicycle to take my daughter to gymnastics in Bondi Junction and Matraville; violin lessons in Randwick, Earlwood, Stanmore, Paddington; meeting Mike Tomalaris in Artarmon at SBS Television among other adventures by e-bike. Did I ride along Parramatta Road? No. I took the back streets. Did I take the Pacific Highway? Yes, going to Artarmon but Mike told me about another path back to the city which was protected and oh-so-leafy.

Going to Coogee Beach for Father’s Day lunch the back way through Surry Hills, Bourke Street, Centennial Park, Queens Park.

Consequently, I have developed a mental map of safe bicycling “corridors” or “cyclespaces” as Dr. Steven Fleming likes to call them. The first time I had a new destination, it was a slow process. The night before, I would study Google Maps to work out a preliminary route. I have printed out countless maps which end up in the recycling pile after going there and returning home. I ask the kids to help me navigate by landmarks. We have made a game of it.

Going home from the Rocks via a series of cycleways: Kent Street, Liverpool Street, Castlereagh Street, Elizabeth Street briefly and then Reservoir Street.

GoogleMaps Bicycle function is rubbish and will propose riding on Bridge Road or Broadway to the Inner-West. I often ignore its terrible directions and take my own path which it also adopts after a few moments. Again, I take the ancillary roads or local streets which have slower speeds, less traffic or have no through traffic.

I have gone with the kids for reconnaissance rides on the weekend to map out a new journey. Usually, the traffic is lighter and more forgiving. I have gotten lost despite the best that GoogleMaps has to offer but never as badly as in a car. 

Years ago, while on maternity leave, I left home for a mother’s group dinner in Northbridge armed with the map book in the GoGet carshare. I drove for two hours and was hopelessly lost and without water (Breastfeeding and without water – terrible!). N and her husband had cooked a roast beef dinner with all the trimmings.  Exhausted, tired, and hungry I called her from Macquarie Park and told her that I was going home. My husband bought me a GPS that year from my birthday. It sits in its box now unused.

Going to Paddington via Campbell Street Cycleway, Taylor Square, Burton Street, MacDonald Street, Glenmore Road.

Recently, on the way to my daughter’s violin lessons in Paddington, a driver behind me tooted his horn at me. I presume that he wanted me to make space for him to pass. Because I take the lane and because of my confidence as a bicyclist and a driver, I didn’t even look. Instead, I waved to say, “I know you’re there. I’m not going to let you pass because there isn’t enough space.” When there is space and low speeds, I will allow cars to pass me. How? If there is space, I will continue at pace but will move to the side and grant access.  I heard him gunning his engine and then he dropped back on Glenmore Road because he could see that there was no space to pass. When we arrived at Five Ways, he tooted again. I shouted, “Byeeee!”

Happy Bicycling!

x Sarah

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11 Comments

  1. Hi Sarah, another enjoyable story, thankyou. I’d be really interested to hear whether you think Bike Citizens app is a good tool for riding in Sydney. I heard of it while at the VeloCity conference in Adelaide a few years ago, and have obtained the data packages for Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Unfortunately, as I live in Hobart, I don’t get many chances to try it out. It has seemed pretty good when I’ve used it as a tourist in those cities, but that’s not the same as seeing it as a local. Users can contribute data to it I think, I;m not sure how.
    Happy riding,
    Di

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  2. The amount of thought one has to put into researching an unfamiliar route is quite striking: what is the combination of safest/least hilly/quickest/most pleasant? As you suggest, it often isn’t intuitive (the way the bus goes, or that one might drive, is usually *not* the cycling route), and that’s just a further ‘nudge’ for many people toward the default being driving: aside from ‘not feeling safe’ on the road, why would one choose a mode of travel that feels/is made so *difficult*?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true, Michelle. I have a friend who has not yet ridden to work because she baulks at the planning required. This is why initiatives like social rides and one-on-one buddying are really important, to show people safe and interesting routes. The situation we are in is the result of decades of making it ever easier to drive our single occupancy cars for every trip imaginable. It will take a lot of advocacy to slowly re-engineer our streets to make it as easy to ride as it is to drive. But we’re working on it! Do join an advocacy group like Bicycle Network to help our campaigning.

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    2. Your question is a very good one Michelle. I like to encourage people to start out small. Buy some milk. Ride to the beach or the shops. Go with a friend.
      Later, when you have found yourself wanting to bicycle farther, to the office, to school, then the fantastic feeling of being on a bicycle and the freedom it affords you, the sense of accomplishment that you feel after doing something for yourself, plus the bit chocolate cake that ate after lunch today and the 20kg that continues to stay away, justifies the choice of mode of travel even though it may seem initially “difficult.”

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  3. Sarah you inspire me -so much so i have recently signed up for an e-bike trial of 2 months with option to purchase as well as a Confidence cycling course. Thankyou for your posts ( kindly shared by Justin😊)

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  4. My kids have started singing together in the bike… very funny 🙂 I can’t stop smiling when they do it (I often whistle while riding…)

    Just today, I came across a decent looking app – ‘Cycle Streets’ (https://www.cyclestreets.net/mobile/ – on FOUR mobile platforms!)
    It’s UK-centric, but the data is on Open Cycle Maps so it looks to work well here. Allows for route planning according to ‘fastest’, ‘quiet’ or ‘balanced’. I’m going to try it out when I go somewhere new.

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