In an era where national leadership for public health is in short supply, it’s timely to look at where and how local communities are leading.
This was the premise behind a recent article for Inside Story, Can Cities and Towns Make Us Healthier? – and it’s a question that also resonated with discussions at the UNSW Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity’s annual forum in Sydney this week (stay tuned for an in-depth report from the forum by Amy Coopes early next week).
Continuing the theme, Croakey is launching a series, #LookingLocal.
In the first article in the series, Wendy Oakes and Julie Anne Mitchell from Heart Foundation NSW detail the long and arduous journey of a “dedicated and enthusiastic collaboration of community groups” towards developing a walking and cycling network around Newcastle and Lake Macquarie in NSW.
The story offers many lessons for other local communities, they suggest – including how the system is geared to prioritise roads at all costs, ahead of healthier forms of transport.
Wendy Oakes and Julie Anne Mitchell write:
When did cars take over the world?
In an extraordinarily short time, Australia has moved from no car to multiple car families. In 1953 there were 153 passenger vehicles per 1,000 people in Australia and by 2013 that had ballooned to 568.
Private road vehicles now account for about 87% of the total urban passenger “task” – up from 40% in the late 1940s.
Arguably the main contributor to this dramatic change is the change in the design of our cities. After World War II, Australian cities moved from tightly packed residential areas clustered around a central business district to widely spread, low density suburbs.
As cities spread out, so did the need to move people greater distances for work, school, and social activity. And in the absence of cheap convenient public transport, private cars took up the challenge.
But what if there was another way?
Australian cities are still expanding, including regional cities which are being targeted for economic and population growth. Newcastle in NSW, for example, is predicted to grow from its current population of 430,000 to around 750,000 over the next 40 to 50 years as a result of deliberate regional revitalisation strategies.
While that may be good news economically, with the prospect of more employment and services, the local community wants a say in how that will happen.
The people of Newcastle and the Hunter region don’t want to live in a new version of its noisy, dysfunctional neighbour, Sydney. They choose to live in the Hunter region because of its slower pace of life, close social networks, natural beauty and convenience. The traffic congestion Sydneysiders live with is unheard of and unwanted in Newcastle.
So how are all these extra people going to move around a newly revitalised Newcastle?
Other cities, such as Portland in Oregon USA and Copenhagen in Denmark with their efficient and effective active transport systems, provide some good ideas.
Newcastle and the surrounding areas are ideally placed for a network of cycling and walking paths, which can provide a viable transport alternative to using a car for short trips, as well as link to public transport for longer trips. The area is relatively flat, the climate is mild most of the year round, and it has a strong community cycling culture that can be built on.
A dedicated and enthusiastic collaboration of community groups has been working persistently and systematically over many years to develop a feasible and workable plan for a walking and cycling network connecting most areas of Newcastle and Lake Macquarie – the Cyclesafe Network.
The Newcastle Cycleways Movement was set up in 1977 to advocate for better cycling infrastructure in the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie areas.
Its first success in 1978 was the Newcastle Area Bike Plan in 1978 which guided the construction of many cycleways and shared paths across the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie areas.
However, their continued frustration is the slow and protracted negotiations which are needed to eke out every small gain. The popular and celebrated Fernleigh Track, for example, took over 12 years of negotiation to deliver a 15 km track.
The Newcastle collaboration now has a more ambitious project in its sights – the Cyclesafe Network proposal – which will link the 90kms of existing paths with 160kms of new routes to provide a viable active transport alternative for most of the population of the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie areas.
Cycling for everyday transport
The completed Network would bring 90 percent of primary schools and a third of secondary schools within two kilometres of a safe, easy to follow path system, so that both children and adults could feasibly use cycling or walking as their everyday transport to get to work, school, university, shopping and sports fields.
The proposal is a detailed, costed three-phase project that could be delivered in eight years at a cost of around $164 million. For the transport bureaucrats, this is an audacious ask.
(Mind you, no-one blinks an eye at the mutli-million dollar projects which create roads. At around the same time the Cyclesafe Project was launched, the local Glendale Interchange was announced – providing two kms of road at a cost of $26 million.)
But the Newcastle supporters are not deterred. They argue quite reasonably that the project can be funded from a small portion of $1.75 billion the NSW Government has received from the sale/lease of the Newcastle Port, of which $340 million has been earmarked for use in Newcastle. Link
Looking at what has been achieved and evaluated overseas, the figures stack up well for cycling/walking infrastructure to provide a transport system with a cost to benefit ratio better than many road systems.
And the Newcastle collaboration have done their homework in that area as well. Using Transport for NSW own modelling tool, they’ve calculated that the whole Cyclesafe Network could be ‘paid back’ in savings in less than 18 years.
Unfortunately, finance isn’t the only barrier to be overcome.
From a Government’s perspective, the ‘easiest’ way to solve a transport problem is to build roads. If the road is big enough, large corporations (including many international corporations) will happily tender to build a new road network, especially if there is the possibility they can charge a toll.
Departments of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure are well set up to progress such projects. Years of road building has fine-tuned tender processes, land procurement, contracting, project management and delivery expectations.
Time to change the paradigm
However, if you want to build a transport network based on cycling and walking, you need to do it piece by piece.
Building cycling/walking paths is largely left to local councils, which generally have only small pots of funding for particular sections and need to negotiate with the multiple authorities responsible for different parts, like kerb ramps, traffic lights, bridges.
This convoluted system is largely because governments have historically seen cycling and walking as a recreational past time rather than a legitimate transport mode.
Consequently, cycling infrastructure is generally delivered in short chunks, rather than as integrated transport networks which sensibly link people to the places they need to go.
If we’re going to build healthy cities for the future, it’s time to change that paradigm.
You can help support Newcastle to get this happening by signing the petition on the Cyclesafe Network website and Facebook page (@cyclesafenetwork).
And think about what could be done in your own area. The Cyclesafe Network team are happy to share what they’ve learned with other people who might want to use their good ideas.