By Councillor Charles Jago
The Heath Street cycleway is a section of Canada Bay’s 7km East West cycle way which connects Concord to the Bay Run, running for two blocks (210m) from First Avenue to Henley Marine Drive. The Heath Street section was available from 22 November 2022 to 26 April 2023: it lasted five months.
The Heath St cycleway was well designed for less confident riders who want to be physically separated from cars. It was a useful facility, being one-way, uphill, when bike riders are going more slowly and perhaps weaving a little.
A number of residents unhappy with the work lobbied their councillors, who asked for a consultant review, which recommended effectively reversing the changes based on superficial analysis. The residents mounted public pressure which amounted to a scare campaign. After a public meeting, the issue went through Traffic Committee, then a council meeting, which approved the reversal of the work, despite clear evidence that contradicted the propositions put to them.
As a result bike riders and all road users are less safe – according to the real experts. However, I was not able to win this argument in a council meeting.
I first found out about this issue in February this year, when I attended a public meeting with some Heath Street residents who were upset with the cycleway in their street.
Although Council had undertaken substantial consultation with the community before the construction of the cycleway, they still had major concerns.
The public meeting with residents (held on Thursday 2nd February at the shelter in Timbrell Park) was run by council staff, and put forward recommendations from a consultant who had been specifically engaged to review the Heath Street section of the cycleway.
The meeting was called in a letter from the Mayor distributed to local residents homes. A diagram with proposed changes was circulated from the report. The staff presented the proposed changes, then community residents responded with their concerns. I thought that two of the issues were genuine and needed to be further explored:
- Two residents reported seeing “near misses” where a couple of accidents between cars and cycles were barely avoided.
- Residents also had concerns about sight lines of car drivers being able to see bike riders approaching intersections.
However, any opportunity to work through these issues was overwhelmed by those residents who wanted the entire cycleway reversed.
There were other concerns which, in my view, did not appear to be factually based. These included:
- The complaint that some children had been cycling the wrong way down the one-way cycle path. Why blame the street when a few people break the rules?
- Residents commented that drivers of vehicles backing out of driveways could not see oncoming traffic. However, once the reversing car starts to back between parked cars on each side of the driveway, the visibility of oncoming traffic to the driver of the reversing car is exactly the same as for any other car reversing from a driveway with cars parked on the street. The cycleway itself does not change the angles of visibility. (More on this issue later in the text.)
- Some complained that people were tripping on the blocks used to separate car parking spaces from the cycleway. People also trip on kerbs – but that is not a reason to eliminate kerbs or other things like traffic islands, or bollards that people could trip on – people know that they are there for a purpose. (This issue is further discussed in Jake Coppinger’s blog.)
- A number of resident statements implied or stated that bike riders came from outside the area and did not understand the local situation. This ignores not only the president of BayBUG living 30 metres away from the cycleway around the corner, but also another individual who attended the public meeting in February who was supportive of cycling. He had grown up in the area and was intending to buy back into Heath Street. His input was ignored.
- Some Heath Street residents also said that there were very few bike riders, suggesting that a cycleway was unreasonable because of the low number of bike riders. However, independent advice from a cycling at academic using data from the Strava cycling app suggest that full cycling numbers along Heath Street amount to about 50,000 annually, that is approximately 140 trips per day, or around one sixth of all traffic numbers based on Council traffic count figures.
The consultant’s report
Some of these issues were mentioned in the consultant’s report by McLaren Traffic Engineering (MTE), a well established general traffic consultancy, which council staff commissioned in response to community concern. This report, “Review of as-built Heath Street (Regional Cycleway Works) at Heath Street, Five Dock” (“the MTE report”) provided the basis for recommended changes at the public meeting. (Note that this report did not linger on the council website; it was removed before the council meeting.)
That report raises a number of issues, some of which were also raised by residents. However, the key recommendation in the report states:
“…reinstating the previous kerbside parking with a shared two-way carriageway (for both vehicles and bicycles), pending future traffic volume data would be an improved and safer outcome.” MTE Report, p6.
This recommendation is presented in the context of the narrow width of the road apparently being a safety issue, without any evidence or justification beyond the proposition that it would widen the street. In other words: by itself, MTE states that the narrowness of the street represents a safety issue for all users.
However, Heath Street is wider than many of the surrounding streets, even after the cycleway has been added. If this conclusion is accepted, then should all narrow streets be closed as unsafe? That would be absurd. In fact, as noted by Transport for NSW (TfNSW), the narrow street makes vehicles reduce their speed, increasing safety. (See below the comments by the Transport for NSW representative on the Canada Bay Traffic Committee in the Traffic Committee minutes under the heading “Vehicles Speeds”, p2940.)
The suggestion is also especially inappropriate for bike riders. Of course, removing the separate cycleway and putting bike riders back on the street amongst other vehicles will put bike riders more at risk. At this point, I mention that MTE are a general traffic consultancy, with their website (as of 9/6/2023) not mentioning any cycling expertise, contrary to the Mayor’s letter that calls them an “independent specialist consultant”. A consultant with expertise in cycling would have noted the substantial benefits for bike riders using the separated cycleway, and the slower speed benefit in the narrower street as well. In short, the suggestion that removing the cycleway would make everybody safer is not based on evidence, and is strongly disputed by experts with cycling traffic expertise, including TfNSW, Bicycle NSW and Canada Bay Bicycle Users Group (BayBUG).
In fact, the cycleway as constructed made everybody safer; changing it back to the previous design has made it less safe. Reverting to the previous layout makes everybody less safe.
However, most residents in the public meeting dismissed any concerns other than their own, strongly supporting the recommendations in the MTE report. Cycling representatives at the meeting were disappointed that their concerns were not listened to, and were at times talked over by other residents.
After the public meeting, the issue went to Canada Bay Council’s Traffic Committee on 16th March. (See the meeting minutes.) Normally, this committee achieves consensus on issues, with voting on them rarely occurring. The committee had four members: Councillor Michael Megna (committee chair), Sergeant S Tohme of NSW Police, Ms Kath Hawkins of TfNSW and Mr John Sidoti, the then NSW Member of Parliament for Drummoyne. There are also other advisory members, from Council and other organisations.
In this case, the committee was divided, with Transport for NSW’s vote outnumbered by the other three members of the committee. TfNSW hold real expertise on traffic matters and cycling. Kath Hawkins from TfNSW was pretty clear: none of residents’ objections justified the removal of such a useful facility. The Canada Bay Bicycle Users Group (BayBUG), with an advisory role on the committee, also spoke against the recommendation. In short, it came down to the political and organisational representatives (supporting the view of many of the residents) vs the view of the traffic experts, with the viewpoint of those residents’ prevailing.
The recommendation they passed was that “the separated cycleway in Heath Street be removed and replaced with a two-way mixed traffic arrangement…” In other words, to return the Heath Street cycleway back to just another “bike path” marked only by paint on the road. Council has many “bike paths” in its cycling network like this – they are not real or effective bike paths. A real bike path is physically separated from motor vehicles in order to provide real safety.
It is unfortunate that the Traffic Committee chose not to accept the point of view put forward in the meeting by TfNSW and BayBUG who were more qualified on the issues at stake. In “supporting the residents”, they chose a street layout which will be more dangerous than the layout which was in place – for all users, but especially for bike riders.
Subsequently, the matter came to the council meeting on 28th March 2023, for endorsement of Traffic Committee minutes – in effect, endorsement of the Traffic Committee’s recommendations.
A number of residents on both sides of the issue, plus representatives of BayBUG and Bicycle NSW, attended the council meeting.
While again there were some genuine issues raised by the residents, some of their statements were incorrect and partisan, echoing the public meeting in February. This was made clear in the council meeting in the presentations from BayBUG members and Bicycle NSW. That’s why it was distressing that Council supported such an obviously unjustifiable conclusion.
Consequently, given the issues with the MTE report and the clear diversity of views, Council needed to take advantage of the expert resources on offer to take a much closer look at the issues. It needed to look in detail at the specific complaints made by residents and address them, without being drawn into the knee-jerk demands of residents who were uncomfortable with some aspects of the cycleway.
In that meeting, I spoke against the motion, and was the only one to vote against it. I asked councillors not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and to accept the offers of help in revising the street layout from TfNSW, Bicycle NSW and BayBUG. The councillors claimed that their approach would make the street safer. (Note that Councillors Little and Ferguson were absent.)
However councillors at the council meeting voted to endorse the Traffic Committee’s recommendation that “the separated cycleway in Heath Street be removed and replaced with a two-way mixed traffic arrangement…”
It is especially unfortunate that councillors voted to reject offers of assistance from TfNSW, Bicycle NSW and BayBUG in addressing some genuine concerns raised by residents.
The decision made by Council was disappointing because it recognised the safety claims of Heath Street residents, but not those of bike riders who are in harm’s way when they have to mix with traffic. It also recognised the lived experience of residents, but not the lived experience of bike riders, including that many of them were locals, some of them living very close by.
The conversation by councillors did not recognise the balance of technical viewpoints was against the recommendation of their “independent expert”, whose conclusion was not actually justified by the observations in their report.
And most of all it is unfortunate that councillors were unable to take a larger view of the issue, uncritically accepting the point of view of residents. The councillors naively accepted the community’s proposition that community residents along this street were in danger. They did not notice (or ignored) the danger to bike riders. The statement in the consultant’s report, echoed in the Mayor’s letter to residents, was that pulling out the cycleway as constructive would make everybody safer. This is a one-sided, untrue statement.
This unnecessary, reactive decision has rejected the best expertise and will put both bike riders and other people at risk.