North Sydney was a cycle wasteland, then a war zone. Is that about to change?

Ramp landing on Alfred St. Photo: NSW Government.

North Sydney’s “anti-cycling” mayor has gone after a decade stint. Will cycle paths now boom in this electorate? Editor-at-large Gary Nunn spoke to the new mayor and cycling groups to find out.

North Sydney has long been a cycling wasteland. In more recent years, it became a war zone.

After a decade-long stint, Jilly Gibson, a mayor many perceived to be “anti-cycling,” no longer holds the top spot.

With a brand new mayor of North Sydney elected earlier this year, some cyclists are finally ringing their bells in hope again. Others, however, are more cautious. Gibson may no longer be mayor – but she still has a seat on the council. So are the cycle wars over? Or are they just beginning?

Ramping up the pressure

Cycling infrastructure, north of the bridge, has been woeful without the touch of the City of Sydney’s famously pro-cycling Lord Mayor Clover Moore in the southern suburbs. As cycle lanes boomed there, especially during the pandemic, cyclists who traversed the Sydney Harbour Bridge were disappointed, north-side before they even exited it.

The bridge has a cycle ramp on the southern side, but on the northern side, cyclists must struggle down 55 steps: a barrier for all but the most confident and able-bodied cyclists.

The most famous landmark in Australia, arguably the world’s most famous bridge, and one of the most celebrated pieces of transport infrastructure ever built, isn’t fully accessible to cyclists. It’s something that has people scratching their heads, given that view they could be getting. 

North Sydney’s former mayor, Jilly Gibson, was widely viewed as one of the roadblocks to the cycle ramp being built. 

When I spoke to her in August, she was still very antagonistic about it.

“Go down there and watch,” she instructed me.

“Many cyclists manage that current arrangement effortlessly.”

When challenged that this was about tempting more new or nervous cyclists onto our streets, rather than just serving existing confident ones, and that a lift-and-steps arrangement would cause dangerous congestion, Gibson responded: “There’s congestion there anyway.”

It was an insight into someone who had no intention of prioritising cycling infrastructure. But it wasn’t even the most anti-cycling thing she’d done.

The viewpoints towards Milsons Point Station. Photo: NSW Government.

Turning down $2.7 million for cycling infrastructure 

In July, encouraged and led by Gibson, the North Sydney council lost a whopping $2.7m of funding offered by Transport for NSW to build a cycle route between Kirribilli and Cremorne primarily because it would “knock out shopper parking.” Many cyclists and cycling groups were irate that the council had declined the money. 

In the July council meeting, Gibson said “Transport for NSW are trying to ram through cycleways – we’re having a mini-war with them.”

She also spoke of the “need to recognise how cranky our residents are about this”, adding: “I’d rather do nothing than anything proposed here.”

And that’s exactly what she did.

A new mayor, a new direction?

In a shock eleventh-hour decision, Gibson chose not to challenge her rival, independent Zoë Baker, who is now North Sydney’s first new mayor in a decade and has now been in post since December’s council elections. 

Gibson was independent, but conservative, and continues to serve on the council with her daughter. They have voted together to block cycleways. 

The Sydney Sentinel interviewed North Sydney’s new Mayor, Zoë Baker, to discover if the winds of change will include cyclists.

North Sydney Mayor Zoë Baker speaks out

Baker tells The Sentinel that this council looks very different from the last, which will help her differentiate her tenure from Gibson’s. 

“The December 2021 elections have significantly altered the make-up, outlook and approach of the Council,” she says adding that newly elected councillors are “very committed to the delivery of cycling infrastructure.”

With support from the newly elected councillors, Zoë Baker is confident that cycling infrastructure will be delivered. Photo: North Shore Times/Facebook.

She unequivocally supports the ramp option for the Sydney Harbour Bridge – something that, after 40 years of advocacy – finally seems to be moving in the right direction; Baker describes it as “urgent.” She expects it to be completed this year. 

As for the $2.7m lost funding from Transport for NSW, Baker pushes back a little, blaming a “totally botched public exhibition of inaccurate plans” for the Kirribilli to Cremorne route, which led to distrust from residents.

“The funding came with time-constraint strings that wouldn’t permit real community consultation and any consequential amendments to the exhibited plans,” she says. 

“In my view, it was a “tick a box” consultation.  In my experience, cycling infrastructure is not controversial when the planning and consultation is genuine, careful and done up front.”

Baker also insists that resident parking and cycle lanes can harmoniously coexist.

“It’s not a ‘zero-sum game,’” she says.

“You can have resident parking and cycleways – the design for the Sutherland Street and West Street routes demonstrates the dinosaur cry that cycling comes at the expense of parking in residential streets is a furphy.”

Future goals 

With past cycling wars healing, Baker looks to the future, and fulfilling the promises she made during her election campaign. 

Baker campaigned on a platform of reinstating and prioritising the delivery of the West Street cycle route – known in North Sydney as ‘the missing link.’

“It had mysteriously dropped off the council’s schedule for implementation,” she says, committing to put it to the top of the list. 

She’ll be reviewing the decade-old Integrated Cycling Strategy and looking ahead to the next ten years, including pursuing a separated cycleway and better transitions on the Pacific Highway.

Barriers

Baker faces some substantial ones.

This is a truncated council term – fewer than two years left due to the election being delayed by a year after Covid.

The council’s budget position is also challenged by the previous council’s commitment to go $30m in debt to fund the redevelopment of the North Sydney Olympic Pool, and a choice to go with a $64m project, rather than a more modest $28m, was already decided before Baker began her tenure. It could strip money away from cycling infrastructure. 

An aerial view of the winning ramp design. Photo: NSW Government.

That said, Baker – unlike some previous state transport ministers and mayors – seems to get the broader picture about cycling’s no-brainer importance when it comes to health and tackling climate change.

“Cycling is a vital part of good sustainable transport planning and it’s important to improve and expand the use of alternative modes of transport to the private car,” she says. 

“Cycling helps reduce congestion, improve public health and wellbeing and reduce obesity. Cycling is good for our health, wellbeing, the environment and needs to be nurtured and supported by governments at all levels.”

Are cycling advocacy groups finally optimistic?

So, do Zoë Baker’s new policies pass the pedal test?

Peter McLean, CEO of Bicycle NSW, is optimistic.

“The change in councillors in North Sydney is only a positive thing for bicycle users,” he tells The Sentinel. 

Even despite the shorter term, he has high hopes. 

“There are plans they want to see in this term, which is just fantastic,” he says.

In addition to seeing a long-awaited resolution to the Sydney Harbour Bridge ramp, which he describes as “Sydney’s longest cycling infrastructure issue,” he’s happy to see more of a focus on cycling infrastructure, such as that planned for West Street. 

“Zoë is very supportive, as are some other councillors who put this at the top of their campaigning platform in December’s election,” he says.

“It’s more and more the case with local councils now, who are listening to the benefits of great cycling infrastructure. It feels like we’re in a new era.”

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney SentinelTwitter: @garynunn1.

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