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How cycling and walking could change in Brisbane post-pandemic

Has Brisbane missed an opportunity to transform the way its residents get around?

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down cities across the world, flattening public transport patronage and keeping cars off the road, governments reacted.

The World Health Organisation in late April urged people to walk or cycle where possible and avoid public transport during peak hours.

The result was a massive spike in people riding and walking around their cities.

Cities such as Paris and New York set up “pop-up” bike lanes for pedestrians and cyclists, as did Denver and Boston. Closer to home, Sydney and Adelaide are considering a similar move.

Some cities have fast-tracked existing plans to reduce congestion and build permanent cycling lanes.

In Brisbane, patronage on the city’s bikeways leapt as much as 80 per cent since February, both for cyclists and pedestrians.

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But to date, there have been no plans put forward to create pop-up cycling lanes on Brisbane roads and streets.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, opposition leader Jared Cassidy moved a motion calling on the LNP administration to urgently develop and implement a “mobility plan” to ensure residents had access to safe paths for cycling and walking.

A man out for a ride at Manly Boat Harbour in Brisbane in early May.

A man out for a ride at Manly Boat Harbour in Brisbane in early May.Credit:AAP/Darren England

Cr Cassidy said during the pandemic Brisbane residents were “taking their own initiative as a community” and changing the way Brisbane moved to and from home, work and for recreation.

“What we need to do is open up council infrastructure to new uses, to encourage people to walk and cycle more,” Cr Cassidy said.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reorganise our city and reorganise people into how they move around our city.”

Lord mayor Adrian Schrinner said the opposition’s call was “pathetic”, adding that the LNP had the “biggest investment in public and active transport that the city has ever seen”.

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Cr Schrinner cited long-term infrastructure projects such as Brisbane Metro and the Kangaroo Point pedestrian and cycling bridge as examples of the administration’s commitment to active transport.

“We will continue to invest in reducing traffic congestion by investing in public and active transport infrastructure. It has been a part of our plan for a long time,” Cr Schrinner said.

But University of Queensland lecturer in urban planning Dorina Pojani said there was still an opportunity for Brisbane to make the most of reduced congestion and set up temporary bike lanes.

Those temporary bike lanes could encourage people to maintain cycling and walking as the city slowly returned to a more normal level of business, she said.

“The problem here is that Brisbane is not really committed to a long-term vision to turn itself into a cycling city,” Dr Pojani said.

“If they had a really good long-term plan and they were committed to it, they could whip that out now that traffic is light and the economy is still more or less shut and they could just do it, but that’s lacking.

“So that’s why they can’t move quickly when the opportunity arises.”

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Dr Pojani said another option was to use an inner-city suburb that already had high cycling usage, such as West End, as a pilot for converting to an “Amsterdam-style” network of dedicated cycling and walking lanes.

Using such a suburban example, she said, could not only test the concept in a practical space, it could show other cities nationally how suburbs could switch from cars to bicycles.

Cyclists have made the most of quieter roads in Brisbane's coronavirus-induced shutdown.

Cyclists have made the most of quieter roads in Brisbane’s coronavirus-induced shutdown.Credit:AAP/Darren England

One Brisbane resident who dusted off her bike when the coronavirus pandemic hit was Snezana Bajic, a Riverhills resident and public servant.

An avid cyclist when living in Europe, after having children Ms Bajic stopped riding for years.

But when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the city and working from home became the norm, she picked up her bicycle again and began riding with her son.

“This is when I realised, I’d really missed bikes,” Dr Bajic said.

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“As a teenager, I was on the bike all the time, and since I had kids, I really didn’t have a chance to go on it. So this love returned.”

She now rides almost every day, regaining lost confidence.

“It’s really scary to go back on the bike, so once I passed that fear, and that worry, I feel nothing but pleasure,” Dr Bajic said.

Dr Snezana Bajic gets back on the bike with her family during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Snezana Bajic gets back on the bike with her family during the coronavirus pandemic.

She now plans to ride to work twice a week, but the downside is navigating busy roads, such as Station Road at Wacol, with impatient drivers not allowing enough space and beeping at cyclists.

“They really need to invest in fixing some of the bike paths in the area. Some of them are really unsafe,” she said.

Dr Bajic said the council should build more fully segregated bikeways along main roads in and out of the city, to support cyclists like herself.

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“They really should, because that will get us on bikes. I would do it every day. If they had that bike path, I would [commute] every day,” she said.

Brisbane isn’t always an ideal cycling city – its heat, humidity and sprawling distance mean commuters often face little choice but to drive or catch a bus.

Griffith University senior lecturer in urban planning Tony Matthews said the percentage of Brisbane residents cycling was in reality very small, and with road space at a premium, council had little incentive to hand over so much bitumen.

“If that road space gets reduced because you want to create cycleways, that’s going to have consequences for traffic volumes,” he said.

“The traffic still has to go somewhere – it doesn’t disappear. So you’ll have to reorganise the road network in the medium to long term.”

Electric scooters were booming in Brisbane before the coronavirus shutdown, while the council's CityCycle figues were declining.

Electric scooters were booming in Brisbane before the coronavirus shutdown, while the council’s CityCycle figues were declining.Credit:Albert Perez/AAP

Opening up 20 per cent of a main road to cyclists didn’t necessarily mean 20 per cent of vehicle users would switch to cycling, Dr Matthews said.

European cities usually had segregated bikeways, with physical barriers keeping cars and bikes apart rather than painted lines on a road.

Both Dr Pojani and Dr Matthews noted that painted markings were rarely respected by drivers and to fully switch to cycle lanes, they had to be physically segregated.

“If you’re physically separated from traffic, you’re going to feel a lot more confident,” Dr Matthews said.

“If you’re in the thick of it, as you often are in the streets of Brisbane, mixing with heavy traffic and big cars … that’s pretty terrifying even for the most experienced cyclist.”

Michaela Sargent, the former Greens candidate for the council ward of Walter-Taylor in Brisbane’s west, agrees.

Having picked up the bike again to take her two children riding around their home at Indooroopilly, Ms Sargent said her family had discovered pockets of Brisbane they didn’t even know about.

Anisha Digumarti, 10; Ishika Digumarti, 12; Michaela Sargent and Rama Digumarti, an Indooroopilly family who have been out cycling since the pandemic began.

Anisha Digumarti, 10; Ishika Digumarti, 12; Michaela Sargent and Rama Digumarti, an Indooroopilly family who have been out cycling since the pandemic began.

“You see so many people out and about, and so many little kids, like really little kids riding their bikes and out on rollerblades,” she said.

Her 12-year-old daughter is now confident enough, and safe enough on the quieter roads, to bike to a friend’s place and back.

“It’s a real sense of freedom for her, to be able to ride over to a friend’s house,” Ms Sargent said.

While more people had turned to cycling in the past few months, Dr Matthews said most of the patronage had been for recreation rather than direct commuting.

That might continue in the long term but commuters have fewer options for cycling to and from work.

For residents living outside the ring of more convenient inner-city suburbs, there are also fewer options to break up a commute with a bus, train or ferry.

Dr Pojani noted for people wary of riding in Brisbane’s heat, electric bikes were another way to move around quickly and still enjoy the benefits of being outside.

As regular commuting traffic returned, Ms Sargent said she had borrowed a friend’s electric bike to test out whether she could ride into work each day.

“I’m a little bit scared of Swan Road and Indooroopilly Road. I find the cars there can go fast and there’s no dedicated bike lane,” she said.

“So for me … I would really like a segregated bike lane to feel more comfortable.

Segregated cycleways through Brisbane have been popular for recreation and commuting.

Segregated cycleways through Brisbane have been popular for recreation and commuting.Credit:Facebook/Space for Cycling Brisbane

“A gentleman across the road has been hit three times in the time that I’ve known him, and he’s a really safe cyclist.”

Some European cities allow bikes to be put on the front of a bus, but Brisbane buses do not always allow bikes on board.

Park ‘n’ ride stations, allowing commuters to leave a bike or car at a train station, are an option.

For people already in the city, the council’s CityCycle program allows patrons to pick up a bike and ride around the CBD for a small cost.

“I think there’ll be a lot more goodwill toward cycling and a lot more people cycling and walking for recreation,” Dr Matthews said.

“So Brisbane might find there is more demand for infrastructure in the suburbs.”

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