Public health and transport planning in Newcastle

MIND THE DOOR: "Planning for an active transport city with an exponential growth of diverse users will require a massive increase in cycling infrastructure".

MIND THE DOOR: "Planning for an active transport city with an exponential growth of diverse users will require a massive increase in cycling infrastructure".

Transport planning in Newcastle should consider air quality and injury prevention issues in making Newcastle a bike-friendly city. The former rail corridor may play a role in planning for increasing bike uptake and prevention of injury to cyclists as plans to use Hunter Street for light rail, cars, and bike lanes may be unrealistic.

Air quality is of increasing concern to communities. While Newcastle will never have the smog problems of Los Angeles, as it grows there will be an increasing impact on air quality from motor vehicles – particularly along major roads.  It is not ideal for cyclists to use roadside bike lanes as it puts them directly beside concentrated exhaust emissions while breathing at a higher rate – increasing their dose of pollutants. 

Additionally, many “bike lanes” put riders within car door-swing range. Separation of runners, pedestrians, and cyclists from motor vehicles and their emissions is an important planning principle.

It is hard to imagine what is actually required for a truly bike-friendly city, but it is not just a 1.5 metre strip on the side of a road. Many cities in Europe, are building cycling “super” highways that are four metres wide to ensure safe overtaking. 

Newcastle is already experiencing conflict on shared-use bike paths such as the Fernleigh track. Planning for an active transport city with an exponential growth of diverse users will require a massive increase in cycling infrastructure. 

A recent Medical Journal of Australia article noted that the incidence of hospitalised major trauma for cyclists had increased 8 per cent a year from 2007 to 2015 in Victoria. Good cycle ways allow speeds that are comparable to motor vehicles and that is the nudge needed to get people out of cars and on their bikes.

But there is no evidence of such planning. The plans for bike lanes in Hunter Street are for a 1.5 metre lane placed between the pedestrian sidewalks and an 80cm buffer zone to parked cars (Commodore doors open to 98cm). The cycle lane will be intermittently interrupted by car passenger entries and exits and the bus stops that are placed across the cycle lanes. It will be a slow cycling option with little opportunity for overtaking by longer distance cycle commuters. 

Newcastle is only just beginning to see the increase in electric bike use that has exploded internationally. Countries in western Europe are experiencing 8 to 16 per cent increases in electric bike sales year on year. The increase in electric bike use is most pronounced in China, which has led to increased congestion and accidents not just on bike paths but on roads and electric bike bans in some cities.

One option would be to close a major road to cars. Car-free or resident-only zones create thriving urban centres in Europe. Another option is to create a muli-lane cycle path to accommodate fast and slow commuting options in the former rail corridor.

However, it will require vision in the future planning of Newcastle to make sure the transport corridor is preserved – either through ensuring the corridor is not built upon or that any future buildings sit above and not on the corridor.  An uninterrupted cycleway from the Wickham interchange to the beach would enhance the liveability, health, and tourism appeal of the city.

Craig Dalton is a public health physician, conjoint associate professor at the University of Newcastle.

This article is a personal opinion and is unrelated to any affiliation with Hunter New England Health.