TWO prominent cycling advocates say the lack of a dedicated Hunter Street cycleway – and road rules that stop cars from lawfully overtaking cycles on the light rail section of the road – are a recipe for conflict on the newly reopened thoroughfare.
Newcastle Cycleways Movement president Sam Reich and Newcastle cycle shop owner Bernard Hockings say they are speaking out after failing to convince the state-run Revitalising Newcastle of the looming problem.
They have been backed in their concerns by Newcastle state MP Tim Crakanthorp, who raised the lack of a cycleway in parliament last month.
“I am concerned that the slow movement of traffic from cars stuck behind bikes will lead to increased road rage,” Mr Crakanthorp said.
“I have already seen this outside my office on the corner of Hunter Street and Merewether Street. Then there’s the single lane in Scott Street for light rail, cars and bicycles, with a track that catches bike wheels.”
Both the cyclists and Mr Crakanthorp say the failure to provide a dedicated cycleway in the urban renewal project is a major shortcoming, and the ultimate cause of the problems already being encountered on Hunter Street.
Revitalising Newcastle did not acknowledge any problems when questioned last week, saying it had “delivered an improved Hunter Street” able “to be shared by all road users”. Bikes could also use King Street, Wharf Road or the shared parkway through Honeysuckle and the foreshore as east-west routes.
On Monday, however, it posted advice for Hunter Street cyclists on its Facebook page, effectively acknowledging the concerns raised by Mr Reich and Mr Hockings, and encouraging riders to “take the lane – ride in the centre of the lane to ensure approaching drivers can see you”.
Revitalising Now says bikes should not use the tram lane (except in the eastern shared section) unless there is a stationary “obstacle” in front of them. For drivers, a slow-moving bike does not constitute such an obstacle, and they, too, should not use the tram lane.
The Newcastle Herald investigated the concerns of the cyclists after Mr Hockings said he was helping produce a social media video to show riders how to best negotiate Hunter Street under the new conditions.
He and Mr Reich said it had become obvious after talks with Revitalising Newcastle that motorists would not be able to overtake a slow-moving bike on the light rail section of Hunter Street, because anyone passing a bike legally needs to leave at least one metre between their vehicle and the bicycle.
If the authorities had allowed shared running along the street – as Newcastle City Council had wanted in 2016 – then motorists would have been allowed to cross over the yellow line separating the light rail tracks from the vehicular lane, giving them sufficient side clearance to pass a slow-moving bike.
But this will not be the case. Even if a cyclist hugs the gutter rather than take up their entitled place in the centre of the lane, the pair say Hunter Street is too narrow to allow legal passing of a bike, meaning Hunter Street will become an avenue of conflict between bikes and cars.
“The conflict has been built into the design by pushing bikes and cars into the one space,” Mr Hockings said. “Even if they want to minimise the number of cars in the CBD, it’s still a road, and you want it to flow as freely as possible. It’s too late to change the construction of it now. The best idea we’ve had is to allow cars to use the tramway while overtaking.
“But we’ve had meetings with the authorities, and they say it is not allowed. This is going to take a major education program, which is why we’re making the video. We want to make it really clear to people driving cars that we don’t want to block the road but there is no other option.
“There’s no cycleway on the road and there’s no cycleway along the old transport corridor, which was something that was proposed earlier on.”
As to using King Street and the harbourside shared pathway as east-west routes, the pair said King Street was a clogged and dangerous street to ride on most of the time, while the shared harbour route was becoming increasingly crowded, and not particularly suited to peak-hour commuting because cyclists had to give way to pedestrians.
“But this is not just about cyclists,” Mr Hockings said. “It’s about everybody getting on in a city where the aim is to get people out of their cars and onto public transport or on foot or cycling.
“As someone born and bred in Newcastle I am conscious of how quickly conflict can turn into a lose-lose situation.”
Over almost two hours on Wednesday morning, the Herald saw many more cyclists on the footpaths of Hunter Street than the road, and cars were sometimes squeezing past bikes where they could. Last Saturday morning, even in light traffic, it did not take long for potential problems to manifest themselves.
Traffic had to slow well below the 40km/h limit for most cyclists, and within minutes of our arrival a car went straight around a bike by using the light rail track. Families and children were also cycling down the light rail tracks, despite new temporary safety signs that Revitalising Newcastle put up late last week, warning that the tracks were dangerous and off limits.
One set of signs pictures a tumbling rider, with the words “cyclists take care”. Another reads “tracks are for trams”, with “no” symbols prohibiting cars, pedestrians, cyclists and skateboarders, although motor vehicles are required to drive over the tram tracks in the shared section of road near the old Newcastle station if they are to reach Watt Street, for example.
Mr Hockings says he knows of three accidents in the past few weeks where cyclists had a wheel caught in the track: two resulted in broken bones while the third resulted in major damage to an electric bike.
Although Newcastle council is in lockstep with the government on the project now, it expressed serious concerns back in early 2016, when it issued five media statements calling for major changes to the project as proposed at the time.
“If this project is delivered according to Transport for NSW’s plan, which only delivers two dedicated lanes of light rail, it would be misleading to call it a revitalisation project,” the council said in February 2016.
“The width taken by the light rail lanes in TfNSW’s plan leaves no room for streetside dining, cycleways or parking, and does not deliver a pedestrian friendly landscape.”
Now, council CEO Jeremy Bath says those comments “were in response to a proposed light rail model and associated public domain that has since been significantly improved as a result of the city's advocacy”. He says the community is rightly proud of a project that has generated national attention.
“We should not pander to the handful of people in our community who are hoping for the work of Revitalising Newcastle to fail,” Mr Bath said.
The two cycling advocates say that pointing out safety concerns does not mean they want the project to fail, while Mr Crakanthorp says: “We all want this project to succeed, however with the lack of an integrated transport plan for Newcastle, we are seeing the project's shortcomings.”
As to why the hoped-for cycling facilities did not eventuate, Revitalising Newcastle says “cycling infrastructure is ultimately a local government responsibility”, meaning “the provision of a cycleway therefore is a matter for the City of Newcastle”.
West of the on-road light rail, the government and the council are talking about a two-directional cycleway running on King Street between Perkins Street and Union Street, where it would switch to Hunter Street and run as far as Gordon Avenue.
But this plan would likely cost a lane of roadway and Mr Reich says that with King Street already narrow at its eastern end, and with so many parking spots already lost from Hunter Street, he fears the authorities could be loath to remove any more to make may way for a cycleway.
The proposed bi-directional cycleway is at the heart of a cycling strategy that Revitalising Newcastle published in May last year. It was criticised at the time by cyclists.
Newcastle council says it is planning the Hunter Street part of the project and expects to start public consultations early next year, with $2.6 million in this financial year’s budget for city cycleways.
Mr Crakanthorp says the 12-page cycling strategy is “a glossy brochure without a cent of government money to implement it, or to assist council to implement it”.
“This government wants to get people out of their cars, but provides little incentive for people to get on their bikes,” Mr Crakanthorp said.
“There will be thousands of more students when the new university campus is built in the city but no cycling infrastructure.”