ON a weekday morning, when the sun is pouring into the small courtyard outside the workshop off Richardson Road, on the University of Newcastle campus, opposite the bank branch where visitors can park outside for half an hour at a time, Daniel Endicott looks out through the window.
There’s the occasional student or university staff member, whose fragments of conversation come in with the air over a boneyard of bicycle frames, neatly stacked along the wall of the shed, and through the window where a Dora The Explorer clock shows the time is somewhere past 11am. There is a reproduction of Endicott’s five rules for happy biking in Newcastle tacked onto the door, and a poster on the wall that shows a petrol pump hose coiled around a man’s body like a snake.
Endicott, tall and wiry with closely-cropped hair and a slightly-asymmetrical beard, has a bike at the workbench. There are more bicycle frames inside, stacked high at the back of the narrow space. There’s a pile of rubber tubes and another pile of metal wheel frames at the back wall on top of double filing cabinets filled with bells and smaller pieces.
There is just enough space inside to wheel in one bike to a workbench covered in spanners and Allen keys, where Endicott, dressed all in black, can get to work adjusting the seat and brakes and checking the wheel bearings.
He’s not working on anything, in particular, he says, but he gets about 30 bicycles a week. He makes minor and sometimes major repairs, salvages old bikes for their parts and gets them back on the road.
“You can easily get a bike from the early ’90s or the late ’80s, and they work better than a bike that’s built today,” he says.
Endicott has worked on the University of Newcastle campus for more than four years, but for a time before that, when the University Bike Hub was in its infancy, he ran the workshop from his home at Islington.
The bicycles are all second-hand and leased or sold mostly to students for up to two years while they study. The student hands over a small deposit and takes the bike. Sometimes they come back in a year or two, return the bike and collect their deposit.
Endicott has become a legend of the inexpensive.
"A student will come in and say they want to rent a car. And they will say car," he says.
It’s hard to tell how many bikes are in circulation around the workshop. Endicott doesn’t spend too much time talking about specific numbers.
"Some people say, ‘Oh how can you make money from this business’,” he says, “And we say it is not a business. But even in business, every transaction doesn’t need to make super profits.”
The remnants of former lives litter every corner. Disassembled bicycle parts are reduced to their basest components and then neatly organised so that, from the workbench where Endicott is tinkering with the seat height on a man’s bike, everything is within arm’s reach. The filing cabinet drawers are marked with grease and labelled by a permanent marker. The pink clock could have come from anywhere. There is a piece of paper on the bench with distinct sets of notes scrawled in biro pen. Even Endicott’s black work pants have been worn and mended at the knees. Nothing is new. Everything has lived before.
The Bike Man fingers through a scattering of spanners to find the Allen key he needs. Every bike he loans from the library is fully-serviced and roadworthy.
He makes small money on repairs but gives the impression that profit has never been a serious consideration.
He knows every frame and part in the workshop. When the phone rings, he can name the model and colour of the bike he plans to sell, but he is rarely as specific when talking about costs.
“You can either leave the bike with us and pick it up later,” he tells me. “It might cost you $5 to fix something. But if you stay and help a bit, and you might learn a bit, then it’s completely free.”
“The book library gets your details, and if you lose a book, you pay for the replacement of the book. The bike deposit is the replacement cost or second-hand market value for the bike.”
The workshop was built with the University Bike Hubs; two fully-enclosed storage spaces with room for 52 bikes, showers and bathrooms.
“We have always been at the uni part time,” Endicott says. “The workshop was in the planning process for many years.”
I had come to the workshop because I wanted to talk about Endicott’s website – a manifesto of cycling in Newcastle predicated on five rules for navigating the city on two wheels.
“Pushbikes are faster, safer and more needed than you think,” the first page of the site says. “For more affordable housing, more jobs and happier society, we need pushbikes for transport.”
In a series of blog posts between March 2014 and September 2015 when he migrated the website to the Newcastle Bike Library, it felt like he had struck at something critical; an enigmatic but compelling problem.
Around 2 per cent of work trips in Newcastle are made by bicycle. By 2030, the City of Newcastle and Lake Macquarie City Council want that number to be closer to 5 per cent, and for most short trips (around 40 per cent are less than two kilometres) to be made by active transport—combining walking or cycling with buses and light rail.
The question was easy, I thought. I live less than two kilometres from my work, I’m able-bodied—there’s even a shared pathway along the route to the office. Why wasn’t I riding a bike? And for that matter, why weren’t more car drivers like me getting around on bicycles?
“Unfortunately, the bike argument is a 10-hour conversation with someone to get through each of their prejudices," Endicott says. “There are a lot of little things that add up.”
The lack of a complete cycle network was one. A mandatory helmet law that had never really caught on outside Australia was another. There is, Endicott says, a market for cheap low-quality bikes. And then there was the hot and fast-burning contention between drivers and riders over who rightfully should have use of the road.
Endicott is turning the Allen key in his hands as he talks. He consciously corrects himself when he uses loaded terms like "tailgating". He's careful not to overblow the environmental benefits of cycling as primary transport.
"People will say ‘Oh you’re a green hippie who wants us to live in the caves!’," he says.
And: "I should stop saying 'tailgater' because it's too negative and then it gets into too much fighting. I should say you get into ‘socially-acceptable inappropriate’-and then it gets too wordy and too complicated."
When he speaks, it is as if he is reaching into a dense and roiling mess for the smaller facts—for the single lines in lengthy reports and specific road rules that prove his point. It’s not as simple as taking the keys out of the car and stepping into a bike. There were challenges, big ones and little ones, and no clear beginning or end.
I get the feeling that this is a problem he has grappled with for a long time and knows that a heavy-handed tug on the wrong thread could only tighten the knot.
“Parking,” he says at one point. “Unfortunately, you bring that up with people who drive cars, and you have lost them. They think that anything that takes away their parking spot; anything that might contribute to that, they’re against.”
“I was talking to my 17-year-old stepson,” he says. “People have discussions, and some people think they are arguing when they’re just talking about stuff. And people get defensive and then they are just trying to win their argument – like cyclists versus motorists – and I have this research, data, statistic, link here which counters your argument. I would love to see something that counters my counter. I would read it. And I would change my mind. I’ve changed my mind on a lot of things recently.”
He puts the Allen key back on the bench. Above his work glove, the cuff of his left sleeve is held together with a black zip-tie.
“There are enough bikes in Australia to last 100 years,” he says. “We don’t need to import any more bikes.”
Stop thinking about the guy in the bright shirt on the racing bike and start thinking about how kids are getting to school, Steven Fleming says over coffee at One Penny Black.
Fleming, who has a PhD in architecture and urban design and has authored two books about designing cities for diversified transport, doesn't drive a car. When I looked him up, I found a handful of photos of him astride bikes on the European-looking streets.
When I rang the Australian mobile number buried in an email from 2016, I thought I might never find him. He could be in Holland or Denmark, I thought.
"I'm at Kotara," he says when he picked up the line.
"Oh, really?" I said, trying not to sound surprised. I asked if he wanted to get a coffee. An hour later, he texted me: "I'm here a few minutes early. Grey t-shirt and generally dishevelled."
Fleming’s first book, Cycle Space: Architecture and Urban Design in the Age of the Bicycle had started his international career. He had helped to open a Cycle Space office overseas, consulted on urban design around the world and made global connections. But constant travelling had taken its toll. He says now he wants to start winding back.
When I ask him about cycling in Newcastle, I get the sense that he has told this story many times. He can weave tiny details and transport mode statistics into a sleek narrative of sweeping architectural histories.
Don’t think about the cyclist you see through the windscreen, he says. "They're the one in 100 riders". Think about how people are getting around in Newcastle every day.
“Cycling is kind of like an invisible phenomenon to most people, and the space that is used is invisible as well. The typical cyclist is riding to school or riding with shopping bags on their handlebars. It’s a short distance along a back street, or they're using a cycleway network.”
In 2016, 1371 commuters travelled to and from work by bicycle in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie. That number had grown by around 100 since the last census in 2011.
Cycling accounted for about 1.6 per cent of all trips in 2009 according to the Bureau of Transport data, and a bit more than 80 per cent of all journeys were under 10 kilometres. But if the number of riders grew by 5 per cent between 2011 and 2016, the number of car drivers grew by around 7 per cent in the same time.
In 2018 Lake Macquarie Council proposed to invest around $9.6 million, funded in part by state grants, toward an extension to the Fernleigh Track to build a 3.5-kilometre shared pathway that would ultimately connect 27 kilometres of off-road cycling and pedestrian infrastructure linking Murrays Beach to Adamstown. Why weren’t more people getting out of the car?
“They have garages,” Fleming says. As long as we live in suburbanised homes - remnants of the garden cities design movement of the early 20th century - with garages built into the side of each house, people will choose to drive.
"So, what you're doing, in that case, is that you're setting up cycling to make sure people can go to the shops and schools," he says.
"That could be 100 per cent of trips. Norway at the moment has a target of 80 per cent active transport to schools. Here in Australia, we could have a similar 80 per cent target of walking and cycling in the school.”
Newcastle City Council has conducted three major studies on cycling since 1981, the most recent was in March 2012, the same year Lake Macquarie Council finalised its nine-point 2021 cycling strategy.
Those respective plans informed a handful of other urban planning studies, including Newcastle council's 2030 vision of "Newcastle Urbanism", a term it borrowed from New Urbanism which is the principle that creates walkable neighbourhoods, and Lake Macquarie’s plan to promote a cycling culture and construct a network that links off-road infrastructure around the government area, like the Fernleigh Track.
“The people who ride for their work commute are only a small proportion of people [compared to those] who choose to ride to the shops or for recreation or for health or fitness or whatever that might be,” Lake Macquarie Council’s integrated planning manager Wes Hain says.
“I think what it comes down to is how easy is it for me to live my life the way I want in that area. There is a role of government, in general, to provide the foundation pieces—the infrastructure—to enable that,” Hain says.
“The community has told us very strongly to foster the uptake of active transport and cycling,” Lake Macquarie’s infrastructure assets strategy coordinator Simon Gulliver says. “Safety is a big issue. It is the idea of having footpaths in a place where people can walk safely away from the road, and cycleways separated from traffic. [It’s having] ways that people can get about easily without having to worry about their safety.”
In 2015, urban designer Mikael Colville-Andersen gave an interview in which he declared Australia was further behind on bicycle infrastructure than almost any other industrialised city.
“When you think about Australian cities, it is really the bottom tier,” Colville-Andersen says. “There are American cities that are ahead, and when there are American cities that are ahead of you regarding bicycles of transport, you suck basically.”
He describes a wall of engineering culture that for decades has only served the private car. Paris, he says, under the stewardship of a pro-cycling mayor, revolutionised its urban transport system in 12 years.
Colville-Andersen’s website describes redesigning city intersections by how cyclists and pedestrians negotiate them – calming traffic in residential streets and building what he calls “life-sized cities”.
“Mikael is in Copenhagen,” Steven Fleming says when I recite the quote. “Copenhagen is a situation a little more like here, actually. As an urban region, it's primarily car-focused, and then they have a large 19th-century city centre. Newcastle's 19th-century city centre extends from Newcastle East to Civic.”
“We actually have about a dozen of 19th-century city centres, if you think about Lambton and Adamstown. Copenhagen has one big centre, but we have smaller centres scattered around the city.”
I wanted to know how, in a little more than a decade, Paris could address what in Newcastle has become the 30-year design challenge. The growth of Australian suburbs, Wes Hain had told me, was done on four wheels. Without the motor vehicle, the connected townships around Lake Macquarie might not have become a city.
"Cars allowed that [growth] to happen," Hain says. "We cannot ignore that fact. There certainly is that voice in the community saying [cycleway infrastructure] is what they would like more of, but we haven't had the conversation about the trade-off. If we have more of this than we might have less of that. If we couched the conversation like that, then you might get a different response.”
Letter: Confusion reigns over bike signs
In Endicott’s workshop on Richardson Road, a student rolls up on a bicycle. “There’s a problem with the bike,” he says.
“I can fix it,” Endicott says cheerfully. The rider is having trouble changing gears. “It clicks and clicks and clicks,” he says. Endicott explains that an 18-speed bike has around 12 effective gears and it’s best to coordinate low gears on the right with low gears on the left. The rider says he will take it away and come back if the problem continues.
“It’s unbreakable,” Endicott reassures him before turning to me: “It reminds me of one your first questions. We were talking about fixing bikes. The lower quality bikes. It is the same as any lower quality product. Stuff that is new and shiny and looks really cheap, and it is too good to be true … and then, someone’s love of their life bike … parts of it were rusty, but they loved it.”
I had gone looking for the god in the machine – the simple answer that comes sweeping in at the end of the story and clears up the messy edges.
On Thursday morning, I took an Uber to work. My driver asked what I did for a living. I said I was a journalist.
“What’s the big story this week?” he asked. I said I was working on a something about why more people don’t ride bicycles around Newcastle. It’s a story about the opportunities around here, and some of the challenges.
“I’ve met some really interesting people,” I said.
“Look at this,” he said, pointing out the window to the bicycle lane covered in loose bitumen stones.
They’re filled with them, he said. It needs sweeping. “If the lane is full of that, I wouldn’t want to ride in it”.