Yesterday (Tuesday 5 May) saw the first meeting of Brisbane City Council‘s first Public and Active Transport Committee for this term. It was also the first time committee meetings were streamed online, so we were able to listen in from home.
We were hoping to hear about bold measures Brisbane would be taking to open up more #SpaceForHealth and create pop-up bikelanes to help get people safely back to work without jamming up the city with traffic, so the meeting was a little disappointing.
The presentation (which generally takes up 15-20 minutes of the 30 minute meeting) was on the response to COVID-19 by Transport for Brisbane—the council department responsible for operating buses and ferries across Brisbane. It covered vehicle sanitising, social distancing measures (such as rear-door boarding on buses), and support for staff. Those are all sounded like thoroughly sensible—and dare we say it, obvious—measures. In fact they seemed so basic, they seemed barely worth reporting on; those measures would have been noteworthy only if Council hadn’t taken them.
It wasn’t until the end of the meeting, in general business, that we heard a little more about cycling during and after the COVID-19 shutdown:
MacGregor Ward Councillor, Cr Steven Huang opened the discussion, noting that the increase in cycling on bikeways and shared paths was very evident, and asking whether Council had measures of that increased usage?
Chair, Cr Ryan Murphy responded that he would report on some of the figures that afternoon in Council’s main meeting (see below), but in short, yes, there has been a dramatic increase in usage on bikeways such as the Kangaroo Point and Bicentennial Bikeways. Anecdotally, cyclists are back on the streets in levels not seen since the 1970s.
But—and this was concerning to us—Cr Murphy went on to say that while bike usage was significantly up, it is yet to be seen whether that will result in a sustained renaissance of bike usage. He said:
“It’s important that we do everything we can to support a mode shift if it looks like that is happening.”
Wait, what?! Did Cr Murphy really say that Council would support people cycling only if they kept cycling? Despite the hostile condition of our road network? That’s totally backward. Brisbane people have demonstrated that they can ride, that they’re keen to ride and that they own the necessary equipment—bikes and helmets. (Bravo to the couple on rented CityCycle bikes who were spotted do a big lap of Brisbane cycling over the Gateway Bridge on Monday evening by the way; clearly you don’t even need to own your own bicycle.) But we have to enable them! People don’t need encouragement to ride, they need enabling; they need to have access to safe routes connecting from home to where they need to go.
Deagon Ward Councillor, Cr Jared Cassidy then took up this important topic asking what Council will be doing to support transport mode shift. He noted that Auckland—one of Brisbane’s sister cities—was temporarily reclaiming unused road space for people walking and cycling. Fewer cars on the roads provides an opportunity, and Cr Cassidy asked if Council had any strategies to reclaim road space now to enable a permanent mode-shift.
Cr Murphy replied that Council has been watching the successes overseas, but then blamed the timing of the recent election for not being able to have experimented with “tactical urbanism” as other cities had done.
“Ultimately we probably would have moved earlier, but Council was in caretaker mode at the during the height of the shutdown.”
While that’s true to an extent, it ignores the fact that the current council administration was finalised and sworn in to office two weeks earlier, on 22 April. Since they were already in office, and it was evident they were going to hold the mayoralty and a strong majority just days after the March 28 election, surely they should have been prepared, with plans ready to roll out straight away from 22 April, rather than just complaining “it was too late, our hands were tied, we missed the opportunity”.
Cr Murphy went on to say that Council were now looking at quick-win initiatives. But, again he claimed timing is an issue:
“The last thing we want to do is hurt business by shutting down all their parking just when they need the business to recover. [bla-blah] striking a balance [bla-blah].
We wouldn’t want to be taking away any parking. That would hurt businesses coming back.”
Yes, he actually said that—although I don’t claim to have quote word-perfect, as I was struggling to type quickly enough to capture everything exactly. I can confirm Cr Murphy used the words “their parking” when obviously referring to the street space on the road in front of local businesses, which as we know (but Council apparently doesn’t) is public space. We have a choice about how that public space is used, and it doesn’t have to be for storing cars. That seemed very poor wording, as we know that Cr Murphy is aware as we are that report after report shows that bike lanes are good for business. Perhaps he doesn’t also realise that in fact removing on-street parking for protected bikelanes has been demonstrated to increase trade and benefit local businesses.
Councillor for The Gabba, Cr Jonathan Sri then asked: apart from concerns about parking, what are the main obstacles to implementing temporary bikeways?
Cr Murphy responded that the main obstacle was “our appetite to do consultation“. He stressed that Council likes to ask community what they think, gather feedback, and try for “win-wins”. He claimed that the biggest barrier was that people don’t perceive cycling infrastructure as win-wins; Brisbane still a long way to go to establish the mind-set that cycling infrastructure brings benefits to business. He also mentioned the practical issues of how to manage loading zones. Cr Murphy made the point that you can’t do detailed consultation when you want to do something quickly.
Again, aaarrgh. Firstly, Cr Murphy seems to have missed the whole point of tactical urbanism, which is to do things quickly and cheaply such that they are easy to reset. That gives people a chance to see how an intervention (like replacing car parking spaces with a protected bikelane) can feel, and perhaps discover that contrary to their pre-conceived notions, they actually prefer the street that way.
Secondly, he seems not to realise that Council’s standard way of going about consultation on bikeways is to talk about the “loss” of parking – thus stoking fears that it will result in the death of local businesses. Then they conclude from that consultation that they can’t build protected bikeways because people think they will result in the loss of parking and thus the death of businesses. It’s circular. But the coronavirus shutdown provided an opportunity to innovate and break through that barrier.
Cr Sri gets specific
Later, in General Business at the end of the main council meeting, Councillor for The Gabba, Cr Jonathan Sri spoke more about the opportunities Brisbane City Council could take from the recent surge in active transport. He put on record that the city administration had his support for trials of temporary bikeways around major corridors, and said that he is looking forward to working with new Public and Active Transport Chair, Cr Ryan Murphy, to achieve good outcomes for Brisbane.
Cr Sri highlighted Stanley St East in particular, and noted that Coorparoo Ward Councillor, Cr Fiona Cunningham had acknowledged the importance of this route prior to the election. (In response to our petition). Cr Sri pointed out that Stanley St East has the existing width to accommodate protected bikeways, and could connect the existing Gabba Bikeway through to the Norman Creek Bikeway. He also nominated Vulture St, from West End to Woolloongabba.
Cr Sri said:
The Community is telling us they want more space for cycling and wider footpaths. Pedestrians don’t want to share with electric scooters travelling at high speeds, and the ideal solution is separated bikeways that can move people on bikes and scooters safely.
He noted that some of Council’s recent consultation practices haven’t been effective at winning public support; in fact it has generated backlash. His message: Please pay attention to what is likely to get support, and work with me on proposals that the community I represent are likely to accept. The current process tends to cause further division.
During question time in Council’s main meeting, Public and Active Transport Chair Cr Ryan Murphy provided an update on cycling numbers around Brisbane during the coronavirus crisis. At a time when patronage on public transport dropped as much as 87% from usual levels, active transport moved dramatically in the opposite direction. Council’s figures reveal a 22% increase in weekday cycling, and a 91% increase over the weekends!
There was a 47% increase in use on cycling commuter routes. Use on the Kangaroo Point Bikeway and Bicentennial Bikeway was up by 12-20% on weekdays, and 70-80% on weekends. The number of people walking (presumably in places where there are counters – like the Bicentennial path) was up by around 50% also.
Increases in cycling popularity was indicated through online traffic to Council’s websites like “Rides to Try” on Cycling Brisbane.
Here’s a glimpse into what that sort of traffic looked like on the Jim Soorley Bikeway on Monday (and why we think talk of Nudgee Road as a viable alternative during a 4 week closure for bridge repairs is an incredibly bad idea.)