Build it and people will come

22 Jun 22 | By pp-admin | Advocacy, Guest blog, Infrastructure

By Linda Laker

For the next in our series on your tireless cycling advocates, Pedal Power talked to Mike Watson and what an interesting conversation was had. 

Mike is a lifetime bike rider. He worked out at a young age that it was faster to ride the whole way to school, rather than ride to the train station … catch the train … and then walk to school at the other end.  And he’s cycled ever since.  Since moving to Canberra over twenty years ago, he has always found riding bikes convenient, faster than buses, and means he doesn’t paying parking fees.

What makes some of Mike’s cycling experience very interesting is the variety of ways he cycles.  While most of us get around on ‘wedgies’, his favourite for commuting is a recumbent electric bike – a fairly recent purchase – which he is enjoying a lot.  He and his wife, Cathy, also ride a tandem.  He has regular “40 year old, old-fashioned steel road bikes” (that is, wedgies) as well.  And in addition, he also enjoys unicycling. And that includes unicycle hockey – he and Cathy are off to the world championships in July.

(Fun fact: unicycle hockey is one of over thirty different unicycle events at the Unicon 20 World Championships in Grenoble, France in July and August this year. If you are intrigued, check it out at UNICON 20 – Unicycling Convention and World Championship.) 

So why a recumbent?  Mike finds it supremely comfortable – “you can go forever” – and as he says, it is physically very efficient. 

Mike’s advocacy region is the Kurrajong electorate – a geographically and demographically diverse one. It’s a very long and very thin electorate, going all the way down to Hume and on its eastern boundary, Fyshwick, Beard and Oaks Estate and to the north out along the Majura Parkway. It also includes all of central Canberra from O’Connor-Lyneham-Watson on its western-northern boundary through the inner north to inner south suburbs, as far as Deakin on its western boundary and Red Hill-Symonston-Hume on its southern boundary. As Mike pointed out “a lot of people go to work through it so we’re the ‘bit in the middle’ and everyone feeds into us”.  So this means that in addition to all the people who live in Kurrajong, there’s a lot of people who don’t live in the electorate, but ride through it. And Mike’s team advocates on behalf of all of them.

There’s now wide acceptance of the solid research on ‘induced demand’ where building another road lane at great expense simply encourages more people to drive more cars, leading to yet more congestion.  If, on the other hand, there’s a good, alternative and equivalent bike network – built much more cheaply – those car drivers are likely to use this uncongested alternative; hence, reducing congestion at much less cost.  But when it comes to cycling advocacy, Mike is a huge believer in the oft used phrase “build it and people will come”, or in the case of bike paths perhaps ‘build it and people will ride bikes’. He equates advocacy to “steering an oil tanker of policy direction – you keep nudging it to get where you need to go”.  For him, advocacy is applying gentle pressure to achieve results (eventually!).

The Majura Parkway bike path (in planning since the 1970s and completed in 2016) is a great example of both these maxims. It had a very long gestation and construction period, but is now a highly valued cycle route for leisure cycling, commuting and training – being an excellent quality, 11 kilometre path – and all where there was once no cycling at all.  

Perhaps an equally apt phrase could be “maintain it and people will come”.  This has been clearly demonstrated with re-tarmacking of the Lake Burley Griffin bike path and a resulting increase in cycling, particularly around the western end.  And the newly resurfaced path between Miller and Hovea Streets, is also likely to increase cycle commuting on this key route.  As Mike says, gone is the shockingly bumpy path caused by tree roots and its now smooth surface is “a balm to tenderised buttocks” 😊.  Pedal Power will be continuing to advocate for more of this essential path maintenance on an ongoing basis.

The Kurrajong electorate presents Mike and his team with a varied range of advocacy challenges.

Parts of Kurrajong have better quality paths – being improved at a glacial pace – and he’s pleased to have contributed to the principal ‘C’ routes (and recent signage) which have made the through-routes much easier to navigate.  These C routes are helping Canberrans discover bike commuting can work for them.  And it’s encouraging more people to cycle into different areas they mightn’t have been before.  On Mike’s wish list is C routes just for bikes – but in the meantime, he’d like to encourage all users to ride according to the circumstances, including ringing your bell to alert others on the path to your presence.

The extension of light rail presents multiple challenges for Pedal Power advocacy teams.  Creating a top quality cycle path along the extended light rail is the long term agenda. In the short term, once construction work starts in earnest on Light Rail Stage 2a, the level of congestion on Commonwealth Avenue Bridge is going to be significant. This is shaping the Government’s attention about getting people out of cars and onto bikes.  Mike is pleased with the level of consultation there’s been to date but foresees the most difficult bit will be the ‘infill’ down to the lake.  This will involve extensive earthworks and will reduce access for cars into the city.  At the same time, our advocates want to contribute to designing the best cycle access possible in what is, in effect, a greenfield opportunity to do it well.

Another key interest for the team is for decent cycle routes up Adelaide Avenue and round Parliament House as there is nothing fast and direct at present. 

Looking to the future, the Kurrajong advocacy team sees great potential in two quite different major projects: the Monaro bike path and the Garden City Cycle path.

The development of a new bike path up the eastern side of Hume alongside the Monaro Highway will be significant.  It includes a big budget commitment for an overpass straight into Queanbeyan, with a decent off-road bike path all the way.  However, the team is keen to see the plans to make sure all the potential of this development is delivered. 

The promised Garden City Cycle path – creating a cycle through-route from Watson and Hackett to Civic – is also a huge opportunity.  At this point, the ACT Government has announced the design concept tender.  Mike acknowledges it will be tricky (given the existing built environment) but it will be an excellent catchment to Civic for those to the east of Northbourne Avenue.  In his view, the most concerning bit is from Haig Park into Civic.  Mike’s fear is it will end up in the ‘too hard’ basket.  The tragedy of this would be yet another bike path that just ‘stops’ and creates a very hazardous end of trip. It’s a challenge – including the final bit across Cooyong Street and into Civic, regardless of whether the path is down Mort or Lonsdale Streets. Pedal Power welcomes opportunities to provide positive feedback to meet the needs of business and the community in this busy area.

With his varied cycling activities as well as a part-time job and being a key player in ACT Unicycling, Pedal Power is fortunate Mike still finds time to advocate for improved cycling.  If you’d also like to become involved in Pedal Power’s advocacy and contribute to cycling improvements in Canberra, have a look at suggestions for advocating for your issue on our website, including how to join one of our friendly advocacy teams.