Biking in Sydney, Australia: Observations from the ITE Study Tour

By Ms. Michelle Birdsall posted 09-30-2015 01:44 PM


I’m back from the ITE Study Tour to Australia and New Zealand brimming with stories of innovative solutions and common challenges shared by our “Down Under” and  “Middle Earth” colleagues. I’ll be writing full articles in ITE Journal starting with November’s issue featuring the work being done by the many groups we visited, but I also wanted to share some less formal, more personal experiences through my blog. I hope my fellow delegates will join me in writing about what was an amazing experience with very hospitable and knowledgeable hosts—among them Andrew O’Brien, Nick Szwed, David Nash, Aaron Hargraves, and Peter Daly in Australia, as well Peter and Beverley McCombs, Don and Catherine McKenzie, and the more than 40 professionals they connected us with in New Zealand.

Biking in Sydney, Australia

Our first stop on the tour was with City of Sydney, Australia staff at their town hall location on busy George Street in the central business district. When our host for that morning—Bryony Cooper, the City’s Executive Manager City Access and Transport—had asked me whether our ITE delegation would be up for a bike ride through the city to experience their cycleways firsthand, my immediate reaction was—YES! And then I thought about how I had not ridden a bicycle alongside vehicle traffic…ever...and I was apprehensive. My only experiencing bicycling is pedaling alongside my young boys on a board walk or nature path using a beach cruiser with back pedal breaks and no gears or helmet. But I knew many of our other delegates, including John Kennedy, Hibbett Neel, Tom Brahms, Jonathan Kiser, and Becky Malenke, had been on ITE bicycle tours through major cities before, so I swallowed my fears.  Bryony had stated that her great team would provide guides leading and bringing up the rear, so no one would get lost and everyone would be safe.

When we set off, we were accompanied by Bryony and 3 others on her staff—Fiona Campbell, Cycle Strategy Manager, Haidi Egan, and Jos Ellison. They all helped us find the right bikes and helmets in their well-equipped bicycle room right on the first floor of the City office building next to the reception area. Bryony explained that the bicycle facility was put front and center to encourage more employees to cycle to work and to make it as convenient as possible. A tour behind the bicycle storage area showed us men’s and women’s locker room areas that were equipped with many amenities for showering and changing after a ride through the city. The bicycle area included not only a safe storage place for employee-owned bikes, but ones that could be borrowed, such as the regular and electric ones we chose from. With helmets mandatory in Sydney, the staff explained that there is continuing debate about the legislation and, at the City, they advocate for a change. Since helmet use is seen as a hindrance to cycling by some potential cyclists, the city works to make inexpensive helmets readily available in the meantime.

When we set off on George Street, we were on a separated bicycle lane from the vehicles, trams, and pedestrians that shared the road with us. There were bicycle signals at the intersections. Since the signals were only a few seconds long, our guides advised us that when they turned green, we really had to be ready to go for it. And when the signals turned red, they warned us not to take the chance of going through, as opposing traffic would immediately enter the intersection. With such a large group, we had a bit of starting and stopping as we were separated at intersections—but as promised, our guides kept us safe and together! After navigated the cycleways, we left vehicular traffic behind and biked through the stunning Barangaroo Reserve park right on the Sydney Harbor. Having just opened two weeks prior to our visit, the park features bush walks, grassed areas, lookouts, walking and cycle paths for the enjoyment of citizens and tourists alike. The attention to detail to Sydney’s community spaces was very evident in both this and the other community parks we saw during the trip, and we had a chance to discuss them with the city’s Design Manager, Adam Fowler. Even though it was a Monday morning, Barangaroo Reserve was bustling with people enjoying the scenery and ideal weather we were having that day. As we passed by on our bicycles, a group of senior citizens enjoying the views from some benches stood and applauded us.

From there, we biked past the iconic Sydney Harbor Bridge and Opera House, pausing for some water and group pictures. Being near these sights in Circular Quay put us amongst a great deal of pedestrian traffic, so we walked our bikes along to an elevator leading us to an observation platform and another separated cycleway that took us zooming past the city’s botanical gardens and back into the city streets.


Next we began to travel along shared road spaces which were marked as such for pedestrians and bicyclists alike. It was a little trickier navigating people, but our guides helped us along with some ringing of our bike bells. We were then brought to a part of the city that was noted as having some less than desirable activities going on. Fountains washed over several areas of the road in the city’s effort to show a cleansing of this area. Bryony pointed out a historic building that the city had acquired and was in the process of transforming into a bike club, where cyclists could come and gather, and fix their bikes. With the health benefits of bicycling, putting a club like this in the area is hoped to adjust some of the negative behaviours and lead to healthier lifestyles.

From there we got a test of our stamina going up a very steep hill (those who had the electric bikes chose widely) and ultimately back onto a major city street riding with vehicles, as the cycleway infrastructure was still under construction on that segment. This was the point at which the ride went from exhilarating to a bit more hair-raising for me, as we road two abreast and took the whole vehicle lane as our guides recommended for safety. It was a great experiencing cycling through the different areas using different treatments, and I came away from the tour more confident that I would pursue biking in cities in the future.

Many thanks to Bryony, Fiona, Haidi, Jos, and Adam, for sharing their time and talents with us!

I have much more to say from a more technical stand point, which will be covered in ITE Journal. There will also be an opportunity to learn more about the cycling treatments we learned about during a workshop at the upcoming ITE Technical Conference in Tucson, AZ, USA. I hope to see you there!