Last week I spent a few days on the Gold Coast and I wrote about their great new light rail system. While I was there I was also struck by a few other observations – in particular cycling. It started on the way from the airport when I noticed multiple large groups of teenagers all getting around on bikes – many of which were sit-up city bikes rather than BMX or mountain bikes. As this is something you don’t see too much here, it immediately stood out.
I thought that perhaps initially it was just a one off, but the more I looked around the place the more saw people of all ages, genders and body sizes riding bikes. Further, on many of the street corners I noticed a lot of small bike racks, and they most often had a handful of bikes locked up to them. To be clear, in no way am I talking about anything close to Dutch or Danish levels of cycling but it was a difference from Auckland. Note: I stuck to the beach corridor so things might be quite different in the suburbs.
As someone who advocates to make Auckland more bike friendly, this intrigued me as to what caused this – especially given Australia is the only other country in the world¹ with a law requiring people on bikes wear helmets.
Now of course the Gold Coast has a couple of things going for it right off the bat, it’s flat and warm which, while not the sole determinant of bike use, certainly don’t hurt. But from the experience we’ve seen in other cities that’s not enough to drive bike use, infrastructure is.
Next I thought I’d look to see what level of bike infrastructure exists, assuming there must be some sort of bike network. So I searched and I searched and to my surprise struggled to find anything. The closest thing to any bike infrastructure was the wide walkway and separate shared path alongside some of the beach at Surfers Paradise – but that’s only about 750m in length.
Next to the beach walkway the road had these markings. I guess you could call them sharrows but there wasn’t much space for cycling, and I’m not sure why you use it given the walkway above is right next to it.
The only other infrastructure I saw was very poor on road cycle lanes on the main North-South route – the Gold Coast Highway. By poor I mean a strip of very faded paint – often quite narrow and in the door zone of parked cars. The image below was one of the better locations.
If good bike infrastructure didn’t exist, what was it that was generating the bike use I was seeing. I had to think back to all of the times I’d seen people on bikes and there was one common denominator, they were all riding on the footpath. A quick google confirmed my observation with Queensland allowing people ride on the footpath – as does Tasmania, ACT and the Northern Territory.
As we know, people will ride more if they feel safe, and in the absence of bike infrastructure a footpath often provides a much safer environment than a road does. With the exception of some high pedestrian areas, allowing cycling on footpaths effectively creates an instant network. Naturally the biggest concern is the interaction between bikes and pedestrians, and just how that works in real life is hard to tell, but everyone seemed to get on OK. Unlike on a shared path where the width encourages people on bikes to ride a little faster – and get frustrated by pedestrians taking up the whole thing – a narrow footpath encourages slower speeds allowing for better interaction. Queensland also has a requirement that people on bikes give way to people on the footpath, although I’m not sure how well that is enforced or if it needs to be.
In my view allowing riding on footpaths definitely isn’t a substitute for a high quality cycle network but perhaps it’s something we should consider in the interim, at the very least just for kids to help encourage parents to let their children ride to school.
On that note, perhaps my last observation was the most powerful. From the top of a double decker bus to the airport as I was going to leave we passed a school – I happened to have a seat upstairs right at the front so had a great view and while gazing out of the window I noticed the school had a bike storage area and this is what it looked like.
My guess is there are at least 50-100 bikes parked up in this space from kids who have ridden to school. That may not be Copenhagen or Amsterdam levels but seems fairly impressive for this corner of the world, and in the context of what we’re used to seeing in Auckland where very few kids will ride.
What do you think, should people be able to ride a bike on the footpath?
¹Some specific cities/provinces/states in other countries require them but they’re not a requirement for the entire country.