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People and environment not ‘in scope’

The gradual expansion of the Warringah Expressway over the last 70 years embodies the misguided mantra of generations of politicians: "Just one more lane will fix it."

The lower north shore is now bisected by one of the world’s widest urban road corridors. The Warringah Freeway stretches to an astonishing 16 lanes in North Sydney.

In pursuit of yet more lanes to feed the future Western Harbour Tunnel, a complex ‘upgrade’ project is underway.  And we have discussed in previous articles, the billion-dollar investment fails to complete the north shore cycleway - despite a raft of strategies that have long identified the ‘missing link’ between the end of the Gore Hill cycleway and the Harbour Bridge.  In fact, the construction of yet more car infrastructure has sacrificed the scraps of walking and cycling paths that did exist together with thousands of trees.

Looking south from the Falcon Street overpass. New lanes and an elevated bus viaduct will create space for the portal to the Western Harbour Tunnel. But why wasn’t an existing lane or two reallocated? It makes no sense to be expanding vehicle capacity when we desperately need to reduce car dependence and transport emissions.  And why on earth didn’t a 3m cycleway get included in the project scope? (Image: Transport for NSW, Warringah Freeway Upgrade Place Design and Landscape Plan. Read our submission here)

Improved active transport connectivity is hence not ‘in scope’ for this significant NSW Government endeavour. Nor is public health or environmental sustainability.

The result is not just a failure to accommodate walking, cycling, and breathing. It also serves as a stark example of what not to do in urban development. Because perpetuating car-centric thinking comes at an unacceptable premium.

Bicycle NSW Head of Advocacy Francis O’Neill looking north from the Merrenburn Avenue bridge. Mid-morning, mid-week. One more lane will definitely not fix it…. (Image: Bicycle NSW)

So it is shocking to see that the construction sites - where trees have been razed and active transport assets destroyed - are now screened by kilometres of hoardings sporting blue Transport for NSW banners which tout the project’s environmental and community credentials.

Rubbing it in

“It’s totally ironic,” says David Thompson, Head of Advocacy for Bike North. “To lose active transport links like the Falcon Street underpass in order to expand traffic capacity. And then see the scars covered by Transport for NSW banners saying what a wonderful job they’re doing to improve active transport. It’s like they’re rubbing it in.”

Bizarre: A Transport for NSW hoarding says “Improving Active Transport” on deleted bike infrastructure
(Image: Bike North)

Overnight mayhem

Besides the Orwellian propaganda concealing the shame of barren lands stripped of thousands of trees, there were more unexpected changes. The most dangerous of which was the sacrifice of a bus lane to create another general traffic lane for northbound vehicles entering the Pacific Highway at North Sydney.

“Traditionally bike riders heading north from Arthur Street have used the kerbside T3 lane. There were very few vehicles here. That isn't possible anymore with so many more cars being funnelled into that lane now, all travelling at high speeds,” said Bike North’s North Sydney lead, Tony Stanley. “The loss of the left-hand lane of the Pacific Hwy as a makeshift cycleway is extremely dangerous.”

There is a shared path adjacent to the highway here but it is very busy and very narrow with large trees in the middle. Suddenly pedestrians and bikes were thrown together, inches from fast-moving cars, trucks and buses.

“There was no warning about the change,” said John Hawkins, bike commuter and chair of the Bicycle NSW Advocacy Committee. “I suddenly found myself in very fast general traffic. It was very frightening.” (Image: CPB Downer/Bicycle NSW)

The loss of the T3 lane is not only immediately dangerous for bike riders. It impacts on long-term plans for the construction of safe cycling infrastructure. This is a high-priority strategic cycleway corridor. A separated cycleway between Arthur St and West St was the top priority identified by the Active Transport Network Review consultation. Our submission is here.

The near-empty T3 lane made a future Pacific Highway cycleway seem very possible. Now even widening the shared path looks impossible.

A deadly trade off

At the beginning of August, we told the project team that they’d basically built a death trap. If they had to add traffic, then it must immediately be slowed down to no more than 40 km/h. Otherwise they had traded safe walking and cycling space for a 4-second swifter traffic movement.

Transport for NSW responded that their technical team would get back to us. Queue the holding music. After repeated emails to the WFU project team and letters to ministers – we received an apology for bad communication and zero action.

Just get it done

But we don’t actually need a conversation with contractor reps who never discussed changing the lane configuration with us. Or apologies for miscommunication. What is needed, in fact, is for the Transport for NSW technical team to discuss solutions with their active transport team.

Believe it or not, there are excellent staff within TfNSW who totally get the importance of active travel. Not only do they walk, ride and take public transport, they’re on top of international best practice for urban design. And why it’s so important to replace the millions of short daily car trips with active transport.

Time to put the dinosaurs to rest

It is a major failure of planning and policy that the Warringah Freeway Upgrade project does not include the game-changing upgrades to the active transport network that residents and commuters have advocated for over three decades.

Bicycle NSW and Bike North had to continually lobby NSW Government to expose the fact that the project was not delivering any new cycleways. In fact, it was making existing routes worse.

In 2022, the then Active Transport Minister, Rob Stokes, eventually stepped in to bring the highway builders back to the negotiating table.  The huge missed opportunity was acknowledged.

The Transport for NSW active transport teams began a more collaborative engagement process with the bicycle user groups. We worked with these skilled planners to identify six key asks for the Active Travel Network Review. There were site visits by bike and several workshops.

A ‘quiet’ mid-morning on the Gore Hill Freeway: Bike North and Bicycle NSW riding with Transport for NSW planners to review the non-existent network.  A safe way to cross the Brook Street on-ramp was a priority for us – and for the community judging by the 1,100 responses received during the Active Transport Network Review exhibition period in July 2023 (Image: Bike North)

But curb your enthusiasm. Because none of the ideas are in scope. This means they will not be delivered as part of the current construction works.  Once the contractors have finished building the Warringah Freeway and Western Harbour Tunnel, it will be decades before the freeway will be disturbed again. The time to act is now.

What will happen next?

Transport for NSW has secured funding to begin design development and investigations for 4 of the priority links.  But the most important – a safe route through North Sydney CBD to create a strategic cycleway corridor – has been kicked down the road till 2028/29.  By which time, induced traffic will have jammed up the Pacific Highway, making the reallocation of a road space for a cycleway politically fraught.

So, at this stage, it’s all words in a huge blue font flapping in the wind. With pictures of beautiful trees and carefree kids on bikes travelling safely to school.

Until there is leadership to elevate active transport at a State Government level we will continue with sub-standard outcomes. And a culture within Transport for NSW of 20th century experts pushing cars and drowning out alternatives. As though we can build our way out of a traffic jam. With 2023 the hottest in 100 000 years and road deaths at record highs, especially for pedestrians and bike riders.

Now is the time to turn the trajectory around

If you’re concerned about the spike in road deaths, and continued lack of active transport funding across NSW:

Ask them to urgently ameliorate the dangerous conditions created by the WFU project :

  1. Immediately reduce the speed limit to 40km/h on the Pacific Highway from the exit of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to at least Blue Street, for the safety of many pedestrians and bike riders
  2. Support and fund short term improvements to this section of bicycle route by early next year
  3. Ensure that a separate bike path along the Pacific Highway is planned, designed, funded and constructed as soon as WFU construction in this space is complete. This path is the top priority identified by the Active Transport Network Review: North Sydney and Surrounds

Bicycle NSW will continue working with Bike North and TfNSW on better outcomes along this key corridor. Please consider supporting our advocacy work on active transport infrastructure, both in North Sydney and across NSW, by joining the Bicycle NSW family today.

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