The surge in cycling activity from the COVID-19 lockdown has led to renewed calls for governments to increase funds for enhanced cycling infrastructure in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie.
The two councils' most popular shared paths have been packed with cyclists and walkers over the past few months, highlighting the appeal of quality active transport infrastructure.
Counts showed on some days the number of cyclists on the Fernleigh Track and Newcastle Harbour path tripled compared to past data. Bathers Way and the Warners Bay path were also crammed as people sought a safe place to exercise.
Newcastle Cycleways Movement president Sam Reich "couldn't be happier" to see cycling activity increase as it has. He acknowledges numbers will likely fall, but has urged people to keep riding to help state the case for upgrades to the region's cycleways network.
"The cycling environment will only improve when more people are cycling, it's a chicken and egg thing," he said.
"We want more people to continue cycling, but the perception is that it's not safe enough unless we have separated cycleways and yet we won't get that level of investment that we need unless more people do it."
Newcastle and Lake Macquarie councils have been chipping away at improving infrastructure. They both released strategies in 2012 to guide the management of cycleways.
Lake Macquarie council transport strategist Tom Boyle said many "indicative routes" outlined in its strategy had actually been "ticked off" by council or through development. He said the council had built 11.5km of shared path since 2012, while developers have added 11.8km and on-road lanes have also been marked.
"We have gradually been getting more sophisticated in how we plan and deliver off-road paths," Mr Boyle said.
"We know that [there is] demand for infrastructure, for family-safe infrastructure in the community and we have got a lot of work to do to satisfy that. That demand keeps growing because cycling is becoming more popular, but we're also seeing more traffic on the roads.
"Most people don't want to share with traffic, they want to be off the road."
The preference to ride on off-road paths, certainly by novice cyclists at least, was identified in both councils' 2012 cycling strategies and has been no more evident than during the pandemic.
Most cyclists who regularly ride in the two council areas will highlight the "missing links" between many of those paths as the most annoying or unsafe aspect of a ride.
"I ride on the road when I have to, which is quite often because there isn't enough infrastructure, whether it be off-road or on-road separated, " Mr Reich said.
"But it is frustrating how I see it inhibiting the uptake of this great activity in our community.
"Everybody that I know who rides a bike also drives a car and you can't get away from that in our society.
"But we need to wake up to ... how inefficient and environmentally degrading that is when we're blessed with great weather and great cycling conditions in our region where we could really thrive as a cycling community.
"It's time we matured as an urban society and start to insist that our vulnerable road users have space in the mix."
Mr Boyle has been preparing an active transport strategy to replace the 2012 document. He said the old plan was still relevant, but much had changed.
Crucially, the council shifted away from distributing funding equally across its three wards to focus on completing key projects.
One example of what that has achieved is the construction of the Speers Point to Glendale shared path. Mostly complete with only an Argenton to Glendale section left to build, it will ultimately link to the Tramway Track and create a long, safe path on par with the region's best when it opens next year.
People will be able to travel on a shared path crossing only one main road for more than 11km from Wallsend to Booragul or for 15km from Wallsend to Eleebana. Longer rides could be created using Newcastle's network through Jesmond, Callaghan and Lambton, and there are plans for extensions at Eleebana and Booragul.
In preparing the new strategy, Mr Boyle said he had found that "what it actually takes to design, plan and build this infrastructure is really not that well understood" by the community.
"People think it's just laying down a bit of concrete, but it's really much more sophisticated," he said.
Newcastle councillor John Mackenzie, chair of the city's cycleways committee, agrees.
Before joining council, like many people he thought building new paths was as simple as laying concrete across a reserve.
Despite at times being frustrated with the progress of fixing a number of "thorny problems" in the city's cycleways network, he believes there has been a gradual cultural shift across governments, developers and the community in recognising the value of cycling connections. However, he says more needs to be done at all levels of government to ensure shared paths and cycleways are funded as essential infrastructure.
"In 2012, cycleways were considered recreation business of council and now it's considered transport business," he said. "It's not about loopy trails through parks, but getting from A to B and reducing car dependency."
The council has allocated $2.5 million in its 2020/21 budget for cycleways, after spending about $8 million over the past eight years. A council spokesman said since 2012 "key route gaps, difficult road crossings and sections requiring upgrade" had been identified.
"Retrofitting areas with high-standard cycling facilities involves protracted negotiations and lengthy project development phases," he said.
"In some cases, it's not possible to meet competing demands for road space, such as dedicated cycle lanes, travel lanes, parking and landscaping."
One example of the difficultly in creating off-road paths is the link council assessed to run along the rail corridor in Waratah under the Maude Street bridge to connect with the path that runs through the Callaghan uni campus.
The link would enable cyclists to avoid crossing Maude Street, but was estimated to cost $6 million and required tricky approvals from rail authorities. As an alternative, on-road infrastructure will be placed on Prince and Vera streets.
The spokesman said the City of Newcastle was working to deliver key projects like the Bathers Way upgrades, a Merewether to Newcastle cycleway and Shortland to Tarro cycleway that could link with the Richmond Vale Rail Trail, a long-awaited multi-council area project that many regard as potential tourism bonanza waiting to happen.
Lake Macquarie council will spend $3.7 million on cycleways in 2020/21, along with $1 million planning the Fernleigh Awabakal Shared Track, a 3.5 kilometre connection of existing paths at Belmont and Blacksmiths which won a $7.4 million state government grant.
It will also begin work on a shared path on Bay Vista Road to Brightwaters, replace part of the Greenway Track at Blackalls Park, and plan shared paths from Eleebana to Valentine and Charlestown To Dudley.
Mr Reich said the council's next key project should be Dudley to Charlestown, previously proposed as the "Charlestown to coast" shared path that would partially follow an old spur line off the Fernleigh Track.
"We'd like to see that prioritised," he said.
"It goes past schools and shopping centres, and Charlestown is a very difficult place to access on a bike.
"They've got a huge amount of section 95 funds that could be spent on that, they just need to study it and get it shovel-ready."
Mr Boyle said Lake Macquarie tried to make use of road upgrades to construct shared paths, which is partly why there are some missing links across the city.
For example, a shared path was built alongside Five Islands Road at Teralba when it was upgraded. Further south, on Toronto Road, the future development of a large chunk of land at Fennell Bay will likely trigger road widening, which the council hopes to take advantage of.
Committee for the Hunter CEO Alice Thompson said there needed to be a change at state and federal level in how cycling infrastructure was funded. She said projects should be eligible for grants from the massive pools of roads funding.
"Packages of cycling and pedestrian infrastructure can deliver a lot of benefits," she said.
"Everyone benefits, whether you're elderly and mobility impaired or a kid riding to school. It's a no brainer and it's probably one of those pieces of infrastructure that can be considered closer to shovel-ready.
"Clearly, that the best laid plans are there and the targets are still not achieved demonstrates there is more to be done, but it also shows cycling and walking are always an after-thought to transport and land-use planning.
"It has to be a critical component and we have to built it when we're building other projects, like upgrading roads, stations or new developments. An ad-hoc approach is not appropriate to achieve the types of targets councils have."
Cycleways projects completed since 2012
Lake Macquarie City Council
- Speers Point to Glendale
- Stockland shopping centre to Main Road via Stockland Drive
- Thomas H. Halton Park to Toonibal Avenue, Eleebana
- West Wallsend Tramway Drive
- West Wallsend - Fegan Street to Cameron Park via George Booth Drive underpass
- West Wallsend to Cameron Park/Edgeworth (Dunbar Road)
- Alton Road North Cooranbong
- Lake Forest Drive Murrays Beach (to Nords Wharf) (part of route)
- Swansea Lakeside Holiday Park and Coon Island east
- Cameron Park path to Cocked Hat Creek (extension)
- Cameron Park - Pasterfield Oval
City of Newcastle
- Shared path through Alder Park, New Lambton, from Bridges Road to St James Road
- Shared path between Mackie Avenue and Errington Avenue, New Lambton
- Extension of a shared path at Scenic Drive, Merewether Heights
- Shared path in Brickworks Park, Wallsend and combined pedestrian-cycle crossing on Victory Parade, connecting Wallsend South and Elermore Vale to Newcastle's key east-west route
- Shared path on Donald Street, Hamilton, between Samdon Street and Selma Street
- Shared path through Islington Park, Islington
- Shared path over Scholey Street Bridge, Islington
- Shared path on Park Avenue, Kotara, connecting the cycleway at Kullaiba Road to Bridges Road
- Shared path in Broadmeadow, Hunter Stadium to Griffiths Road
- Replacement of the shared path between Lambton Road and Hunter Stadium
- Shared path around Lambton Park, Lambton
- Shared path on Minmi Road, Maryland
- Concept design for the Richmond Vale Rail Trail
- Various line marking and signage upgrades throughout the LGA