The Australian Greens have thrown a $1 billion carrot for dedicated bike lanes, cycling parks and better footpaths into the mix for the federal election’s great infrastructure auction, as the minor party positions itself for a potentially hung parliament and more power sharing deals in the Senate.
Released this week, the $250 million a year “Bikes and Walking Commitment” promises to create a new “Active Transport Fund” that will provide federal funding for what Greens transport spokesperson Senator Janet Rice says must be a far better coordinated state and local government response.
The proposed federal money for what has traditionally been municipal and state funded territory is aimed squarely at, aside from winning votes, eliminating big disparities between different council and state government projects and active transport strategies that often fail to link up because of competing interests.
In cities like Sydney, the lack of funding coordination means that cashed-up CBD councils like the City of Sydney spend tens of millions on often contentious separated cycle ways, while neighbouring municipalities that funnel cycling commuters into the city centre often spend next to nothing or just refuse to disclose total spending to advocacy groups like Bicycle Network.
Although the big ticket Active Transport Fund is so far short on any specific initiatives, Greens transport spokesperson Senator Janet Rice is adamant an injection of federal money to ensure coordination will make the difference between cycling becoming a safe and mainstream mode of commuting rather than a divisive and dangerous pursuit.
“You can’t leave it up to the states and local government because a lot of really valuable projects miss out because of lack of funds,” Senator Rice told Government News from the No.19 Coburg bound tram in Melbourne.
“You get inefficiencies, you get projects stopping at local council borders. So by having a focus on it and saying active transport needs to be a priority, you can really turbocharge the delivery of good infrastructure.”
Senator Rice said that despite bicycles being “the world’s most energy efficient vehicle” the contribution of cycling in a “clean transport future” was being largely ignored.
Cycle of discontent
While that may be the case, the flagging of a billion dollar cash injection into what would necessarily be inner metropolitan infrastructure renewal plays directly into electorates where the Greens are standing lower-house candidates, like Grayndler in Sydney’s Inner West.
Once regarded as red ribbon Labor territory, long-term incumbent Grayndler MP and Shadow Infrastructure and Transport Minister Anthony Albanese is having to fight-off a serious challenge from the Greens’ federal candidate for the seat from Jim Casey, a firefighter and unionist.
Despite having Labor leaning councils (Marrickville and Leichhardt) and state seats, the creation of safe, efficient and dedicated cycling infrastructure in the inner west has largely failed to occur despite a big rollout in the city – a problem the Greens are now threatening to fix with funding of around $1 million per kilometre.
“Depending on the complexity of each cycling project, a million dollars a kilometre buys you a pretty fancy all-bells-and-whistles bike path, making allowances for bridges and things like that,” Senator Rice said.
In terms of how the money would be spent, Senator Rice said that councils that came up with coordinated and interconnected proposals would be looked at favourably – a cat herding task that, rather ironically, could be made easier by forced council amalgamations in NSW that the Greens have been fighting at every turn.
“Essentially [the money] would be administered by a federal department. Clearly critieria have to be developed as to which projects got funded. If there is a masterplan, [like] a Sydney bike paths masterplan, I’d say that would be more favourably [considered],” Senator Rice said.
“Certainly if there is a project that has a number of councils working together, I’d also say it’d be a higher priority than say just random projects that somebody thought-up.”
Regional areas are also in the Greens sights for cycling infrastructure, with money potentially available for the development of ‘rail-trail’ projects that convert disused rail corridors into bike touring and hiking paths that are more accessible and easier to use because more gradual inclines.
Senator Rice said it was now not unusual to see 1000 cyclists a weekend turn-up to the Wangaratta to Beechworth trail, a model that showed sustainable tourism produced economic benefits.
Funding for more challenging mountain bike courses, like those established in the Snowy Mountains, Canberra NSW South Coast, Tasmania and other regions to attract tourists, would also be in mix.
Walking the talk
Pedestrians, arguably the originators of so-called active transport, are also being factored into the Greens’ cash splash.
Senator Rice said while footpath maintenance and repairs would stay remain council hands, there needed to be a focus on enabling links between different modes of transport and public facilities that made it easier to walk.
“Key pedestrian connections, particularly from town centres to stations, where you need to have the investment to make them happen, that’d be the kind of projects that councils can apply for to fund,” Senator Rice said.
The payback for that funding would come in the form of a reduction of the “strain on our health system by promoting good health practices and tackling Australia’s weight problem.”
Senator Rice said that in the United Kingdom analysis of investments in walking and cycling infrastructure showed that almost 80 per cent of the substantial economic benefits related to improved health outcomes.
“Almost two-thirds of Australian adults and a quarter of children are overweight or obese,” Senator Rice said. “Getting on our bike or walking for half an hour just three times a week makes us healthier, both physically and mentally.
“We cannot leave bike and walking infrastructure to state and local governments alone,” she said.
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