3 January 2024

When Canberra's first bike path was built, 'extremely few people' cycled to work

| James Coleman
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Sullivans Creek bike path

Sullivans Creek bike path was opened in December 1973. Photo: Dfadden, Wikimedia.

We Ride Australia, People for Bikes, the Australian Bicycle Council – all these organisations have named Canberra as the nation’s cycling capital over the years, and there’s a good reason for it.

We’re home to more than 370 dedicated cycling routes. Or to put it another way, 1000 kilometres of shared paths.

But they can all trace their origin to one, laid 50 years ago along the Sullivans Creek stormwater channel between Dickson and Turner.

In 1973, the Federal Government’s National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) elected to construct a pilot bike path to “test design principles and construction materials for evaluation … for use in designing of bicycle paths for Canberra”.

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“Philosophically, there are many advantages in the wide community use of the bicycle and virtually no disadvantages,” the Commission published in a news feature at the time.

“But there are practical problems.”

Value was the biggest hurdle. Bike paths were expected to cost between $5000 and $10,000 per mile ($8047 to $16,093 per kilometre), depending on whether over- and under-passes were needed. And at the time, “extremely few people” cycled to work.

Nevertheless, the “relatively flat” green space along Sullivans Creek was chosen for the pilot track, and officially opened by the Minister for Urban and Regional Development on 19 December that year.

Bike paths

First bike paths proposed by the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) in 1973. Photo: ArchivesACT.

A race between media personalities from CTC TV, radio station 2CA and The Canberra Times then took place, after which the Minister and the Commissioner of the National Capital Development Commission rode along the path “accompanied by nearly 100 youngsters”.

The wheels were now in motion, and the following year, a horde of 50 cyclists took to the roads in the city to campaign for more paths. Ultimately, this led to the formation of today’s lobby group, Pedal Power ACT.

And it worked. In 1976, the NCDC announced another 100 km of similar off-street paths would be constructed to create a city-wide network.

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This year, more than 25 avid cyclists from Pedal Power ACT, including ACT MLAs Shane Rattenbury and Rebecca Vassarotti, converged on Canberra’s first bike path on Saturday, 16 December, to celebrate the milestone.

“We had a good time and nice weather, and went to the cafe afterwards,” board member John Widdup said.

The 80-year-old retiree said it was also an opportunity to pass on their hopes and dreams for the area.

The original bike path was widened in 2014 to cope with higher traffic, which by 2017, included 2000 bikes every day for an annual total of 469,382.

The ACT Government has plans to rip up the concrete in the Sullivans Creek stormwater channel and return it to a natural creek, with wetlands and wild grasses.

Sullivans Creek

Sullivans Creek will soon be returned to its natural state, with plans to rip out the concrete and replace it with natural plants. Photo: ACT Government.

But John and the other Pedal Power members are pushing for this project to include further widening of the path.

“It has a lot of traffic on it – bicycles and pedestrians,” he said.

The group is pleased to see the government dedicated $10.4 million in the latest budget to constructing the 5-km ‘Garden City Cycle Route’ on the other side of Northbourne Avenue through the suburbs of Watson, Downer, Dickson, Ainslie, Braddon and the CBD.

This was originally floated in 1973 at the same time as the Sullivans Creek route, but “it’s taken 50 years to start it”.

“Fortunately, we’ve had a few extra paths in the meantime,” John said.

Preliminary designs on the Garden City Cycle Route, which uses a mix of off-road paths and on-road separated bike lanes, are completed, and construction on the first stage will take place over the next three years.

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Leon Arundell10:26 am 13 Jan 24

0.9% of Canberra commuters rode bikes in 1976 – the first year that the census recorded journeys to work. By 2001 that had increased to 2%. The 2004 Sustainable Transport Plan and the 2012 Transport for Canberra plan set targets of 5% for 2011, 6% for 2016 and 7% for 2026. Those plans achieved 3% in 2011, 2016 and 2021. Funding for shared paths costs about 20 cents per walking or cycling trip. Funding for public transport costs more than $30 per trip.

mikaloviche14:20 pm 06 Jan 24

In Melbourne they are in the process of removing many level crossings .One particular route I ride on is the Coburg to city under the old rail way line , They have lifted up the rail line and created community bike paths, separate delineated walking paths very wide for prams and the like, wheel chairs et al. Along this tree lined beautiful environmentally shaded and dry path with the covered rail line one can enjoy an uninterrupted ride except for the STOP signs where the Cars have to give way and also the traffic pedestrian and cyclist lights. If you time it right some one in front may have to stop and you can catch the green. I am old and unable to cope with even the excellent road bike paths on major roads everywhere. Car drivers are courteous and bike riders have behaved themselves allot more now the aggression and disdain is not an issue . Comments here are petty and typical . You can have everything in life and get what you want. I just wonder why some people still harp on about (bloody ) cyclists and yet do not have a good reason to have this opinion. Trams, bike lanes, pram paths, wheel chair lifts to all the raised stations and everyone is happy. I think some people in Canberra think you can’t have a dedicated summer nats race track and Aboriginal housing , one sense I get is these people are either snobs or boagn haters who live in a bubble of discontent . I would not personally begrudge anyone of a hobby or past time at the expense of an issue based argument that seems slightly biased . They took away Sydney’s cycle velodrome in Newtown for houses. Golf courses for more housing . Canberra is unique and has room for such things as underpasses for all foot and cycle traffic . These were built by the NCDC and nether a road to be crossed . I was made to feel bad wanting a house as people decided I must not like race tracks this divisive attitude is not in anyone’s best interest I know who the real Cyclepaths (sic) are .

Cynthia Groundwater2:41 pm 06 Jan 24

Rode from Hackett to ANU late 70’s. Did BA then Dip Ed at CCAE now Canberra Uni. What a wonderful place Canberra is. As octogenarians my spouse & I still believe this. We have lived and worked in many towns and cities. I had a year in Tokyo. Love this site😻

What we have missed out on for the last 50 years by not having that Dickson-Ainslie-Reid path! Not to mention the Haig Park E-W path. Hope they both happen in my lifetime.

And here are a couple of general constructive suggestions:
1. /Make the paths wider
2./ Install more zebra crossings

And BTW most cyclists actually also own a car, for which they pay rego. So every time you see a cyclist on the road, thank them for subsidising your motoring convenience by reducing congestion, pollution and road damage

Andrew McLaughlin4:26 pm 04 Jan 24

In the late 70s my brother and I used to ride our bikes from Watson to the old bowling alley behind the Police Boys Club in Turner. Good times.

Jamie Griffin10:15 pm 03 Jan 24

Constantly boasting about the cycle path network, yet constantly pushing cyclist on the roads. Or it’s just cyclists refusing to use them and riding on the road regardless. Cyclists need to realise they don’t have a “right” to use the roads, it’s a “privilege”.

In fact they do have a ‘right’ to use the road because they require neither license nor registration. It’s only a ‘privilege’ for motorists.

Cyclists DO have the same rights as drivers to ride on the road whether you like it or not. The only exclusions are on freeways or similar, or where signs indicate cycling is otherwise banned.

Wow!!! $10.4 million for a 5km bike path, so $2 million per Km for the MAMILs …. it must be paved with gold, and I thought the tram was expensive.

“The ACT and Australian governments were originally set to equally shoulder the $53 million cost to duplicate 4.5 kilometres of William Hovell Drive, between Coppins Crossing and Drake-Brockman Drive in Canberra’s west.

“But while the federal contribution remains unchanged, budget papers reveal the ACT will now pitch in $80.75 million, more than three times the original $26.5 million.”

https://the-riotact.com/cost-to-duplicate-william-hovel-drive-has-tripled-but-what-about-acts-other-major-road-upgrades/681536

“The ACT and Australian governments were originally set to equally shoulder the $53 million cost to duplicate 4.5 kilometres of William Hovell Drive, between Coppins Crossing and Drake-Brockman Drive in Canberra’s west.

“But while the federal contribution remains unchanged, budget papers reveal the ACT will now pitch in $80.75 million, more than three times the original $26.5 million.

“It pushes the total cost of the project to $107.25 million.”

https://the-riotact.com/cost-to-duplicate-william-hovel-drive-has-tripled-but-what-about-acts-other-major-road-upgrades/681536

Wow!!! $100.75 million for a 4.5km road, so $22.3 million per Km for the motorists … it must be paved with gold, and I thought duplicating the Hume Hwy was expensive.

Felix the Cat5:04 pm 03 Jan 24

But that’s OK because it’s for cars.
Imagine the extra traffic if the 469,382 cycling trips were made by vehicle instead.

Hi “bulldog”, we live locally and our entire family use the bike path for getting to and from the shops, cafes/restaurants/pubs, friends houses… all just wearing whatever clothes we normally wear! Oh except I wear mountain bike gear when heading to Bruce Ridge. Apologies if having an extra car park space in Dickson and the city or a bit less traffic on Northbourne is detrimental to you.

It isn’t just for MAMILs. It is a public resource able to used by anyone including walkers and joggers etc as it is now. Just the same as hospitals and schools and other public facilities are built for the wider community.

There isn’t anything stopping you from using it….

Before putting more money into bike paths, footpaths must be fixed. Footpaths are used by everyone, all ages and abilities, so this is the most inclusive infrastructure. Even car drivers and cyclists and scooter riders use footpaths some of the time, so can we please make them safe? Neglect is risking people’s health and wellbeing in both the short and longer term, all of which costs us in healthcare whilst also devastating people’s lives.

Walking is a safe exercise that gets people out and about, improves mental health and prevents depression and dementia, whilst alleviating anxiety. Good footpaths along with seats and water along the way brings greater returns for all Canberrans than cycle paths.

Felix the Cat4:56 pm 03 Jan 24

The “bike paths” are multi use paths, used already by all the people you mention (walkers, joggers, cyclists etc)

Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean the footpaths have been fixed. In some places footpaths are not usable at all and there are no alternatives like a multi-use path. When people can’t safely walk from one place to another there is a major problem with city maintenance.

I formally object to ANY of my rates being used to find ANY expansion of bike paths… Got it?

I dunno, man. Dropping a comment on a news thread under the name ‘bloke48’ sounds like a pretty sloppy way of making a formal objection.

Crazed_Loner3:52 pm 04 Jan 24

On the contrary, it would seem you’re definitely informally objecting. You need to write to the government for a ‘formal’ objection (and probably sign your real name to boot).

We are not Amsterdam but we’re luckier than the rest of Oz for bike paths (general term). However, there is no time to celebrate. The Transport Plan to 2031 written I think 2012) promoted Active Travel yet little has been done other than to put those hideous green swaths alongisde the highways where the mug cyclist can suck in the awful car pollutants. What is needed is a proper, planned series of bike paths that are linked. If i want to go from Theodore to the City I have to take a detour via Weston Creek and the Zoo. If Yamba drive had an off road cycle path I could do it safely and quickly but it aint happened yet and doubtful there are plans to do so. Good old (and tired Labor)can’t get its priorities right. Seak up Ken Behrens!

Surely you don’t need to go through Western Creek. There’s a route from Calwell to Woden that’s fairly direct and is all underpasses except for Sternberg and Sulwood, and then you follow the storm water drain to Lady Denman Dr, Scrivener Dam and then up the city. And yes, it does take you out to the zoo, the kink that that causes in your trip is about the same that the kink caused by following Erindale Drive east before it turns back west when it turns into Yambah drive.

you can ride to woden then along the front of curtin parallel to Yarra Glen, cross Carruthers street and up past the Mint, cross back over Adelaide Ave and go down through Yarralumla to Yarralumla Bay and chuck a right to go via the Yacht Club and Lennox Gardens. That is the main ‘bike path’ route between Woden and the city.

I moved from a small country town to Canberra in 1973 with one suitcase, to take up a job offer. Soon after I sent for my old (gearless) bike, when I discovered how easy relatively flat Canberra was to ride about, compared to the hilly town I had lived in. Later to be replaced with a geared bike, when I discovered ten-speed bikes. I suspect my old original bike might have ended up painted and as a rental by the lake. I remember that those early paths were built as cycling paths, but because pedestrians soon started using them they became ‘shared’ paths. I did ride in an early bicycle ‘protest’, so maybe I was on the one mentioned.

gearless….a dragster bike?? (circa ’73)

Bulldog, an ordinary sit up so called lady’s bike. Heavy.

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