Minister for Infrastructure, Cities and Active Transport Rob Stokes speaking at the Committee

A speech delivered on Monday by the former NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes, now Minister for Infrastructure, Cities and Active Transport was a perfect pitch for the benefits to health, air, lifestyle – and freedom – of active transport, instead of our rusted on addiction to cars. The minister even cited a Roseville resident who used a new cycleway to commute on by electric bike to work at Parramatta. Her daily commute through “the beautiful surrounds of Lane Cove National Park, North Ryde, Meadowbank and the stunning new Parramatta River boardwalk” had changed her life, she said, improving her “physical health and mental wellbeing, her confidence and even her productivity at work”.

Following is the minister’s speech in full, delivered at the Sydney Summit organised by the Committee for Sydney.

What a time to serve as this state’s first Minister for Infrastructure, Cities and Active Transport! A perfect storm of economic, social and environmental disruption and dislocation provides a time of terrible risk and incredible opportunity for urban society.

Now is the moment to be developing the big ideas that will support the future of metropolitan NSW, and the great urban centres around Sydney, the Central Coast, Newcastle and Wollongong. While cities have been the crucible of invention and progress for centuries, the pandemic reminds us that no city is immune from maladies which might attack its’ prosperity and prospects.

We now have a monumental opportunity to truly re-shape cities as places for people.

Our government has proven it’s not afraid to remove red tape and implement reform to allow outdoor dining, pop-up cycleways, pedestrianising streets, more liberal planning rules for shopfronts and retail businesses, streamlined land use zones and new housing products, like build to rent.

Polycentric and multifunctional cities will bounce back stronger than those which have all their eggs in one-basket. That’s why I believe Sydney has a fundamentally more resilient metropolitan form than Melbourne, for example, because our city-region has multiple large commercial cores, while Melbourne really only has one.

One of my first tasks as Minister for Cities will be to help shape both a unitary and separate vision for the six cities of the NSW metropolitan region and deliver the Premier’s six cities vision for the Greater Cities Commission, which extends the scope of urban planning beyond Greater Sydney to include the mega-region of Central Coast, Newcastle and Wollongong. To recognise that metropolitan NSW is both one region, but comprised of six unique and diverse cities.

The idea of the mega-region is well understood among planners, even if it has slipped slightly out of vogue in recent years. It’s been promoted in past plans for Sydney – the Sydney Region Outline Plan of 1968 prioritised ‘developing the Sydney-Newcastle-Wollongong area as one inter-related, linear urban complex with special emphasis on a north-south communications corridor linking the three areas’.

Around the world, planners have used the mega-region model to interpret the economic success of places like the Ruhr Valley in Germany and the Pearl River Delta of China and Hong Kong. Just yesterday was the centenary of the Regional Plan Association that first envisaged the tri-state mega region of 12000 square kilometres and 24 million people based around New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

The Randstad city region of the Netherlands is particularly instructive for our context – it concentrates a huge share of the Netherlands’ population in a small geographical area, bound and interspersed by green space and natural hazards, and globally connected as a hub for air and sea transport.

As Sir Peter Hall and Mark Tewdwr-Jones explained, the Randstad is not only polycentric in a physical nature, but in a functional sense too – Amsterdam is the focus for finance, retailing, tourism and culture; Rotterdam for the port, business and heavy industry; The Hague for government.

This approach could be useful for us to define the roles of our six cities. It can also help to recognise, respect and harness the strong parochial identities of Newcastle, Wollongong, and the Central Coast as they are brought into the megaregion. Newcastle and Wollongong serving as northern and southern gateways – as ports, and centres of industrial innovation; the Central Coast reinforcing its role as a lifestyle city, the Eastern harbour city of Sydney being a centre for finance and global trade, the Central river city as a place of government and services, whilst the parkland city in the west emerging as a aerotropolis, just as Schiphol is for the Randstad.

While some city regions are shaped more by happenstance, others have a clear geographic identity. The Randstad is so named because it resembled a ring, or ring city to the early aviator who looked down at the landscape and first coined the name. The Committee for Sydney similarly observed that our metropolitan cities are shaped as a sandstone mega-region – taking its shape and its identity – even the vernacular of some of our most iconic architecture, from the ancient geology and mighty rivers that have supported and incubated human civilisation here since the time of the dreaming.

But a great title and a great plan only take you so far. Australian urbanist Marcus Spiller noted there is “no problem in this country with writing good metropolitan strategies … where the nation has a problem is taking these plans into action”. A great strength of the existing Greater Sydney Commission is how its governance model integrates state and local representatives so both levels of government share responsibility to address common challenges.

In the Hunter, we have seen significant bottom-up progress with the government working together with the Hunter Joint Organisation of Councils to deliver the Greater Newcastle Metropolitan Plan and the Hunter Region Plan. We need to retain and strengthen such collaborative approaches as we develop the Greater Cities Commission model.

Like collaboration, connectivity is also vital to draw together the six cities megaregion.

There are huge opportunities to improve connections between centres to benefit each city’s competitive advantages: for instance, better transport connections between Wollongong, with its renowned university and remarkable natural environment, could benefit Western Sydney, with a massive population and significant global connections through the new Airport, and vice versa.

As remote working makes moving to the regions more attractive, it may undermine the imperative for faster transit connections if people are working in centres less frequently

But there is a paradox driven by the pandemic – as remote working makes moving to the regions more attractive, it may undermine the imperative for faster transit connections if people are working in centres less frequently. If infrastructure is to help drive our economic recovery out of the pandemic, it needs to do so in an intelligent and thoughtful way reflective of our post-pandemic world.

Multiple minor projects rather than major megaprojects might be a more appropriate method of building sustainable cities.

And active transport projects – walking and cycling infrastructure – are smaller projects with big benefits.

The leading cause of death globally is not infectious disease, but non-communicable disease, like coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and breast and colon cancers. 

While perhaps surprising in the context of a global pandemic – the leading cause of death globally is not infectious disease, but non-communicable disease, like coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and breast and colon cancers. The impact and incidence of all these diseases is exacerbated by inactivity. Making it easier and safer and more attractive for people to walk, stroll, run and ride will make us live longer and better.

Yet our cities were designed at a time when society and medicine both frowned on exercise. Bedrest was the prescription for many non-communicable diseases, women in particular were discouraged from physical exercise, and simple pleasures like going for a swim in a river or at the beach was banned in daylight hours. 

We have a big job ahead of us in reshaping our built environment, and even the cultural biases of our community, to make active transport as much a day to day part of our lives as in so many other successful cities around the globe.

And the pandemic has ignited the change.

During COVID-19, the number of people riding a bicycle increased across the existing cycling network in Greater Sydney:

  • in June 2020, Sydney Harbour Bridge cycleway saw a three per cent increase in bike riders from the same time the previous year, despite significantly reduced numbers of people working in the CBD and North Sydney
  • the M4 cycleway at Parramatta saw a 200 per cent increase in riders
  • Hawthorne Canal at Leichhardt saw a 170 per cent increase
  • the Como Bridge in Oatley saw a 70 per cent increase in riders compared to the same time last year

Bicycle retailers across the state are out of stock. While supply chain issues are partly to blame, it’s also due to an enormous increase in demand.

A survey by Bicycle Industries Australia found between January and June 2020, bike sales more than doubled when compared with the same period the year before.

This shift in thinking is reflected in the life-cycle of this government. Years ago we were ripping up cycleways in Sydney’s CBD.

Now we’re building new ones in Sydney’s CBD, and I stand before you today as the state’s first dedicated Minister for Active Transport.

Our pedestrian and cycling networks are true public goods – non-exclusive and non-rivalrous. 

It is contingent on government to provide these services because as public goods, there is little incentive for the private sector to do so, and because these services generate a multitude of benefits for the whole community.

I’ve already mentioned the health benefits of active mobility, but there are wider benefits as well – it improves air quality and combats climate change, activates high streets and can help build social connections and even address inequality.

Significantly, it can liberate the citizens of our cities to live freer, less congested lives.

American planner Jarrett Walker observed how transport planning is primarily about spatial geometry. Cities exist where people come together – yet if we all arrive in a two tonne, 10 square metre metal box, there simply isn’t space to accommodate the benefits of cities. The very vehicles that bring us together end up keeping us apart.

Our traditional methods of transport planning are built on forecast models – essentially forcing people into modes and directions of travel that our major infrastructure is designed to cater for, not for where people may choose to go.

Instead, we need to bring freedom into how we talk about transport – active transport allows citizens of all abilities and means to be free to choose where they want to go.

Investing in footpaths and cycleways can be seen as an act of democracy, because while not all of us can drive, or ride, all of us regardless of age or ability at some point are going to be users of the footpath.

Enrique Peñalosa, the former Mayor of Bogotá, talks about how investing in footpaths and cycleways is an act of democracy, because while not all of us can drive, or ride, all of us regardless of age or ability at some point are going to be users of the footpath.

Active transport is a powerful means for people to experience public life. Public space isn’t just the green spaces and open plazas, it’s all those connections where we see, hear, and feel like we’re part of a public process – not trapped alone in the airconditioned desensitised sterility of our private cars.

By providing for individual mobility and autonomy, we are letting the citizens of NSW be free in their own cities and towns.

For instance, it’s too common to see, across NSW, local streets and neighbourhoods bereft of footpaths.

For children, older people, parents pushing prams or people with disabilities – the lack of a footpath isn’t an inconvenience; it’s a barrier to moving freely in public space.

It keeps people locked in their homes or dependent on external services, particularly if they don’t have the means of the private motor car to get around.

So how do we encourage more people not only to choose active transport to get around, but demand more active transport infrastructure?

We need to invest to prove it works for people. To quote the mysterious voice speaking to Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.”

Currently around $950 million will be invested over the next five years for walking and cycling infrastructure – a figure which has increased from around $700 million over the last few months.

Over the past financial year, we’ve delivered 55 kilometres in new cycleways.

We have a policy of incorporating active transport into all our major infrastructure projects. Nearly two-thirds of our active transport budget is new walking and cycling links leveraged alongside major infrastructure projects.

This represents the largest commitment to active mobility in the State’s history.

But it isn’t enough.

It’s my view that we should see that investment more than double over the next few years.

It’s time to start rebalancing our infrastructure priorities.  Major roads are important.  Which is why we are spending $23 billion over four years on major road expansions. But if we can find $23 billion to benefit 5.9 million registered vehicles in NSW, then we need to spend more than a fraction of this amount on the active mobility paths, shared paths and cycleways that can benefit the 8.2 million pedestrians in NSW.

Major projects can be great to form the arteries of a whole network of walkways and cycleways across Sydney.

To that end, we will start work on a great walking and cycling parkway connecting the Sydney CBD to Parramatta.

Much like the Great North Road of colonial days that followed an ancient artery of Aboriginal active mobility, or the Great West Walk that connects Parramatta to the foot of the Blue Mountains, an active path from Sydney to Parramatta will shape not just how we get around, but our land use decisions. It will make it easier for people to move around their city. 

It’s an ambitious and monumental task that won’t be realised overnight, but it’s exactly the type of infrastructure we must strive for.

People are seeing the benefits of dedicated active transport lanes on our public roads – which are fundamentally public spaces.

A good example is the Pop-up cycleway on Pitt Street, which has not only become a popular route for bike-riders, but also allowed outdoor dining to spill out further onto a space that was previously dominated by private vehicles and buses.

This shift in thinking regarding active transport has been profound. 

Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, has led active transport infrastructure to make up half of that city’s infrastructure investment budget, creating 659 new kilometres of new cycleways in the wake of the pandemic. But that also means removing 72 per cent of Paris’s on-street car parking spaces.

Do investments like this mean we’ve won the battle of hearts and minds, and bike lanes will be welcomed everywhere across the state? Absolutely not.

Beyond investment, we also need to appeal to and convince those people who don’t choose active transport methods today.

As Active Transport Minister, I do not need to do much to convince more middle-aged men in lycra to pick up cycling.

But across our state, people who’ve previously shunned bike riding and seen it as the domain of inner-city elites, are increasingly riding bicycles for exercise or getting around –  and demanding better connections in their neighbourhood.

For other segments of society, the risks of active transport are perceived as too great – think about people who don’t feel safe riding in shared roadways, or walking alone at night.

Think about people trying to manage getting whole families around, who may not have the convenience of end-of-trip facilities at their workplace. Parents worried for their children’s safety sharing roadspace with others.

We need to make people feel comfortable, confident and safe while undertaking active transport.

We need to clear up the regulations around e-scooters and electric skateboards – an area where the regulation is no longer reflective of what society demands.  And we need to make pathways safer and more attractive to people living with disabilities.  They have the same rights to access active mobility as everyone else.  We can’t create an inclusive city without providing access for all.

I strive to see our cities boast active transport infrastructure so good, that walking and cycling become more popular modes of transport than using a private vehicle for local trips.

We need to look not only at the major projects, but also invest in the pinchpoints that break up active transport links.

Too often we see footpaths or cycleways that end without notice or transition – these are hazards that make it too difficult for people to get around actively.

While the big, major projects are the ones that get the headlines, just as important are the missing links and local projects that stitch our city together.  

In June last year I opened a fairly small shared path in Artarmon that connected to the broader active transport network. While there I met a local woman named Steph.

She was aged in her mid-50s and had only started riding an e-bike in the previous two years.

She described herself as never being a sporty type or someone who went to the gym, but thanks to the gradual build-up of the local network, she could now ride her e-bike from her home in Roseville to her work in Parramatta every day.

Her daily commute would take in the beautiful surrounds of Lane Cove National Park, North Ryde, Meadowbank and the stunning new Parramatta River boardwalk.

She said the investment in the active transport network had completely changed her life – her physical health and mental wellbeing, her confidence and even her productivity at work.

This is fantastic for Steph – and we need to ensure that more people across our state, particularly in Western Sydney, can share the same experience. 

The challenge before us is to make today’s generation of risk-averse parents feel more confident allowing their kids to walk or ride bikes to school or around the neighbourhood, rather than spending their spare time staring at screens.

And for all of us to consider walking or bike riding as the primary mode of transport for local trips, rather than using a private vehicle.

We’ll be talking to transport planners, infrastructure experts, city leaders and the community about the opportunities and obstacles for active transport across NSW.

For too long roads have divided our cities and suburbs, making them less safe, less attractive and less accessible.  To make an even better sandstone city region we must recognise that in all of the infrastructure we need – education, health, housing, arts, public and private transport – sometimes the sum total of the smaller bits – the parks and the paths, can be the secret to a city’s success.

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  1. Well good on you Rob, fine words and so logical given our polluted air and rising fuel prices. So can we have some action before developers swallow up all possible land that could have been active transport corridors?