When the officials charged with making cycling safer and more accessible in Sydney meet their international counterparts, they can expect to be greeted with a mixture of incredulity and sympathy.

“I don’t think anyone has a tougher time than we do,” says the City of Sydney’s executive manager of cycling strategy, Sebastian Smyth.

That has a little to do with Sydney’s hills and a tangled road network that grew without a plan. But the main reason for the tag “the city that hates bikes”, as the Sydney Morning Herald called it in 2010, is the long-running division between the council responsible for the inner city and a state government that has been historically hostile to cycling.

“Most cities around the world have jurisdiction over their own traffic light systems, speed limits, roads,” says Smyth’s colleague Fiona Campbell, the council’s manager of cycling strategy. “It’s really unusual to have a situation like we have, where the city government has so little control.

“I’ve spent a lot of time going to other cities and talking with bike planners and so on, and when I describe the situation we have they’re always astounded that we’ve got anything done.”

But got something done they have.

After adding only about 1.5km of separated cycleways a year over the past decade, the city has put in almost 7km in the last six months of 2020. Its latest and most striking proposal is to run a cycleway down the middle of Oxford Street, the city’s main artery to the eastern suburbs, to link with existing separated paths in the city’s central business district.

Part of the unusual design for the proposed cycleway on Sydney’s Oxford Street.

Part of the unusual design for the proposed cycleway on Sydney’s Oxford Street. Photograph: City of Sydney

As in other cities around the world, Covid shutdowns have stimulated the acceleration of longstanding ideas about refashioning city transport. But the sudden progress in Sydney is also the result of a gradual warming of relations between the council and the New South Wales government since the miserable period when the National party’s Duncan Gay was roads minister.

That reached its peak when Gay authorised the separated cycleway along College Street to be ripped up in 2015, shortly before he proposed regulations requiring cyclists to carry photo ID and massively increased fines for breaching traffic laws.

But Sydney’s reputation as “the city that hates bikes” – a reflection of the aggressive attitudes of drivers as well as its dysfunctional infrastructure – goes back much further.

What has made the difference?

Campbell points to the closure of George Street to car traffic to make way for the light rail as an example of how attitudes can change quickly, challenging “people who say it’s impossible, that you can’t remove road space – the sky will fall”.

The same is true for cycling projects that aroused furious opposition when proposed, such as the “battle of Bourke Street” over the cycleway to the south of the inner city a decade ago. Smyth says 80% of submissions to that proposal were hostile but the project is now “universally loved”.

“People are buying property there, setting up shops and bakeries on that street as a result … people who’ve witnessed this, the shopkeepers on Oxford Street, they do understand what’s killing that place, and that’s the traffic at high volumes and high speeds … They know [the new cycleway] will be good for business. There’ll be some people you can never win over but we are definitely seeing a shift.”

Part of that shift has been a change in political rhetoric, not least from the current state transport minister, Andrew Constance.

“The words coming out of the minister for transport’s mouth now are very enlightened, the conversations we’re having with the executive senior management of Transport for NSW are very enlightened,” Smyth says. “But it takes time for attitudes to change.”

Bastien Wallace from Bicycle NSW suggests one other turning point in the tone of the debate – the death of Cameron Frewer in November 2018. Frewer was a cyclist who had campaigned vociferously for greater road safety before he was killed while riding on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

Wallace says that was “the last time it was acceptable to talk about ‘a war on the roads’” and both the media and politicians have since moved away from “inflammatory language” about the rights and responsibilities of cyclists.

And then came the pandemic, which ushered in the concept of “pop-up” or temporary cycleways, which the lord mayor, Clover Moore, called “quick and simple to implement, adaptable and inexpensive”. Six were installed in the City of Sydney in a joint initiative with Transport for NSW that again spoke of a much more positive relationship. They have proved so popular that some may become permanent.

Unlike almost all other forms of transport, cycling showed an increase in traffic through the shutdown. The number of trips using the routes where pop-up cycleways were installed increased by 9% in just 12 weeks from September, according to Transport for NSW.

“We had sustained growth during the Covid shutdown, so when everything else died in the arse, the counters on our cycleways kept going up,” Smyth says. “But driver numbers, driver speed and driver distraction, that’s [now] going up too. So we have to redouble our efforts to keep people cycling safe – that’s where the network of safe, connected, separated cycleways comes in.”

Clover Moore and Andrew Constance

The Sydney lord mayor, Clover Moore, and NSW transport minister, Andrew Constance, after announcing the new pop-up cycleways in May. Photograph: James Gourley/AAP

To achieve that the council has developed a strategy of working “between the kerbs” – reallocating existing road space wherever possible rather than more extensive reconstruction from building line to building line – which has brought down the cost and time needed to construct separated cycleways.

There is still a long way to go before Sydney becomes a city where it is as safe and welcoming to cycle as many in Europe, or even in the rest of Australia. The City of Sydney collaborates with surrounding councils to link their separated paths and other safe routes into a coherent network but this still accounts for a relatively modest geographical portion of the entire city.

Wallace says her organisation is “incredibly encouraged by the moves to improve safe cycling” but remains critical of the state government for failing to reveal more details of its Principal Bicycle Network, which is supposed to deliver 5,000km of cycling infrastructure over the next decades.

“It would be good if they just made the principal bike network public … so that people can really understand what the network looks like, so that they can connect in their minds all the little bits that get done piece by piece.

“It’s actually good but they treat it as though it’s secret or it’s silly or something to be ashamed of, but it would just really help people support them.”

The Committee for Sydney has also called for the network plan to be drastically accelerated in light of the pandemic.

A spokesperson for Transport for NSW said it had undertaken “extensive consultation with the 33 councils in the Greater Sydney area to propose plans for a connected cycling network” but delivering it was “complex and requires a fundamental rethink to the allocation of road space”.

‘Can’t possibly happen’

Meanwhile, some of the old obstacles to progress remain. While many more dedicated traffic lights for cyclists have been installed in inner Sydney, they are still under the control of Transport for NSW, and offer riders a window of just six seconds on green. Transport for NSW says where possible it is “actively reviewing these traffic lights to determine if we can give more green time to bike riders or ban conflicting vehicular turning movements”.

Frustrating gaps in the network persist, where sometimes tiny changes could unlock much longer safe commutes. Some proposals for better permanent infrastructure or pop-ups have been blocked at council level, including in Manly and Bayside, which covers the area around Sydney airport.

Above all, old habits die hard among officials in the roads bureaucracy.

Smyth says: “It doesn’t matter what the minister or the executives at Transport for NSW are saying, you still have the people who’ve been doing this for 40 years who say, ‘Ah, no mate, can’t possibly happen.’”

It’s historically been a profound philosophical difference, Campbell says: “Their priority has always been to maximise the flow of traffic, which doesn’t sit well with the city’s priority – which is creating a good place for people to be.”

But the response to the “innovative and avant garde” proposal for Oxford Street – also developed in partnership with Transport for NSW – suggests that gulf is nowhere near as wide as it once was.

“We got from in-principle design to consultation in less than five months,” Smyth says. “That’s a really positive indicator that the government’s prepared to say, ‘It’s OK if we lose one lane of traffic heading into the city’.

“We’re not in utopia yet but at least all our strategies are consistent, our plans are consistent, our policies are consistent. There’s still a lot of inertia but I’m optimistic.”