The Copenhagen of Queensland? Why this conservative city is making a bold cycling move

<span>Andrew Reeson on Toowoomba’s Pierce Street, in which cars and bikes have equal priority. The ‘safe active street’ is the first of its kind on Australia’s eastern seaboard.</span><span>Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian</span>
Andrew Reeson on Toowoomba’s Pierce Street, in which cars and bikes have equal priority. The ‘safe active street’ is the first of its kind on Australia’s eastern seaboard.Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian

Toowoomba councillor Carol Taylor admits the active and public transport committee on which she sits has its work cut out.

“Toowoomba’s one of the most obese cities in Australia,” the councillor says.

“And we don’t really have viable public transport at the moment.”

Perched atop the Great Dividing Range, Queensland’s largest inland city is a heartland of conservative politics. A heavily car-oriented town, it doesn’t often draw comparisons to Nordic models of anything, least of all transport.

But it was from Denmark that Taylor says the growing Queensland city drew inspiration for a piece of infrastructure opened last month on a quiet suburban street. Comprising a handful of brick and weatherboard cottages on one side and a golf course on the other, Pierce Street now has a speed limit of 30km/h and a figurative red carpet running down the middle of the road for cyclists. A “Safe Active Street” in which cars and bikes have “equal priority”, it is the first of its kind on the eastern seaboard of Australia.

Given the stranglehold of the automobile upon the Australian psyche and the way that cars have literally shaped our cities, Taylor says this was, for some, a “radical step”.

But is Toowoomba really on its way to being the Copenhagen of Queensland?

Niels Hoe from the Cycling Embassy of Denmark – which “spreads the knowledge of how Danes do cycling” – has seen photos of Pierce Street from his Copenhagen home and reckons the inspiration originated elsewhere.

“I would argue that is probably more accurate to be inspired from a Belgium or a German example, due to the colours,” Hoe says. “But it still looks exactly like what we call a cycle street in Europe.”

These have become increasingly common on the continent over the past decade, he says. But though they might look and operate in the same fashion, Hoe has a far more elegant way of explaining how to use cycle streets than the densely worded signage on Pierce Street.

“What we say is, the car is allowed as a guest,” Hoe says. “Being a guest means you are polite to your host – and the bike is the host.”

This simple idea gets to the heart of the differences Hoe has experienced pedalling the roads of the Antipodes. Hoe and his family felt unsafe on our roads, due to a lack of infrastructure but also the attitudes and behaviours of road users.

“In Australia I noticed that you guys talk a lot about the avid cyclists,” he says. “But they have a different mindset to me, as a parent.”

Hoe and his wife raised their two daughters in a car-free home – a status that makes them part of the majority in the Danish capital. There, bikes are not just about middle-aged blokes in lycra, but embedded in a culture so accepting of bikes it can call cars “guests” on certain roads without causing an uproar. Or do they? Are some Danish drivers outraged at the thought of sharing asphalt?

“There might be someone who has that feeling in Denmark,” Hoe says. “But it is not a thing that we discuss.”

The same cannot be said of Toowoomba. An older resident of Pierce Street who pops out to collect her mail says, wryly, the revamp has “generated a lot of dialogue” among residents. Cr Taylor admits to “quite a bit of comment” on social media – including the obligatory reference to the 15-minute city conspiracy theory.

But some local cycling advocates themselves aren’t overjoyed. The Toowoomba Region Bicycle Users Group’s secretary, Jeff Nolan, says Pierce Street was already “probably the safest street in Toowoomba”.

In contrast, the city’s existing bike paths are bisected by busy intersections that prevent many from using them.

Nolan says it is now more dangerous to ride in Toowoomba than it was four years ago, a period that has seen steady population growth and a trend towards “mammoth bloody American tank-sized utes”.

And the city of heritage buildings and grand parks has no time to waste, he says, nor room to engineer its way out of increasing gridlock.

“There is no capacity to increase lanes, no capacity to build new car parking other than to build vertical ones and charge prices like they do in Brisbane,” he says. “And that is not going to happen – Toowoomba residents get grumpy if they have to pay $1.80 for a car park.

“So while Pierce Street is a worthy model to be rolled out, it’s a damn shame it wasn’t put somewhere where it can be useful.”

Other local bike riders cut council more slack. Andrew Reeson ran at the most recent local elections, narrowly missing a seat after championing active transport. The city could be a cycling paradise, he believes – too small to support much in the way of public transport, small enough to ride just about anywhere.

But he also knows the council needs a social licence to make that a safe and common option.

“Unfortunately, Toowoomba is the kind of conservative town where any investment in anything other than filling potholes will get some people angry,” he says. “This is new, so some people are going to complain – but I suspect once people get used to this, it will be fine.”

Queensland University of Technology professor Narelle Haworth, who has spent decades researching road safety and rides to work, says that is a crucial step in building more bike-friendly cities – because reducing car dependency involves persuading people who will never use bike infrastructure that they will still benefit from it.

“Me not being in a car makes it better for people who are in a car,” she says. “Me not being in a car means less air pollution, using less fossil fuels and taking up less room on the roads.”

Bike riders injure and kill far fewer people than drivers, have better mental health and lower chronic disease levels, freeing up hospital beds. The list continues.

“We need to convince people that everybody can benefit if we help some people,” she says.

Cr Taylor is hoping Pierce Street will do just that. Because, while she admits it was an “easy one to start with”, it might just help build community acceptance for sharing the road.

“We have to start somewhere.”