A break from Christchurch to visit family in Perth provided Roy Sinclair with eye-boggling evidence of a city with cycling in a deep embrace.
Perth is on the way to becoming the Australasian cycling capital. The city and environs, similar in size and population to Auckland, boasts 700km of cycleways, many of them paved and off-road. The Western Australian State Government spends $4 million annually on cycling infrastructure, supplemented by similar amounts from local authorities.
And, according to the deputy director of general transport, Sue McCarrey, it's a good investment with cycling increasing five-fold in recent years - proving that if the infrastructure is there, people will use it.
Around 300,000 cyclists (just shy of the population of Christchurch) use the facilities every month for commuting or leisure. Cycling is reducing car journeys in a city which ranks among the world's highest in motor-vehicle ownership. "Get to work on two wheels, not four" and "Cycle instead" are their slogans.
"The Perth population [1.74 million] is positive about establishing and expanding cycleways, but they definitely prefer separated paths," says McCarrey.
Having a son and three grandchildren in Perth getting into cycling gives me the impetus to see what's happening there compared with New Zealand cities, where cycling is seemingly going backwards and being squeezed out of the Christchurch rebuild.
I create a space in my son's two-car garage before heading to the nearby bike shop. An hour or so later, and several circuits of an adjoining car park, I am the proud owner of a hybrid bike with 700c wheels and fitted out for recreation and touring.
I am not quite the new chum on the block among Western Australian pedallers. Two years ago I cycled 600km from Banbury to Albany on my Dahon folding bike. Quiet roads steered through magnificent, silent, forests. It turned out as good, or better, than mega-rides I have enjoyed throughout much of Europe.
The state government's Department of Transport is generous in providing a stack of cycling guides with maps indicating toilets, cafes, drinking fountains, and bicycle parks. I pick up several and buy a comprehensive guide, Where to Cycle in Perth, produced by the Wangary Publishing Company. Cycling jaunts can be combined with the metro rail network during off-peak times.
With the temperature soaring towards 30 degrees Celcius in early April, I head down to the Swan River and find the riverside cycling path. Being Saturday, it is buzzing with wheels as I tentatively point mine towards Burswood.
I discover paths with different classifications: PSP (Principal Shared Paths) and the PBN (Perth Bicycle Network.) The latter has route numbers and continual signs. Other signage indicates cycling protocol, especially on a PSP.
The cycling is bliss - flat terrain, free of motor traffic, and scenic. I encounter all types of cyclists. The serious ones grimace as they approach on road racing bikes, and one group wear yellow jerseys. Are they honouring their famous compatriot, Cadel Evans, last year's winner of the Tour de France? He was the first Australian to nail the world's premium cycling event.
Others idle along, much like myself. I pass several families with their kids, on small-wheel bikes, pedalling furiously to keep up. Non-competitive cyclists smile in greeting. They are the ones enjoying the cycleway most.
People are massing at grassed picnic spots. Barbecues and picnic hampers provide a near gala occasion, and I'm impressed by the clarity of the wide river. The striking city skyline is a continuous backdrop.
I leave the cycleway to become mildly lost in suburbia. Retracing my route to Victoria Park and the cycleway, I discover separate cycling and walking paths.
The cycleway could have navigated a straight line. But it detours through trees, making the ride more interesting. I stop for a coffee and muffin at a South Perth cafe with a fine view across the river.
I could take my bike, free, on a ferry across to Perth's downtown Barrack St jetties, but elect to carry on to discover a quaint old mill that, over several days, will serve as a useful landmark. Mill Point, Canning Bridge, Narrows Bridge, Kings Park, Nedlands and Matilda Bay become familiar names on bike path signs.
Later I attach a pannier bag and ride PBN paths and quiet roads to Fremantle, the long-time Swan River port for Perth. I enjoy Fremantle's streets of convict-built heritage buildings, indulge in maritime museums, and spend a lively evening at Little Creatures' brewery and restaurant.
Next morning I return to Perth, following a PBN path for most of the ride. I spot dolphins near the start of the ride, then pass a succession of affluent marinas. Fremantle provides a pleasant round trip of almost 60km which I feel reluctant to complete.
On another day, with my son as guide, we head into Swan Valley with its abundant wineries and boutique breweries. The cycling path is separated from the busy urban roadway.
Easter Sunday is another glorious day, and it seems much of Perth's population is enjoying the day outdoors. Aromas from ubiquitous barbecues waft among trees, the river is alive with all manner of pleasure craft, and there are the cyclists. With ample space, I do not feel crowded, but am cautious when approaching the many blind corners, and sound my bell for walkers.
I reluctantly park my steed, having clocked a mere 200km of cycleways. Many more trails remain to explore.
The Western Australian State Government, in its recent 2012-13 budget, announced an additional $20 million to be spent on cycling infrastructure, state-wide, over the next two years.
Perth's bicycle network funding will be doubled to $4 million with an emphasis on off-road shared paths particularly within 15km of the Perth CBD.
- The Press
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