Bicycle advocacy is vanishingly rare in our community. Amid all the noise about net zero, my search for bicycle advocate candidates to vote for on Saturday only turned up vague references to ‘reducing our reliance on cars’ and ‘increasing public transport connectivity’. The closest thing to policy was: ‘It’s time to create bike paths all over the Shire.’
In lieu of pro-cycling policies, some candidates support developing the disused Casino to Murwillumbah rail corridor into a pedestrian and cycling trail.
Leading the rail trail charge is mayoral candidate, Mark Swivel, who recently defied political orthodoxy by unambiguously declaring he did not support bringing the train back because there was simply no prospect of it happening. Asren Pugh, Alan Hunter and Bruce Clarke also back the rail trail.
The rail trail has been historically associated with the National Party which has fed the narrative that it is a bad idea. Besides, who would choose a bike path over a commuter train?
Backing trains was a vote winner for Simon Richardson four years ago. But the salience of the issue is waning as it becomes clearer that the train is an empty promise. The departure at this election of train activist, councillor Basil Cameron shifts the political dynamic further.
Depending on the make-up of the new Council, the rail trail might still be thwarted by the Greens. They have traditionally resisted the proposal because they like trains and support ‘public transport’. But their once grand vision for a Northern Rivers commuter train has withered.
They’re now spruiking light rail between Mullum and Byron – possibly a Toyota Coaster adapted to run on the tracks, at speeds of up to 35km/h! There is no funding. No business case. No demand modelling. Perhaps a private operator might step into the breach and deliver the service, or the State government will develop the appetite to fund another boondoggle?
Mayoral candidates Cate Coorey and Michael Lyon support the Greens on this. Michael told me he wants to try for another year to get rail funding before acquiescing to the rail trail, which he sees as a bit of a vanity project.
In the meantime, though, the rail trail approaches from two directions, as adjoining municipalities flush with State and federal funding, commence construction. I asked Greens mayoral candidate, Duncan Dey, if he thought it conscionable to thwart the 130km Northern Rivers Rail Trail, for the sake of 15km of ‘light-rail’ with very uncertain prospects? His answer: ‘Yes’.
The rail trail has transformational potential. It could encourage a decent cohort of the traffic-wary onto their bikes and catalyse a virtuous cycle. Backing the project would signal support for low impact mobility and car-free tourism.
The bicycle is a potent symbol of ecological frugality and independence, of freedom even. Yet in our green idyll bicyclists are squeezed to the margins, of the road and of politics too.
♦ David Lisle is a committed cyclist and sometime worker at the bike shop in Mullumbimby.