On yer bike: Active Travel and UON

A new, on-campus initiative not unreasonably seeks to revolutionise the university commute, writes Samuel Rayfield
UoN Environmental Officer Megan Sharkey at the NUBUG O-week stall.
UoN Environmental Officer Megan Sharkey at the NUBUG O-week stall.

 

Have you ever felt like maybe you should be doing a bit more exercise? Have you ever questioned the naturalness of the *gym*, or why you’re so so reluctant to go there? Do you find it difficult or just plain frickin’ boring to go for 15-30 minute daily jogs around your local suburbia, likely along the same route you drove on your way home from work?

If you answered an emphatic, resounding ‘YES’ to any of the above, likely you’ve let the ills of modern life sabotage your exercise routine. The nine-to-five calls for daily segments of dedicated physical activity, something the worker or student is encouraged to do but is given sore little time to do it. Yes, everything sucks, but fear not: there is a compromise.

Megan Sharkey became an Environmental Officer at UoN in September 2014, after which she learned of the on-campus Bike Love Corral, located in the new, yellow bike shelter outside the Hunter Hub. For a long time prior, the Corral offered bicycles — cheaply, between $20 and $90 to be purchased at any time throughout the year, later in which they could be returned for a full refund of the purchase price. It was an especially effective mode of transport for both domestic and international students.

“I hadn’t seen anything like it at any other university,” says Sharkey and in it, she saw great potential. SSAF (Student Services and Amenities Fee) funding she applied for and SSAF funding she received. Alongside the Bike Love Corral, she developed the Ready to Ride package — $50 gets you a bike, helmet, lock, bell and high-vis vest — “It’s a fully legal package.”

The bikes, some 300 of them, were all donated. “I called old police stations and took their old bikes. The old student accommodation had bikes without tires everywhere, so we refurbished all of those and took parts off the ones we couldn’t, then sent them to the tip.” Being that the bikes were donated, the SSAF funding went towards promotion and the package extras: the helmet, lock, vest and bell.

They started selling the Ready to Ride kits at the Corral on February 9th and by mid-O-week, they’d sold about 150. O-week Thursday around midday was the second time I’d chatted to Sharkey, the first being midday on Monday, when already 80 had been sold. The sale ends on March 6th, but does she think they’ll have bikes to last until then? “Heh, no.”

But to simply provide the Ready to Ride bike package is, for Sharkey, a little incomplete and somewhat cruel. Navigating Newcastle, especially now with its restricted public transport system, is often hell. To send an inexperienced cyclist into the swirling labyrinth of the suburbs without a clue won’t do much to keep them cycling. That’s where Active Travel comes in.

According to the UoN Active Travel webpage, “Active Travel focuses on physical activity (walking, cycling and the use of public transport) as your transport mode as opposed to driving your car. It has great health, financial and environmental benefits.” Exercise isn’t a biologically disagreeable thing — damn, it can even make you feel good! but from modern life and consciousness, it’s inherently evasive or entirely absent. Where it was once natural to be satisfactorily physically and mentally exhausted by a day’s work, now it’s not. The Active Travel maps seek to overturn this hanging-about 20th century trend by offering some stark facts on the matter.

Earlier this month, 10 maps for the 10 Newcastle suburbs with the largest UoN staff and student populations were released. There’s Jesmond, Lambton, Wallsend, Waratah — even the coveted Cooks Hill. From the latter to the uni, for example, it’s about 10km by car travelling off-peak, as directly as possible. This can bizarrely absorb 25 minutes of one’s day, without even accounting for the time it takes to find a park. Based on the multiple routes Sharkey and her crew have mapped out for cyclists, it’s a similar distance, albeit occupying 40-45 minutes one way. (But ‘parks’ are abundant and closer to where you need to be.)

Click above for the PDF map with a link to the interactive Google Map.
Click above for the PDF map with a link to the interactive Google Map.

At first glance and with little thought, those numbers are easy to scoff at. In another row of the stats table, however, there’s the dollar-cost comparison: per week in one’s own car, $100 to $200 is expended for four to five days of Cooks Hill to uni back-and-forth travel. On a bike, Sharkey calculated that including the $50 package, comprehensive insurance, maintenance and extras — over a year, “You’ve got almost your entire travel budget for $3 per week.”

Back to that time thing. If fitness is on your agenda but a car is driven everywhere you go, the time you spend not doing anything else aside from getting from point A to B in your car is time lost for doing other things. Living in Cooks Hill, 80-90 minutes of cycling to and from university nullifies the necessity of any pre- or post-uni gym visits, or at the least diminishes the time one feels necessary to spend there.

“Using your travel actively, using it for your health, using it to save money, using it to lower your carbon emissions — there are so many benefits in Active Travel.”

For a student, explains Sharkey, “It can do a lot of things. It can increase your presence [that is, both physically and mindfully], it can boost your test scores and significantly decrease stress levels.” The list of benefits is almost endless, she says, “because there are so many benefits to fitness.”

All sounds reasonable, entirely agreeable, impossible not to enjoy! But like every break in habit, people have their excuses. Aside from, “I don’t wanna do it” — “Why?” — “I just don’t wanna”, the numbers should be convincing, but they’re hard to believe — so striking, they’re almost unbelievable; thus, perversely, discouraging. The comfort and predictability of the automobile enraptures the common commuter and makes cycling seem an undesirable activity. These are more excuses resultant of the little thought many place on their daily transport, maybe, ironically because they don’t have the time. When considering all of the above in addition to safety — potential cyclists’ greatest and most legitimate concern — however, Sharkey recommends starting slow, with company and motivation.

“The biggest thing that people do is set their expectations too high: ‘I’m gonna cycle every day and I’m gonna change!’ Start slow, find your bike buddy and what motivates you. It could be anything from money, to wanting to get a bit thinner, or even increasing your test scores.”

“If you’ve got questions, come to the Active Travel journey plan — I’ll actually sit there with you and help find the best route, how to do it once a week and connect with other riders in your suburb.” It’s a case of safety in numbers, she says, but recommends appreciation of cyclists’ etiquette as well.

From now until March 6th, there’s plenty of beginning-of-semester activities to be involved in. There are bike tours around UoN, maintenance and safe cycle skills workshops, Active Travel journey planning sessions, even a competition — with first prize of a GoPro Hero4. Events such as these will occur throughout 2015 too, with the Bike Love Corral outside the Hunter Hub being your port of call.

Now, there’s no excuse — on your bike!

Interested? You should be. Head to the Active Travel homepage for more information, Healthy UoN for even more information, or email transport@newcastle.edu.au with questions or suggestions.

Image: Samuel Rayfield, UoN Active Travel

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