Wolli Creek, the Cooks River, and the case of the missing bridges

Working from home in Wolli Creek, an intensively redeveloped suburb where 97% of residents also live in apartments, I can see a large green area – a combination of Waterworth Park, Gough Whitlam Park, and other smaller reserves in the low-rise suburb of Undercliffe. From my window it’s 250m to Waterworth Park – how convenient! But no, to actually walk there? A 2.5km or 3km route takes me either west or east to the nearest bridge over Wolli Creek or the Cooks River (respectively), then back around.

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I have a bicycle and am confident riding on roads without bike lanes, so I still often cross the water for a bit of sun and open space, but many people in the area are not so equipped. As a result, these big parks are near empty, even though there’s been an uptick in visitors since COVID closed the gyms.

It turns out the problem of crossing the Cooks River and its’ tributaries to reach “nearby” destinations on foot isn’t isolated to my area. Between Wolli Creek and Strathfield South, where it peters out, the Cooks River is 9km long and crossed by 9 road bridges, thus spaced an average 1km apart. For cars, this is a short distance, but for pedestrians, it’s a big problem. Research into travel behaviour has shown us that people’s willingness to visit destinations on foot drops off dramatically as they go from 400 to 800 to 1200m away.

The longest gap between bridges is between the north side of Undercliffe and Marrickville:

If I were to spot a friend on the far side of the river (50m wide at this point), or want to visit a shop, it’s a 15-20 minute walk to reach them (and speak from a COVID-19 appropriate distance of course!).

Existing Infrastructure

On the upstream reaches, this problem has been mitigated with the provision of additional pedestrian bridges. (Some of these bridges are also useful for cyclists, while some are too narrow or require them to dismount, but that’s another issue). Between the Illawarra Road bridge and Fifth Avenue, Croydon Park, an additional 6 pedestrian bridges mean there are 12 crossings in this 6km stretch, bringing the average spacing down to 500m.

What’s the difference between upstream and downstream? It’s hard to find historical details, but notably, 5 of the current pedestrian bridges are located entirely within the Canterbury-Bankstown LGA, with one bridging Canterbury-Bankstown to the Inner West LGA. East of Wardell Road, the boundaries between Canterbury-Bankstown, Inner West, and Bayside LGAs fall on the waterways of the Cooks River and Wolli Creek. Perhaps cooperation to build new bridges is more difficult than single council initiatives.

Interestingly, in both the locations shown above, there is already a bridge – both are locations of aqueducts carrying a major Sydney Water sewage pipeline. Perhaps a footway could even be attached to these existing structures. The map below shows how this pipeline passes through Undercliffe, and also on the right another non-pedestrian crossing in a key location – the rail and pipeline bridges between Wolli Creek and Tempe. A bridge here would allow Wolli Creek residents to access more Inner West destinations using active transport, and without using the narrow, unfenced path on the western side of the Pacific Highway bridge.

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Conclusion

Pedestrian/cycle bridges are much lighter, smaller, and consequently cheaper to build than road bridges. Increased connectivity promotes active transport (induced demand doesn’t just apply to cars).

The need for physical distancing in the wake of coronavirus has made obvious the lack of space in some suburbs for people to get outdoors without treading on each other’s toes. But open space isn’t the only rationale, just the obvious one from my side of the river. Wolli Creek is a successful high-density mixed-use area with a range of restaurants, cafes and shops available within walking distance for those ‘inside’ the highway and river boundaries, but lacks connections to nearby suburbs. Meanwhile many of these neighbouring suburbs are still car dominated due to a lack of walkable destinations. Increased active transport connections would be a win for everyone, and a great use of coronavirus stimulus money supporting local contractors.