Don’t Fence Me In

Transport for NSW has been rolling out 4m high ‘safety’ fencing on new bridges for some time – you may have seen powercoated versions of this around the Westconnex M4-M5 tunnel portals, for example, or a posh version on the Tibby Cotter Bridge over Anzac Parade. At the other end is the looming metal cages over the Falcon Street shared path and, who could forget, the Harbour Bridge footway itself. They’re generally new, and reserved for pedestrian and cycle bridges, under the dubious justification that they prevent people throwing things or themselves on cars (or boats).

There are also hundreds of these bridges over highways in NSW that are thirty, forty, sixty years old and lack such protections – High Street and Mount Street bridges over Warringah Freeway date to the 1960s, as does the Burns Bay Road bridge (above), the Ridge Street footbridge over Warringah Freeway dates to the 1980s, to name a few older bridges. To date, they have been left alone, presumably because as they reach their venerable age they can claim decades of good behaviour of their users in their favour. No longer. As the Burns Bay Bridge above shows, no expense will be spared in turning these bridges into prisons for walkers.

Now it’s extraordinary in this era of budget tightening that Transport can still find hundreds of thousands of dollars to erect hostile fencing along bridges. Admittedly, pedestrian fencing is a veritable industry in NSW (just Google “RMS Type 1 Pedestrian Fencing” to see the dozens of manufacturers and suppliers of our own custom local product!). This despite that it has now been 20 years since the venerable Transport Research Labs in the UK conducted this research and established that guard railing (as it is called there) is marginally more dangerous due to obscuring walkers from drivers vision at the end of fencing, and recommending its removal as a default. This kind of fencing has now entirely disappeared from all of London’s roads, and due to its overuse, since 2009 has been recommended to be used as a last resort only across all of the UK (LTN 2/09, at 2.1.10). Even so, these new, towering custom-built fences are an order of magnitude bigger, costlier and more impactful that the ‘guard rail’ kind above.

So, what’s new? I hear you say. Well, after some years of rolling these out with new (road and rail) bridges, it looks like Transport for NSW is expanding to retrofit these on existing bridges as well. Even more extraordinary is that they will be doing it without budgetary oversight, community consultation or defined need. We might not notice it as much because, as with much of transport infrastructure, it has been exempted from the ordinary public process – we do not necessarily hear, or see this until it comes to our backyard. This was particularly noticeable for me because a number of bridges over this highway stub have been painted with MIO paint (Bridge Paint) since the 1960s, which is painful on knuckles if you’re cycling and you veer (I’m looking at you), but I’d all but given up asking for change since the bridges were so old and unchanged.

Let’s put it differently. Say you wanted to erect a 4 metre high chain-link fence in front of your house for privacy. You’d need to apply to council, whose DCP would prohibit it (any fence over 1.2m along a primary road, 1.8m otherwise, the character description of your area etc), and supposing you persevered, there would be outrage from your neighbours during the mandatory consultation period that council would be required to take into account, as well as their own wishes. You could appeal but the Land and Environment would refuse it – as ‘adding another disturbing element’ to fix a problem only compounds it, in the Court’s view (here). You would need to justify to yourself (and your partner, if you have one) why spending that swathe of the household budget on the fence was justified instead of, say, the eco-friendly studio you’ve had your eye on – because it really is that expensive). You might need to consider how you’re going to maintain it too – the forklift you’re going to now need every few years to repaint it.

Last, you might consider if your fence, whatever the reasons for it, might also do you some self-harm. Is it going to lower your property value, for example. Similarly, we can ask, is this kind of fencing consistent with the evidence on pedestrian safety and comfort? Is it likely to further suppress walking and cycling? Is it going to make the rest of TfNSW’s strategies (Future Transport, Active Transport, Net Zero) more difficult to deliver? And if so (and the answer is Yes), then should we, just perhaps, step back and reconsider, is it really worth it?

So, in a season where we are told there isn’t money for walking or cycling, not for arresting the decline in children walking to school, not for rolling out the strategic and local cycleways, we might ask, where is this funding pot coming from? And why is it being spent on fencing walkers in?

Coming to a suburb near you? 4m high fencing being installed on the Burns Bay Road overbridge.