A personal take on public transport in NewcastleOPINION

DECISIONS: Alex Morris contemplates a car-free life in the city. Picture: Simone De PeakAs the weather warms up, I am back to riding my bike along Throsby Creek.

Somehow, my bell has gone missing, meaning that when I pass peopleI now have to mutter “on your right” which makes me feel like an amateur. Not as much of an amateur as when I ride down Maitland Road for five terrifying minutes, though. People shout, buses almost graze my knees and cars rev their engines as they fly past.

Bike lanes exist along main roads in Newcastle, just not nearly as many as I, and many other cyclists, would like there to be. Once I pass Tighes Hill Cellars and ride onto the bike path, I relax. I actually focus on the nature around me. I don’t care about the chaos of Hunter Street or the traffic at Stewart Avenue –I get a breezy glide-in on well-paved paths with water views.

Riding my bike is often better than the 100 bus, albeit less entertaining. I’ve got room in my heart for both though. The 100 is my staple, but I catch a few different buses. The 130 bus I caught from Mayfield to Port Stephens on Sunday was only $2.50 for the comfortable hour-long trip. I had to plan to catch it in advance, as there aren’t many on Sunday, but it was a relaxing trip directly to where I needed to be.

If a destination requires me to transfer buses, I find an alternative way to get there, or I don’t go. Too much hassle.

When I first rocked up to Newcastle five years agoas a wide-eyed American, I thought it was pretty sweet you could catch a train from Sydney to Newcastle and basically be dropped off at the beach. I found the city very walkable but shied away from buses. The public transport wasn’t as amazing as it was in Melbourne and Washington DC but this was a smaller town and I thought they were doing all right.

Before moving to , I sold my car to a friend and vowed to never own another again. So far I’ve been successful in my quest, but I recognise it would be way harder without the help of countless Ubers, taxis and friends who give me lifts.

Oliver Gaywood is originally from the UKand has lived in Newcastle for two years. He’s 31 years old and currently on his L plates, but he mostly uses public transportation. His wife Shana sometimes gives him lifts in the car they own. Their car is practically a necessity as they have a one-month-old daughter.

“I’m a huge fan of the CBD fare-free zone. It’s a great way to encourage people onto buses and an easy way to open up the city a bit more,” he says.

“Once you get a bit further out from the city, though, the service seems to get a lot worse. Even out in Adamstown the number of buses is far fewer so when one is late or just doesn’t turn up, it makes a bigger difference. It’d be great if there was an App that could show me where buses are in real time, a bit like Uber.”

Not everyone feels so carefree about the car-free lifestyle. Novocastrian Linda Hughes returned to Newcastle in 2001after living in Sydney and London. She reckons she originally left Newcastle because the public transport was terrible.

Hughes has a vision impairment, meaning she can’t drive, and her son is in a wheelchair. She’s glad that most buses in Newcastle are now wheelchair accessible but she thinks the city still has a long way to go.

“After living in those cities, I noticed that their public transportation is easy to access, it’s frequent and it’s cheap,” she says.

“Public transportation here is for people who don’t have enough money to buy a car or are unable to drive, or people with a disability. It’s a last resort,” she says.

Dianne Taylor is in a wheelchairand uses her car to get around. She thinks public transportation in Newcastle is awful for anyone who has mobility problems or is transporting luggage.

“Don’t even try to catch a train to Sydney in a wheelchair unless you like sitting in the vestibule holding onto a pole, freezing in the winter, dying in the heat in the summer, while all other passengers are seated in the air conditioning. Forget catching a train on the weekend as there is always track work,” Taylor says.

“As for Newcastle at the moment, try coming from the Museum pushing a wheelchair up two blocks to cross Hunter Street to get to King Street to catch a bus to the new interchange. Seriously no thought or caring about anyone who has difficulty getting around. Yes, we are working on it, but I’m not holding my breath that it will be mobility-friendly in the end.”

The university provides a free bus for students and staff from New Space to Callaghan Campus. A yearly parking pass on campus is $158.40. Alternatively, you pay $4.50 per day. You’re lucky if you find a public bus that gets you to and from campus for less than $5.

I’d love to rant about the abysmally infrequent bus service to Newcastle airport, too, but I’m already pushing my word count.

It took me a while to warm up to buses. I’d had an early negative experience when a friend and I tried to get a bus from Newcastle to Pulse Climbing in Waratah. We got off at the wrong stop and were left in the midday heat for what felt like hours, searching for another bus stop.

What I don’t like about buses and I didn’t like about trams in Melbourne is that you have to stay aware at all times so you don’t miss your stop. However, most trains I ride not only stop at every location but also have signs everywhere stating the location and announcements telling passengers where they are going.

After two years in NewcastleI was commuting to Sydney once a week for work. Thenthe train line was cut and I hadto find a way to get to Hamilton from town by 6am.I moved from my townhouse on The Hill to student accommodation on Watt Street and finally got used to buses. I realised that they’re actually fine for an inner-city dweller like myself and way better than the ones in DC where the drivers sometimes ignore you when you ask for directions.

In what some dubbed my Saturn Return, I grew up a little and learned that, along with paying my bills, it was on me to figure out how to get where I needed to go. Now I’d like to think I’m like many other Novocastrians who’ve commuted via public transport daily, adapting to changes.

But I’m less optimistic about public transportation in Newcastle now than I used to be. Perhaps the daily extended walk past the walled-off, noisy section of Hunter Street has jaded me, as has missing one to many buses due to them being early. A friend pointed out that public transportation is under-utilised in Newcastle and it only will get better if people use it. I agree, but it’s not always easy to use.

But with the construction happening on Hunter Street, driving in town isn’t easy either.

When I look out my window at the traffic on King Street around 5pm on a weekday, it sure doesn’t feel like breezy beach-town living. I work with the public in town and I hear it all, fromexasperated rants of carpark hunts to nostalgic reminisces about how great the train line used to be.

As we try to adapt while waiting for the controversial light rail, it’s hard to know if the changes we’re currently experiencing will lead to progress or more chaos. So while we wait, I recommend everyone take a ferry ride. We can’t predict the future but we can find ways to enjoy ourselves in the present.

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