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Are ‘veloways’ the future of cycling?

This proposal for a veloway (see exhibit) looks pretty exciting. It’s effectively a freeway for bicycles. By eliminating cars it addresses directly the key deterrent to cycling i.e. safety.

Exhibit: Proposed ‘veloway’ linking Flinders St and Southern Cross stations, Melbourne

This proposal would apparently hang off an existing railway viaduct running about two kilometres between Melbourne’s Flinders Street and Southern Cross stations. It has some similarities with the proposal to re-use Sydney’s abandoned monorail infrastructure for a bike path.

The idea of elevated bicycle paths has been promoted in Toronto and also in London, where there’s a relatively extensive network of raised rail lines in outer suburbs. In fact the idea isn’t new – Horace Dobbins started construction of an elevated (tolled) cycleway from Pasadena to Los Angeles in 1897.

Elevation isn’t strictly necessary – that’s just a way of providing a freeway-like bicycle path (segregated, limited-access) in a location where retro-fitting infrastructure is hard. Elevation offers advantages though.

If the path can be hung off an existing rail line, or erected on columns like a monorail, it’ll have no steep hills, no cars or intersections, and (possibly) no pedestrians with dogs. It’s really just another way of separating cyclists from traffic.

But there are issues. One is the impact on the streetscape. Bicycle paths need to be reasonably wide so in some circumstances they’ll exacerbate the visual impact of existing rail lines and affect the privacy of adjoining uses.

Another concern relates to the value of building large, expensive infrastructure projects which offer limited benefits.

A proposal like that shown in the exhibit would easily run to many millions of dollars. At the very least, a 4-5 metre wide path would have to be cantilevered off the existing viaduct, rails built on both sides, electricity and tram wires avoided, and access ramps somehow threaded through established buildings and streets.

A freestanding veloway would probably cost more, though. The designer of Velo-City estimates it would cost £38 million per kilometre to build his conception of twin elevated enclosed “tubes”. It can be taken as given that’s an under-estimate.

In comparison, the capital cost of constructing segregated bike paths on existing roads would likely be in the region of a hundred thousand dollars per kilometre, because it takes advantage of existing road space. Copenhagen lanes would probably cost more but would still be an order of magnitude less expensive than a veloway.

There’re some locations where expensive infrastructure is required (e.g. to cross a river or freeway), but the most pressing need for cycling is a dense network of closely-spaced, safe routes. Constructing a hundred kilometres or more of segregated on-road bicycle paths for the same money would do much more to promote cycling than 2 km of veloway.

In regard to the specific proposal in the exhibit, I really can’t see why at-grade alternatives using road space or the river’s edge wouldn’t be a much more cost-effective solution for cyclists travelling between Flinders Street and Southern Cross and points beyond.

Looking at the City of Melbourne’s Bicycle Plan 2012-16, I’m not even sure it’d qualify as a high-demand route. I suspect someone’s grabbed it because it offers the only convenient viaduct in Melbourne’s CBD, rather than because the location demands something more elaborate.

There’s another potential issue too. While I don’t expect one or two smallish glamour projects would be a problem, any demand for a wider network of veloways, or similar, could be problematic. If it were to promote the idea that ‘freeways’ are necessary in order for cycling to be taken seriously as a form of transport, then it would be a backward step.

Cycling will only be viable in the foreseeable future if it creates a dense network of safe cycle routes. The only way that could realistically be achieved is by converting road space to cycling.

In some cases that road space should be appropriated at the expense of vehicles, especially on arterial roads and in the city centre (see what the City of Sydney is doing). But other times it can be shared with cars, requiring initiatives in regulation and education of drivers rather than major infrastructure expenditure (although some traffic management works would help too).

I’m not even sure the idea of freeways, if interpreted too literally, translates that sensibly to cycling. Freeways are a separate system that enables trucks, buses and cars to cover long distances at high speed by limiting access and eliminating intersections.

Cyclists don’t cover such long distances and easy, direct access to main routes is extraordinarily important – limiting access would have a significant negative effect. There are certainly trunk routes that attract a lot of cyclists, especially for commuting, so they require high capacity, but what’s needed is something in the nature of a road dedicated to cycling rather than something as elaborate as a freeway.

Cycling on streets, close to people and activities has got to make more sense in a city than being on a bicycle freeway. We don’t want or need to make the same compromises with cycling as we’ve made with cars.

It’s certainly possible there might be locations – in addition to bridges – where some expensive freeway-like cycling infrastructure is justified. However as a matter of strategy these should be kept to a minimum and only used in limited parts of the network.

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  • 1
    Nik Dow
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Excellent article Alan, you have ticked every box (in my view) correctly.

    Only minor point of disagreement is that the location of the proposed elevated cycle path is not arbitrary, it’s there because the Yarra corridor is currently problematic, with high levels of conflict between bikes and pedestrians along both sides of the river. The City of Melbourne Transport Strategy and now the Bike Plan both call for two east-west routes through the CBD, and with La Trobe St being the first of these (construction starts this financial year), the big question is where can the second safe east west bike route be located. The City’s transport strategy also shows a bike route following the railway line down from Moonee Ponds Crk around the back of Spencer St Railway Station and continuing along the river.

    I agree with you that bikes need to be on roads because journeys start and finish all the way along any route. For that reason Melbourne BUG favours Flinders St as the best location for a safe east west route across the southern edge of the City (see http://www.melbournebug.org/2012/03/flinders-street-spring-to-russell/ for part of this) The veloway concept would only be useful if there are exchanges with all the intersecting routes, viz St Kilda Rd/Swanston St; Queensbridge St/William St and Clarendon/Spencer St. If it met these conditions and if the finance can be justified it would be a highly symbolic project giving a lot of status to bikes as transport, but only if it didn’t suck up the available budget for capital works.

    As we see with the (again) promised bridge over the Yarra to eliminate the Gipps st steps, politicians like to make the grand gesture and cut the ribbon on something significant enough to attract media attention. As you correctly point out though, cycling needs many, many safe routes, too many to afford the glamour treatment. The currently (under-)estimated cost of the veloway would absorb the entire VicRoads budget for bikes for one year – at least, the budget when it existed, currently slashed to zero by the Ballieu Government.

    If we need to spend a very large sum just to avoid taking some roadspace away from cars, then the battle has been lost before it is begun. No level of government (in Victoria) is yet to grasp and affirm that road space reallocated to bikes is efficiency gained in the transport system. Until that idea is accepted progress will continue to be fragmented and hesitant.

  • 2
    IkaInk
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    Good article Alan. Any cycleway that costs upwards of £38 million per kilometre is a serious case of overengineering.

  • 3
    The Pav
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Having spent last night watching Classic Fails on You Tube I’m not convinced that bikes are the way to go.

    It would seem that they are an invitation for self harm (perhaps bikes are inhabited by an evil spirit, just ask Calvin) although it does provide a great deal of amusement watching the crashes.

    I’m guessing that the high volume routes are already so encumbered with road/rail/tram etc that there wouldn’t be any space for a bike track

    Where it would fit would probably be low volume amd thus an unneccessary expense.

    One place where riding to work works is from the south in Perth. Flat, along the river and room for the track. The numbers already using it confirm the viability. In fact at peak hour it’s probably faster than the car.

    My employer has just provided showers, lockers & bike racks to encourage use.

  • 4
    suburbanite
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    There is a need for bicycle freeways, although they don’t need to be in this form. Unlike lazy motorists, cyclists put a lot of energy into getting going, so a clear ride free of intersections, pedestrians, dogs and cars and trucks threatening to run cyclists over is needed, particularly into the city centre. Cars just take up space and block intersections, and bikes which are a much more efficient form of transport near the city shouldn’t have to queue up behind these toxic wastes of space.

    Brake pads also wear out a lot quicker on bikes, so I really resent having to brake unless absolutely necessary. A section of St Georges road is probably the nearest equivalent to a bike freeway I ride on.

  • 5
    Dylan Nicholson
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    I’d certainly be annoyed if all the money allocated to bicycling infrastructure was spent on something like this rather than a general improvement in cycling facilities across all parts of the city where cycling has the potential to attract a significant number of people out of their cars. And suburbanite, yes, it would be wonderful if we could travel right through the city without having to stop, but no form of this transport has this luxury, and it’s not really realistic to expect for bicycles.

  • 6
    Tom the first and best
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    If cycling freeways are to be constructed then having them in cuttings rather than elevated is probably usually better because of the height needed for cyclists to get under something in lower than for buses, trucks, trams and trains and thus there is less of an access steepness issue as well as reducing privacy concerns.

  • 7
    mcphail01
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Pav raised a good point.

    Living in Perth, I use the ‘bicycle freeway’ constructed beside the Kwinana Freeway often. It is beautiful to use and great to not have to stop frequently at lights, for cars, etc. Of course, I have to get on it first, so that involves the usual common road courtesies. I don’t detest stopping – it is just part of being a courteous road user.

    However, I can see the benefit of a ‘bicycle freeway’, particularly if they follow existing freeways from the suburbs as these often take the most direct route, and depending on how much a city went through the barbarism of modernist road planning, often right into the heart.

    Only down side is that it gets a bit windy along the Swan and can make a serious headwind. I also acknowledge that there was ample room to create the bike path next to the freeway, a different case to Melbourne (particularly in the CBD). I also acknowledge this this is a more suburban argument to the urban focus of the article.

  • 8
    The Pav
    Posted September 19, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Dear Suburbanite

    I object to the tag “lazy motorist”

    It just reflects the holier than thou of far too many cyclists.

    If you want to add to the conversation don’t use such lazy appellations

  • 9
    Tom the first and best
    Posted September 19, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    8

    Laziness is the cause of much motoring as people lazily want walk or cycle, not even as far as the nearest PT.

    It is just calling a spade a spade.

    Arrogant and selfish car driving is also the cause of most accidents.

  • 10
    suburbanite
    Posted September 19, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Pav, in comparison to a cyclist, a motorist (it’s seems mostly single occupants cars on the road) wraps themselves up in metal cocoon weighing over a ton – far more than necessary. This contraption takes up a lot of space, restricts their vision, dulls their sense of speed and stinks up the place with exhaust fumes and all they need to do to make it go is to nudge their feet a few millimetres. A cyclist on the other hand is powering their movement with considerably more effort – how else do you describe the difference in effort to get moving? Why is it cyclists who have to defend their legitimacy in the face of such a comparison?

  • 11
    The Pav
    Posted September 21, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Surbanite,

    You do not defend cycling’s legitimacy by using lazy sweeping generalisations

    Motor vehicles have a role and their use is not solely governed by laziness.

    As to single user cars at peak time .sure I would be much happier ( & believe their should be a price incentive) for multiple riders.

    For the record I travel by train or if by car my partner & I share

  • 12
    Tim Churches
    Posted September 26, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Alan, you mention that: “…the capital cost of constructing segregated bike paths on existing roads would likely be in the region of a hundred thousand dollars per kilometre, because it takes advantage of existing road space. Copenhagen lanes would probably cost more but would still be an order of magnitude less expensive than a veloway.”

    Alas, the real-world cost appears to be rather more than that. I was told by some long-time advocates from the Bike North group in Sydney that well-engineered separated bike lanes ought to cost about $1000 per lineal metre. In Sydney, the 42km of the entirely separate shared pedestrian/cycleway along the M7 tollway apparently cost $40 million as part of the entire M7 freeway project (which was the thick part of a billion, I think) – so that was about $1000 per metre. About 4.5 km of separated shared path along Epping Rd in north-west Sydney apparent had a marginal cost of about $7 million in the context of the Epping Rd/Lane Cove tunnel project (eye-wateringly expensive, and tunnel is unprofitable too for the private-sector operators). A 300 metre extension path off the Epping Rd cycleway, to service an industrial park – really just just a slightly wider-than-normal footpath, cost $320,000 a few years ago. But apparently the Clover Moore Sydney CBD separated cycle lanes (Copenhagen-style, albeit bi-directional on just one side of the street, which makes for very awkward intersections) on King and Kent streets have apparently cost north of $5000 per lineal metre. No, they aren’t paved with gold. (In fact, they are painted with a special green paint which becomes exquisitely slippery when wet, leading to a very exciting ride indeed on rainy days, with almost guaranteed thrills and spills.)

  • 13
    Alan Davies
    Posted September 26, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Tim Churches #12:

    That sounds quite believable, the cost of infrastructure in Australia at present is mind-boggling. In the absence of any other source, I relied on this BNV estimate but I can readily believe it’s overly-optimistic.

  • 14
    Tim Churches
    Posted September 27, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Yes, if we are to ever have a comprehensive, connected set of segregated bike lanes, then civil and road engineers will have to learn how to build them more cheaply. Hey, engineering guys, in order to convert a perfectly good tarmacadam motor vehicle lane into bike lanes, it is NOT necessary to completely rip up the road bed down to bedrock and rebuild it so that it can carry semi-trailers for a millennium without ever needing repairs. Just adding a thin and low concrete barrier on top of the existing road surface, or even just a row of those plastic lane divider poles will suffice, especially on CBD streets. And save the budget for properly engineered intersections, because all the research shows that most of the accidents on bike lanes occur at intersections. And feel free to take some long study tours to the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany to learn how to design bicycle infrastructure properly.

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