How come we don’t already have safe cycling networks?
Itâs extraordinary that the inner suburbs of our major cities donât already have comprehensive networks of safe low-cost cycling routes where cycists have priority over cars
A reader recently sent me this proposal for a bicycle network (see exhibit) in inner suburban Brunswick, Melbourne, and neighbouring suburbs.
His idea is to create a low-cost network of âbicycle roadsâ using streets with relatively low through-traffic volumes wherever possible. Of course “low traffic” is a relative concept in a busy suburb like Brunswick.
Most municipalities, including the City of Moreland which is responsible for Brunswick, already have networks of marked bicycle routes that largely use local roads. But theyâre usually just a sign or a marked lane that often shares space with parked cars or their doors.
Whatâs different about this proposal is the designer proposes cyclists would have unambiguous priority over drivers. Motorists would be obliged to give way to cyclists, who could occupy the centre of the road where theyâd be most visible and at lowest risk.
Signage and traffic lights at a couple of problematic intersections would be required, he says. Overall, it should only cost a few hundred thousand dollars to set up. For a couple of million, he reckons, it could be extended further across the northern suburbs.
Iâve seen various proposals along these lines, sometimes called Green Streets, Greenways, or something similar. Some envisage a mandatory 30 km/hr speed limit; others insist selected streets must be closed to prevent rat-running; and some think the law must be changed so thereâs no doubt who has precedence.
While some essential but busy roads might require segregated lanes, by and large bicycle networks in the suburbs can be designed around the use of local streets that carry less traffic. The key requirement is that thereâs no doubt about who has priority â however itâs achieved, it must be clear cyclists have right of way.
The relative merits of this particular proposal arenât the point. Thereâs plenty of scope for debate and discussion about the best way a network should be designed and implemented in a particular region. Similarly, there are various ways the law could be improved to support the intention of making cycling more attractive for both local trips and commuting.
What I find extraordinary, though, is that there isnât an existing network of safe cycling roads â i.e. where priority is unambiguously given to cycling â anywhere in Melbourne or, I suspect, in the other State capitals. Itâs 2012, cyclingâs been on the up and up for at least a decade, yet we donât have a network worthy of the name.
There are recreational paths along waterways, some segregated on-road paths, and even a few roads like Canning Street in inner city Carlton that start to approach the idea of bicycle roads. But these are few and far between, theyâre mostly in or very close to the city centre, and theyâre relatively short.
What we donât have is a safe and comprehensive network covering a large area. Â The word ânetworkâ, after all, implies the ability to get from anywhere to anywhere.
Brunswick is in the City of Moreland, which is also known as the Peopleâs Republic of Moreland. It has âa reputation as a bastion of hearty, old-fashioned, left-wing attitudes.â Â At the 2011 Census 11% of Brunswick commuters cycled to work, way above the Melbourne average of 1.5%.
Yet despite lots of flag-waving about the virtues of cycling, Council’s efforts in support of creating a safe cycling network mostly come down to signs, painted lines and maps. Theyâre not without value, but what they donât provide is the sense of subjective safety that comes from having priority use of a road.
The situationâs much the same in the neighbouring municipality of Darebin, even though just over 8% of employed residents already cycle to work. Council wants to improve public health by imposing a higher rate on fast food outlets, yet hasnât created an effective network for cycling.
Not that I want to imply creating such a network would be a ride in the park. The support of state government would be required and thatâs often easier said than done.
The reality is many residents would object to changes, whether real or perceived, that added even ten seconds to their drive home. Costs would inevitably be higher than is usually assumed â costings for cycling infrastructure proposals are as prone to optimism bias as any other projects.
And yet the cost of a decent, safe network for cycling would be relatively modest in the context of the overall transport task. Nor is this the sort of proposal that makes anyone significantly worse off, no matter what some might think – it doesn’t take road space or parking away from cars.
While there would be difficulties, it wouldnât be that hard (itâs not up there with putting a price on carbon!). It couldâve and shouldâve been done in inner suburban areas before now.