Proposed bicycle network, Brunswick, Melbourne

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 “bicycle roads” 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 they’re usually just a sign or a marked lane that often shares space with parked cars or their doors.

What’s 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 they’d 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.

I’ve 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 there’s 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 there’s no doubt about who has priority – however it’s achieved, it must be clear cyclists have right of way.

The relative merits of this particular proposal aren’t the point. There’s 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 isn’t an existing network of safe cycling roads – i.e. where priority is unambiguously given to cycling – anywhere in Melbourne or, I suspect, in the other State capitals. It’s 2012, cycling’s been on the up and up for at least a decade, yet we don’t 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, they’re mostly in or very close to the city centre, and they’re relatively short.

What we don’t have is a safe and comprehensive network covering a large area.  The word ‘network’, after all, implies the ability to get from anywhere to anywhere.

Brunswick is in the City of Moreland, which is also known as the People’s Republic of Moreland. It has “a reputation as a bastion of hearty, old-fashioned, left-wing attitudes.”  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. They’re not without value, but what they don’t provide is the sense of subjective safety that comes from having priority use of a road.

The situation’s 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 hasn’t 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 that’s 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 – 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 wouldn’t be that hard (it’s not up there with putting a price on carbon!). It could’ve and should’ve been done in inner suburban areas before now.