Nov 15, 2012

How come we don’t already have safe cycling networks?

It’s extraordinary that the inner suburbs of our major cities don’t already have comprehensive networks of safe low-cost cycling routes where cycists have priority over cars

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

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.


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31 thoughts on “How come we don’t already have safe cycling networks?

  1. twm

    Moreland & Yarra have already created a safer environment for cyclists with traffic light priority, 40kph & sharrows, eg Scotchmer st Nth Fitzroy. In practice motorists, in my experience, give way to cyclists in this environment. Important is the cultural change in attitude that this road treatement engenders. A marked difference when compared with my area of Stonnington where on narrow streets, built for horse & cart, motorists threaten to drive over cyclists. The next step is the extention of this system through the smaller streets. Sharrows & 30/40kph painted icons are an extremely low cost option. However VicRoads Southern, distinct from Northern VicRoads, doesn’t allow use of sharrows. Seems I’m in agreement with Alexander Sheko on sense of safety that exists in Northern suburbs.

  2. John_Proctor

    sorry if this is noted in the comments above but most of hte routes shown there ARE existing high provision cycle routes.

    I have ridden on (from left to right) Napier Street, Rathdowne Street and Princes Park Drive and you couldn’t ask for much better infrastructure on streets that are quiet, generally have low vehicle volumes (although Rathdowne south of Princes Street/Alexandra Parade is quite busy! and Canning is a viable alternative for this section). Further east (left) is Wellington Street, and the Nicholson/Lennox route in Abbotsford/Richmond (which has locations where bikes can travel in 2 directions and cars in only 1 direction through North Richmond) and the main Yarra Trail.

    In the case of Napier Street in particular have multiple street closures to further minimise through traffic. Often these routes are supported by good east west local roads to get up to Smith/Brusnwick/Lygon Streets as required such as Gipps Street, Stanley Street.

    These are already busy cyclists streets with more than enough space for cyclists and cyclists on them to ensure area aware of and treat cyclists with appropriate care and consideration.

  3. Dylan Nicholson

    hk, the lack of a dedicated cycle path through Southbank (we are talking Melbourne here right?) is ridiculous…there’s basically no safe east-west bicycle route across the city at all currently, but to not have one near the river is a massive missing link between the Yarra path on the east and the Docklands path in the west. There’s plenty of room for such a path, but it would be a significant job to move stuff around for it.

  4. hk

    There is a strong view amongst many elderly people and others with mobility limitations from prams and wheel chairs that in the space shared with cycle traffic; cycling speed limits should be enforced. This is the existing condition on Southbank.
    Who are the administrators that prevent the introduction of safer environments from the posting of cycle speed limits in mixed mode NMT zones?

  5. IkaInk

    You’re confusing where the onus of proof lies with guilt. In the case of car-car rear end the person colliding with the car in front is presumed the guilty party. However there are times when a driver could successfully demonstrate that despite running into the back of a car, they’re not at fault; if say a car changed lanes without checking blind spots and cut them off. The same principal applies in vulnerable road user laws. Drivers are presumed to be the guilty party in an accident with a cyclist or pedestrian, but there is opportunity to demonstrate this isn’t the case.

  6. Dylan Nicholson

    So if a car rams into the back of a stopped bus, it’s the bus driver’s fault?
    I’d agree that in the case of side collisions where both vehicles are moving (or parts of the vehicle – such as a door!), the fault should lie with the larger vehicle, as they have more responsibility to avoid causing harm etc. etc. But I suspect that’s a pretty small percentage of collisions.

  7. IkaInk

    @Dylan – the idea simply puts the onus of proof on whoever isn’t the vulnerable user in the given situation. That differs from a traditional crash where the onus is shared by both people involved in an accident. So if you can’t prove that you weren’t responsible for the accident and a cyclist gets injured by your car, then you’re presumed the guilty party.

    I also think the same sort of logic should apply to all vehicle-vehicle/vehicle pedestrian encounters. Cyclists that hit pedestrians should suffer the same onus of proof burden as drivers that hit cyclists.

  8. Dylan Nicholson

    Even as a cyclist I find that a bit hard to understand…surely it depends on which part of which vehicle hit which part of the other! If I ram my bike into the back of a car in front of me, it’s surely my fault, just as it would be if I was in a car.

  9. Alan Davies

    Jamie #22:

    The most frequently suggested one is to follow the example of some European countries where it’s presumed the driver is at fault in the event of a motorist/cyclist collision.

  10. Jamie

    What are the “various ways the law could be
    improved to support the intention of making cycling
    more attractive for both local trips and commuting”?

  11. Dylan Nicholson

    Alan (D!), absolutely – although I was riding home tonight along Queensberry St as it crossed Elizabeth St, and I was somewhat surprised at the number of quite casual looking cyclists braving the latter with absolutely no segreration at all. Odd because generally the areas north-east of the city are quite well provided for as far as bike lane markings go.

  12. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #19:

    In some situations, the 30kmh shared local streets will be an alternative to those busy arterials. Where they’re not, segregation is the only solution likely to attract the average punter to cycle in large numbers.

  13. Dylan Nicholson

    Alan, I do agree that we need more 30 and 40k/h speed limits, but I will say as a cyclist it’s rarely the roads where traffic is moving smoothly at 60 or 70 that I worry about – it’s the congested roads where the average traffic speed is actually considerably lower than the speed I can maintain on a bike – with cars stopping suddenly, turning unexpectedly, pulling out of and into parking spaces, drivers flinging open doors, pedestrians (and other bicyclists!) ducking and weaving between stopped or slow moving cars etc. etc.

  14. Last name First name

    Parker Alan • OAM
    What about Planning babble in about safe bicycle network planning, or safe bicycle infrastructure. Indeed Australia is 20 years behind Dutch bicycle practice that considers low speed limits as crucial element for the safety on non motorized road user.

    Look at Vicroads Principal Bicycle network with its 50 Km/Hr speed limit of 8,000 KMs of residential streets which in the Netherlands is 30 Km/hr. Also the 60 to 100 km/hr on Victorias main roads with unsafe bikelanes which would have amax are a maximum of 50 km/hr

  15. Dylan Nicholson

    I’d suggest Richmond could probably reduce its traffic problems somewhat if it put some decent bike lanes in (even it’s more because of pushing cars to take CityLink than encouraging people out of their cars and into PT/bicycles).
    I’ve never understood why all three major east-west routes through Richmond have such bad traffic, and not just in peak hour/peak direction.

  16. SBH

    I don’t know who put them in but there are now bike traffic specific control lights at three points on Brunswick street and at the top of Gisbourne Street. they go green a couple of seconds before the main green and let you place yourself in front of the traffic. I love em.

    But one problem at a time. First bicycle priority streets then changes to intersections then driver education. Overall I think the direction is right but the pace is quite slow.

    And thanks Alan for the edit

  17. IkaInk

    @SBH – Certainly no municipality has fixed as much as they should have. Intersections especially, in fact the Johnston Street traffic lights are the only ones I’m aware of across the city. They are however, quite an improvement and that sort system I would like to see included in guidelines for bicycle dedicated cycle routes.

    @Dylan – I’ve ridden a little around Richmond and I agree its still got a long way to go. I guess like many municipalities CoY is just as guilty of picking the low hanging fruit first. Both the streets I’ve outlined made obvious choices because they were pretty simple. Richmond however always seems to have a lot more traffic. There are pockets of smart moves though, bi-directional bike lanes on one way streets example (can’t remember where that is).

  18. Dylan Nicholson

    City of Yarra? How often have you tried riding through Richmond? Even the one attempt at any sort of east-west thoroughfare (Elizabeth St/Albert St) is far from a continuous safe route into the city, and as a result it’s barely used compared to the equivalent route on the west of the city (which is mostly through completely non-residential areas!).

  19. SBH

    IkaInk, the problem seems to remain at intersections though. Wellington street, which is favoured as a bicycle route has a high number of collisions, anecdotally caused by cars turning at the intersections.

    My good self made a passable superman impression when a turning car stopped my bike but not me.

    It seems that just improving bike movement through the street, without doing something about cars entering and leaving the street, is only a part way fix. In fact (in a reprise of an oft used anti-MHL argument (and by brakeless fixie dopes in support of their risk taking)) the confidence given to cyclists by clear marking and priority in the street for bikes, may lead to overconfidence.

  20. IkaInk

    There are some municipalities that are putting in decent amounts of effort and producing decent results, however unfortunately without decent metropolitan guidelines methods for implementation and efforts to get anything done differ greatly between different councils and rarely is there much continuity between different municipalities.

    I believe City of Yarra has done fairly well and I’d like to see some of their approaches adopted at a wider level.

    Napier Street in Fitzroy provides a good example of how a quiet residential street can be prioritised for bicyles without giving up much road space to cars. There are bike and pedestrian links through parks the park parallel to Alexander Parade that combined with the crossing allows access all the way to Queens Parade. There are traffic light priority measures installed at Johnston Street allowing bikes to get a head start at the lights and there is a pedestrian and bicycle permeable road block stopping cars from doing rat runs further south. A few more improvements, such as more traffic light priority set up at the southern end of the street would allow the Napier street to feed right into Victoria Parade which could easily have a segregated bike path installed.

    Miller Street also in Fitzroy simply uses small speed humps with segregated cycle cut throughs either side allowing continuous bi-directional bike travel whilst slowing cars down and forcing them to give way to each other.

    I think the most important step in creating a decent and cohesive safe cycling network using mainly quiet streets needs to be some kind of metropolitan wide or even state wide guidelines that can help create some continuity between municipalities. Until that happens expect a schizophrenic approach to bike infrastructure across the city.

  21. Burke John

    MHL of course. But also its both political and cultural obstructions. Wherever urban cycling infrastructure in Europe and select American cities it wasn’t as if the Mayor said “We shall subjugate motorists to cycling interests” and everybody let out a hearty hurrah. This includes Amsterdam.
    Political leadership is required and vested interests (we could include all private motorists in this category) will cry bloody murder. This includes retailers, who it seems if they were up to a little research eventually benefit (Portland Oregan eg).
    Clover Moore in Sydney might have some sympathy with this viewpoint.
    The problem is certainly heightened in Australia with the entrenched nature of “car is king” syndrome in this country of which from a dispassionate perspective must seem almost religious.
    I believe that is why Australia is a little behind other advanced economies in the implementation of cycling initiatives. Getting rid of those stupid helmets as a legal imperative might get up a little more critical mass of support though, in the end it will take a brave politician. Australia’s political climate for the past few years is hardly conducive to actual leadership guided by thought and conviction of that thought but more by, as we all know is guided by polling. In that climate when it is car versus cycle, cycling initiatives of any scale are dead in the water.

  22. suburbanite

    One small but significant improvement has been made recently on the heavily used bike path that runs along the old inner circle railway line in North Carlton. Where the path crosses Amess st bikes have been given right of way.

    It seems amazing that small streets like this are still given right of way over what is a main cycling route. There are two small streets between St Georges Rd and Nicholson St that still give right of way to cars even though they are just minor side streets.

    Giving right of way to bikes probably did cost quite a bit, but nothing compared to the waste of money spent on the bridge to nowhere, “Koonda Lat Bridge”. It’s high time bike infrastructure responded to the needs of commuters rather than nice ideas that are expedient rather than useful.

  23. SBH

    oh – and helmets

  24. SBH

    This article reminds me of a piece about water distribution in Haiti. However the positives were spun, the Haitian infrastructure was simply inadequate.

    In Melbourne we have all sorts of rationales advanced as to why our infrastructure doesn’t meet our needs but the fact is that it just doesn’t but it can and should. We don’t need to prove that we are more or growing. It is entirely reasonable for people to expect a modern city caters for the range of modern activities that go on.

    I took my little girl for a ride on the weekend and once we were on a path things were fine. Getting to the path with a child doing her incompetent best was worrying. It should not be like this.

  25. Alexander Sheko

    As a regular cyclist and someone would would love to see more being done to encourage more cycling for all the benefits that it brings, I don’t really feel that something as dramatic as cycleways where cyclists would be able to ride in the middle of the road would be necessary. If anything, it might just encourage intransigence in the anti-cycling mob and fuel the tired “cyclists should pay rego” argument.

    I personally find the streets of Brunswick, Carlton, Parkville and other areas close to me very cyclist-friendly. If anything, we should have (1) more bike lanes marked out in green (rather than just the lane line and the occasional bike symbol), as I feel this definitely promotes the understanding for cyclists and motorists that that part of the road “belongs” to cyclists, (2) wider bike lanes, especially on busy roads or those perceived to be dangerous and (3) bike priority lights such as at several intersections in Fitzroy, which promote bike visibility and safety.

    Definitely think that a network is something to be developed, though. Major trip generators (shopping centres/strips, universities, transit interchanges, etc.) could be identified as major points on a network with direct straight-line routes between these points identified for priority upgrade and signage to indicate these are recommended routes.

  26. Dylan Nicholson

    I do have to say, while it might be true that there’s significant room for improvement in the northern suburbs, it’s the inner eastern suburbs and even the CBD itself that really suffer from lack of a decent bicycle network. The main roads are all too dangerous for anyone other than a truly determined cyclist, and the backstreets are all over the place. I’m not sure there’s any solution that doesn’t involve taking away some amount of road or footpath space. But given the number of people that live in the area and that are likely to be prepared to consider using bicycles, I would still think it quite justifiable. I think it will happen, but just painfully slowly over the next 20 years or so.

  27. melburnite

    Yes Ive been wondering why we dont have better cycle paths too – I had thought maybe that it was just that in the past a painted line adjacent to parked cars was seen as enough, but with more cyclists they’re simply not adequate anymore. Dont understand why they are not at least more clearly marked, eg. a complete line of green, instead of only intersections.

    Bike highways on non0main streets seems perfectly sensible, and certainly Drummonc Street and Napier Street are well used in my area, but even they arnt overly highlighted. City of Melb seems to think its capenhagen or nothing, but lanes in the centre of streets eg. adjacent to the median instead of the line of parked cars in Drummond Street would make more sense.

    Be interesting to know how its done in similar cities eg. Toronto or New York – I hear they have lots of bike lanes no, but dont know what they are like – just looked them up – they have many painted line paths next to parked cars, but wherever the road is wide (a parkway) or its next to a park, it is separated copenhagen style or actually in the park – not so many of those. They also have the advantage of a tight grid, where all roads the same width, but not the same traffic load, whereas we have a more or less mile square grid of main roads, subdivided by not necessarily lined up minor roads.

    Interestingly, Bike Network Vic uses an image of painted strip bike lane in Boston as part of their ‘good design guide’, and references to many other US cities as good examples.

    Hmmm the Chicago guide is all about bike lanes next to parked cars – pretty much exactly what we’ve got – and trawling the Bicycle Network Vic site gets lots of large maps right across Melbourne, with off-road and on-road routes, cant see a policy for off main road on-road links – also links to Vicroads maps with existing ? routes of PT and bicycle priority, some on main roads, some not (looking at Darebin anyway).

    So I guess the answer to your question Alan is that no official organisation promotes off-main road links as a preference.

  28. Cyclesnail

    @SBH: MHL is not the root of all evil …. but it does stand as pointer how cycling is viewed in Australia

  29. pedals

    Alan, as someone who is a utility cyclist and has an interest in development of that mode, I am a regular reader of your blog. I’ve almost begun to worry that you’ll ease off the cycling related topics given the typical MHL takeovers. Please don’t be deterred.

    As for this topic. Democracy is a slow mechanism for action. Eventually these ideas should become a vote winner. But motorists outnumber too greatly. Australia seems to have a belligerent attitude towards support of the transport status quo.

    As for the proposal. One detail I wonder about is that back streets are great when your safely gliding along, but what happens at all the crossings of major roads? Then you’re on your own…..

  30. Cyclesnail

    Perhaps people who object to lower speed roads and cycling priority roads should consider that rentals and property values increase in such roads, based on the USA and Europe, and depending on sources and localities the increase is between 4% and 18%.

    We like to have those roads, we want to live in them, but as soon as we get into our car we want to be able to drive as fast as possible…….

  31. SBH

    Alan – you know the reason. MHL!

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