Princes Bridge - showing exising on-road cycle lane and footpath cycle lane

The Herald-Sun is so upset by the City of Melbourne’s plan to replace a traffic lane on Princes Bridge with bicycle lanes, it wrote a damning editorial in yesterday’s issue, Bridge bike lane a blunder.

The paper says it will lead to “car chaos” and “gridlock” and cause “clashes between drivers and cyclists to become even more heated.” It also says cars and cyclists don’t mix well:

While cars can be a lethal weapon when drivers are impatient and frustrated in traffic, cyclists are often to blame by shouting abuse at drivers and banging on car doors.

The RACV doesn’t like it either. A spokesman said removing a traffic lane “appeared to be a cheap option.” He said it would worsen both traffic congestion and safety.

At present, cyclists on Princes Bridge nominally share half the footpath with pedestrians or use a very narrow on-road lane (see exhibit).

The RACV suggests an alternative: footpath space should be reconfigured to provide a clearly separated, dedicated path for cyclists.

Together with the Herald-Sun, the RACV also proposes another possibility: Council should construct a dedicated bicycle crossing over the Yarra beside Princes Bridge.

It could finance construction, they say, by reallocating the $5.6 million budget Council has for improving cycling infrastructure within the municipality.

I think there are a number of points to consider in looking at the arguments advanced by these two organisations.

First, taking space away from the footpath for a dedicated bicycle lane would be a poor choice.

Princes Bridge is a premier location for walking – it’s arguably the most important in the city. It provides a vital civic connection between the Arts Precinct and Botanical Gardens on one side of the river; and Flinders St Station, Federation Square and the rest of the CBD, on the other side.

On Saturday 16 February, 28,528 pedestrians crossed Princes Bridge, peaking at 2,450 between 9pm-10pm. That’s busy! (it was 37,941 the following Saturday, with an hourly peak of 4,595, when White Night Melbourne was on).

Princes Bridge needs all the footpath its got for visitors and residents who walk. People might drive to a destination, but when they get there, they usually want to walk!

Pedestrians should have enough space to linger, meet-up, chat, take photos, and more.

It’s also important from a design perspective that the scale of this key civic “entrance” is maintained. The width of the footpath is a significant part of the composition.

Second, a dedicated bicycle bridge is a bad idea too. It would cost much more than $5.6 million, probably at least $15 million and more likely $25 million plus.

A cheapskate bridge wouldn’t be acceptable in a high-profile location like this. Note that Brisbane’s pedestrian and cyclist river crossing, Kurilpa Bridge, cost $63 million in 2009.

There would also be serious heritage issues in locating it close to Princes Bridge (or worse, hanging it off the side). Providing access points at either end would add to the degree of difficulty and cost.

Council’s estimate for the proposed Princes Bridge bicycle lanes, in contrast, is just $0.15 million. The $5.9 million is in any event required for the many other cycling improvements needed across the municipality.

Third, this is the CBD – it’s a location where the case for driving is very weak and the case for other modes is compelling.

Accessibility to the CBD by public transport is outstanding. Accessibility by car, particularly in the peak, is grossly inferior.

The CBD is also the location where the downsides of the car – pollution, noise, safety, severance – have the biggest negative impact.

They’re amplified by the very high density of activity; by the high levels of pedestrian movement; by the growing importance of the CBD as a consumption centre; and by the reliance of key economic activities like tourism on the centre.

The CBD is, in short, the last place where cars are either necessary or desirable. Apart from taxis and service vehicles, cars should be the first mode in the queue to have to yield street space.

The existing arrangements for cycling across Princes Bridge are untenable for the 1,864 cyclists counted on the bridge between 7am-9am one weekday earlier this month by Bicycle Network Victoria.

The existing painted bicycle lane on the footpath is largely ignored by pedestrians and is a recipe for conflict between mounted cyclists and the much larger number of walkers.

As shown in the exhibit, the on-road lane is ludicrously narrow. It’s a puzzle how the RACV spokesman could see that and yet describe Council’s proposal as presenting “safety” issues.

What Council’s proposing isn’t anti-car. It still leaves three lanes for motorists, not to mention all the other road and parking space in the rest of the CBD available for drivers. There’s still much more public space in the CBD provided for cars than for pedestrians.

Indeed, one worry I have is that Council might be too timid. It hasn’t stated in any detail what it plans to do, but I hope the intention isn’t to provide a two-way bicycle “road” within one traffic lane. That would be a lost opportunity – a well-sized segregated lane on each side of St Kilda Rd is what’s required.

I don’t want to let that passage from the Herald-Sun’s editorial I quoted at the start pass without comment. I find it extraordinary that the writer has effectively equated “lethal weapon” with “shouting abuse at drivers”, as if use of the former would be a proportionate response to the latter.