Proposed elevated veloway between Flinders St Station and Southern Cross Station

The Herald Sun reported on Monday a consortium is seeking $480,000 to do a feasibility study of a 1.7 km elevated bicycle “freeway” from Melbourne’s Princes Bridge to Southern Cross station.

Referred to as Melbourne Veloway by the promoters, it would be for the exclusive use of cyclists and would “keep cars and bikes separate”. The plan is to hang it off the existing rail viaduct at an estimated cost of $25 million.

The Herald Sun quotes one of the proponents, Mike Potter, on the rationale for the proposal:

The current thinking which seems to begin and end with bike lanes and painting lines on roads is demonstrably not good enough. As a congested city we have to make life easier for motorists, taxis, delivery drivers and cyclists.

This isn’t an “out there” idea. There are existing elevated bicycle structures in places like the Netherlands, although they tend to be short. For example, there’s Copenhagen’s Cykelslangen and Eindhoven’s Hovenring.

There are some ambitious plans too. For example, architect Sir Norman Foster is proposing a 220 km network of cycleways above railway lines in London. The idea’s been touted in Toronto and was advocated as an alternative use for Sydney’s 3.6 km of monorail tracks (now demolished).

In fact it’s not a new idea for Melbourne either. I assessed the pros and cons of the consortium’s proposal two years ago (Are ‘veloways’ the future of cycling?). That’s worth revisiting, as I pointed out then that there are a number of issues to consider in relation to this proposal.

It’s certainly plausible that it would provide a safe east-west route in the south of the CBD and help reduce cyclist-pedestrian conflicts along the river bank. It would be a high profile way of drawing attention to cycling and encouraging further use; a leisure attraction in its own right; and probably help boost tourism.

A key issue though is that this project will require the public to fund it. Even if the $25 million estimate is accurate (unlikely), it’s many times greater than the cost of constructing a segregated bike path on existing roads like Flinders St.

There’re some locations in any city 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 1.7 km of Veloway.

The main counter argument is likely to be that on-road paths take away road space from vehicles and exacerbate congestion. What that view misses is this is the CBD; high levels of car use simply aren’t necessary or desirable.

The CBD is the hub of the urban rail and tram networks; it has excellent accessibility by public transport. It’s the densest location by far in the metropolitan area with a big premium for amenity and very high levels of pedestrian traffic; high levels of car use are no more appropriate here than they would be inside a suburban shopping mall.

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, some of them segregated from traffic, some shared. The only way that can realistically be achieved is by converting road space to cycling.

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

But if the idea were to take hold that cycling largely requires an entirely new and relatively expensive infrastructure that doesn’t impose on road space, then the outlook for cycling as a viable mode of transport would be very dim.

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 at this stage in Australian cities is something in the nature of a road lane (or two) dedicated to cycling rather than something as elaborate as a restricted access “freeway”.

Off-road paths through parks and along waterways have an important place, but 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.

As I’ve pointed out many times before, bicycles aren’t trains; they don’t need to be confined to a limited number of set routes.

Nevertheless, as cities where cycling has a high mode share have found, there are certainly locations – in addition to bridges – where some expensive freeway-like cycling infrastructure is justified.

But these are usually choke points (like Eindhoven’s Hovenring) that arose as a consequence of very large numbers of cyclists. That high level of demand is generated by the extensive network of safe on-road cycling routes that cities like Melbourne still lack.

At this stage, the priority for funding in Australian cities should go to lower cost at-grade solutions. That applies especially in the CBD, where the objective should be to reduce car use, not accommodate it.