Sydney Rd, Brunswick (source: Make Sydney Rd safer)

According to media reports, it appears Italian visitor Alberto Paulon collided with a car door while cycling on Sydney Rd in Brunswick on Friday and was propelled under the wheels of an overtaking truck (Channel nine posted a disturbing video).

There was plenty of anger on social media following the incident and calls for the motorist allegedly responsible for the dooring to be severely punished (including doing “gaol time”).

Yesterday the government announced it’s convening an emergency meeting of relevant agencies in response to Mr Paulon’s death. Greens leader, Greg Barber, called for a campaign to raise awareness of the risks associated with dooring.

A citizens’ group, Make Sydney Rd Safer, is circulating a petition demanding the government remove car parking from a section of Sydney road between Weston and Barkly streets. The group is organising a ride this Friday in honour of Mr Paulon.

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Dooring is a traffic offence in Victoria but that doesn’t stop it happening; there are around 110 reported cases every year in the state and no doubt many more undocumented incidents and near misses.

There aren’t many deaths from dooring but well publicised incidents like this one deter prospective cyclists from taking to the roads. It reinforces the more general perception that cycling on roads is very dangerous.

I think an awareness campaign is worth doing, but it’s only the beginning of a solution. Motorists don’t door riders on purpose. The problem is they’ve lived most of their lives in a culture where there’s little cycling.

They’ve not learned to reflexively and instinctively look out for bikes before opening the door. It’s not second nature so they do it without thinking; even a motorist who cycles might have a momentary lapse.

What’s most needed now is decisive action by government to physically keep cyclists out of the door zone. It’s a problem that applies to the entire length of Sydney Rd and to other inner city arterials like Chapel St.

That will necessarily involve some difficult trade-offs. These are arterial roads and many have tram lines. They’re also mostly busy commercial strips reliant in part on the provision of adequate parking.

They can’t accommodate moving vehicles, parked vehicles, trams, cyclists, and pedestrians with both efficiency and safety. Something will inevitably have to give.

Elimination of on-road parking in all or some sections seems the obvious candidate and in some cases it will be. It’s important though to understand to what extent the viability of traders – and hence the vibrancy of the commercial strip – depends on the availability of on-road parking.

A lot of attention will no doubt focus on prospective physical solutions e.g. segregated bicycle lanes. That will work on many roads but will be much harder to implement on roads with trams. It will also take time to implement.

In the case of Sydney Rd, some have suggested upgrading the nearby parallel Upfield bicycle trail to provide a safe alternative. That has merit on its own terms, but plenty of riders will continue to use Sydney Rd for local trips and because it’s a more interesting route. (1)

I think this is an opportunity to start thinking about another option; give cyclists the legal and moral right to ride in the middle of a traffic lane rather than keep close to the left hand side. (2)

It wouldn’t be plausible on all roads. I have in mind local roads; dense locations like the CBD; and congested arterials where segregated lanes aren’t a realistic option e.g. narrow inner city roads.

It would give cyclists the confidence to keep out of the door zone and to avoid other potentially dangerous situations such as being shunted to the kerb on small roundabouts and traffic islands. It would signal to motorists that cyclists have the right to occupy the lane.

There would inevitably be some real or perceived delay to motorists; but that could be a price worth paying if it were to give a lot more travellers the confidence to take to the road on two wheels. I reckon it’s worth thinking about.

Yes, some cyclists might be bloody minded and deliberately hold up faster traffic when they don’t need to, but I doubt that would be a widespread problem. These are the sorts of roads that are either already pretty slow or, in the case of local streets, offer the opportunity to overtake relatively soon.

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  1. Someone will probably suggest removing trams because of the nearby parallel Upfield rail line. There’s a risk with these sorts of suggestions of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
  2. There might not be a strict legal impediment to cyclists “taking the lane”, but motorists and most cyclists think there is. If there’s no impediment great; what I’m suggesting is that all parties clearly understand that cyclists have the legal and moral right.