BikeSpot
Crowd-sourced nominations for the ‘safest’ (green) and ‘unsafest’ (orange) locations for riding in Melbourne as perceived by cyclists

Crowdspot and The Squeaky Wheel ran a project earlier this year inviting cyclists to identify those locations in Melbourne they regard as the safest and unsafest for riding (see first exhibit).

They compared the nominated sites with VicRoads statistics on reported cycling crashes at the same places (see second exhibit). The idea was to see how respondents’ perceptions of safety compare with objectively-measured reality. The key output is maps of ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ locations.

The ‘top 10’ most hazardous and perilous spots in the opinion of cyclists include Southbank Promenade, Haymarket roundabout, Swanston St (two), St Kilda Rd (two), Chapel St, Sydney Rd, and Elizabeth St.

Cyclists think the safest spots, on the other hand, are on-road bike paths providing a degree of protection from traffic, like Canning St and Wellington St; and off-road shared paths like the Moonee Ponds Creek trail and the Yarra Trail pontoons.

What’s especially interesting here is that the locations cyclists say feel the most unsafe are also the ones that are most popular. According to Adam Carey in The Age yesterday:

There was little love for Melbourne’s busiest shared paths, such as Swanston Street and Southbank promenade, with cyclists reporting feeling tense and in constant fear of colliding with pedestrians.

So give them rolled gold infrastructure like Swanston St – where cars have effectively been removed – and cyclists still feel threatened? This is an important finding but it’s in no way surprising. I expressed my misgiving about cyclists and pedestrians sharing space in general, and Swanston St and Southbank Promenade in particular, more than four years ago; my recollection is the late Dr Paul Mees had similar reservations about the Swanston St design (see Can cyclists and pedestrians share public space?).

Mixing up cycling and pedestrians in very busy public places is not generally a good idea. I suspect it comes in large measure from two mistaken ideas held by many planners. One is that cycling is a slow, discursive mode of transport where the journey matters much more than the destination. The other is that cyclists and pedestrians are essentially the same because they rely on muscle power; so they can be filed in the same drawer and assigned to the same public space. (1)

But that’s not the reality of cycling in Australia, either at present, in the past, or within the forseeable future. Most cycling on roads during the week is done for distinctly utilitarian purposes like getting to work or education. Even recreational riding on roads is usually highly purposeful; it’s done for fitness.

Peak-hour in Amsterdam is the same; cycling is a means of getting places, not an end in itself. Cyclists want routes that are fast and don’t come with an elevated risk they’ll end up crashing into a pedestrian. Walking is different; it’s a lot slower and it permits sharp changes of direction that are hard for cyclists to anticipate.

Swanston St needs a redesign, with more segregation between the different users. Perhaps it would help if the bike path were in a contrasting colour that clearly reads to pedestrians as belonging to bicycles. Perhaps some form of barrier is worth considering; maybe there’s even a case for readmitting some traffic into Swanston St (at very slow speeds) in order to bring more focus to the minds of pedestrians boarding trams.

The Age also highlights the finding that the “most loathed locations” actually tend to have the fewest crashes recorded by VicRoads.

Southbank promenade, for example, had just one reported bike crash between 2013 and 2015. The promenade, an unruly mix of commuter cyclists and pedestrians, including tourists, has also been identified by the City of Melbourne as a trouble spot, despite its minimal crash history.

Seven of the ten locations perceived as the most unsafe by cyclists are classified by the project authors as “low real risk” after taking account of VicRoads crash records. Only the two ‘Dooring Drives’, Chapel St and Sydney Rd, are categorised as “high real risk”.

It’s important to be careful here and not dismiss cyclists’ concerns because they’re in conflict with “the facts”. A crash has to be reasonably serious to turn up on the VicRoads data base; the police must’ve made a report. But most cycling crashes aren’t reported.

They might well be minor from the perspective of statisticians, but from the point of view of cyclists every one is serious because they usually involve some pain (skinned knuckles, shock) and they’re all potentially catastrophic. The point is all crashes are unpleasant and cyclists want to avoid them. (2)

Taking account of riders’ perceptions of subjective safety – which stem from their greater vulnerability to injury than is the case for either motorists or pedestrians – is vital because it determines whether or not they use infrastructure. That in turn ultimately bears on whether or not the social benefits of cycling are fully realised.

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  1. At it’s purplest, this is the Amelie view of cycling; Australian city centres populated by pretty couples on Parisian uprights carrying baguettes and bottles of Perrier in wicker bike baskets. They stop every few metres to chat with couples promenading in the city square.
  2. For a motorist, a bingle is a few dents fixed up by insurance. The cyclist’s version of a bingle is something like lost skin and an ache or two, plus maybe a broken deraillieur.
Locations of cycling crashes reported to VicRoads
Locations of cycling crashes reported to VicRoads