Principal Shared Path network – current; at 2031 and at 2050 (source: Cycling network plan

Back in May I argued it’s time our cities got Cycle Superhighways:

Imagine a major network of high standard cycling routes in Australia’s cities; something akin to the trunk role of the urban railway system. London’s started building them and it’s time Australian cities borrowed from its experience and built their own networks of Cycle Superhighways.

I finished with the hope that someone would be motivated enough to draw up a “fantasy cycle superhighway” map for one or more Australian cities, perhaps starting with Melbourne and Canberra.

As it happens, the WA Government was already working on something similar. Last week it released its Cycling network plan (part of the wider Perth transport plan at five million people and beyond) to deliver on it’s commitment to provide “a safe, connected active transport network of primarily off-road cycleways and walkways”

The key idea is a four level hierarchy of cycling routes. The top level is an approximate 5km x 5km grid of Principal Shared Paths (PSPs) providing fast, direct commuting cycling routes analogous to “freeways”:

PSPs will continue to form the backbone of Perth’s cycling network. Considered as “freeways for bikes” these routes serve high order, interregional movement purposes. They should be of high standard, with minimal horizontal or vertical curvature. In terms of their built form, PSPs should ideally be of at least 3.5m in width and grade separated at all intersecting roads/railways. Wherever possible, separation should be provided between pedestrians and cyclists.

The PSP network is envisaged to expand from 172 km at present to 357 km by 2031 and 850 km by 205o i.e. an overall increase of almost 300%.

Complementing the PSPs is a grid of Strategic Routes at approximate 2.5 km x 2.5 km centres analogous to “arterial roads”:

Sitting below the PSPs in the route hierarchy are Strategic Routes. The aim of these routes is to provide links between Perth’s various strategic, secondary, district and specialised activity centres, as well as train stations. Strategic Routes should be considered as “arterial roads for bikes” allowing safe and direct access to, from and through activity centres. In terms of their built form, it is critical that strategic routes are attractive to all cyclists regardless of their age, confidence or experience level. They can consist of shared paths of PSP standard, separated bi-directional bike lanes or Bike boulevards. Unprotected bike lanes or sealed shoulders are considered inadequate for strategic routes.

There are also two other categories in the cycling route hierarchy. These are Local Routes and Recreational Shared Paths. The former are claimed to be analagous to collector roads; perhaps, but they’re similar to existing local cycling routes everywhere i.e. painted cycle lanes, sharrows, signs. The Recreational Shared Paths are described as analagous to tourist roads – they’re shared trails typical of those along watercourses in many cities.

Bike Boulevards – similar to London’s Quietways – are a crucial component of Strategic Routes and Local Routes. These are suburban streets retrofitted with traffic management treatments to create a safer environment for cyclists by encouraging lower traffic volumes and traffic speeds. They are essential in pre-1965 suburbs where the scope to build separated cycling facilities on narrow main roads is limited.

I’m not familiar enough with contemporary Perth to pass judgement on the choice of routes in the Plan. Nor can I assess whether the claimed 172 km of existing PSP-standard routes is a fair call.

I’m not impressed though with some aspects of the Plan. One issue is the languid implementation timetable; the network isn’t proposed for completion until 2050 i.e. 34 years away. Another is there’s no sense of how construction would be prioritised and of course such a long time-frame precludes any government commitment to funding. ThePlan also fails to indicate how it would impact other road users or how the benefits compare to the costs.

I’m aware that providing cycling infrastructure presents challenges, especially given the emphasis on costly grade separations and bridges over waterways; this is likely to require funding upwards of half a billion dollars. As with any long-term plan there’s not much that can be done about nailing-down funding, but the timetable should be much shorter, especially in the inner suburbs.

Despite the absence of supporting analysis, we can be very confident the Cycling network plan would be remarkably low-cost relative to the high-cost road and rail projects envisaged in the Perth transport plan and relative to the number of trips it can be expected to generate. We can also be confident the ratio of benefits to costs is consequently likely to be high.

It would be easy dismiss a long-term “visionary” plan like this as a marketing exercise that’s mostly about providing easy political runs for the Barnett Government i.e. it’s all promise and little, if any, immediate pain. Doubless there’s considerable truth in that accusation, but the Cycling network plan is nevertheless important for a number of reasons.

It’s a formal, government-endorsed vision testifying to the importance of cycling as a means of transport (i.e. utility cycling). Like a strategic land use plan, it provides a draft framework to guide community discussion and ultimately investment decisions.

As I noted here, an aspirational vision like this is likely to be useful for cycling advocacy too; settling on a draft network of high quality cycling infrastructure should crystallise the ambitions of cycling promotion and provide a tangible way of measuring the progress – or lack thereof – of governments.

Perth’s Cycling network plan is a valuable and important exercise that governments elsewhere should emulate as soon as possible.