Please, please be nice
New signs on one of Melbourne’s off-road shared trails. Sensible advice when sharing but it’s all advisory

There’s an important idea in Infrastructure Victoria’s draft 30-year strategy released last week that would be easy to overlook. The second dot point in recommendation 10.3.2 states:

Improve standards for existing walking and cycling networks, in particular the separation of walking and cycling paths and also from other road users.

Governments won’t do anything about it, but Infrastructure Victoria recognises and acknowledges there’s a serious conflict between cyclists and pedestrians on shared paths. The presumption that “wheels give way to walkers” isn’t working.

This is a hot issue that often occupies talk-back radio, op-ed columns, and social media. Social commentator Jane Caro famously complained about cyclists on Sydney’s Cooks River cycle path in 2013 (sorry, Fairfax has removed the article, but at least Twitter hasn’t whitewashed history and nor have others). Here’s Dr Ben Rossiter from Victoria Walks with some hard data on the topic of sharing space.

I frequently cycle on the wealth of shared paths along the Yarra river. But even though I live close, I’m reluctant to walk along them because it’s hard to enjoy the experience when you’re constantly on guard for a cyclist suddenly appearing without warning. I want to relax when I’m walking off-road; I don’t want to have to consciously avoid moving sideways because of “traffic” (I make an exception for snakes).

Many riders simply go too fast near pedestrians; it’s not the majority but it’s not a tiny minority either. Even those who cycle at a more moderate pace can be unsettling when they suddenly appear in front of you from around a bend, or surprise you when they soundlessly materialise from behind.

I think cyclists often don’t fully appreciate the sense of subjective safety a pedestrian needs. A cyclist might feel completely in control slaloming gently around walkers at 10 or 15 kph but those on foot don’t always find it comfortable. They don’t know if the rider really understands that a leashed dog extends their effective radius; or that children and dogs can be very unpredictable. Pedestrians sometimes get criticised for being unaware of cyclists but the point of walking off-road is surely to avoid having to think about “traffic” problems.

There’s no point saying “it’s just a selfish minority”. It isn’t; a lot of cyclist don’t even ring their bell, much less slow down to near walking pace. It’s no good saying “we all have to be more considerate”. If that worked, we wouldn’t have the conflict in the first place. And there’s no prospect that rules about proper behaviour will ever be policed on shared paths.

The downside for walkers is a compromised experience and, if they’re really unlucky, the possibility they, their children, or their dog, might get hurt. Some will react by using them less. Cyclists get slowed by pedestrians on shared paths, but the main downside is festering resentment from the large proportion of the population who either don’t cycle at all or only ride occasionally. Anyone who isn’t aware that pedestrian-cyclist conflict is a serious issue for a large section of the population is living in a bubble.

As cycling increases in popularity the old ways aren’t good enough anymore; walkers and cyclists can’t continue being assigned to the same (non-car) basket. It’s necessary to think a lot harder about eliminating conflicts not only between cyclists and motorists, but also cyclists and pedestrians. Like Infrastructure Victoria, I don’t think we’ll get far in this case by appeals to better behaviour or by more (effectively symbolic) regulation.

Separated off-road paths for cyclists and pedestrians are necessary and inevitable in most situations. New paths like this trail currently under construction should be designed for separation from the outset. It will cost more and there are various technical challenges, but that needs to be assessed relative to the enormous potential social benefits from increased cycling and walking. And it’s money well spent to avoid making enemies cycling doesn’t need.

We’ve always given pedestrians their own right-of-way in Australia, even before the advent of cars and trucks; we need to keep it that way.