Apr 5, 2017

Is a cycling “freeway” the way to go?

The schematic proposal for a veloway the Andrews government says it's going to build as part of the Western Distributor looks good but there's room for improvement

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

The Victorian government says it will build this 2.5 km veloway as part of the new Western Distributor

The Victorian government announced on the weekend it will build “over 14km of new and upgraded cycling and walking paths” in Melbourne’s west as part of the new Western Distributor motorway it’s funding in conjunction with Transurban:

For the first time, cyclists and pedestrians will be separated from cars and trucks for the entire journey from Werribee to the CBD.

That’s brilliant. Most interest, though, centred on the 2.5 km elevated veloway the government plans to build over Footscray Road from the Maribyrnong River to Moonee Ponds Creek. It will hang underneath the elevated Western Distributor and give cyclists a dedicated facility separate from vehicles and pedestrians. The Age reports Roads Minister Luke Donnellan told the media:

[It’s very much] a freeway for people riding their bikes each day in and out of the city.

Call me cynical, but I suspect a key motivation for this project is to mitigate criticism of the Western Distributor. The Napthine government did the same when it promoted cycling infrastructure associated with its controversial proposal for the East West Link.

Be that as it may, there’s a lot to like about the veloway. It will improve safety, reduce travelling time, and appears to provide protection from rain. It will also provide a strong symbol of the importance of cycling as a means of moving Melburnians; it might help build pressure for construction of a real Cycle Superhighway network.

We don’t have much detail yet, but based on what we know there appear to be some issues with the current design. It looks like access will be by stairs rather than bike-friendly ramps; there’s apparently no disabled access (recumbent bikes?); and it’s possible uninvited pedestrians might cause a problem. The render shows no lighting but that’s presumably an oversight caused by haste.

The key issue, though, is it’s just too damn narrow for comfort or safety. That’s true of most cycling infrastructure unfortunately, but bicycles aren’t cars; they need lanes wide enough for faster riders to overtake frequently and for others to cycle side-by-side. There’s no run-off area here; there needs to be room for inexperienced cyclists to wobble, and room for everyone else to avoid them. There’s a lot of potential for serious crashes. There’ll inevitably be many riders going at “freeway” speeds in both directions. A novel facility like this with its elevated views of the port will attract recreational riders on weekends with cyclists of all skill levels, including children.

The west is a key growth area for Melbourne, both on the fringe and via higher densities in inner and middle ring suburbs, so there needs to be capacity for growth. Footscray Rd already gets a lot of cycle traffic; it’s bound to increase significantly as population grows. The semi-enclosed walls will emphasise the sense of narrowness; it needs to be wider.

There are a couple of bigger issues too. One is whether or not a veloway is the best way to spend scarce funds on cycling. Unfortunately, the government hasn’t even provided us with an estimate of the cost, much less projected benefits. That might be because that’s the way governments are; or more likely it’s because all it’s got is a quick render churned out to meet current political objectives!

It’s likely to cost a lot, notwithstanding it’ll piggy-back on construction of the road. A 1.7 km elevated bicycle “freeway” proposed to be hung off the railway viaduct between Melbourne’s Princes Bridge and Southern Cross station was estimated in 2012 (by the proponents) to cost $25 million (see Would a veloway be smart way to advance cycling?). Perhaps funding of this scale would do more to improve and promote cycling if it were applied to a range of smaller projects. My sense is it probably would, but I doubt the funds would otherwise be available for cycling. This is a case of a bird in the hand.

The other issue is whether or not a glamorous project like the veloway would establish the idea that cycling mostly requires new and costly dedicated infrastructure that above all else doesn’t impose on road space. That outcome would be disastrous. The dense network of safe routes necessary to attract serious numbers of new riders will only get built if a lot of road space is converted for cycling use, some of it for fully segregated at-grade paths but most of it for shared space where bicycles have priority over vehicles e.g. “Quietways” or “Greenways”.

In this instance I think the idea of an elevated bicycle “freeway” probably works because of the special circumstances of this location. There’s nothing much happening at ground level; there are lots of heavy vehicles that are particularly dangerous for cyclists; and it’s already a busy trunk route due to its proximity to the CBD. But the government should’ve worked out first if it’s the highest priority and if it’s a cost-effective solution.

Given it’s made the decision, what the government needs to do now is design it right – in consultation with prospective users and those likely to be affected – and show it’s part of a strategic metropolitan-wide bicycle superhighway network (see Shouldn’t all cities have a cycle superhighway plan?).

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17 thoughts on “Is a cycling “freeway” the way to go?

  1. Alan Davies

    More detail has emerged on the veloway. Bicycle Network it’ll be 4 metres wide and have a ramp at the western end.

  2. Richard Scott

    I have to wonder about ambulance access too.

  3. Rob


    Here is the walking/cycling fact sheet from the WD website which details the veloway (Item 9 in the document). The eastern end is at Footscray Road adjacent to Moonee Ponds Creek trail end, and the western end is at Shepherd Bridge over the Maribyrnong River, with two emergency exits along the route. No mention of steps anywhere.

    The veloway bypasses five intersections/road crossings:
    – Pearl River Road (Costco)
    – Appleton Dock Road
    – The ‘U’ turn on-ramp to Footscray Road
    – Dock Link Road
    – Sims Street on/off ramps

    Whilst none of these crossings are particularly pleasant, they are relatively minor flows and so wait times are not that long IME.

    Far more welcome in my view in this proposal is the cycle bridge (Item 11 in the document) over Footscray Road connecting the shared path on the south side of Footscray Road with the Moonee Ponds Creek trail to the north (both part of the Capital City Trail), bypassing two of the most irritating intersections on this route either side of Costco, both of which frequently result in long wait times for cyclists. However, the most irritating intersection (due to agonisingly long red lights resulting in huge queues of bikes in the peaks) further east/south on Footscray Road at Docklands Drive/Dudley Street looks set to remain. I’d gladly swap the veloway for a grade separation here!

  4. Richard Senyard

    pedestrians won’t be ‘uninvited guests’ – it is to be built for cyclists and pedestrians to share

    1. Alan Davies

      You sure about that ? It doesn’t gel with the Minister’s assertion that “[It’s very much] a freeway for people riding their bikes each day in and out of the city.” But if you’re right, then it needs to be wider again, with room for cyclists and pedestrians to be separated.

  5. Flynn

    Aside from the fact that the whole project is bizarre…I used to cycle-commute to the city in the warmer months along the Footscray road bike path, it’s a very busy one. However, it was still faster, cheaper and more comfortable than being subjected to the train and tram.

    I agree with you Alan, the veloway would be too narrow. It needs to be at least 1.5 to 2 car lanes wide to make up for how enclosed it is. I reckon it’d be much cheaper (and better) to separate the current bike path from traffic as well as widening it – there is so much room in that corridor to build on. The only problem spots were 3 intersections on a pretty low-traffic boulevard and maybe the flyover over the freight rail line if you don’t enjoy flogging it over hills.

    I’m definitely gonna head to one of the public consultations to give them some advice.

  6. Adrian

    For several years I commuted from the City to the suburbs each day, and back each evening. Yes, that’s against the predominant flow. It was nerve wracking on many of the existing “bicycle facilities” due to their width and the frequent encounters with head-on high-speed groups. At least on a ground level path I had the option of swerving off the path out of the way – an option that I frequently had to use. This narrow raised tunnel with hard walls looks to be designed to cause head-on collisions.
    As for access, have you ever tried to negotiate a set of stairs on “a bicycle facility” with a bike that has a kid seat, a toddler in that seat and another young child beside you on a child’s bike? Or while towing a tag-along, or a trailer? Or with panniers of shopping? Or on a tandem? The “cycling freeway”, strategically painted green of course, appears to be a poorly thought out distraction that will only serve to take money away from useful, needed, bicycle infrastructure.

  7. meltdblog

    There is an existing suspended bicycle route under the suspended Citylink section between Glenferrie Rd and Yarra Boulevard. Its unlit, bumpy, and far too narrow to use comfortably at normal bicycle speeds. The media images surrounding this new development are encouraging but rarely match anything thats delivered.

    I’d argue that any transport infrastructure spending should be inclusive of pedestrian and cyclists facilities, rather than placing them as an additional cost which suggests it as some sort of option. Including cycling facilities as part of this transport project is not spending cycling money that could be spent elsewhere, its including all transport users as part of the total cost.

    For an example of how to do it wrong, the east link toll road is a good example of token pedestrian and cyclist facilities that fail to provide any transport options, just some recreational components to tick boxes of delivering something.

    1. Saugoof

      I have a love/hate relationship with that bike path. It’s great that it’s out of the rain, completely separated from car traffic and builds a vital connection in and out of the city. But it really is far too narrow, especially given the speed at which some people ride through it and the amount of traffic it gets. Combined with the odd pedestrian and jogger, I’m surprised it doesn’t get more accidents.

  8. Aldous

    I also wonder whether infrastructure like this contributes to the idea that cyclists don’t belong on roads

  9. Ben Howard

    Good to see a balanced appraisal of a serious bit of new cycling infrastructure. The carping response to this from many cycling lobbyists, who’ve been crying out for new facilities, is disappointing and counterproductive.

    1. jules

      But perfect is the enemy of good. There is always a better option somewhere. If you wait for it, you will never make progress. Witness the scatter-gun approach to road building, the utter waste of public funds, and the baying for even more. That doesn’t justify misdirected attempts to build cycling infrastructure, but you can’t help but feel it’s a sign of positive momentum building.

  10. jules

    I always get the sense that cycling infrastructure is provided begrudgingly. There always seems to be some obvious and resolvable flaws in new cycling infrastructure that makes me wonder if the providers aren’t thinking “OK, you got your special cycling path, but you won’t have it all your own way”. It’s as if they are scared to appear as cyclists’ champions.

  11. Jonathan

    The other issue is pollution. Cycling above 6 lanes of truck traffic in an enclosed area raises the serious possibility of unsafe diesel fume inhalation. It’s not clear if this has been considered in the design.

    Looking at the pictures on the WD website it seems there is one off and one on ramp – no stairs required. The city ramp is <1km to a new cyling bridge over Footscray Road. It would make sense to continue the veloway to alleviate the need to go down and then up again but because this area is not within the elevated roadway it is unlikely to happen.

    1. Alan Davies

      I couldn’t find anything on the Western Distributor site that refers to the veloway, much less ramps for cyclists. The report in The Age specifically mentions “escape hatches and stairs”.

      1. James Adams

        I read that as “escape hatches” and “escape stairs”. If you look at the ‘West Gate Tunnel Project – Design Overview’ PDF on the website, you can see a green ramp leading to the veloway from Shepherd’s Bridge in the image under point 11 (second river crossing). And then there’s the major bridge across Footscray Road on the other side.

        1. Alan Davies

          That image at point 11 (titled Second River Crossing) isn’t much bigger than a postage stamp! I can discern a (green) shared path in the image that’s below the level of the bridge but it doesn’t look like it’s ramping up to me. The large map that all those points and images are meant to illustrate is more relevant. It doesn’t show a path that matches up with the illustrated one; in fact it has the veloway starting on the other side of the river (red dots). I note that all the images are qualified “Artist impressions only – does not include detailed design”.

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