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?).