Darebin-Yarra Link – expected to be completed in 2017

Victoria’s Andrews Government hasn’t done much to expand cycling infrastructure since it was elected in 2014, so it must be looking forward to the expected completion later this year of the $18 million 1.7-kilometre “missing link” between the Darebin Creek and Yarra trails.

It’s been a long time coming but the Darebin-Yarra Link will be a great asset for pedestrians and cyclists. As Roads Minister Luke Donellan said, “it will safely connect northern suburbs residents to over 600 kilometres of cycling trails across Melbourne”. It’ll give those who live south of the Yarra River better access to the northern trail network too (see “drone view” of route”).

At the local level, residents should finally get a traffic-free way of getting between north and south Alphington (where the primary school is located) without having to cross busy Heidelberg Rd or the rail line. They should get a safe connection to Kew High, the cluster of private schools in Ivanhoe, and the Ivanhoe shopping centre.

Likewise, families on the eastern side of Darebin creek – and mine’s one of them – should finally get a safe connection to the schools and other community services in Alphington. The redevelopment of the Alphington paper mill site will make this connection more valuable.

But “should” isn’t the same as “will”. Astonishingly, there’s no direct access to the new Darebin-Yarra Link for the residents who live closest to it. It’s hard to credit, but the Darebin-Yarra Link is essentially a freeway with limited access; you get on at one end and get off at the other, nothing in between.

Residents of south Alphington – on the western side of the trail – will instead have to back-track to Ivanhoe via Heidelberg Rd in order to get on to the Link. The proposed route is the long way around and so will inevitably put off some walkers and riders. Absurdly, as soon as they’re on the trail they’ll immediately cross the first of the new trail bridges and be returned to their original side of the creek. But the trail will be fenced to separate it from Alphington Grammar and Latrobe Golf Club; they’ll be prevented from getting direct access to their homes!

But the bigger problem is it requires pedestrians and cyclists to use the four-lane bridge over Darebin Creek on Heidelberg Rd. This bridge is not suitable for casual adult cyclists, much less children. Traffic moves fast here because it’s open and because the approaches in both directions are descents. There are no emergency lanes or parking lanes.

The Government presumably knows it’s unsafe and intends to declare the footpaths as shared paths, but they’re exceptionally narrow relative to the volume and speed of traffic. They don’t feel safe for walking, much less for children cycling. There would be very few parents who’d let their children cycle on the footpath even with supervision. I’ve walked this footpath many times; it’s too narrow for cyclists to pass. Trucks and buses are very intimidating for pedestrians. It should’ve been fixed decades ago.

The original plan for the Darebin-Yarra Link provided for the screaming obvious; it envisaged south Alphington residents would get access via Farm Rd (see exhibit). This connection was lost in the protracted negotiations with Latrobe Golf Club over use of the club’s land for the Link. It would only involve building around 40 metres of path from the end of Farm Rd to the main trail, but the club would want it fenced (like the main trail) to prevent public access to its property. But unlocking gates would make it too inconvenient for club members to get to the practice fairway north of the clubhouse.

The main alternative is improving the crossing of Darebin Creek on Heidelberg Rd. This would most likely require a new walking and cycling path on the southern side of the existing road bridge. It could be a free-standing structure or it could be hung off the side of the bridge; either way it would be a multi-million-dollar project.

It might be OK to limit access to a motorway, but the Darebin-Yarra Link isn’t intended for motorised vehicles. It’s accessed by human power, on foot or on bicycle. Providing local access is a key reason why we build shared trails in the first place; it’s fundamental to the idea.

The Government has declared the Darebin-Yarra Link under the Major Transport Projects Facilitation Act. It could be more forthright in insisting on a connection at Farm Rd. The necessity for this short connection to be fenced on both sides is doubtful given public access to the Club’s grounds is possible at present. But politicians are more inclined to spend our money than to take on a political fight that might end badly for them. It’ll be easier to do nothing or promise a bridge that could easily take at least 10 years to be realised.

Update 29 April 2017: The Sunday Age published a story on this issue tonight, Great wall of Alphington: $18 million for new bike path that won’t let locals in.