Yarra Boulevard, Kew. The shoulder isn’t actually a bicycle lane, but motorists assume it is. The central median is an over-engineered waste of space and should be redeployed to expand room for cycling

The Victorian Government can rightly point to a strong record on public transport, but it’s achievements in cycling are meagre. It squibbed on the “metre matters” overtaking law and it botched delivery of the Darebin-Yarra “missing link”, arguably the most important cycling infrastructure initiative in the city for a decade (see Should walking and cycling trails be like freeways?).

With the 2018 election approaching, Premier Daniel Andrews might want to get serious about doing something. He should start with designing a comprehensive metropolitan cycling network (see Shouldn’t all cities have a cycle superhighway plan?). But in the short term he’d still need something concrete to go with the strategic vision.

Fortunately for Mr Andrews, there’s an option that’s low cost; could be started before the election; and clearly signals his government hasn’t forgotten about cycling. He could announce that, subject to a satisfactory business case, Yarra Boulevard at Kew will be upgraded to give cyclists higher priority relative to motorised vehicles.

Yarra Boulevard (famous for the phantom tacker) is already very popular with cyclists. Some use if for training; some use it as a more direct commuting route than the Yarra Trail; and many use it for recreational riding. But it’s far from ideal. Although it doesn’t have heavy traffic – it’s not a major artery – there are enough cars and motorcycles to create a hazard for those on bicycles.

The 50 kmh limit means vehicles are faster, especially up hills, and drivers get impatient with slow riders. The painted line on the shoulder gives motorists the false impression there’s a bicycle lane. Some expect cyclists to ride single file within the presumed lane and get upset with those who don’t use it, leading sometimes to close passes and angry horn blasts.

But it’s not a bicycle lane; it’s just the shoulder of the road. It wouldn’t in any event be suitable because the surface is too rough; it collects too much gravel from run-off; and it’s too narrow for cyclists to overtake without moving into the traffic lane. Motorists can all do the same speed, but the speed of cyclists varies with factors like fitness and age; cyclists must have the space to overtake frequently.

Here’s a number of steps – more or less in priority order – to turn Yarra Boulevard into a key cycling asset for Melbourne:

  1. Designate and promote it as a ‘Bicycle Boulevard’ where cyclists and vehicles share road space, with priority given to the more vulnerable mode
  2. Apply a 40 kmh speed limit for registerable vehicles i.e. cars, motor bikes
  3. Remove the white line on the shoulder. It gives motorists the false impression there’s a bike lane. There isn’t and there shouldn’t be
  4. Remove the 2 x double lines in the middle of the road. That would create extra shared road space and stop some motorists feeling obliged to make close overtakes of cyclists
  5. Eliminate all daytime on-street parking
  6. Remove the existing section of Copenhagen lane. It’s too narrow for fast two-way traffic; it’s way too short; and it signals that bicycles and cars can’t share space.

The key change would be symbolic. At present, motorists ‘own’ Yarra Boulevard and ‘suffer’ the presence of cyclists. The proposed changes send a message that cyclists are the natural ‘owners’ and motorists must behave as their ‘guests’. How the changes are communicated/marketed would be extremely important.

These are modest changes. Closing the road entirely to traffic would be better but it would also be harder. While it’s not a key part of the traffic network, Yarra Boulevard nevertheless provides an alternative route from Kew to Richmond via Studley Park Rd; vehicular access to Studley Park Boathouse and to Bell Bird Park; and access to a handful of houses.

Eliminating daytime on-street parking would probably be the most politically difficult step. Over the last five years or so, commuters have taken to parking on Yarra Boulevard near the Studley Park Rd overpass; in the vicinity of the northern entrance to the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre; and close to the Gipps St footbridge. There are three or four houses who could argue Yarra Boulevard is their prime street frontage. There might be a case for providing some additional off-street visitor parking for residents and recreational users.

Those six steps would greatly improve Yarra Boulevard for cyclists. There are further highly desirable steps that I’ve left to last as they’d be more expensive and might add a layer of political difficulty:

  1. Close access to Yarra Boulevard from secondary roads i.e. southern entrance to Royal Talbot, Wiltshire Drive, Yarravale Rd, Yarra Rd.
  2. Construct traffic management works on roads that enter Yarra Boulevard to signal to motorists the changed conditions i.e. Chandler Highway, Walmer St, northern entrance to Royal Talbot, Molesworth St, ramp off Studley Park Road.
  3. Make traffic one-way on the eastern side of Yarra Boulevard (excepting the short section between Studley Park Rd and Boathouse Rd) and give over the rest of the road to cycling. This would leave space for parking on the eastern shoulder where warranted, while providing cyclists with approx 1.5 traffic lanes on the western side.

Making Yarra Boulevard a Bicycle Boulevard (or some other suitable name) would be good for Melbourne cyclists. It would also have an iconic role in creating a sense of Melbourne as a bicycle friendly city for both residents and tourists. There are downsides as there are with any change, but this is not a main road. Daniel Andrews should get cracking.