Just part of the huge crowd at the politican-free opening of the Darebin-Yarra shared trail on Sunday

I went to the opening of the final stage of the Darebin-Yarra shared trail in Melbourne yesterday. It’s only 1.7 km, but with five bridges and high fencing to insulate it from the contiguous golf course and school, it cost a cool $18 million to construct.

This is infrastructure worthy of the title “missing link”. It finally provides a direct bicycle and walking connection between the northern suburbs trail system and the Yarra Trail south of the Yarra river. It’s a huge step forward, but sadly there’s still no direct access from east Alphington; that’s still “in planning” (see Should walking and cycling trails be like freeways?).

The opening was notable for attracting a huge crowd, mainly cyclists. What was really extraordinary though was the absence of any politicians on the podium! It was formally opened by an officer from VicRoads (the agency that built it on behalf of the state government) and a representative of the local community group that’s been pushing for the link for over ten years.

For many locals like me, the opening of the path is a mixed blessing. Along with many others, I’ve been walking my dogs on parts of it for twelve months, dodging fences around construction works but not having to cope with any mechanised travellers. But now I’ll have to share it with cyclists, some of whom will inevitably pedal at high speed and most of whom won’t bother with a bell. At least I’ll also cycle on it too, but there are many who want to walk on shared paths but don’t cycle.

Conflict between cyclists and pedestrians on shared paths is a perennial hot issue so it’s worth revisiting my previous discussion of this topic. As I noted then, it 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 (see here and here).

Even though I live close to the wealth of shared paths along the Yarra river, 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 if it’s only every tenth or even twentieth cyclist on average who goes too fast for the comfort of walkers, that’s more than enough to require pedestrians to be constantly on their guard. 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. Most people never learned to be wary of faster vehicles on off-road walking tracks.

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 trails less or not at all. The main downside for cyclists is festering resentment from the large proportion of the population that walks more than it rides. 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. I don’t think we’ll get far in this case by appeals to better behaviour or by more (effectively symbolic) regulation.

I agree with Infrastructure Victoria’s recommendation in its 30-year strategy (rec 10.3.2):

An accelerated rollout beyond current funding commitments should include…improving standards for existing walking and cycling networks, in particular the separation of walking and cycling paths and also from other road users

New projects like the Darebin-Yarra link should be designed for separation from the outset and existing trails – many of which require extensive upgrading anyway – should be re-engineered to minimise conflicts. It will cost more and there are various technical challenges, but that needs to be assessed relative to the 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 should keep it that way.