Melbourne left trailing in cycling revolution

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Being one of the most liveable cities in the world is, quite justifiably, a point of pride for Melburnians. Relative to most cities, Melbourne’s healthcare, cultural and culinary vibrancy, education and environment stand above the pack.

But Melbourne also has its shortcomings. One is evident when you compare the many billions of dollars being splashed out on expanding the city’s road network with the paltry tens of millions being spent on extending its cycling network. And it shows.

A cyclist rides along a narrow bike lane in Collins Street, Melbourne.Credit: Joe Armao

As visiting professor Marco te Brommelstroet, a leading expert on urban mobility at the University of Amsterdam, described this week, cycling in Melbourne is only for “high-skill risk-seekers”.

In his view, “the 99 per cent of people who would like to bike but are too concerned and not willing to face those risks – they have no options”. That is backed up by state government surveys that show about 60 per cent of Victorians are interested in cycling as a form of transport but do not partake because of safety concerns.

The Andrews government kicked off work on a “strategic cycling corridor” network in 2015 intending to link suburbs, the CBD and major activity centres. In recent years, most local councils have also developed and implemented their own programs to promote cycling. Melbourne City Council approved its 10-year transport plan just months before the pandemic struck. It envisaged freeing up space for pedestrians and cyclists by reducing city through-traffic, adding bike lanes and encouraging public transport.

The result of all these efforts, to put it kindly, has been a mixed bag.

Separate bicycle lanes were rolled out across Melbourne during the pandemic, but they have been dogged by complaints of poor design, botched implementation and a lack of consultation. VicRoads ripped up 40 kilometres of new lanes in the City of Port Phillip this year.

The City of Melbourne paused its CBD bike lane rollout last year, with Lord Mayor Sally Capp admitting the council had not communicated the changes well enough.

This week, Merri-bek council voted to remove a section of bike lanes in Pascoe Vale after residents complained they were causing safety issues.

What is sorely missing is a broader strategy that puts a compelling case for change. Cars produce about 13 per cent of Victoria’s carbon emissions. While the gradual influx of electric vehicles will play a role in reducing that, it is a long-term play. A more immediate and effective means would be to get people to leave their cars at home.

As part of its climate change policies, the state government has pledged to increase cycling and walking as a share of transport from 18 per cent of all trips to 25 per cent by 2030. That is a modest ambition.

Some major cities are taking a far more aggressive approach.

To stem the flow of cars, London has introduced a congestion tax, with drivers being charged a £15 ($26) daily fee to enter the city between 7am and 6pm on weekdays and from 12pm to 6pm at weekends. More ambitiously, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has overseen an extensive network of new bike lanes, banned old diesel cars, made the Seine riverbanks car free, reduced parking spaces and cut the speed limit to 30km/h to make the city “100 per cent cyclable”.

Hidalgo has courted her share of criticism – earlier this year Parisians voted overwhelmingly to ban electric scooters, which were being ridden at dangerous speeds in the bike lanes – but anyone who has visited the city in recent times will witness a remarkable transformation. A million people are now pedalling daily in the city, while only a trickle of cars enters the city centre.

Some argue that Melbourne is no Paris. It’s true – Melbourne’s sprawling suburbs and heavy reliance on freeways is not ideal for promoting cycling. But that is not the greatest impediment. To turn Melbourne into a cycling city would require every one of us to rethink how we live our lives. Reaching for your bike helmet instead of your car keys each time you go to work, shop or visit friends would require a dramatic change of mindset.

To meet that challenge, the state government has a “cycling strategy”, which has consulted widely and says all the right things about encouraging people to leave their cars at home. For good reason. It estimates that by 2050, Melbourne’s transport network will need to cater for about 24 million trips a day, nearly double the number taken today.

The Andrews government’s most compelling political narrative has been its “big build”. For Labor, building new hospitals, schools, tunnels and roads, and removing railway crossings is the answer to Melbourne’s growing pains. And they certainly are part of the solution.

But for Melbourne to play its part in reducing carbon emissions, to manage its growing population and to ensure it maintains its liveability status, the state government needs to lead the way in reassessing and reimagining how we use the infrastructure that already exists. To continue allowing cars to monopolise our roads will only guarantee future congestion at even greater levels.

Making Melbourne a cycling city is a big idea, not a big build. Surely, its time has come.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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