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Gearing Up for the Future

Tuesday, 29 April, 2014

Photography by Alice Fane

We Melburnians dwell in what was once a humble village. Perched on the edge of the world, we are protected from the violence and overpopulation that plagues many cities beyond our shores. And the world has noticed. In 2013 we won, for the third year in a row, the much-vaunted accolade of world’s most liveable city.

But when one digs a little deeper, the picture left of our metropolis gives less cause for celebration. We are growing at over 1000 people a week. We have had no major expansion of our rail network in what feels like a century. Our metropolitan area covers 8,000 square kilometres, larger than Tokyo, New York and Delhi combined. With the combination of a backyard-obsessed population and a road-addicted political culture, we are left with an expansive and unmanageable system that creates chaos at peak-hour.

And in the face of a looming social, environmental, and economic struggle, the Victorian government in 2012 made the decision to cut all funding to bicycle transport programs. Only months after, the $8 billion East-West Link was announced.

The future development of liveable and prosperous cities will be reliant on the prioritization of pedestrian, public and bike transport. Building freeways to solve congestion is akin to loosening one’s belt to solve obesity. It doesn’t. The fat must be shed.

The Copenhagenize Index is a biannual ranking of the world’s top cyclist-friendly cities. The 2013 ranking lists cities like Rio

The benefits of bicycle transport both to individuals and communities are well documented, but given our battle to accept the bike, they warrant redressing.

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Economically speaking, spending on bike projects is a lucrative investment in productivity. A 2009 study found a benefit-cost ratio for cycling projects to be five-to-one. That is, for every dollar spent on bicycle infrastructure or programs, society accrues five dollars’ worth of benefits. Road projects often struggle to hit one- to-one, and by way of example, the East-West tunnel has a benefit-cost ratio of 0.7. That equates to a net loss. This is perhaps because freeways cost 100 times more to construct than off-road bike paths.

In many cases, bikes are actually faster than cars. 50 per cent of trips in urban Melbourne are less than 5kms, and under this threshold, cycling is usually a faster option than driving. For trips of between 5-10kms, the difference is negligible. A 2010 study found that average car speeds in the inner Melbourne morning peak were just 22.2km/h, compared to an average cycling speed of 20km/h, equating to a 1 minute difference for a 10km trip.

Single occupant vehicles on roads occupy 20 times more space than cyclists, meaning that transitioning to a bike-centered society could massively reduce the congestion that will cost the nation $6 billion a year by 2020. Furthermore, evidence from bike-centered cities overseas has shown that bike riding in segregated lanes to be significantly safer than driving, meaning we could cut into the $27 billion annual cost of road accidents in this country.

Catherine Deveny perhaps says it best: ‘It’s faster than walking, safer than driving, cheaper than public transport and it’s the closest thing to flying’.

And cities around the world have caught on to the fact.

Last year, London’s mayor Boris Johnson announced a 900 million pound policy to revolutionise cycling in the British capital. The plan involves a 15 mile bike highway through the middle of London, an expansive network of back-road ‘quietways’ for timid cyclists to gain confidence, and the creation of three suburban ‘mini-Hollands’ where concentrated infrastructural spending aims to completely transform car-dependent communities into Dutch-style bike-centered ones. London’s boroughs are now aggressively competing to be one of the chosen three areas for transformation.

More radical still was the January announcement of plans to construct SkyCycle, a network of elevated bike-paths across the metropolis, involving ten entirely car-free routes stretching a cumulative 220kms. Accessed by 200 entrance points, SkyCycle could transport 12,000 cyclists per hour, away from the danger of cars, and cut half an hour off journey times. Most significantly, the network would be suspended on beams above existing railway lines, meaning no new land would have to be acquired to construct it.

Meanwhile, on the world’s busiest cycling road, Copenhagen’s Norrebrogade, used by 38,000 cyclists daily, the council has instituted a fast lane, and a special ‘conversation lane’ allowing casual cyclists to chat and ride at leisurely pace. The strategy sees positive social interactions and increased cycling patronage as mutually reinforcing. It’s a far cry from Hoddle St road rage.

Additionally, Dutch planners have proposed the notion of a cyclist friendly ‘bio-mall’ where shoppers circulate on bikes. In the same way that the automobile encouraged the growth of the Chadstone-style malls, the idea is to reconfigure urban spaces that encourage bike access which would in turn encourage a more bike-friendly environment.

So what are the possibilities for Melbourne?

A SkyCycle Melbourne could be built over our radial rail network to construct bike-exclusive routes into the city from all directions. A SkyCycle network could enable trips from Footscray, Northcote or Hawthorn into the city in 10 minutes, without risking life and limb on the roads, with no traffic lights, no carbon emissions and no need for touching on or off.

The creation of ‘mini-Hollands’ in inner city areas, in suburban hubs like Dandenong, and in new developments on the city fringe, could shift the structure of our city away from its unexamined assumption that private car ownership is a desirable and indeed inevitable prospect.

The construction of a safe and continuous network of dedicated bike lanes along major arterials, but also the provision of quietways through the backstreets may encourage entry-level options for less confident cyclists. One study shows that only 8 per cent of Melbourne’s population feels confident to ride on the roads, whereas 59 per cent of people are ‘interested but concerned’. This massive potential cycling demographic must be accommodated. Quietways might be the way.

Furthermore, Melbourne is on the verge of developing massive swathes of prime inner city land into major new mixed-use developments.

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Fishermans Bend/Grant Wyeth

The Fisherman’s Bend redevelopment is set to house around 80,000 residents by 2050 in a high-density area of 240 hectares just south of the CBD. The E-Gate redevelopment is a 20-hectare site over the West Melbourne rail yards earmarked for redevelopment into a mixed-use development for 10,000 residents by 2030. Both of these large scale urban renewal projects give the City of Melbourne and the state government a clean slate to design people-centered urban spaces by prioritizing bike transport. Who knows, in the same way today’s suburbanites drive to Docklands to hit up Costco, by 2050, we may see Melbournians flock to Fisherman’s Bend to shop in the bike-friendly bio-malls.

In 2014, the liveability of the world’s darling city lies at a crossroads. We can either pursue expensive and inefficient road options or invest in cheap, lucrative bicycle transport to maximise the social capital of city and stimulate sustainable economic growth. The Melbourne of today is still riding high on the good planning and heavy investments of the city founders, and we must now decide whether to emulate this example for our children. At this most important of crossroads, Melbournians, by which I mean all those, newly arrived and nearly departed, must vote with their wheels.