Transport / Opinion

How serious is Merri-bek about cyclists’ safety?

Proposed plans for De Carle Street make a mockery of the council’s climate change and cycling strategies, says Robert Lechte

ON Wednesday night, Merri-bek Council abandoned a two-year trial of separated bike lanes on Kent Road in Pascoe Vale, sending shockwaves through the local cycling community.

All eyes are now on the council’s plans to re-engineer De Carle Street, which begins at Moreland Road.

Rather than separated bike lanes as had been anticipated, the plans show two painted bike lanes that share the road with motor vehicles.

The new downgraded plans are an affront to basic principles of good urban design and actively hostile to the safety and health of Merri-bek’s residents.

“Real people are killed and injured on Merri-bek’s roads every year,” writes Robert Lechte. “Squandering the opportunity to create safer streets is shameful.”

If you’re not familiar with the background: De Carle Street runs parallel to Sydney Road, and in spite of this position adjacent to a larger road, still has a lot of traffic. According to the council: “Traffic volume on De Carle Street currently exceeds the preferred maximums for a local road of 3000 cars per day”.

Accordingly, the council proposed traffic calming through a redesign of the street from Rennie Street to Moreland Road. This stretch includes, among other things, a primary school, Merri-bek Primary.

Creating safe streets for walking and bike riding is key to fixing Melbourne’s transport problems. Because so many people avoid riding bikes, especially with their children, due to safety concerns, 65% of kids go to and from school by car, while only 3% get to school by bike.

The redesign would have been a useful step to fixing this: it reconfigured the street in line with international best practice, providing bike lanes with safe separation from moving cars via concrete barriers and positioning the parking lane between bike lane and car lane.

While the redesign meant a small loss of street parking (eight carparks in total), the council itself noted at the time that “investigation and a parking survey found that impacts from the parking space reduction will be minimal due to low occupancy of on-street parking, and presence of off-street parking at all properties”, and that the majority of street residents were in favour.

That all changed with the recent release of downgraded plans. Instead of safely separated bike lanes, bike lanes will now be paint-only. Studies show painted bike lanes are worse than useless, hence the motto “paint is not infrastructure”.

Worse, car traffic would be assigned a single lane, while retaining two-way flow. Cars passing each other would be required to encroach into the bike lane to get around each other. Instead of a safe ride to school, children biking on De Carle Street will have to contend with utes and SUVs speeding past them and swerving into their lane – or simply hogging the lane permanently.

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While this general “cars use the bike lanes to pass each other” design exists elsewhere in Melbourne (the council provides Napier Street in Fitzroy as an example), it requires one essential element to be successful: low, slow car volumes.

Napier Street has this by blocking thoroughfare to cars (“modal filtering”). De Carle Street has none of this. It has high traffic volumes, it’s used as a thoroughfare, and cars are used to driving down it as fast as possible. The redesign even grants cars a wider-than-necessary marked lane width, which is proven to encourage higher car speeds and more dangerous driving. Regardless, speeding drivers will simply ignore the lane markings, and treat the bike lane as part of their lane.

This downgraded plan also plans for speed humps, in spite of noting themselves the original plans that “speed humps are not effective ways of reducing volume” (speed humps are also least effective against the largest, most dangerous vehicles that need slowing down the most).

Read more:

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Even if you assume the original proposed designs were too expensive or unworkable, there are plenty of alternatives. For instance, increasingly popular internationally are Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, which restrict through-going car traffic, while still allowing local access, using modal filters or higher-tech methods.

But the challenges here aren’t technical, they’re cultural and political. Preserving the right of drivers to drive fast through every street, and use scarce public land for free to store cars outside their house, trumps all other concerns, and our council seems to pander to those concerns from a noisy few instead of delivering safe transport for the majority.

In the context of a world trying to fight climate change, a country where people don’t feel safe biking, and a city drowning in car congestion, giving people safe transport choices is essential.

Our council produces endless transport strategies and pastel-coloured marketing materials promoting the need for sustainable transport and zero-carbon neighbourhoods. But these are empty words. Their track record, in De Carle Street and all over Merri-bek, is a council more concerned with preserving car parking and car dominance than the health, safety, and future of the neighbourhood’s children.

Real people are killed and injured on Merri-bek’s roads every year. Squandering the opportunity to create safer streets is shameful.

Robert Lechte is a Brunswick resident and occasional writer on transport issues. He enjoys riding a cargo bike, and would just like to be able to ride around the neighbourhood with his young daughter in it without worrying about cars.

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