Road Safety / Opinion

Making our streets safer is a class issue, but not in the way you might think

When it comes to road safety, decision-makers need to decide whose side they are on, writes James Conlan
Sunday, April 7, 2024

IF I’ve learnt one thing during my three-and-a-half years on Merri-bek Council, it’s that politicians really do say one thing and do the precise opposite.

The March council meeting proved this unfortunate cliche to be true.

At that meeting, councillors voted unanimously to adopt a new transport strategy which aims to make it easier to walk, ride and take public transport.

Virtually in the next breath, a majority of these same councillors then voted against the very first action to implement that strategy — to trial a safe street zone outside West Brunswick Primary School in Pearson Street and one outside St Bernard’s Primary on Barrow Street, Coburg.

Imagine a small area in front of your school where kids could arrive safely, meet, and play with their friends, free from speeding and rat-running cars. This is what councillors voted against in March.

Both trials were voted down by Labor and the Independents. Councillor Bolton (Socialist Alliance) abstained – her non-vote counting as the casting No vote.

In voting down these safe street trials, some councillors recycled the same old lines they used when they voted last year to rip up bike lanes in Pascoe Vale and to oppose new bike lanes in Coburg.

Voting against safer streets is a form of class warfare, perpetuating a status quo that is literally killing people in their thousands.

Merri-bek is one of the most dangerous councils in the state for people who walk or ride their bikes. Five people were killed on our streets between 2020-22, all of them on bike or foot. Another 118 people were seriously injured – the overwhelming majority were walking or riding their bikes. The rest were motorbike riders.

Nearly 40% of all these crashes happened on council-owned streets. How can councillors vote down projects we know will make our streets safer, when they have a clear responsibility to stop this violence?

The cause of road violence is not a mystery – it’s speed. The chance of a driver killing someone who is walking, doubles as they speed-up from 30km/h to 40km/h.

Safe street zones, like the ones voted down by some of your councillors, simply make our roads calmer and safer – for everyone.

We have a clear choice. We can have faster cars which kill and injure too many people. Or we have slower cars and safer streets. But we cannot have both.

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The street is a well-known north-south ‘rat run’ .

The most confronting aspect of this road carnage is that it disproportionately impacts the poorest, most marginalised and vulnerable people in our community – the very people that most councillors say they support.

We all need safe streets. But particularly those who are priced out of car ownership, physically can’t drive, or can’t take public transport when it’s not a viable option for them.

I’m talking about the elderly Italian nonna on a pension who needs to walk to the shops every day with her shopping jeep. Or the migrant hospo worker whose only option to get home after a late shift at the pub is by bike – because they can’t afford a car and the buses have stopped running.

I’ve heard from my queer community, from trans and non-binary people who don’t feel comfortable getting in an Uber alone with a male driver after a late night out when the trains have stopped. They need calm, well-lit streets to walk, and protected bike lanes to ride.

And what about people with disabilities? It’s admirable that all Merri-bek councillors passionately support safe tram stops on state government-owned roads like Sydney Road. But it’s peak hypocrisy for many of these same councillors to then consistently vote against every safe street project on council-owned roads. People with disabilities deserve to be safe on every street, not just a select few.

These are the people being killed and maimed on our streets. These are the people whose lives are put in danger every time councillors vote against projects that give priority to people who walk, ride or wheel.

It’s the young, the elderly, and other people who are marginalised, who especially need safe streets. 

This is a class war because the bodies of the most vulnerable and marginalised are being sacrificed for the convenience of a few drivers who are reluctant to share the streets with everyone else.

The moral clarity that some councillors possess on other forms of violence and injustice in the world, is commendable. But their wilful ignorance of the violence caused by consistently voting to maintain the supremacy of the unimpeded, fast-moving car on every single street, is hypocrisy of gargantuan proportions. 

Merri-bek councillors will soon have the chance to redeem the appalling choice they made at the last council meeting when they voted down safe street trials. The Barrow Street safe street trial will come back to council for a re-vote at the 10 April council meeting. 

I hope councillors support it unanimously.

Merri-bek’s passionate and active community will be making it widely known ahead of this year’s council election, which side of this class war that their councillors stand.

A city for people, or a city for traffic? The People’s Republic will decide.

James Conlan is a Merri-bek Councillor for South Ward. He Tweets at JamesMConlan