A couple of years ago a relative from Netherlands visited us to spend three weeks touring Victoria and Melbourne by bike. Gerda had been to Australia many times but she never used a bike to get around. In Holland a bicycle is her main means of transport. She was in fact a much sought-after bike touring leader for a major Dutch company offering bike tours all over Europe for tourists. She had privately guided us through several extended tours in Germany, Austria and Holland in the past and now it was time to return the favour.
For city riding, we used our home in the suburbs as if it was an overnight stay in a hotel, and set out early each day in a different direction to ride 50-60 km. Sometimes we caught a train to start in a more distant suburb. We did the same for the country rides and stayed at BnB’s.
Gerda was surprised and amazed at the extensive network of off-road paths – in the city mainly along our creek and river valleys, and in the country along reclaimed rail trails. She found the scenery and Australian bush to be beautiful, and that sometimes this was very close to the CBD.
We certainly are blessed when it comes to enjoying the benefits of off-road shared paths.
Gerda also found that riding on local roads to get to off-road paths was rather unnerving compared with how she feels in Holland. Local streets in the inner city areas like Richmond, Fitzroy and Collingwood had a far more familiar feel to her. Some even functioned as major bicycle thoroughfares not available to cars. It seemed to her that cyclists and walkers were far more welcome there, and cars were not prioritised.
In Holland walkers and cyclists have priority over cars, and street speeds are slower too. But in most suburbs in Melbourne, there is great reliance on painted bike lanes which are often blocked by parked cars. And now there are a few streets marked with sharrows. But these are the exception. Unlike in a great many countries, local street speeds are 50km/hr instead of the UN recommended 30km/hr.
Whilst the off-road bike network is good, there are still some ‘Missing links”. This means there is quite a call from recreation cyclists for much larger expenditure by Councils for additions to the off-road network and for fully separated lanes along main roads.
Some Councils are quite resistant to higher expenditure on Active Transport and infrastructure that would help people move in their neighbourhoods – in their own local streets – with ease and safety. Their priorities are weighed heavily towards very high expenditure on formal sports facilities.
I think this is where there is perhaps a problem of perception which may be a bit of a curse. Many have been lulled into thinking that many more off-road shared paths are the answer to the massive increase in non-car travel that we need. That’s not what happens in Holland. They have concentrated their efforts over several decades to transform from a car-dominated society post WWII, towards making all local streets safe and amenable places to ride. And it’s worked!
Apart from the inner city areas noted before, in Australia we have concentrated on building off-road paths where there is space to do so. But we are running out of places to build them. And it’s still not safe or amenable to ride on our local streets away from these paths.
I think we have been guilty of “safety-washing” by installing those painted lanes, with cars parked in them, on main and feeder roads. They give the impression that they are a useful contribution to safety – that they will encourage more timid riders to use them. But they are an illusion.
And now some Councils are concentrating on a few designated special routes that are marked with sharrows and direction signs. These are routes which utilise non-main roads and which have safer crossings at main roads. Perhaps it’s thought that they appear safer. It sounds very admirable. But I hope it’s not an addition to the “safety washing” repertoire, or simply a way of fending off criticism that local authorities don’t look after cyclists!
So the question might be… is our experience and love of the off-road network a bit of a curse if it’s diverting the attention away from making ALL our streets safer?