Turning “pop-up” promises on cycling infrastructure in to long-term solutions

The surge in cycling activity during the coronavirus pandemic has continued this week. As The Sydney Morning Herald reported, Brisbane has joined the ranks of Australian cities showing significant increases in ridership. It further reported growing calls to expand infrastructure to encourage a long-term shift to active transit.

City officials reported that traffic on Brisbane bikeways had increased by up to 90 per cent on weekends since the coronavirus pandemic. Consequently, council has begun to debate whether it should copy plans developed in other cities to open up roads to cycling and make permanent infrastructure changes to sustain this increased ridership.

The NSW government has announced a similar move, with Transport for NSW confirming to media that it would start temporarily reconfiguring some roadside spaces to allow for increased cycling and pedestrian activity.

However, in the race to roll out infrastructure to keep up with the cycling surge, transport engineers and planners should not sacrifice safety in the name of expediency.

They must also consider that widespread acceptance of any changes made to the urban landscape will require that actions are backed up by advocacy.

On Thursday, Daily Mail Australia reported that a cyclist had been hit by a car while riding in Melbourne’s city centre in February and that the police had determined the driver of the car was at fault. However, footage of the incident posted to Facebook prompted a number of people on social media to argue that the cyclist should have been fined instead.

In the footage the cyclist can be seen travelling in a narrow bike lane between parked cars and moving traffic. After beginning to pass a black Honda the driver starts to indicate left. Within less than two seconds the driver cuts across the cyclist’s path colliding with the rider and throwing them to the ground.

The short video provides a good demonstration of the danger of bike lanes positioned between the parking lane and the flow of traffic. All up, the incident took less than 5 seconds, and the time between when the driver of the car begins to indicate and when the cyclist’s path is blocked is less than 1.5 seconds. The rider is unable to swerve to avoid the collision as they are trapped between a parked van on one side and the turning car on the other.

Despite the video clearly showing that the rider could not have avoided the collision, many commenters were adamant that the cyclist was at fault either through inattention, putting themselves in a dangerous road position or failing to follow the road rules.

In Australia many urban bike lanes are designed with few affordances or fail-safes, meaning riders must frequently put themselves in dangerous road positions and do not have the time or space to react to unexpected changes in the behaviour of other road users.

The consequences for cyclists are often, of course, far more significant than for motorists.

On Monday, Mirage News reported that a 54-year-old man from St Kilda was in critical condition after being hit by a car on Lower Plenty Road near the Melbourne suburb of Rosanna. Police described his injuries as life-threatening and indicated he had been transported to hospital where his condition remained unclear.

While Lower Plenty Road includes a shoulder for some of its length, the lane is interrupted at many points by left turn lanes, bus stops and limited on street parking. In 2018, the City of Banyule reported that despite it being one of the more popular routes for cycling in the area, Lower Plenty Road still lacked symbols and markings indicating that the shoulder was a bike lane. Documents prepared for the City Council also indicate that creating a safer separated path for pedestrians and cyclists along the route was a high priority due to the high level of traffic and poor quality of existing footpaths.

A partially marked cycle lane on Lower Plenty Road, Rosanna. Image: © Google 2020

The design and implementation of bike lanes will be at the forefront of many Melbournians’ minds in the weeks to come. As The Age reported on Friday, Melbourne City Council announced it would fast-track construction of 12 kilometres of “pop-up” cycling lanes in the city to help riders socially distance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Lord mayor Sally Capp said car parks would be removed at busy pedestrian areas to enable to extension of footpaths, while 12 kilometres of new temporary bike lanes will be created, with a plan to make the upgrades permanent if they turn out to be successful” The Age stated.

While the exact design and locations of these temporary-maybe-permanent lanes is as yet unknown, The Age speculates that routes already slated for upgrades including Elizabeth and Exhibition Streets were the most likely starting points.

An existing cycle lane on Exhibition Street, Melbourne. Image: © Google 2020

Councillor Capp indicated that the design of these bike lanes could involve “a mixture of line markings and separation barriers”, but ultimately the city would be focusing on “ways of protection that may not be permanent”.

While the decision to roll-out new cycling infrastructure is welcome, the possible focus on “temporary” infrastructure could see councils replicating already unsafe design practices in the rush to be seen to be addressing the problem. “Pop-up” cycling lanes are almost guaranteed to fail if they are seen by cyclists as little more than a collection of rubber cones, plastic bollards and a few centimetres of white paint.

For new infrastructure to succeed councils must also address the lack of community support for the legitimacy of cyclists as equal road users. There is a need for both policy and advocacy if councils are to see short-term adjustments translate into the long-term advancements. As it stands, big promises are being made on the back of COVID-19 that cities can leverage the shutdown to spark a significant cultural shift towards active transit.

It remains to be seen whether this political appetite for change will prove to be matched by genuine changes in policy and resourcing. Otherwise, it may turn out that they were “pop-up” promises all along.

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