$16 million spend on Melbourne bike lanes; Canberra locals ‘frightened and angry’ with crowded cycleways

40 kilometres of bike lanes will be constructed in Melbourne, half of which are scheduled to be completed before the end of next year. Bicycle Network reported on Monday that the infrastructure has been announced as part of a two-stage investment beginning in 2020, with the first stage set to cost $16 million and provide upgrades to existing cycling infrastructure on Exhibition Street, Rathdowne Street, William Street, Abbotsford Street and Swanston Street.

In a press release, Lord Mayor Sally Capp said that the bike lanes would be “adaptable”, and designed to be installed faster than conventional ones. It is unclear, however, what the City of Melbourne means by “adaptable” or how much of the new network will provide adequate protection for cyclists from motorists and car doors.

According to Councillor Frances Gilley, 3.5 kilometres of lanes on Rathdowne and Exhibition streets would be “protected” using “plastics, rubber and recycled materials that can be installed quickly”. This would suggest the use of a single or double painted chevron and rubber or plastic dividers for at least some of the network (See example below).

CEO of lobby group Bicycle Network Craig Richards congratulated the City on its decision, noting that he hoped “that other councils and governments across Australia are inspired to keep this roll-out rolling so that people have options to get to work and education on a bike at a time when other options are limited.”

Reactions on social media were split. While some welcoming the announcement others poured scorn on the idea. Commenters on Facebook, responding to 3AW Melbourne’s reporting, expressed confusion and outrage that the upgrades would cost $16 million and that cyclists were not made directly responsible for the funding through registration and fees for bicycle use. Others were critical that the scheme might result in reduced parking in the Melbourne CBD, despite assurances from the City that the project would “have minimal impact on parking in the municipality.”

Meanwhile in Canberra, local lobby group Pedal Power is pushing the government to address issues of alleged overcrowding and conflict between cyclists and pedestrians on the Territory’s cycleways. Pedal Power argues that parts of the network built in the 80’s and 90’s had not kept pace with population growth and were in desperate need of widening and duplication to provide space for all cycleway users.

In particular, they highlight the degree of public hostility between pedestrians and cyclists that has become a feature of debate over the city’s infrastructure development.

“People walking are frightened and angry about the speed and behaviour of people on bikes and scooters. Riders are angry about the behaviour of people who are walking and not paying attention, or not looking out for their animals,” CEO Ian Ross wrote.

Commenters on local news site RiotACT were quick to weigh in, with some blaming cyclists for being “rude and aggressive” and others providing anecdotes of nearly being hit by “entitled” riders.

Pedal Power has committed to running an education campaign on social media “to remind all path users that there are steps we can all take to share the paths safely.” However, it will take more than an education campaign to challenge deeply ingrained stereotypes of cyclists, and encourage fair-minded and equal treatment of all path users. The hostility and negative sentiment directed towards cyclists in public discourse very much exceeds that directed towards pedestrians.

In April, The Canberra Times published an opinion piece by a local writer in which the author characterises cyclists as “needlessly, aggressively rude”, “showing off”, “potentially lethal” and as status symbol seeking “tubby” retirees with “pre-existing conditions” that would be better off buying sports cars for their presumed mid-life crises.   

As this example shows, despite the recent increase in cycling participation during COVID-19, the views of many remain fixed on a conception of cyclists as selfish ‘others’ who need to be punished and restricted by policing, fines, speed bumps and steel barriers.

Rolling out new infrastructure is welcome; however, governments and public figures need to be more proactive in challenging outdated and problematic stereotypes of cyclists if there is to be any chance that they are accepted as equal road and path users.

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