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Bicycle lanes: ‘lack of leadership inhibits urban planning’

State governments are failing to provide the leadership necessary to resolve conflict between interest groups when it comes to urban planning changes such as the construction of bicycle lanes, says University of Melbourne lecturer Dr John Stone.

His comments come as the City of Melbourne launches a public consultation process, allowing residents to pinpoint places needing improvement on a map, to inform the next four-year Council Bicycle Plan currently in development. The final phase of the Bike Plan 2012-16 will see the council build 6 kilometres of bike lanes to cope with a steep rise in cyclists in the city.

Bicycles now make up 17% of vehicles travelling into the CBD each morning — almost double the number from 2008. “One of the major reasons for that is people feel safe and part of that is the bicycle lane network,” said Lord Mayor Robert Doyle. “On some routes now you’re getting 28 per cent of journeys by bicycle.”

[pullquote] “Each time a piece of infrastructure goes in, it tends to be those who can shout loudest who get their way. For people in the public service that must be frustrating.” [/pullquote]

But while the council is showing leadership within its own small, albeit important, patch, the Victorian government has failed to provide direction on its transport priorities, thinks Stone. “The City of Melbourne is going about this in a sensible way,” he told The Mandarin.

“They have targets and evidence of growth in bicycle use, so there’s a clear justification for what they’re doing. That’s what’s lacking at the city-wide level. The state government doesn’t have clear principles for how they’re going to resolve conflicts” between cyclists, motorists and other stakeholders.”

Previous changes like swapping parking spaces for bike lanes have tended to draw the ire of those working or living nearby. When “Copenhagen-style” bike lanes were built on Albert street in Melbourne, “people who have offices nearby were vehemently opposed to it,” he recalls.

“VicRoads has been saying recently that we need to reallocate space to cycling and public transport, but we don’t have the process for resolving disputes over how to do that. That makes it difficult.”

A lack of strategic planning means decisions tend to be reactive and not necessarily in the long-term public interest. “Each time a piece of infrastructure goes in, it tends to be those who can shout loudest who get their way. For people in the public service that must be frustrating.”

And although there’s been more discussion of public transport and level crossings from the new Labor government, “at the same time they talk about this as removing congestion, which looks like we’re talking about cars again,” Stone argues.

As cities like Melbourne and Sydney grow at a rapid pace, state governments will have to find ways of diverting people away from car use, especially in the increasingly densely-populated inner-city.

“The promise to ease congestion is illusory,” he said. “You’ve got to use congestion as a means to get people to use alternatives you’re proposing,” such as public transport, cycling or walking.

“Where these things are usually successful is in developing transport plans which start from the beginning, asking: what are our objectives and values and how do we get there?

“We always have transport plans that justify individual projects, unlike in other places that have more strategic, long-term plans. We don’t ever ask: what is the purpose of our transport system? Where are we going to have winners and losers?

“We try and claim everyone’s going to be a winner. But when it comes to resolving conflicting demands, particularly in the inner city, it has to come down on the side of non-car transport.

“The political will has to be strongly made so people in public service know what’s expected and can act accordingly.”

Stone cites Vancouver as a good example of a city that’s risen to the challenge of reorganising its middle and inner-suburbs for the future, prioritising walking and cycling. He argues clear direction has driven the change — and a more equal balance of power between provincial and municipal government powers has helped, too.

Consecutive state governments’ weak action on this issue “is the reason there are so many calls for metropolitan authorities in Australia,” he adds.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.