Online Opinion: Bicycles: sustainable transport needs city infrastructure. By Alan Parker – posted Wednesday, 30 May 2012

For 30 years I was an advocate for bicycle Infrastructure. For 10 years I was an advocate for electric bicycles. I did this for aged people like me, who are falling to bits, have dodgy hearts and hips and find it painful to walk. I got my OAM ‘gong’ due to referees who knew what I had achieved. As two of them told me, I was ‘gong worthy’ because I was a rat bag who made things happen. Now, with an OAM after my name, it makes advocacy easier.

My bicycle advocacy started in the1970’s in the era of the Board of Works, and the Country Roads Board. These predecessors of VicRoads wanted to bury the Melbourne Bikeplan, after its approval by the Hamer government, as did VicRoads in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2012 the Premier wants to bury Hamer’s initiative by dumping the generous bikeway funding promised in 2011 by Transport Minister Mulder.

The cutback of funding for Victorian Bike plans and those in other states is because of the entrenched negative attitudes of Australian road planners and engineers. This negative attitude arises because the rights of access in British common law have been ignored. In the U.K. separate footpaths and bicycle paths were part of new bridges and still are; see the Forth Road Bridge and the Severn Estuary Bridge. In Melbourne there was no separate provision for cyclists on the Westgate and Bolte bridges. In the Netherlands planners had positive and bicycle friendly attitudes. Engineers who planned and built bikeways, are part a bicycle culture, which we did not have. I did my own bicycle planning study tour of the Netherlands to study how to develop a bicycle friendly culture in Australia.

Apart from collecting English language versions of Dutch reports and riding the bikeways in 12 cities, I discussed the lack of a “bicyclist culture” in Australia with several planners and research librarians. One of them said to me, “I can show you the solution to your problem from that window”. We then looked out over the parking area where there were 250 bicycles in undercover racks and just a few cars. She said, “…perhaps your problem in Australia is simple, most of our traffic and road engineers ride bikes to work and yours do not”. I heard these words 13 years ago and passed them on to VicRoads’ engineers and one CEO who were not amused.

What VicRoads should have done

If only VicRoads had sent their engineers to the Netherlands 20 years ago to see the many options for using rail line and road reserves, access paths along canals and rivers, and parks to create continuous bikeways. If only they had ridden bicycles along residential streets, which have a 30 km/hour speed limit and bike lanes on roads with a mandatory 50 km/hour speed limit, they would have made small land acquisitions to create short cuts in the residential street network to link up other bicycle routes. They would have seen freeways which are designed to be integrated with the national bikeway network; indeed, freeways and major road bridges with separate bikeways and walkways.

Think about it: when medical researchers find better ways of keeping people alive they learn from other countries by going there to see and study. What do Australian road engineers do? They sit on their butts driving motor vehicles and fail to learn about world’s best practice driving  What a pleasure it would have been for VicRoads’ engineers to experience world’s best practice by riding bikes in the Netherlands in and around their delightful cities. And at night enjoying themselves by drinking in the many boutique Dutch and Belgium beers in car-free city squares surrounded by ancient buildings.

VicRoads never had a commitment to create a Dutch style in safety issues and world’s best safety practice as in the Netherlands. Proceedings of Australia Walk  featured bike lanes on main roads and  ignored Melbourne’s 7,500 km residential street network. Vicroads did not understand how the Dutch make great use of their residential streets with a 30-km speed limit. Sadly for cyclists VicRoads had the obsolete idea that bikeways were not a vital part of the road system and ignored the role of residential streets as bikeways.

VicRoads refused to accept that a bicycle arterial network had to be of finer mesh than the main road network to create short cuts for cyclists and pedestrians for their shorter trips. They never understood that we wanted best road system practice as in the Netherlands. We did not want unsafe bike lanes on main roads and/or residential streets that are not safe for children and which  require lower speed limits.

VicRoads rejected the idea of a fine mesh bicycle network because cyclists would need many more safe mid-block main road crossings such as button actuated lights and centre of the road refuges along all the proposed bicycle routes. It required that all residential streets should have 40 km/hr speed limits like they had in U.S. residential  areas. They derided our proposals and were not prepared to formalise in their advanced planning (the State Bicycle Committee) view of the need for a fine mesh arterial bicycle network.

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In my five years on the SBC, with a VicRoads member on that Committee, how could I not know about VicRoads anti-cyclist policies? I resigned twice from the SBC and worked with the media to overturn decisions trashing bicycle budgets: the reason that Melbourne bicycle routes are incomplete and not as safe as they could be. Today our bicycle Infrastructure is 30 years behind where it should be. Another problem with VicRoads and its predecessors was the formal and informal links to the car and roads lobby; hence my nick name for VicRoads is the “corruptocracy”.

My articles as Research Officer of Bicycle Victoria and Vice President of the Town and Country Planning Association (VIC) show the unsustainable planning and transport trends in Australian cities. My articles adopting European safety standards for electric bicycles, especially for people with ageing problems, will hopefully be accepted; dare I say it, electric bicycles are now used by half a million elderly people in the Netherlands today