As I cycle around this city in my daily round, attempting not to be hit by cars and trucks, other cyclists and not run over dog-walkers’ erratic dogs, I wonder about the flat surfaces we have at our disposal for our bikes to roll on (unless, of course, we go actively seeking muddy, bumpy tracks to bash our mountain/cyclocross bikes along), and people and vehicles we share them with, and how these people choose or are forced to think and behave by what they are doing when I encounter them. A lot of the time I am on roads with cars and trucks and buses and 4WDs (the last, in the city, should be banned and forced to be garaged in the very outer suburbs – sez me):
Oh yes, bogan utes as well.
As well as having to dodge people with malicious intent (well, at least uncaring enough to make it look as though they’re malicious) including the brain-dead, vicious, unthinking morons who drive vehicles such as those above, you have to deal with people who really aren’t aware enough of their surroundings to be entrusted with a tonne and a bit of metal moving at 60+ km/h, and that’s most of us drivers, some of the time - a small, dangerous minority: some of us, most of the time. At the same time, the average driver is having to deal with road situations that are not easy to decipher, which are under the constant stress of having to take more and more traffic, and each individual in the traffic mix having to deal with greater levels of conflicting stimuli than the human brain can safely and comfortably handle for 100% of the time they are behind the wheel. Then cyclists are thrown in the mix, and quite honestly, for them, it’s like them swimming near schools of predatory fish. Most of the time you are watchfully co-existent with them, then CHOMP, suddenly one will take a bite out of you. It’s just what they do, they can’t help it, it’s in their nature.
So, in order for us slow-swimming minnows to not have to be on edge and constant, mentally-draining alert for being chomped all the time, under prompting from concerned cyclists and their representative bodies making representation to local and state governments, traffic engineering takes place. Perhaps a lane demarked alongside a lane of motor traffic with a bike symbol in it, perhaps a development of this (‘Copenhagen’ lanes). Perhaps more emphatic – the provision of a completely separate track – the average shared path or bike path to one side of a road or, less effectively, a watercourse. Or the conversion of a rail bed to a rail trail for a different sort of, but still direct, point-to-point route.
The problem (or the linked series of problems) is that those who research, design and implement solutions for the vulnerability of cyclists within increasingly frenetic ordinary road situations, are not themselves cyclists, in the main, or if they are, their voices are drowned out by those of their colleagues who see road transport as legitimately being of the motorised variety. So instead of a “different but equal” approach to constructing specific road surfaces for bikes, as you often have in the more bike-friendly European cities, or making spaces that acknowledge bikes are actually going to be in there with the rest of the vehicles, it is a view of “odd, difficult but vociferous (so we’d better do something just to shut them up)”, the “something” often approaching ‘token/barely adequate (under sufferance)’ in its ability to address the problems that cyclists encounter in what road planners are touting as ‘normal’ traffic conditions. Whilst creekside paths are pleasant meanders on fine days with the kids, as commuter routes they are largely tedious and stupid. These winding byways are seriously seen as major arteries in the “Principal Bicycle Network” (PBN) that is meant to be the framework of a serious bike commuter strategy for Melbourne. It’s a little risible, when you compare it to other cycling cities around the globe.
Organisations such as Bicycle Victoria attempt to advocate solutions for bike travel amongst and besides motor traffic, and certain segments of local government can also be seen advocating the (political, environmental, social) wisdom of cycling. The state and national governments seem largely to be beholden to more powerful interests, with the grudging exception of VicRoads, or the Ministry for Motor Transport, as they are known to non-car users. Status quo is a powerful thing, and there is evidence of decades of bikes being seen (at the incitement of VicRoads, motoring organisations, multinational car companies and petrol-head culture in general) as Aboriginies once were: an anachronism that should be allowed to die out (or be scared or killed off) under the superior force and morality of Modern Fossil Fuel-Powered Western Industrial Society, or maybe just suffered to exist, cringingly, at the margins. It changes slowly, and haltingly – even when the increasing evidence for contrary action is slapping the status quo sharply in the face.
“Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim” is a useful maxim to apply to motor transport. In the quest to move people and goods around efficiently and effectively (or maybe just to keep them occupied? Perhaps Magnus Mills in The Scheme for Full Employment had it right), massive, expensive, polluting and space-hungry road projects are imagined as being needed to increase transport capacity every 10 years or so, but traffic and the congestion attendant on it continue to grow in parallel with increased car sales. You get supposedly liberal and city-savvy (and inner-suburb dwelling!) commentators such as Shaun Carney coming up with a “Like it or Lump it” apologia (and the justified replies that it generated) that they should know better than to advocate. It is now estimated that 40% or Melbourne’s land area is devoted to motor traffic, and the city spreads to the reach of the motorised commute across valuable farm land and creates ‘car-sized suburbs’ with little opportunity for fostering ad hoc, ‘over the back fence’ social connection, which has glued together social groups for millenia. Bike traffic engineering sits here, in small gaps allowed it by the free/tollway-building impetus, a path alongside a major road project engineered for the different demands of motorised transport – not direct between place and place (if there are actually any places besides shopping centre and each person’s home any more, in the outer suburbs), not even pleasant, with the roar and backwash of truck traffic removing any sense of safety.
So, in my little backyard, is a whacking great big road project, with a bike lane tacked to the side: the Dynon Port Rail Link Project.
This is a double road bridge over a projected rail line realignment and duplication into the dock area alongside Footscray Rd, with an elevated T junction carrying B-Double trucks thrown in for good measure. “Tacked on” is how the path feels – it is built on the outbound bridge, and separated by a dividing wall from the road traffic, not integrated into both inbound and outbound lanes. The majority of it is sensible engineering, but there are some significant bits (pictured above – thanks to BV for pics) that show that the road engineers still don’t get cycling, or the fact that one day it will need to be a lot more than a small afterthought in transport policy (“if you build it, they will come”), and it’s these unthought-about and unrealised bits that cause chaos and concern by those who expect a straightforward ride from a brand-new, purpose-designed path.
The relevant person from Bicycle Victoria sent me this link to their relevant web page on which there are some pretty good points illustrating the above. They’re right, I just don’t get it. A sharp right angle turn at the bottom of the bridge ramp, and a potentially homicidal crossing of a busy slip lane are glaring faults in what is ostensibly a model project. Which begs the question – which is more important: the well-being of 700-and-something cyclists travelling each day to and from the city along the major artery available, or trucks having to slow down a fraction, delaying ever so slightly their monumental quest to fill yet more corners of the world with plastic Chinese junk packed in big metal boxes? I sympathise with the Blue Wedges campaigners regarding the Port Phillip Bay Channel deepening project – pushing a doctrinaire pro-trade/business line via ‘business at all costs’ really is just about an ultimately trivial GNP/Balance of Payments paperchase flying in the face of encroaching reality and trumping the liveability of where we actually live. The opportunity is there to create something really good – for us, for the planet, but it is stymied/crippled at the last moment in the details by careless, bureaucratic malevolence/incompetence (at a distance, they’re impossible to separate). I don’t deny the necessity of trade, nor that the port is an important part of Melbourne, but the almost fascist zeal that is being applied to its operation is not thinking at all far into the future. In 50 years, there will be a whole lot more bikes, and a whole lot fewer (and a whole lot slower, and smaller) diesel-powered ships (a lot more with sails, I’ll guess) and trucks making use of these billions of dollars of infrastructure. But not if the current pack of road designers have their way – they’ll hold out ’til the last litre of petroleum has been burnt before they admit that they’re barking up an overstressed and dying tree. Why do I, once in a while, get the feeling I’m a character in Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax? (I liked the book better). Maybe (and I’m going off into my own private little hyperbole here, a little) the irritation we feel in being literally marginalized and pooh-poohed, in instances such as this and many more, is a result of some frustrated road engineer’s petty professional Parthian shot. Bitter and twisted that fossil fuel did in fact not have the power to transport us to Nirvana, he rues the fact that his long-desired SS Commodore will, in fact, lie rusting in perpetuity next to his Subaru Tribeca in his double garage in Narre Warren. Alternatively, he could go out in a blaze of glory, like John Osborne’s rivals in Nevil Shute’s On The Beach (or Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men ) – with climate change, water resources literally drying up, storm surges filling up beachfront underground garages, and ongoing environmental and social displacement of refugees fleeing to stable democracies, making our times feel eerily like this great book and/or film – and leave us to ourselves with the job of actually getting on with moving ourselves round effectively.