Can we cycle through the outrage to imagine a better Melbourne

Can we cycle through the outrage to imagine a better Melbourne

06/07/2022

Bike lanes.

Have I lost you already? Is there anything more parochial than arguing over narrow strips of asphalt? When the future of the city itself is at stake, could there be anything more mundane?

Cyclists ride along a protected bike lane in the city.Credit:Jason South

And yet, the anger! The arguments! I feel my own blood boil as I have to manoeuvre my bike past over-sized SUVs squatting in “my” bike lane, just as those drivers must bristle as I glide through their static convoys.

More broadly, cycling advocates are furious about the City of Melbourne’s statement last Friday that the city may be pausing their bike lane rollout, an inopportune announcement on World Bicycle Day, admittedly, and seemingly in response to pressure from motorists and retailers. Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce recently floated nothing less than a temporary bike lane removal trial!

This back and forth is not really about bike lanes, but about streets themselves. And there could barely be anything more important. Streets are the basic unit of cities. They are where cities happen. They are our largest, most distributed and certainly most active and contested shared spaces in the city. They embody what we stand for as a city, what we’re about.

Yet it has been the mistake of our last half-century to govern that complex brief with the narrow idea that streets are just about traffic.

A woman rides on the separated new bike lane on Exhibition Street.Credit:Paul Jeffers

Let’s be crystal clear. Building healthier, safer, greener, more convivial and social streets, by reducing car use whilst supporting better infrastructures for public and active transport – including, in this specific case, separated and protected bike lanes – produces better outcomes all round, for all Melburnians and the Country we live within. Pretty much all cities are heading in this direction, for these very good reasons.

Working last year at the Swedish government’s innovation agency before I moved back to Australia, I collated hundreds of research papers from all over the world as part of a project to better understand the shared value of these healthy, green, and convivial urban environments.

In summary, there is overwhelming evidence that such streets can hugely increase public health outcomes, across both mental and physical health and for all ages and social groups. They also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other atmospheric and noise pollution, helping regenerate biodiversity. They increase retail and commercial property value and reduce vacancy rates. They can reduce heating and cooling costs in buildings. They massively reduce road traffic collisions and casualties. They increase our sense of emotional wellbeing and life satisfaction.

Streets oriented around public and active transport produce lower costs of living, with “sticker shock at the bowser” becoming an experience as antiquated as that language suggests.

People cycle on bike paths in Stockholm, Sweden.Credit:Getty

All these reasons lend confidence to cities like Paris, attempting to create the “100 per cent cyclable city” and removing more than 70 per cent of its on-street car parking space. We see the same pattern in Barcelona, Montreal, Milan…

Our Chamber of Commerce ought to be particularly aware that almost all research indicates that cleaner, greener, slower streets, built around active transport, actually increases retail resilience, due to increased footfall, community engagement and spending. Put simply: remove cars, shops do better.

We are not short of clues as to what to do. If it didn’t work, all cities wouldn’t be doing it. So what’s happening in our city?

The City of Melbourne deserves credit for initiating these improvements to our often low-res urban infrastructure in the first place, demonstrating that municipal politicians and policymakers can be highly adept at the symbiotic dance between the desires of individuals and needs of the city.

As former New York transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan described in her book Streetfight, mayors who stand for ambitious road reclamations, and then stick to their guns during the initial “bikelash”, are voted back in time and again, usually with overwhelming majorities.

But as designers and researchers, we must help our local representatives hold their nerve, supporting imaginative, informed and engaged leadership with ideas and evidence, and as citizens we must start showing our support for redesigning and rebuilding our streets from the ground up.

I’ve just moved back to Australia after a decade away, in which time I lived in Helsinki, Treviso, London and most recently Stockholm. I rode bikes regularly in all of these places, just as I do now every day in Melbourne. Having been around a bit, I reckon Melbourne should be the best bike city in the world. But it is not.

Given streets are public space, it is up to all of us, the public, to collectively imagine and build these next versions of Melbourne.

What do we want for our city? Let’s ensure we can all work towards these thriving and adapting streets. Within that fine-grained latticework, the new Melbourne can emerge. These thin skeins of bike lane, at less than 1 per cent of the Hoddle Grid, are threads we can pull on to reveal the future of the city. A far richer tapestry, a more diverse yarn, for a fairer, healthier, more vibrant Melbourne is just within reach. Let’s not drop these stitches now.

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