The thin white line goes solid: Melbourne cycling safety gets a boost

Zoe Meehan, 17, is a novice cyclist and avoids riding on main roads. Picture Jack Meehan
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There have been too many near misses in unprotected city bike lanes, but things are about to get a whole lot better for Melbourne cyclists. Jack Meehan reports.

It’s peak hour and you’re pedalling down Exhibition St in a narrow bike lane in the CBD that belongs to the cyclists for only 60 minutes at a time.

A thin white line is the only barrier between you and the dense steel of rush hour traffic.

A truck swerves in your way, narrowly grazing your front tyre. Are you strong enough to wrestle back control?

This is just one of the horror stories that keep Melbourne City Cr Rohan Leppert up at night.

The number of near misses on Exhibition St alone has been absolutely terrifying,” he says. 

This temporary bike lane is “just a lick of paint and some hours painted onto the ground”.

“It’s clear that it’s not stopping anyone from driving in and out of that lane whenever they want.”

But inner-city cycling is about to get a whole lot easier and safer for Melburnians. 

The City of Melbourne will be building 11km of protected bike lanes this coming year, Leppert says, fast tracking Melbourne’s 10 year, 44km plan forward to 2024. Council will spend $16m this year on protected bike lanes, “more than tripling our previous record spend”. 

The first of these lanes were installed in Carlton and East Melbourne early in August, with barriers made with recycled materials and its construction benefiting local business. In the coming months, new bike lanes will be added to the CBD, including Exhibition St.

Concern for safety is the most significant barrier in Victoria to people riding bikes. Protected bike lanes, as opposed to paint, dramatically increased a potential rider’s confidence from 22 per cent to 83 per cent according to Melbourne’s Transport Strategy 2030.

Without separated bike lanes, many cyclists feel like they must take to the footpaths. Picture: Jack Meehan

Protected bike lanes have many benefits, especially for beginner cyclists, says Patrick Taylor, a bicycle mechanic at St Kilda Cycles.

“It was a mad slurry before Stage 4, and now “manufacturers have sold out,” he says.

Sam Hibbins, the state MP for Prahran and Greens transport spokesperson, envisions a London style cycle superhighway from Coburg to Elsternwick. Bicycle superhighways are essential to reduce the “congestion crisis” expected when people start moving again, he says.

Bike superhighways “can carry more than double the number of people than a single lane of traffic”, Hibbins says, from 4600 cyclists per hour compared to 1900 motorists, according to the 2018-28 Victorian Cycling Strategy.

The City of Melbourne has big plans for its Little Streets network. 

When asked about traders’ objections to bike lanes, Leppert says biker lanes will be an improvement.

“The best thing we can do for businesses is to increase footfall and widen footpaths. Next best thing we can do is remove car lanes and replace them with bicycle lanes because it increases through capacity,” Leppert says.

Professor Marcus White, who teaches Urban Design at Swinburne University and who communities daily by bike from Footscray to Swinburne via the CBD, says there are hundreds of studies that can allay traders’ fears about bike lanes.

Motorists will spend more … but more cyclists will spend more often,” he says.

Cyclists are more likely “to stop and have a cup of coffee”, where there is a place to safely park. “You could park six bikes in one car spot. Overall, there will be considerably more spending.” 

Mary Musthofa, an electoral officer for the Greens-held seat of Prahran, says she regularly fields calls from residents, and hears many stories of constituents’ “near misses, accidents, and their fears” of cycling on the open road.

She says a physical barrier is important – cyclists feel safer in protected bike lanes. Cycling “is a great way to cut emissions, renew urban areas, reduce congestion, and also get people out and about on their bikes”. 

Zoe Meehan, a VCE student and novice bike rider, says she avoids main roads when she can. “Sometimes I try to ride very close to the edge of the road – cars are too big and fast for me.”

Port Phillip Cr Katherine Copsey, who uses her bike to get around the city, says there’s been “a huge surge in bike riding during lockdown”.

It “keeps us healthy and active as we emerge from COVID-19”, she says. Copsey says Port Phillip’s urgent cycling infrastructure spending this year will “lock in these benefits and make cycling accessible”.

City planners have not had an opportunity for an unobstructed, fast-tracked rollout of infrastructure like this in decades, if ever.

White says meaningful, lasting change to lock in the cycling surge will depend on “how quickly they can act and how concrete their actions are”.

“They’ve got this moment right now,” he says.

“This is the time, one opportunity to get this infrastructure in. We’ve got a really good shot to keep this stuff and change behaviours,” he says.

“These changes have to be permanent.”