Cycling and the City

Honestly, why doesn’t Fairfax columnist Bruce Guthrie simply call for the erection of barricades, signs and checkpoints around the city to reinforce the obvious? If you’re not driving four wheels, he doesn’t want you in downtown Melbourne any more. He doesn’t want cyclists or their bicycles and he’s not afraid to just come out and say it.

Mr Guthrie declared in the Sunday Age on the weekend (The devil incarnate) that he really, really doesn’t like Melbourne City Council’s plan to reduce the number of traffic lanes on the western side of Princes Bridge in the CBD from two to one to make way for a bicycle lane.

He insists Council is making undeclared war on cars in the city centre. He reckons Council’s plan (“the first salvo”) means it will take less time to crawl across the bridge “on hands and knees than it will be to drive”. He says the way things are going, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle may as well ban cars altogether.

It’s true that many more motorists enter the CBDs of our major cities each morning than cyclists. It’s also true that cars are a wonderful invention. In the right conditions they offer unparalleled convenience and speed. It’s no wonder they took over the world from the first half of last century.

But they also have limits. In particular, they take up a lot of road space and so get terribly congested in the sorts of dense locations, like the centre of Melbourne, that some firms want to be in.

The CBDs of Australia’s large cities simply couldn’t exist at their current scale if cars were the prime means of access for commuters. They require trains, trams, buses and ferries to deliver very large numbers of commuters to a very small geographical area in a very short period of time.

Not only are cars an inefficient mode in the context of dense locations like the CBD, they also impose a range of ill effects on what is necessarily primarily a pedestrian environment. They’re noisy, smelly, dangerous and they hold up public transport and service vehicles as well as each other.

Just as important, they require huge areas of space for driving and parking that could more profitably be used for the very sorts of activities that CBDs were invented for in the first place.

Commuting by car provides a private benefit for the driver, but it imposes costs on other users of the CBD. Almost all workers who currently drive into the CBD don’t need to: they could use public transport instead.

The CBD has excellent access by public transport. It is the singular focus of the metropolitan rail and tram networks. It’s the one and only location in the metropolitan area where accessibility for non-drivers is outstanding. It can be unreliable but so can driving. The fact is hardly anyone needs to drive to the CBD.

Or they could cycle. The thing about bicycles that ought to please Mr Guthrie is that they’re much more like cars than trains. Like cars they’re a private form of transport – they’re not shared with the great unwashed. Like cars they’re available on demand and go direct to the traveller’s destination without deviating or stopping to make pickups and letdowns. And like cars most of the operating costs are paid by the traveller.

From a social point of view, they take up much less space on the road and in parking lots than cars. They’re quieter, they’re cleaner and they’re kinder to pedestrians. In fact cars have fewer collisions with pedestrians in cities with lots of bicycles because the presence of cyclists promotes slower and more careful driving.

Almost anyone who can hold down a job in the city centre can also cycle to work. It might require the choice of a sensible bike, a period of conditioning, some tolerance of the weather, and possibly even a little training, but almost anyone can commute by bicycle.

Riders are certainly more vulnerable than drivers, however the sort of initiative the Lord Mayor wants to trial on Princes Bridge would make cycling a lot safer by reducing the risk of collisions with cars and pedestrians.

The really important issue here is that the CBDs of our major cities are very special places both for business and for the social and cultural life of the wider metropolitan areas. The damage imposed on them by vehicles outweighs the advantages conferred. There are now plenty of alternatives for travelling to the centre – it’s time cars took a back seat.

Of course cyclists aren’t ‘the devil incarnate’. Neither are motorists (Mr Guthrie is being ironical), but there are some places where they’re not a good fit and the list is getting longer.