The suburbs of Wright and Coombs are new suburbs finished since 2015 and as such showcase the design principles for suburb development. For new suburbs, good bike infrastructure begins and ends on the designer’s drawing board. Once the suburb is built it is set in stone. A coherent network of continuous bike paths across the city needs a master plan for bike path infrastructure, upon which new suburbs can be designed and realised so that the new infrastructure interconnects. Suburb design starts with the end in mind. The suburb is a small unit of the much larger and longer endeavour, to build active travel networks across the city.
Looking at the suburbs of Wright and Coombs the following can be observed:
- bike paths are along waterways and parks and traverse the suburb
- bike paths connect people to schools and shops
- bike paths often end at the boundary of the suburb
- when bike paths are found on the edge of suburbs, they are often fragments going nowhere, stopping and starting at arbitrary locations.
Design and compromise
For the designer of a suburb, priorities must and are set into the design. I heard once that engineering design is about deciding between compromises. Looking at the design of the suburbs of Wright and Coombs, it appears that the bike paths serve to move pedestrian and bike traffic within the suburb between schools, shops, recreation areas such as ovals and parks. This makes sense as long as your horizon is limited to the boundaries of the suburb.
The paths, however, are not connected to a large network of continuous cycle paths. There appears to be a lack of a master plan (macro-level planning) for the ACT that maps bike corridors throughout the city, making up one continuous network, thus encouraging people to commute by bike. New suburbs should be designed as a coherent network of roads, paths and infrastructure and, on the whole, the designers are to be congratulated for creating liveable spaces, however, without a master plan it is unlikely that the bike infrastructure design for a single suburb (micro level planning) will form coherent networks suitable for commuting and active travel between suburbs.
Examining the bike and pedestrian infrastructure in Wright and Coombs clarifies what routes are available for the cyclist but also their likely use. Bike paths through a suburb serve a different purpose to bike paths surrounding a suburb. I think it important that the design supports the intra-suburb travel for shopping and school children but also the inter-suburb routes for commuting and active travel more generally.
To make such a comparison I needed maps. I used current maps from OpenStreetMap. I went to considerable lengths to update these with ACT Government ACTmapi Imagery from 2018, with the emphasis on bike and pedestrian infrastructure. The construction of both Wright and Coombs was almost complete on these images. Sections of Wright and Coombs to the north were missing on the ACTmapi images and were updated with GPS data from site surveys. In total, this provides a pretty complete audit of the suburbs.
OpenStreetMap maps are generally pretty intuitive but these screenshots from the website emphasis road over bike paths and footpaths, so the representation is not ideal. Bike paths and footpaths can be seen. Blue lines are bike paths, red lines are footpaths, and the brown lines are dirt tracks and paths. Technically all bike paths in the ACT are “shared paths” but so too are the footpaths “shared”. In other words, the colour represents the balance between foot and bike traffic. In OpenStreetMap speak, use of a footpath is allowed for both cyclists and pedestrians but “designated” to pedestrians. The focus, in other words, is pedestrians. When the path has bikes as designated the path is shown in blue, but the path is still shared. This is the subtlety of map databases.
I have marked the maps directly with text and arrows. The intention is to highlight features and show the direction of major destinations. Shops, schools, oval, parks, childcare centres are of great importance within the suburb. Straight, even, continuous paths and underpasses are important for commuting and inter-suburb active travel.
Denman Prospect is not mentioned in the executive summary but considered as the suburb is newer than both Coombs and Wright and potentially a sign of things to come. I would presume that the city evolves and would hope that the newer suburbs demonstrate more of the qualities that we would like. Experience from one suburb development may benefit newer suburbs accordingly. Examining bike and pedestrian infrastructure may help us see how this weighs up.
The later section discusses, most importantly, the problem with missing links. There is a tendency of planers to underestimate the importance of inter-suburb bike paths. Rather than bike paths as a network, as the road system is a network, the bike paths in many Canberra suburbs are often fragments of a large puzzle with missing pieces. The case study of Coombs, Wright and Denman Prospect looks at specifics.
Suburb of Wright
Wright is not all that big and dependent for most of its infrastructure on Coombs. There is an underpass between Coombs and Wright on John Gorton Drive. The school in Coombs is not that far away on foot or by bike and the shops and ovals are adjacent (see below). Wright is skirted by a bike path along Cotter Road and to the west along the boundary with Stromlo Forest Park. A bike path runs along most the suburbs central axis to Coombs, but unfortunately not all the way. In general, the suburb is quite well interconnected. The streets with roundabouts also have on road cycle lanes.
Suburb of Coombs
Coombs is bigger than Wright and has all the town infrastructure: parks, ovals, schools and shops. It sits on the Molonglo River corridor, but this potential remains untapped. The central axis along Fred Daly Ave has bike lanes but no bike path. There is, however, a bike path crossing the suburb to the suburb’s edge, through a park, past Coombs Pond. The path, unfortunately, ends suddenly. It is obvious in Coombs that something has been forgotten as paths end suddenly in quite a few places. Generally, here the path network is quite fragment. Weston Creek Pond is a major barrier for travel to the east, but more about that later.
Suburb of Denman Prospect
Denman Prospect may be the sign of things to come. The suburb is not really finished yet but most of the streets and parks are completed. At this stage, you would expect the bike paths to be completed, too. In that sense, it is representative for comparison.
Denman Prospect is confusing. What appears to be one suburb is actually two. Coaldrake Ave separates the suburb of Denman Prospect to the north from the new extension of Wright to the south (which I will refer to as simply new Wright). Here I will discuss everything on the map north of Opperman Ave (the entry road to Stromlo Forest Park), which allows a comparison of Denman Prospect and new Wright.
Both suburbs are in the house construction stage with the majority of blocks still untouched, though Denman Prospect is well ahead of Wright. The bike infrastructure is quite good in the new Wright, but it is much harder to find bike paths in Denman Prospect. There are other significant design differences as well.
The new section of Wright has many excellent 2.5 m concrete bike paths with path lighting and signage on intersections. A bike path starts at John Gorton Drive and goes all the way along Uriarra Rd into Denman Prospect before ending rather unexpectedly. To allow pedestrians to shortcut across the suburb, Wright has a path along the central axis, perpendicular to John Gorton Drive and the streets in Wright, with distinctive black bollards at street intersections.
Denman Prospect contrasts with this, even though both suburbs were under construction at this time. The design is from a different pen so that different rules apply. I cannot find any bike paths in Denman Prospect except the one on Uriarra Rd. Denman Prospect has good parks and good views but for the cyclist, it is better to circumnavigate it via John Gorton Drive. Hill climbers will have to use the street. The apartments in construction along John Gorton Drive are separated by a long windy path and stairs up the hill. I doubt bikes will be welcome here though.
Bike path fragments and interconnected networks
Coombs goes out onto the peninsula along the Molonglo River corridor. The tip of the peninsula is undeveloped in every sense of the word. The government is thinking of building houses here. This is a bad idea in my opinion as it would be good to make a park out of this area. The opposite bank of the river will be a housing development and butt up against the Arboretum. The Arboretum is only about one-quarter of the area between Coppins Crossing Rd and the Tuggeranong Parkway.
Edgeworth Parade and Anabelle View meet at the point. The bike path along Edgeworth Parade ends abruptly here. Anabelle View does not have a bike path. Indeed, there is no bike path along the river until you get to the Australian Defence College. This is a missing link.
One of the mysteries of Weston Creek Pond is why they never built a bridge here over the creek. There is not even a bike path across the dam. It is necessary for the cyclist to ride all the way back to John Gorton Drive to get around the Weston Creek Pond. Pretty, but not very direct. A bridge here would save about a 2 km ride.
I would propose a bike path along Anabelle View and a bridge to the old bike path and Australian Defence College. This would provide a continuous connection from Denman Prospect to the city.
The bike path along John Gorton Drive stops short of Holborrow Ave, Denman Prospect. It is not much but it makes a difference. The question of why comes to mind. Holborrow Ave needs a bike path, too. Holborrow Ave is the beginning of something big as the bridge at the end of this street would indicate. There will be a lot of houses down this way and possibly still more down toward the river too. In the meantime, we can build a bike path to Butters Bridge, one of Canberra’s best-kept secrets.