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urban planning

When strategies collide: climate change, active travel and environment

Urban planning is failing us in the Molonglo Valley. Without coordination between the arms of government to set consistent priorities, active travel will not succeed.

The ACT Government goals found in the ACT Climate Change Strategy 2019-25, the Molonglo River Reserve Management Plan 2019, and the Active Travel Framework conflict and are difficult to reconcile. These strategies show commonalities but as with any specific project, there will be trade-offs. In the Molonglo Valley, active travel is poorly served.

The ACT Climate Change Strategy 2019-25 goals cannot be met with Recreational Routes, and that is all the Molonglo River Reserve Management Plan 2019 is likely to produce. The Active Travel Framework describes both Recreational Routes and Community Routes. Riding to work must be attractive, direct and safe, if we are to achieve the ACT Climate Change Strategy 2019-25 goals for active travel. We need cycle highways and more Community Routes. Only 3% of Canberra’s commuters currently ride to work – and this is actually a downward trend!

The Molonglo Valley Development demonstrates the tensions that arise in urban development. The Molonglo Special Purpose Reserve and Whitlam Residential Estate show no clear benefit for the active traveller. This should be a reason for concern. A good overarching network of cycle highways will not occur by accident.

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Crossing points in the Molonglo River Reserve

The number of “existing or expected” river crossings in the Molonglo Valley, according to the Molonglo River Reserve Plan, are four low-level (river level) crossings and three high-level bridges, with the crossings at existing locations. Some of these locations can be seen on the Active Travel Infrastructure Practitioner Tool.

Map 1: Active Travel Route Alignment (ATRA), Active Travel Infrastructure Practitioner Tool

Existing crossings are favoured, and few new ones are planned. Low level crossings are preferred, which is problematic for bikes considering the gradients. The crossing points across the Molonglo River have developed historically and not been systematically planned as part of a large city-wide network of cycle highways, making them less than ideal.

A good example is the planned John Gordon Drive Bridge. The old Coppins Crossing, below it, will also be maintained. With two crossings, one above the other, the benefit to the network is little better than just the bridge.

Map 2: Coppins Crossing and the John Gordon Drive Bridge (worryingly dated), Active Travel Infrastructure Practitioner Tool
Map 3: Location of John Gorton Drive Stage 3C (Biodiversity Review for S211)

Cycling commuting routes need to be direct and the high-level bridge crossings strategically placed. The location of the bridges is derived from the road network design. “We want a road here, therefore we need to build a bridge.” It is the design of the road network which is driving the location of the crossing points of the Molonglo River Reserve, and not considerations of an optimal active travel network. The paradigm is that river and creek crossings are only built and laid out for the motorists’ network (but shared with the active travel network). The design of the active travel network is largely coincidental, as it is the engineering considerations of high-speed motor vehicles that drive the planning. A bike or pedestrian network has different characteristics due to the much lower travel speeds, and not least the required directness of the path.

The benefit of strategically placed active travel bridges and crossing points will only become apparent to many once the Molonglo Valley estates are complete, and the Molonglo Valley Development may take two decades to complete! By then much time will have been lost and rectifying the problems will require more time and expense. A whole generation will have grown up without the possibility to cycle to school, uni, and work, meaning they will well and truly be set in their habit of driving to work. Remember, behaviour follows infrastructure!

Trunk paths not allowed

The Molonglo River Reserve Plan puts trunk paths outside the reserve as part of the estate development. No new longitudinal paths in the corridor are permitted. Recreational, emergency and maintenance paths (for example, the sewer pipeline) are limited to the existing “managed” road (formed vehicle trails, or fire trail), the most notable of these being Pipe Flat (road). There is no commitment for this to be paved.

Map 4: Pipe Flat, Molonglo Valley (OpenStreetMap)

The Active Travel Framework includes “Recreational Routes“. Recreational Routes are not Community Routes and certainly not part of the Principal or Main Community Routes. Recreational Routes are of little benefit to commuters, and therefore provide little motivation to cycle to work. The Molonglo River Reserve: Reserve Management Plan 2019 does not allow Recreational Routes to be a thoroughfare. Rather, Recreational Routes are connected to the Local and Major Community Routes at one end, not both. The Plan describes the paths in the reserve as “tangential” to the trunk network, “outside of the reserve”, and most importantly “low impact”. Riding around in circles with the kids on the weekend has very little to do with riding to work safely and quickly!

“High impact” activities including running, cycling and equestrian activities, are to be discouraged and reflected in the new path design. Bikes are not wanted in the Molonglo River Reserve and the paths should be designed in such a way that the cyclist is not likely to ride there. “High impact” activities are to be moved to the Stromlo Forest Park and National Arboretum. Both the Stromlo Forest Park and the National Arboretum are recreational in nature, and not for commuting cyclists. It is unlikely that the “new” paths in the Molonglo River Reserve will be of much – if any – value for commuting cyclists and therefore active travel will be actively discouraged.

Butters Bridge case study

Butters Bridge is interesting as the planning in that area of the Molonglo Valley is quite advanced. The interplay between the Molonglo River Reserve Management Plan and the encroaching suburb of Whitlam is quite apparent. Only a pedestrian trail is planned to Butters Bridge but no cycle path, despite the announcement in 2016.

Figure 1: Butters Bridge was hailed as “a new cycling bridge in the Molonglo Valley”, but unfortunately the EPSDD don’t want cyclists to use it.

For active travel, you need networks and not just fragments. You want to be able to travel across the city over distances of 10 km and more. When you see an active traveller, they are generally not travelling to this place but THROUGH it quickly on the way to somewhere else. When building an Active Travel Network, we are building thoroughfares.

If we want to shape and prioritise the development of a good Active Travel Network, it will require proactive and future focused interventions during the planning phase. This is particularly true for commuting cycle highways. The design requirements are different from the paths for recreational riders and locals that seek a destination within a suburb.

Denman Prospect and Whitlam are two suburbs in the Molonglo Valley, south and north of the Molonglo River, and part of the Molonglo Valley Stage 3. Whitlam Residential Estate is now under construction and the planning of the Molonglo Special Purpose Reserve (Nummerak) has proceeded to a development application.

The active travel goals for the Molonglo Special Purpose Reserve (Nummerak) should be aligned between government agencies but for the Suburban Land Agency and Environment, Planning and Sustainability Development Directorate (EPSDD) they are different. Whitlam and the Molonglo Special Purpose Reserve are side by side. Each agency planning process happened in isolation and we can only gather that each largely ignored what was happening over the fence. As the Molonglo Special Purpose Reserve (Nummerak) is sandwiched between the Denman Prospect and Whitlam, that is not a satisfactory approach.

“These residential estates will provide open space amenities such as parks and playgrounds, irrigated playing fields and picnic facilities. Nummerak is not be an urban open space. Instead, the design of the reserve aims to reinstate natural reserve values with high quality, innovative and best practice landscape, restoration and preservation techniques.”

Molonglo Special Purpose Reserve (Nummerak) Development Application, CONCEPTPLAN-201936012-CONCEPT_INTRODUCTION-01

The EPSDD seems to have passed active travel to the ACT Suburban Land Agency to consider.

Butters Bridge lies in the middle of the Molonglo Special Purpose Reserve (Nummerak). Completed in 2016, it is an active travel bridge north to south over the Molonglo River. The alternative cycling route is to navigate steep gradients down to the river and then back up the other side. The Coppins Crossing Road is of an old country road standard and unsafe for bicycles.

Paths are planned between Molonglo and Nummerak, but the design of the paths is unlikely to be of much value to cyclists riding to work. The paths are likely to be Recreational Routes. The Active Travel Infrastructure Practitoner Tool is there for the specific purpose of reserving route corridors (Active Travel Route Alignments) for active travel. These are unfortunately lacking.

Map 5: Whitlam and Butters Bridge

Conclusion

We need a rideable network of paths across the Molonglo Valley between Weston and Belconnen, Stromlo and the city. It is not clear when such a network will exist due to the fragmented nature of urban development in the Molonglo Valley. The active travel network needs to be planned across disjuncted projects, as an overarching, coordinated program.

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova on Pexels.com
Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

Reference documents:

  1. ACT Climate Change Strategy 2019-25 (ACT Government, 2019)
  2. Active Travel Design Workshop (ACT Government, 12 December 2018)
  3. Active Travel Infrastructure Practitioner Tool
  4. Building an Integrated Transport Network: Active Travel (ACT Government, May 2015) (aka. Active Travel Framework)
  5. Molonglo River Reserve: Reserve Management Plan 2019 (ACT Government, 26 July 2019)
  6. Planning for Active Travel in the ACT: Active Travel Infrastructure Interim Planning Guideline (ACT Government, January 2019)
  7. Whitlam Residential Estate Concept Master Plan 2018 (ACT Government)

4 replies on “When strategies collide: climate change, active travel and environment”

[…] “Formerly Kama Nature Reserve and part of Canberra Nature Park, now incorporated into the Molonglo River Reserve: Reserve Management Plan 2019 (26 July 2019). “Cycling opportunities from casual bike rides to long, challenging rides will be provided for on the existing management tracks.” Kama Nature Reserve is on the other side of William Hovell Drive from the Pinnacle offset area. The reserve is adjacent Whitlam estate development. Some of the trails are quite good. There is parking on William Hovell Drive, is to ride along Pipe Flat.” […]

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