Planning bike networks is doable

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One would think that the best practice for planning road networks would also apply for planning a bike network. The high standards are, however, not translated across. Bike network planning does not use computer modelling, ABS Census data, population growth estimates, or traffic monitoring on existing paths. The ACT has no regular path monitoring, cleaning or maintenance programs. The maintenance of the bike network does not appear as an item in the ACT Budget documents. Repairs are ad hoc and it can take years for the most simple things to be fixed. So, what can be done?

Planning road networks

We have been optimising the process for road network planning for many, many years. For decades, computers have been used for traffic modelling. In 2004 Canberra finished the last spatial plan. Population predictions until 2058 followed. New towns such as the Molonglo Valley were planned and with it an arterial road network to carry traffic. Roads have scheduled maintenance programs. Road duplications have become a favourite. Huge sums are spent on consulting companies to find ways to make our road network better.

Compare this: In the 15 years we have lived in Belconnen. The Principle Cycle Route to Civic, the CBR Cycle Route C5, commonly known as the Aranda bike path, has not been resurfaced once. In contrast, we watch the Coulter Drive, Southern Cross Drive and Beconnnen Way resurfaced almost every year.

Safety and hazards on CBR Cycle Route C5, Aranda bike path, Belconnen, Canberra
10cm high bump on a cycle path. Safety and hazards on CBR Cycle Route C5, Aranda bike path, Belconnen, Canberra

Getting it right

The UK Government recently released guidelines for designing cycle infrastructure correctly. Cycling networks and routes should be: coherent, direct, safe, comfortable, and attractive.

Coherent means:

  • Abrupt reductions in the quality of provision for cyclists – such as a busy high-speed roundabout without facilities – will mean that an otherwise serviceable route becomes unusable by most potential users.
  • Main roads are often the only direct, coherent route available to move between places, but these are usually the roads where people most fear the danger from motor vehicles.
  • Connections between successive sections should be obvious. Similarly, a route through a complex junction should be highly visible and clear to all road users.

Direct means:

  • Directness is measured in both distance and time. Routes used for commuting therefore should provide the shortest and fastest way of travelling from place to place.
  • To make cycling an attractive alternative to driving short distances, cycle routes should be at least as direct – and preferably more direct – than those available for private motor vehicles.

Safe means:

  • Not only must cycle infrastructure be safe, it should also be perceived to be safe so that more people feel able to cycle. (Humans are not logical creatures. They are “psychological” creatures.)
  • Safety and environmental improvements for all road users can be achieved by reducing motor traffc volumes and speeds.
  • Safety will need to be achieved by providing dedicated and protected space for cycling, which may involve reallocating existing space within the highway (or providing a parallel route).
  • The potential for confict between pedestrians and cyclists should be minimised by keeping them separate except in low speed, low traffc environments.
  • A feeling of safety can be achieved by providing lighting and by passive surveillance from overlooking buildings and other users.
  • Maintenance to address surface defects, overgrown vegetation, fallen leaves, snow and ice will all help to reduce the likelihood of falls and crashes for all people, and preserve available width and sight lines for cyclists.

Comfortable means:

  • Comfortable conditions for cycling require routes with good quality, well-maintained smooth surfaces, adequate width for the volume of users, minimal stopping and starting.
  • Adequate width is important for comfort. Cycling is a sociable activity and many people will want to cycle side by side, and to overtake another cyclist safely.
  • Families are more likely to use off-carriageway facilities. Young children may need additional space to wobble.

Attractive means:

  • Cycling is a pleasurable activity, in part because it involves such close contact with the surroundings, but this also intensifes concerns about personal security and traffc danger.
Photo by Prabhala Raghuvir on Pexels.com
bicycle amsterdam netherlands cycle Photo by Prabhala Raghuvir on Pexels.com

The importance of direct

Cars have higher speeds and that allows them to travel great distances. The fastest route is often not very direct. For bikes, it is the opposite. They do not go fast or very far so the best route is always the straight-line path to the destination. Because roads are built first, they have received the prime real estate and are mostly shorter and with lower gradients than the existing bike routes. Maintenance of the roads is also better. For these reasons, cyclists embrace the roads. A comparison of road distance between Belconnen and Civic is just 8.3km but a distance of 11.4km if you take the safer shared path.

Designing a bike network for Canberra will be drawing straight lines between town centres, trying to build bike paths as close as possible to those lines. Building bridges is the best way to cross obstacles as it allows the cyclist to safely maintain moment, which is especially important when commuting to work.

There may be hills in the way. Topography has confronted road builders for aeons. With bike paths, it is no different. Climbing restricts the range of a cyclist. The hills of Canberra create choke points over the lowest point on the ridge (a pass).

Because direct is so important, the few corridors that are suitable for a bike path MUST be reserved, preserved and defended from the conflicting priorities of consecutive governments. It will take time to build the network. Put an apartment block on the green patch and the direct path can no longer be completed.

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Pencil and paper not required

We have long moved past the need for a pencil and paper. Computer modelling allows for many considerations: population density, population growth, age distribution, topography, existing roads and bridges, locations of schools and town centres, public transport stops, and a lot more. Computer models are used as planning tools.

The idea is not new. In 2014 the UK Government funded the development of the Propensity to Cycle Tool (PCT) for planning as part of its national cycling initiative that included goals for participation and gender equality. By 2018 they had the first results, and in 2020 the tool was online for use by local governments. The tool makes recommendations for routes to access schools and corridors for commuting that would be used the most. These become the priorities for network design and later path construction.

This tool is open-source and anybody can use it but there is a hitch. It is only as good as the data you feed into it, and the data is only for the UK. For this tool to be used in the ACT, it must be fed with ACT data and hosted on a server. This will take money, time and knowhow, none of which is currently provided. The government needs to jump in.

ACT Greens’ approach

The ACT Greens’ approach is well intended, yet a bit problematic. The “suggest a path” approach gets the discussion going but does little to help with the strategic and long-term overall network design and expenditure prioritisation. The crowdsourced approach most likely will lead to a wishlist and consequently a fragmented network… unless there is strong and unwavering sponsor- and leadership.

Discussing bike networks is one thing. Getting them built is another.

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Planned – but not defended – is lost

Even with perfect network design, should there be such a thing, there is no guarantee that it will ever be built. The nature of urban planning is that it takes decades, is expensive, fraught with compromise, and hostage to political will. In other words, a bike-friendly government could be followed four years later by an unfriendly one and the momentum is lost.

The corridors required for the bike network need to be secured through a statutory instrument: the Territory Plan.

The Territory Plan is high level. The Concept Plan for a suburbs is driven by other factors. The Estate Development Code is important as it describes in detail what our urban environment should look like. The Active Travel Framework was released in 2015, the Active Travel Guidelines and the Municipal Infrastructure Standard 05 for Active Travel (MIS05) in 2019. These initiatives will not be successful unless they are fully integrated in the Estate Development Code.

The Estate Development Code is statutory, but the Active Travel Framework and Municipal Infrastructure Standard 05 for Active Travel are guidelines. As we know from Geoffrey Rush, guidelines are not rules and may not be followed. For the development of a new suburb, under the pressures of time, cost and competing interests, guidelines are likely to be ignored. The development of the Molonglo Valley has demonstrated this.

Photo by Kristina Paukshtite on Pexels.com
Photo by Kristina Paukshtite on Pexels.com

Planning the ACT bike network

An effort has been made to design the ACT bike network. The construction has failed due to a lack of funding. Pedal Power ACT has made sensible and largely consistent suggestions for the annual ACT Budget. Unfortunately, the suggestions have been largely ignored, and funding has been inadequate. For every two steps forward, there is one step backwards.

The Active Travel Infrastructure Practitioner Tool released in 2017 provided a moment of hope. Finally it was possible to reserve the bike path corridors for later development. Unfortunately, the Active Travel Infrastructure Practitioner Tool is not a statutory document and it was ignored. The content of the Active Travel Infrastructure Practitioner Tool is now out of date (there has been no update in the last two years). Further work is required.

The problems got worse when the ACT Government dropped the ball with the light rail. From the perspective of active travel, public transport is a good thing. It is generally accepted that the bike network should integrate with the public transport network, which includes the light rail. The ACT Government, however, did not build a safe bike path along the length of the light rail to Gungahlin despite the opportunity provided by the road reconstruction. They also succeeded in demolishing the bike path along Flemington Road and then forgot to rebuild it. Only after community protest was that path finally reestablished.

Pedal Power Act’s strategy is now that a bike path should run alongside the light rail and be part of the works. Feeders from the suburbs would join with the network so that cycling the last mile can be combined with public transport over a greater distance. Imagine you could ride from Franklin, Gungahlin, to the next light rail stop, load your bike there and get off in Tuggeranong to continue riding to Banks. In this way, the ride would be shortened by 40km.

It makes sense. The light rail favours direct routes, and has an aversion to high gradients and tight turns. Cyclists do too. The additional cost for the bike path is comparatively small, and any disruptions are reduced when the two are part of the same project.

woman riding bicycle, Photo by Alesia Kazantceva on Unsplash
woman riding bicycle, Photo by Alesia Kazantceva on Unsplash

The leadership void

The idea of Jurassic Park died when somebody pointed out that DNA is not enough. You do not get a baby without a baby-making machine. The womb makes it all possible. The same applies to a bike network. The network design is the DNA but a cycle network has a gestation (construction) period of 10-20 years. We can learn from the Netherlands that without leadership, prepared – if necessary – to fight successive elections on the cycling agenda, Canberra will not turn into an admired bike city.

In those places where a shift to cycling for active travel has succeeded, political leadership was instrumental for its success. The Major of Paris rides to work. The English PM can be still found on his bike. A newly elected, former bike shop owner (see below) is changing Ireland. Until we see the Chief Minister on a bicycle, not a lot will happen.

Photo by PIRO4D

Republic of Ireland

After talking recently about the investment in cycle networks in Paris, it was good news to find the Republic of Ireland has followed.

“A former bike shop owner has secured a substantial financial settlement for active travel in the Republic of Ireland. For the next five years, cycling and walking schemes—including protected cycling networks and expanded sidewalks—will receive €360 million annually.

The settlement was secured by Eamon Ryan, leader of Ireland’s Green Party, a former co-owner of the Belfield Bike Shop in Dublin, and founding chairman of the city’s cycling advocacy campaign.

20% of Ireland’s transport budget will go to walking and cycling while two-thirds of the rest will go to public transit.”

Ireland’s Green Party Leader, A Former Bike Shop Owner, Secures ‘Astonishing’ Boost For Walking And Cycling, Carlton Reid, Forbes, 15 June 2020, accessed 17 June 2020.

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