Following the right track on the boulevard of dreams
AT FIRST glance, Melbourne and Copenhagen appear to have little to bond them other than a former advertising worker in this city who is now crown princess of Denmark. But mention the phrase "the Copenhagen solution" to a cyclist whizzing along the bank of the Yarra or (more likely) wobbling down a city gutter dodging cars, buses and wayward pedestrians, and a blissful look appears.
Published March 6, 2007 by The Age
AU — AT FIRST glance, Melbourne and Copenhagen appear to have little to bond them other than a former advertising worker in this city who is now crown princess of Denmark. But mention the phrase "the Copenhagen solution" to a cyclist whizzing along the bank of the Yarra or (more likely) wobbling down a city gutter dodging cars, buses and wayward pedestrians, and a blissful look appears. "The Copenhagen solution" is the answer to the beleaguered commuter-cyclist's dreams: a separate bike lane, safely divided from traffic, with its own signs and lines. These narrow Utopian thoroughfares, along which cyclists can ride without fear of being sideswiped by opening car doors, are a Danish invention and almost as popular as Crown Princess Mary.
Last week, the Melbourne City Council announced its plan for the redevelopment of St Kilda Road, our most famous, most gracious boulevard. It includes the removal of a lane of car traffic in each direction to enable "Copenhagen style" bicycle lanes from St Kilda Junction to Princes Bridge, with a parking lane between the cyclists and traffic (alas, the bottleneck from Princes Bridge into the city remains a continuing problem). This follows the current installation of similar lanes by Port Phillip council along Swanston Street, between Melbourne University and RMIT; there are also plans to upgrade the existing bicycle lane in Cecil Street, South Melbourne, to connect to the southern end of the CBD and eventually connect bicycle trails to form a car-free route from Brighton to the city.
All very fine, except for one small spanner deftly flicked into the spokes by the State Minister for Roads and Ports, Tim Pallas, who says he will not approve the bicycle lanes planned for St Kilda Road because they would reduce car access. "My job … is to fix congestion, not to cause it," Mr Pallas told The Age. Cars, he said, are "critically important for the liveability of the city".
To answer the rhetorical question — aren't bicycles also a critically important factor in this liveability? — in the affirmative, we return to Copenhagen. It is a smaller city than Melbourne and with less than half the population, but it has an international reputation as a bicycling city, with cycle paths and other facilities an integral part of mainstream planning. Copenhagen's bicycle culture is surprisingly recent and not, like Amsterdam's, based on history. In the 1970s, bicycling in Copenhagen was at an all-time low. It has reached its present levels only through the combined efforts of government, local government, planners and engineers. Bicycle planning and funding is at the same level as public transport, and more than 32 per cent of the city's workers cycle to their jobs. In addition, Copenhagen has pioneered a "city bike" scheme with 2000 sponsored bicycles freely available from 110 cycle racks around the city from April to December; they have become an easy alternative to cars, taxis and public transport, and have encouraged citizens and visitors to contribute to the bicycle culture almost without trying.
Melbourne could, with foresight, application and determination, become as bicycle-friendly as Copenhagen. We are more than halfway there already: our flat, broad terrain means cyclists of all ages can, and do, take to the road in increasing numbers. Recent figures from Bicycle Victoria show a 15 to 20 per cent increase in cyclists entering the CBD between 7am and 9am compared with a year ago. Last year, 1.3 million bicycles were sold, 300,000 more than cars.
Cycling is healthy, environmentally sound, practical and popular. It is in the interests of commonsense and the community to encourage rather than discourage. So why the long face, Minister? Mr Pallas, instead of putting the car before the bike, should re-evaluate the importance of the bicycle in the life of this city, as well as its potential to make Melbourne even more accessible, vibrant and liveable. The State Government and the Melbourne City Council should find a way to work in tandem (as it were) and to transform St Kilda Road into a boulevard for everyone to traverse and enjoy, cyclists included.