Melbourne’s bike lanes: A history of misguided opposition

City bike lanes are under attack yet again, with many major newspaper, radio and television networks claiming the lanes have led to traffic congestion and parking chaos across the city. Some groups have gone so far as to say that ‘the humble car driver is being marginalised’ and ‘unfairly punished’.

“Motorists are petrified to come into the city because it’s crawling with bicycles,” stated one article over, in a comical conversion of vulnerable road users.

We could go down the road of picking apart these claims, which Lord Mayor Sally Capp did nicely recently. But when it comes to new bike lane proposals, history shows this sort of ‘bikelash’ – amplified by mainstream media – is inevitable, but generally not very permanent or effective.

In fact, a 2021 international study demonstrated that opposition to new bike lanes is amplified in the short term, but acceptance and support dominates in the long term.

And when it comes to Melbourne bike lanes, Bicycle Network have all the documentation to support that hypothesis.

Albert Street, Melbourne

The Albert Street bike lane is one of the main east-west commuter routes from Richmond to the CBD, and one of Melbourne’s first kerb-side ‘Copenhagen-style’ lanes, physically separated from vehicles.

The proposed redesign of Albert Street to accommodate bikes was initially met with rebuke from a range of opponents, including Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Master Builders Association of Victoria (MBAV), RACV and a number of resident groups.

''The ambition is to help cyclists, but the reality is they will create congestion… and be dangerous,” the MBAV told The Age in early 2010.

But the Albert Street bike lanes, rolled out later that year, did the opposite. The number of riders doubled. Changes in vehicle travel time were negligible, the most significant effect being after 10am when travel times increased by less than one minute.

Today, Albert Street accommodates 1000 riders every morning, and has undergone multiple enhancements to better protect riders. All with minimal opposition.

Wellington Street, Collingwood

Despite providing a safe and healthy thoroughfare into the city, Wellington Street’s bike lanes endured a rocky ride before their implementation in 2012.

The furor started with fierce opposition from local stakeholders. Community consultation, summarized in a council report (link to be uploaded), found that “most Wellington Street business and property owners, people who drive on Wellington Street, and employees oppose the project”.

The media feasted on the controversy, and eventually a political ambush saw councillors who opposed to the bike lanes taking advantage of pro-lane absentees to vote down and stall the shovel ready project.

The project was then stalled in 2014 due to budget constraints, which offered the media another chance to amplify the fierce opposition of local traders.

A decade later, the Wellington Street bike lane is alive and well. Our data dashboard reveals that bike activity has grown by 70 per cent since the build, with female participation higher markedly higher than the national average of 24 per cent.

Swanston Street, Melbourne

Redesigning Swanston Street for bikes and pedestrians emerged only after being put through the ugly political gauntlet.

In December 2008, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle had promised to scrap prospective plans for a designated bike lane and reintroduce private motor vehicles into Swanston Street. This proposal met with strong opposition from the wider community, and from bike riders in particular.

Things got worse in 2009, when the council considered a controversial option of completely shutting bikes out of Swanston Street. The possibility led to another round of strong public outcry. Bicycle Network and several major transport interest groups pushed back… successfully.

In 2010, following a successful rollout of the improved Swanston Street plan, the Lord Mayor confessed that ‘he had seen the light’ and ‘there [had] been a huge increase in people cycling into the city’.

La Trobe Street, Melbourne

Up until the late 2000s, La Trobe Street’s painted bike lanes had been through the wringer, with sections designed as ‘clearway lanes’ and other sections being spontaneously removed without explanation.

But when City of Melbourne announced the planning of separated bike lanes in April 2012, opposition arose. The increased congestion argument returned. The Sydney Morning Herald targeted the false sense of security that separated bike lanes provide.

But the La Trobe bike lanes were built in June 2013, and a City of Melbourne report in 2014 revealed that the number of riders had more than doubled in the morning peak and tripled in the evening peak.

The same report found that vehicle travel times increased immediately following launch of the lanes but, after some tweaks to traffic-signaling, returned to normal.

So why does this pattern keep repeating?

Now we are witnessing a strong resurgence in bikelash over the City of Melbourne’s plans to extend their network of bike lanes. This is despite the fact that less than six months ago similar opposition arguments demanded an independent transport review – that ultimately backed the bike lane rollout.

The review by consultants Deloitte and PBA Transit Planning concluded that bike paths have the potential to carry two or three times more people into the city than the already congested car lanes, providing a massive boost to COVID recovery.

It is understandable that residents and businesses may be wary of the impacts of change – particularly after what has been a tough couple of years for city traders.

There is a popular misconception that only people in cars spend money, despite evidence from all over the world that suggests optimising shopping and dining districts for pedestrians and bike riders actually improves economic outcomes.

This is the reason why major cities from around the world (New York, Paris, London, Rome, just to name a few) have invested millions into becoming more bike-friendly and less car-centric. Not to mention the increasingly important incentive of boosting public health outcomes while reducing harmful emissions.

But despite all the evidence pointing toward the benefits of a more bike-friendly city, it seems inevitable that governments will keep appealing to opposition voters, mainstream media will keep optimising for clicks, and the bikelash cycle will continue.

We’ll ride it out.

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