Saturday, 4 July 2015

The itch that won't go away

You would think that adding a protected bike lane to a street would be a fairly mundane affair - almost a non-event.

Not in Adelaide.

The Frome Street Bikeway has used up more newspaper column space and talkback radio time than any other correspondingly minor issue. For the first time in the history of the Adelaide City Council, it dragged enough people out of their homes for it to be necessary to film the council's debate so that the stragglers could watch it in a separate room.

The Bikeway was completed just before the Velo-City conference in May 2014. Delegates were invited to go and try it out. It was, and still is, the only part of a long-since planned north-south protected bike route through the city (emphasis on the singular).

Now that it has been in existence for over 12 months, the council ordered an independent report into its performance. The report (which cost $90,000) made a number of findings. In summary, business trade, property prices and the street’s amenity had not been negatively affected by the project, and there had been a 23 per cent increase in cyclists using the bikeway since the concrete barriers and car parks were installed. However, there was some confusion about right of way at intersections and the report authors made some suggestions about that.

The finding that seemed to cause concern was the "significant decrease in motorist volumes along Frome Street since the separated bikeway was introduced". At the same time, there was "no indication that reduced traffic on Frome Street had caused in any increase in traffic on adjacent routes."

A day after the report was released I was listening to that Penberthy fellow on the radio. His suggestion was that the bikeway was a "debacle" because it had scared people away from the city. That was the only explanation for the drop in car numbers. That is also what I understood Councillor Moran's attitude to be when she was interviewed - although I stand to be corrected.

It should be remembered that the reduction in traffic is exactly what we should expect. Traffic volumes are not a fixed thing to which we must cater by building more roads. It is the other way around. Traffic volumes are reflexive and respond to the road-space available. Increase the road-space and traffic volumes increase. Decrease the road-space and the opposite happens. That is not even remotely controversial. It just happens.

In the case of the Bikeway, some previous car trips have been substituted - either by changing the mode of transport (witness the increase in bicycle numbers), a substitution by time or a substitution by route.

The well-worn issue of the reduction in traffic lanes was covered in the report. Indeed, that was one of the reasons for the report's commissioning. In short, the authors said that returning the street to two driving lanes at peak times would have a “negligible” impact on congestion, which was mainly affected by intersections rather than by mid-block capacity.

Anyway, a motion was put in council. On 23 June, the Economic and Community Development Committee voted to develop options and costings on how to return the street to four lanes of traffic during peak times. The proposal was planned to be put to council for approval at its meeting on 30 June.

And that was the day we all turned up.

We met at the Box Factory on Regent Street South:

rode along the Bikeway and left on to Pirie Street:

in time for the debate. I am embarrassed to say that I had never been inside the Council Chamber to watch democracy in action.

(Please excuse the grainy pictures. I had to zoom in from the back of the public gallery)

It is unnecessary to bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that it is back to the drawing board. The motion that was ultimately passed can be read in all its glory here (go straight to page 6).

It was all very courteous.

A couple of things to note. First, each councillor who spoke confirmed their support for a rollout of protected bike lanes across the city. That is at least welcome. Once Councillor Simms' proposed amendment was defeated, the motion (on p6) was passed unanimously. They all love the idea. Second, while councillors (and their constituents) like protected bike lanes, there is something about Frome Street that bothers them. Words and phrases such as "over-engineered", "clunky" and "concrete blobs" are heard repeatedly.

Both Councillor Moran and another (possibly Councillor Clearihan) sang the praises of Danish bike lanes. One of them even carefully described the gentle drop from pavement to bike lane and the other gentle drop from bike lane to road. The Danish design is something Councillor Moran has repeatedly raised since her visit there and, in response to my email to her, wrote that she too loves the Danish design and will promote it.

The concrete blobs that they refer to are nothing unusual, eg:

They can be seen on many intersections across the metropolitan area. The reason for them being used on a bike lane remains a mystery to me but it seems to be a requirement of the applicable design standards, the source of which I cannot fathom. It is those standards that seem to be the problem.

If Danish design is what the Councillors want, that is the design they should adopt. It is interesting that people from around the globe visit Denmark each year to learn from one of the leaders and yet not a single country or even city has come close to properly adopting what they see. The Streetfilms movie about the US visit is now 5 years old.

Wouldn't it be great if all of a sudden, we were the first city to roll out something that has been proven to work and then - surprise, surprise - it suddenly works here?

It would be easy.

It shouldn't cost much.

And drains are not a problem. Mikael Colville-Andersen told me :)

It was a great experience to watch the council in action on a topic about which people feel so strongly. Nobody could deny their commitment and dedication. All of them agreed that this is the right thing for Adelaide. They all wanted to make sure they get it right and bring the public with them for the ride. I just hope that Anne Moran's love of Smørrebrød and all things Danish translates into some decent cykelstier.

It's as if the bike lanes are not even there. What's not to love? Via David Arditi @VoleOSpeed

NB: Yet again though, this is a compromise. If you are going to redesign the bikeway, why not do it properly? Why not treat it as part of a larger plan that includes a genuine desire to cut traffic, prioritise safety and provide a complete network that works seamlessly with public transport. This report from Cycling in Christchurch covers it all and applies equally to a city like ours.