Skip to content

Why off-road cycling paths (2)

I have had many discussions about this with a lot of people and I feel the need to state the reason succinctly.

We have had a huge increase in the number of people of both sexes riding bicycles in Melbourne. This is great, and it appears that the on road cycle paths have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. However (anecdotally) it does seem to be mainly older males, 40 and older,  and a lot of people in their twenties of both sexes.

To get more women of all ages, to get parents to allow their children to ride to school, to get older people riding we need to move beyond on road cycle paths. These people still feel unsafe on the roads. To get them to cycle and in the case of children being allowed to cycle we need off road cycle paths.

These people probably won’t go far, but they will cycle locally if there are off-road cycle paths leading to the local shops, the local schools and to their local friends. This will take pressure off the motorized roads and public transport. This will improve the health and happiness of many people. It is also likely to improve the amenity of the local neighbourhood as more shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs will become profitable.

Off-road cycling isn’t for people already riding, though they may take advantage of it. It is for the very large number of people who don’t ride now, but want to. I believe this will lead to more than 50% of people riding, which will improve cycling safety in another way as more motorists will understand cyclists. We will not be a minority.

Finalist in the Better By Bike Design Competition

Readers of past posts will be aware that I entered this idea as an entry in the Better By Bike Design Competition. It was Titled the ‘Back Street Bike Plan’. The conditions of entry required a 200 word entry, but it ended up being a finalist for the Judge’s Award and got 22 voted for the People’s Choice Award.


1. The winners:

2. The entries for the Better by bike competition:

(a) Facebook:

(b) Bikefest web page:

The Melbourne Bikefest had lots of great events and still has a few on now. Check it out.

It was put on by The Squeaky Wheel, also worth checking out:

and its facebook page:


Why off-road cycling paths

There are two main reasons why off-road cycling paths are needed.

  1. To encourage more people to ride.
  2. To increase cycling safety.

First of all I will address the issue of encouraging more people to ride.

The current cycling figures are 5.5% for Australians commuting  (I think including one day a week) and 9.5% for Canberrans commuting (same proviso). This is not surprising as Canberra would have the highest percentage of off road cycle paths, though they do have a lot of on road cycle paths as well. Despite a higher proportion of off road cycle paths in Canberra, there is not a lot of cycling by kids, women and older people. For the Canberra figures see this media release from Pedal Power ACT Canberra at the forefront of cycling participation. For more on the Victorian figures you can refer to this fact sheet from the Australian Bicycle Council and Austroads Australian Cycling Participation 2011 – Vic.

One of my favourite bloggers David Hembrow talks about encouraging cycling all the time, but for the purposes of this discussion you might like to read his entry Three types of safety, which might seem a little off topic for my blog entry, essentially it says that people need to feel subjectively and socially safe when they are riding. Off road cycle paths in general provide subjective and social safety. As it happens, the back street plan I have proposed meets most of the criteria listed in David’s blog entry and therefore (if David is right) would be even more successful than the off street cycle paths in Canberra. Canberra’s paths fail because of lighting and isolation issues. I think the issues mentioned by David are more important to women. I believe bicycle lanes (on street cycle paths) are not considered safe by women and families, and these are the next group of riders we have to encourage. For more on this strand of thought you might like to read this report from Scientific American To boost urban bicycling, figure out what women want.

To encourage more people to ride then, we need off street cycle paths. At the very worst we will double the number of cyclists on the road like Canberra has done. My back street cycle path proposal will do even better because it addresses more of the concerns of women and family riders than isolated bicycle paths or bicycle paths carved out of and therefore parallel to main roads.

Secondly off road cycling will improve real safety, not just perceived safety.

A report done by the British Medical Journal on Montreal’s bicycle paths showed a 28% decrease in accidents with off road bicycle paths compared to on road bicycle paths, interestingly it also noted that two and a half more cyclists used the off road cycle paths compared to the on road cycle paths. You can read about this study by reading Risk of injury for bicycling on cycle tracks versus in the street. I don’t know if this study is fair to my back street bike plan, as the Montreal paths seem to follow main roads, I have stated before that one of the virtues of my proposal is the use of back streets. I am convinced that back street bicycle lanes would be safer than off road bicycle lanes along major roads.

Also that report would seem to be at odds with this Australian study done by Monash University Bicycle and Motor Vehicle Crash Characteristics which reports 29%  of accidents occur at intersections. Which would imply that there would be a reduction of near 70% of accidents by separating bicycles from cars. Whether it is a reduction of 30% or 70% or something inbetween, it does seem that rider safety would soar with off-road bicycle paths. This is especially important when you consider that about 30% of bicycle accidents are very serious or fatalities as the Monash report cited states.

The back streets aren’t wide enough here.

This is a common response to my plan see “Getting more people to cycle by improving safety”.

If you don’t want to look back at my plan. In a  nutshell my proposal is to replace one lane in some back streets with a separated two way bicycle path replacing one of the lanes. For full details you will have to follow the link above. In this post I want to address the issue stated in the title which I will rephrase.

My original proposal is to preserve parking on both sides of the street. The idea of preserving parking is fine for very wide back streets that have room for two cars passing and also for parking on both sides. However many back streets really only have space for one car and parking both sides. Because these streets are under-utilised and generally people do not speed on them, it is workable for these streets to be two way,

In real suburban streets in Melbourne, the streets also do not use a lot of on-street parking because most houses have driveways. So in suburban streets with driveways, losing parking down one side of the street may be a solution. On the other hand in older areas with little or no driveways, it will probably not be acceptable to lose parking on either side of the street.

This is a proposal, and compromises will have to be made on all sides if it is to come to fruition. Common sense will have to prevail. In inner urban areas, wider streets may have to be identified. In outer suburban areas, this may not be an issue. I have never said every street should be modified in this way, so I am not alarmed that not every street can be modified to allow an extra bicycle path.

My original proposal is for an East-West street and a North-South street in each major block to be nominated as the street in that block to be reconfigured for the two way bicycle path. On the basis of cost, or if not enough streets are suitable for reconfiguring, the council concerned may choose to reconfigure one street in each direction in every second or third block. This solution would not be ideal, but if they were connected, it would provide long stretches of off-road cycling.If this were done to bring off-road cycling paths to a larger area with the intent of infill of the missing blocks later, it might be preferable.

It is the goal of the proposal to provide more off-road cycling paths. Details like this should not be seen as a a blocker. I believe compromise is better than no off-road cycling paths at all.

This is not the same as the Montreal bike paths.

People say this plan looks like Copenhagen bike paths or Montreal bike paths.

It was inspired by the Copenhagen bike paths, but at the time I thought a path each side of the road would take up more room and cost a lot more. I was also inspired by the bicycle take up in Holland, which was willing to spend up big on off-road cycle paths. I hadn’t heard of the Montreal bike paths, which I now know are very similar and apparently very successful.

However, this is plan is different in that it is applied to back streets and not main roads and there are good reasons for this.

Though I hope to eventually have bike paths all over the city allowing people to traverse the whole of Melbourne without sharing the road with cars, this is really a modest proposal. It is intended to get people using bikes locally in the city. It is intended to give people a little more physical exercise and to make their immediate surroundings more pleasant. The main issue is safety, or perceived safety, this blog entry, and Hembrow’s blog in general is a good site to read about getting people on bikes.

I saw that the take up of painted cycle paths on the roads was progressing fairly quickly in Melbourne and it is getting  more people on the road. However I would guess the number of cyclists willing to ride on painted paths to max out at 15% of the population. I wanted to see something closer to Holland’s roughly 30%. All the research points to off-road paths as being the answer.

There doesn’t seem a lot of room for cyclists on our main roads. I consider main roads dirty and unpleasant. With larger vehicles like trucks, buses and four wheel drives on main roads, they are more dangerous too.

I saw that Melbourne is a grid with under-utilised back streets, going to the same places as the main roads. I saw that these back streets were more pleasant, safer, quieter and didn’t really need two way traffic. Which meant there was space for bicycle paths.

Reconfiguring back streets with one  extra kerb or a similar barrier to separate bicycles from cars, and to isolate them from pedestrians, seems a relatively cheap solution providing off-street bicycle only lanes. One could argue that painting bicycle lanes is cheaper. I would agree it is initially, but the paint has to be renewed. My understanding is this has to be done on a yearly basis. But I could be wrong on the frequency. Whatever it is, the maintenance cost on a path created by a kerb, with no heavy vehicles using it would have to be less than the continual painting of bicycle paths, especially with vehicles sharing them. So I do not think the cost would be that different.

Back streets are a local concern in my state. The main roads are a state concern. This means to get the ball rolling on back streets is a city council concern, not a state concern. I would expect some councils to be more easily swayed politically than the State Government, so the plan is more likely to get off the ground. The roll-out of bicycle paths will be slow and piecemeal, but that is what we are seeing with the painted cycle paths now.

Once one or two city councils take it up then more, especially neighbouring councils, will too. Hopefully some time soon in the future they will all do so.

I don’t want to exclude cyclists from sharing roads with cars. I don’t intend to provide cycling as a mass transit system, at least not initially. In a large city, mass transit should really be by public transport. Bicycles can be part of the transport mix, and personally I do commute to and from work every day by bicycle. This does not mean I expect everyone to eventually do that.

However if more people take up cycling as a way to get around locally,  then more people will start to use bicycles to commute. There will in no way be a 100% take up, and we shouldn’t expect it.

However a very large number of people will try to ride bicycles if they think it is safe. A large number would be willing to ride locally. A large number of these will stick at it. A smaller number will consider commuting, but that will be more than would without the off-road option.

So I think the back street option is doable because it is cheaper, more pleasant and politically easier to organise.

With more off-street cycling paths, Melbourne will have a chance of approaching Holland’s success in getting more people to ride bicycles. Hopefully other cities in Australia and the world will do so too.

Why back streets?

To get more people on bicycles we need to make them feel safe. So we need off road cycle paths. These paths were not included as part of the basic infrastructure and we have to find the space for them somewhere.

Back streets are under-utilised. That means they are safer in their own right. It also means they have less pollution as they have fewer cars on them. With less pollution they have to be more pleasant and healthier to ride on than the busy main streets. They will also be cheaper to reconfigure than other options.

Like it or not, motorists are in the majority, and they vote. They do not like sharing their roads with anyone. They quite often don’t see cyclists and they travel much faster, for these reasons and others they see cyclists on what they regard as their roads as a nuisance. This isn’t fair, but it is reality. Politically any solution involving more space for cyclists should not impact on motorists too much. They will not like spending money on cyclists and they will not like losing road space. Using back streets for cycle paths is a win-win solution for both.

Pedestrians also don’t want to share their space. Many are frightened of the faster cyclists. We should respect them and any fears they have.

Which brings us to back streets. They form a grid in Melbourne and other Australian cities and probably other cities all over the world. Which means they go to the same places as the main streets.

With the new bike lane protected from cars by a kerb and pedestrians protected from cyclists by a kerb, parents will feel happier letting their children ride and people in general will feel safer to ride the streets.

But that isn’t all, using back streets and providing safer cycling options will have other knock on effects.

Those streets lucky enough to be reconfigured with bicycle lanes will become more lively. There will be more people using them. They will have cyclists using them as well as pedestrians, so pedestrians will prefer them too. This is because pedestrians will feel safer walking down streets that more people use. As a result more people will get exercise on bicycles and on foot.

How busy is more lively? I can only draw from my experience of living in Brunswick, one of the more cycled neighbourhoods in Australia. On bicycle lanes, I have found that even at the slowest times there is always at least one other bike on the lane. From this I infer that you will hardly ever be alone on one of the modified streets, so pedestrians should feel safer too.

This will revitalise neighbourhoods. More people will move about locally on foot and by bicycle, so local businesses, cafes, restaurants, grocers, shopping strips, etcetera will have more customers. This will result in more local businesses coming into existence and more profit for existing local businesses.

Lastly back streets are controlled by councils, not by a state authority. Local politics is easier and cheaper than state politics. The changes can be piecemeal, and eventually cover the whole city. This idea can be applied in one area and hopefully surrounding Councils will see the beauty of the idea and connect into it.

2012 Melbourne Bikefest Better By Bike Design Competition

I have entered the 2012 Melbourne Bikefest Better By Bike Design Competition. As they say themselves “Better by Bike is a biennial national design competition unearthing improvements in bike, infrastructure or accessory design that improve the experience of the bike rider”. I love the sentiment generally and I am pretty happy to be part of it. This competition is put on by The Melbourne BikeFest which is a “festive” approach to making cycling mainstream rather than a fringe activity, which is another aspiration I agree with. The Melbourne Bikefest is organised by “The Squeaky Wheel” an advocacy group and publication for the same ideals.

I have entered the idea I outlined in my earlier entry from the 15th of October 2011 “The proposal to improve safety“. Hopefully more people will see the proposal as a result of entering this competition.

There is a people’s choice award for this competition. There are a lot of entries apart from mine, have a look. Of course I hope you like my entry, but you may prefer others. Have a vote anyway, let’s try to promote cycling generally. The votes can be entered by the photos of the Better By Bike facebook page.

As part of the process I had to enter some images. As I have some spare images left over I thought I would add them to this post so here we go:

A typical street before treatment

A typical street after modification

Sorry for the bad graphics, I hope you get the idea.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.