Transport

Park it here! Oh, on second thoughts…

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Bikes not allowed. Upside down wheelchairs however, are permitted.

The poor old City of Melbourne Council, scratching about to make improvements for cyclists where it can, albeit in a transport system that puts cycling on the lowest rung of the transport ladder.

One of the best ways to encourage cycling is to have public transport that encourages it. An example might be taking your bike on a bus or train as part of your journey. Another initiative that has proven positive is secure parking for bikes at train stations, or large transport hubs, ostensibly encouraging people to cycle to the station and then move onto public transport rather than drive to the station. Both responses (bikes on PT or secure parking for bikes at stations) have proven successful according to evidence that has informed Melbourne’s Bicycle Plan, 2012.

Yesterday, at South Yarra station though, I saw on the platform the above photo, indicating that I was not permitted to take my bike on the train in the first carriage. There are several things wrong with this. Firstly, there was no indication as to where I could put my bike on the train; secondly that it’s long been my belief that the first carriage is where cyclists are meant to put their bike (the first carriage usually being the most empty and therefore less disruptive for other passengers); thirdly that there is no parking at all at South Yarra station for bikes (even though 170 people ride there every day and then catch the train – imagine if they were all driving cars!); and lastly, if the argument that is provided is true and that the first carriage is now reserved for those in wheelchairs, do you not think they could have put the wheelchair signs around the right way, i.e. facing the person in the wheelchair waiting to get on the train? And anyway, is the demand for wheelchair space on the first carriage so overwhelming that bikes can’t fit in there as well? I’ve not seen such evidence.

The ‘Parkiteer’ (park it here) secure bike parking cages in Victoria have proven to be successful, even though you have to pay for it. Advertised as free*, if you squint you can see the asterisk next to the last ‘e’. In order to use the Parkiteer cage, you need to register and put down a $50 deposit after which point you will be posted an access card (which may take over a week to arrive). Compare that system to the all swinging, all dancing bike parking in Utrecht. It’s completely indoors and there’s no need to register to use it. Oh, and it’s free. Even with the restrictions posed by Parkiteer parking however, the cages have proven to be so successful that Bicycle Network are no longer issuing access cards for the cages at certain stations, as they are at capacity.

Sorry? What?

Let’s unpack this a little and take Hoppers Crossing station as an example, as this is one of the stations where the Parkiteer bike cage is completely full. My outrage, in short, is this: there are 566 car parking spaces next to the station. This aerial view puts it in proper perspective. Given that by removing one car space you can provide parking for up to 20 bikes, doesn’t it seem like a no brainer to do this? Further, given that each car park costs approximately $500 to operate per annum, is this really the best value for money (and that figure doesn’t even include the negative externalities such as noise pollution, environmental degradation associated health costs and so on)?

Again, in short, how serious are we?

If we really wanted to encourage cycling we would retrofit train carriages to allow (not merely allow, but actively encourage) people to use their bikes as part of their journey. We would find spaces for people to park their bikes at stations for those not wishing to travel with them, and not merely say ‘Sorry, the bike parking facilities are full, you’ll have to put your name on a waiting list’ (this is indeed currently the case). We wouldn’t make people faff about with registrations and deposits to use Parkiteer cages, it would be free and open to all. Again, it would be a demonstration of intent, of genuinely encouraging people to ride. I’m not naive enough to think that everyone is going to stop driving and ride a bike to the station, nor do I believe that everyone would be in a position to do that. But many would if it was made easier (of course having a more fully integrated PT service so that people didn’t actually have to drive to the station would be the stuff of dreams but, currently in Victoria, it may remain a flight of fancy for some time yet).

The outcry over full car parks around train stations is always a political football around election time, and Victoria saw this at the tail end of last year, especially with the Liberal Government’s promises to build more car parks, blind to the lunacy in such policies. I’m incredibly pleased they didn’t get in so that they won’t be able to see their absurd imaginings come to life.

The tagline of this blog is ‘It can be better’. One of the ways it can be better is to encourage people to ride more and make it easy for those who already do. Based on the evidence above, this is sadly not the case.

This post can be put in a visual sense by looking at the Parkiteer information on Bicycle Network’s website (notice the dates of the news items too). Oh the hilarity – it’s enough to make you weep.

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Big Red Cars Breed Car Addicted Kids

The Wiggles' Big Red Car, but imagine if it was a Big Red Bike instead.

The Wiggles’ Big Red Car, but imagine if it was a Big Red Bike instead.

Ah, The Wiggles. Bless them, with their Big Red Car. I don’t know a great deal about them, aside from their colour identifying polo necks and the fact that they travel about in a Big Red Car, as I am more from a generation of Fraggle Rock, The Amazing Adventures of MorphThe Wombles and Sesame Street, but the latter seems to be ubiquitous no matter what your generation. Anyway, regarding The Wiggles, let’s focus on the car, people, let’s focus on the car.

The above photo is of the The Wiggles’ Big Red Car as it sits outside my local supermarket, hungry for a tired parent to feed it coins, begging for a small behind to settle down onto its plastic seat, pleading for the grip of a tiny hand on its steering wheel, so that it might commence its thirty second jiggle and sway as it entertains an altogether unsuspecting, small passenger; the same little soul that is ‘driving’ this red beast, although not in a legal capacity for some years yet. Driving The Big Red Car for them is, quite literally, their first ‘joy’ ride.

And with it comes what? The idea that this is the goal. This is fun. This is something to aim toward. And, perhaps most terrifying, this is utterly normal. Professor Carolyn Whitzman from The University of Melbourne penned a fantastic chapter in Transforming Urban Transport: The Ethics, Politics and Practices of Sustainable Mobility (edited by Nicholas Low) called ‘Harnessing the Energy of Free Range Children’, noting the connection between transport patterns of children and transport patterns later in life. In short, if you drive your kids to school, the chances are pretty spectacular that your kids are going to drive as soon as they can, they will look at PT options than those not driven to school and are highly unlikely to investigate active transport (namely cycling and walking) as viable transportation options. I would suggest that with The Wiggles showing grown men driving about in The Big Red Car and then having rides where you, as a child, can ‘drive’ around in The Big Red Car, we are perpetuating this lifelong habit.

This is further reinforced by the nursery rhymes that we sing to our children. A very cursory search for transport nursery rhymes  provides a treasure chest of songs about transport and, while I grant you, most are about public transport (there seems to be a virtual obsession with trains, perhaps indicating the time period from which they were written and gained in popularity), not one can be found on riding a bike. That’s a huge oversight, in my book, but also a great opportunity. Along with these missing rhymes, where are the oversized, novelty bikes for children to sit on top of and maybe experience pedalling a stationary bike? Where is the innovation, the alternative?

It would be terrific if we could all live in Copenhagen and have our 8 year olds get their ‘license’ to ride a bike. It would be fantastic to have our children have that same sense of pride and aspiration at being a proficient, confident bike rider. As it stands we are miles away from such a possibility, here in Australia. But if it’s true that we should start as we wish to go on, shouldn’t we be providing our children with a better start (and a better idea of normality) than ‘driving’ a novelty sized car and hearing songs such as Driving in my Car and I Love my Red Car (frighteningly, there is a ‘road version’ of this little ditty on YouTube)?

I know this is utopian in aspiration. Australia’s car industry has fuelled (ha ha! Get it?) perceptions of what mode of transport should reign supreme and I am not naive enough to entirely exclude the role that oil and big business plays in this discussion along with the status quo, the dominant paradigm and all the other stuff I riled against when I was in my 20s (and largely still do, I might add).

I guess I’m always amazed at how ingrained travel by car truly is but when looking at the facts above, it would be curious if it was any other way.

 

Why I Run Red Lights On My Bike

Good little article here on why this person chooses to run red lights, whilst on their bike. I might not agree with all of it, but I do believe that the easiest, fastest and cheapest way that cycling can change in Australia at the moment is to allow cyclists to turn left on red lights, when safe to do so, in the same way that vehicles do in Sydney. Sitting at a looooong set of lights just to get permission to go around the corner infuriates me, but I do it, begrudgingly and forgive those who don’t.

Thought Catalog

Recently, a cyclist in San Francisco was convicted of manslaughter for striking and killing a pedestrian. According to witnesses, before the cyclist, Chris Bucchere, struck the pedestrian, he ran a stop sign and several lights, including the one at the intersection in which he struck and killed the elderly man (Bucchere stated previously that the light was still yellow).

The details of this case leave me feeling conflicted. While this case is indeed a tragedy, and I feel terrible for the family of the man who was killed, I also can’t help but feel for Bucchere. His story could be mine. After all, I too am a cyclist, and I also run red lights. I am not ashamed of this, because it is one of the most common, generally harmless traffic violations that a cyclist can commit. The problem arises from the fact that non-cyclists don’t understand what they’re seeing…

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Books as Furniture and Bikes as Fashion

What was once a god bothering bike is bothersome no more

What was once a god bothering Billboard Bike is bothersome no more

Brilliant author, Nicholson Baker, wrote a fascinating essay for New Yorker entitled Books as Furniture. Focussing on the use of books in mail order catalogues, Baker argues books are used as signifiers of a lifestyle, intelligence or value system that certain catalogues attempt to exemplify in their products. People are increasingly doing this with bikes.

I don’t have to tell you about the increased popularity in cycling, whoever you are. The stats are always amazing, and statements are often heard like “There’s been a bajillion per cent increase in cycling in the last 6 months”, or alike (for more thorough stats though, you may wish to see this for Australia, this for the UK and this for the USA – although the latter really focuses on commuter rides).

Bikes have now become a way of signifying a lifestyle or value system, as Baker noted with regard to books. Bikes are fashionable. They are trendy. They have become more than merely modes of transport. If you own a bike, and where you ride it (to uni, work, only on weekends), you are telling people about your lifestyle. And then there is commentary on the type of bike you own which further tells people about you. Is it a fixie? A mountain? A hybrid? A step through? A carbon fibre, lighter than air number worth enough to make most people weep? Your answer says a great deal, even to those who don’t own a bike.

Advertisers have worked this out. On the excellent Waking up in Geelong blog, Marcus Wong provides a humorous account of the ‘Billboard Bike’ (I might have just coined a phrase! Probably not, but hey) fashion that is, as he puts it, currently plaguing Melbourne’s CBD. Advertising for restaurants, clothing shops, wedding gowns and gold sellers (?!) and god (again, ?!) are now being advertised on bikes in a myriad of ways, the bike then being locked to a post or bike rack nearby to the vendor. Personally, I dislike it as it takes up valuable bike parking (always at a premium in Melbourne), but I do think it’s interesting that businesses have latched on to this, especially those that drape these Billboard Bikes with fake flowers and so on, further enhancing the look of a bike. This is especially the case with ‘vintage’ looks, and particularly ‘vintage’ clothing. If you are selling such wares, it is virtually law to have a step through bike outside the front of your shop laden down with fake flowers and possibly floral inspired flags.

However, it’s not only physical manifestations of bikes that have become a tool for the seller, images of bikes have bled into advertising also.

And this is the point of today’s little missive (but I grant you, that was a lofty intro). Swinburne university in Hawthorn, Melbourne, is actually walking the walk and talking the talk when it comes to bike stuff. Here’s an advertisement in the grounds:

Swinburne uni banner with obligatory picture of bike on the left

Swinburne uni banner with obligatory picture of bike on the left

Now, riding along, simply seeing that, I would normally think ‘Another great example of bikes being used to advertise a certain lifestyle. Yawnsville.’ However, riding my deadly treadlie through the uni today to get home, I spied this situation:

Maintenance guy, Joe, before I met him

Maintenance guy, Joe, before I met him

A ‘Fix Your Bike and Pump Your Tyres’ (FYBAPYT – pronounced Fibberpit. I think I just coined a word) pole! As Joe amicably demonstrated, the service doesn’t just pertain to bikes. You could probably take a wheelbarrow down too.

Joe, after I'd met him

Joe, after I’d met him

Joe told me that this was an initiative by Swinburne, not the local Council. I asked if there were others on campus and he pointed up the hill and said ‘Yeah, there’s another one at the end of the walkway on the right’. I thanked him and rode off to discover the next FYBAPYT.

Sure enough, about 100 meters along, there it was:

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Behold! Another FYBAPYT!

Up close and personal, the FYBAPYT is a bike users’ dream, with everything that you could need to, well, Fix Your Bike and Pump Your Tyres:

The tool choices are almost alarming!

The tool choices are almost alarming!

Check out the gauge action

Check out the gauge action!

And what was between the two FYBAPYT stations? This:

Genius! A water refill station, in an obvious, accessible place!

Genius! A water refill station, in an obvious, accessible place!

Seriously, this is great stuff by Swinburne. It’s not just an awkward bubbler with a slightly mouldy, greenish hue around it as is so commonplace at most uni’s, but a clean as a whistle, brand new water station for you to refill your water bottle from a tap on the side or have a drink from the bubbler at the front.

For all my cynicism and criticism that can often fill posts with regard to biking, it’s critical to give credit where it’s due. I feel Swinburne has earned the right to use bikes in their advertising as they are not doing it for a cheap shot and an easy win or seeing it as a flash in the pan fashion that will look good in the uni prospectus. Rather, they have backed up their commitment to cycling, beyond a pretty poster. This stuff takes brave governance and leaders who are happy with a change in the status quo and goodness there should be more of it. I can’t help but wonder how nice the – biking – world would be if all those shops and businesses that use bikes to advertise their wares advocated for better conditions for cyclists.

Trains of Thought

invite to opening of railway

Well, this is how it used to be.

The above is a – admittedly fuzzy – photo of an invitation to the opening of the first electric railway in England, addressed to the Prince of Wales which I snapped at a recent trip to the excellent Transport Museum in London. So much is demonstrated in this little invitation, from the late 20th Century.

We used to celebrate public transport and its advances, and impacts. Something such as this was not merely a publicity exercise for the press to report on the following day. It was a moment for genuine, national pride. A moment to reflect on the glories of modern technology with a view to making the world better for as many people as possible (albeit within an acknowledged class system – both in English society and on trains). But they were noble, they were brave, they were genuine leaders. And this was before the Planning profession had really been ‘invented’ and a Royal Commission into the plight of the poor was imminent in London, due the stark living conditions of its population. Amidst all of this, they still invested in public transport.

Fast forward 125 years to modern day Melbourne, Australia. The current debate over the building of the East West Link (let’s just call it a huge freeway, because that’s what it is) steadily rages with no sign of abating. It is estimated that it will cost anywhere between 4 and 15 BILLION DOLLARS to build. It’s a tunnel that few want, with most believing that the money could be better spent elsewhere, namely on public transport. Needless to say, I agree.

But where did our pride go in building infrastructure for people rather than profit? Did it really disappear with Thatcher when Neoliberalism gripped Britain and then the world? And if so, why did Australia follow suit so swiftly? Were we really that self conscious that we just had to do anything that came from the UK? Did miners strikes, economic downturns and  a subsequent recession really seem that appealing to us, Down Under dwellers?

I can’t help but wonder about those men (and let’s face it, they were) who instigated the building of England’s first electric railway. They were brave men, proud men, nation building in every sense of the expression. What would they say if they knew that same railway service had been sliced, diced and left for dead by the Government that funded it and handed what was left of its near mortal remains to a private company?

We need that pride again. We need that vision. We need that collective idea of the world we want. We need to cut our ties of ways that have not proven to be a success. Build a road and see it filled in an average of 3 months. Build public transport infrastructure and you have, well, over a century of contented commuters. Is this train of thought really so hard?

Among Other Things, Size Really Does Matter

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Last year I attended a great little Conference at the University of Melbourne. It was, predictably, on planning and the built environment. The guy who introduced the Conference imbued enthusiasm and opened with a story of someone who was trying to see a new idea to her Manager. He told how she had numerous knock backs from him and he provided with a seemingly endless degree of evidence as to why change shouldn’t occur. Frustrated, she asked him, “We have been doing the same thing in this company for decades and let’s ask ourselves, ‘How’s that working for us?'”. It was a brilliant question and a fantastic introduction. Given that the Conference was the Festival of Ideas, it wasn’t a bad opening as the audience was going to be pretty receptive.

It appears to me that the same can be said for so much in the built environment, especially in the proportion of space given to cars and lack of space to pedestrians and cyclists in urban environments. I recently watched a lecture by Jan Gehl (if he was in a band I would be termed a groupie, no doubt), and he states that the more asphalt that you lay down the more cars that you will have. The congestion will be improved for an estimated time of three months, but after that you will have more traffic on even wider streets. Who wants to live like that? Sadly, it is what is happening in China at a catastrophic speed.

Of course the size of things here actually have an impact as well. Whilst I couldn’t find a great deal of stats on car sizes for Australia, I did track down a little article from a UK newspaper and let’s face it – we know this is happening all over the developed world. In short, cars are getting bigger and without whacking down more asphalt, their place on traditional roads (and in car parking spaces) becomes increasingly problematic – and that’s as a driver. Try being a pedestrian or a cyclist around a 4×4. It’s basically a scary experience. It is strange as the reason cited as to why people drive 4×4’s is due to safety. They say it makes them feel safe. But at what risk to others who are not behind the wheel of one of these massive vehicles?

I live in a fairly affluent suburb. it is less than 8km’s from the centre of the City of Melbourne and yes I know I am lucky. But I don’t need a car. I don’t feel I need to drive everywhere. A couple of residents’ down from me is an old creche/kindergarten and a bajillion (yes, it’s a lot) amount of children get dropped off here every morning by their Mums and occasionally by their Dads and I would say 70% of them exit from SUV’s or 4×4’s. These kids aren’t being driven across ‘tricky terrain’ or through flooded rivers to get there and yet the parents of these children believe that a vehicle that is completely disproportionate in every sense (not just size, but power and ‘features’) is the most appropriate transportation choice. Just because I don’t need to drive, I am not saying that these parents shouldn’t either but really – do they need something that big?

There is actually a website called www.4x4prejudice.org that has the most outstanding strap line I have ever read. It states: “People Cause Accidents…. Not Vehicles.” 

Priceless.

My point is, if we weren’t getting obese and feeling depressed and isolated and everyone wanted to chat with their neighbour or walk  with their friend or sit in the park or just ‘go for a stroll’ because they wanted to, because where they lived made them want to do that, then sure – drive what you want to drive and drive where you want to drive it. The issue is however – the two actually are mutually exclusive. No one wants to walk or bike next to a parade of big cars. We gave too much land to cars and built our worlds around them. We got it wrong, and that’s OK, but let’s be brave and admit it.

Things need to change and they can and slowly they are. If you still wonder whether or not they need to, look at what we’re doing and ask yourself, “And how’s that working for us?”.

Lycra, lace or leather

blac

Anyone who rides a bike knows what sort of rider they are.

Some will be what a friend of mine refers to as ‘la de dar’ bike riders. They are good. Others are Lycra lads and ladettes or MAMIL’s. They are good too. And then there are those like me. Common commuters who don’t really even know a fixie from a mountain bike, a hybrid from a unicycle. OK, I’m exaggerating to prove a point, but hopefully you get my drift: Common commuters just want to get from A to B and use a bike to get there. We were probably doing it before it was cool and will ride no matter what the weather. And we are good too.

My point is that we all want the same thing, essentially: we want to be able to ride safely, whether it be in Lycra, lace or Blundstones.

And yet, and yet…all too often there is a division amongst us. The la de dar riders hate the fixie folk, the fixie folk hate the Lycra lads and ladettes, the Lycra ladettes and lads hate the common commuters and the common commuters hate the BMX bandits. The BMX bandits hate everyone. And that they have to wear a helmet.

What is with this? Why do we need this division? Are we not all road users? Are we not all struggling to get better paths built for cyclists, regardless of the sort of cyclist we are? I would like to think so.

I have a theory about the people who ride aggressively on the road and it comes from riding a bike in city streets for 10 years and looking at how cyclists interact with one another. There is definitely a competitive element amongst us all. Even if you don’t own the expensive bike, you want to prove that your bike is just as good, just as worthy and just as capable as any other (namely the one sitting next to you at the lights). Where there should be camaraderie there is competition. There also seems to be a sense of entitlement with many riders. Not stopping at stop signs, red lights, or pedestrian crossings (even when pedestrians are clearly crossing) all seem to be a ‘right’ for some cyclists, even if the law would deem it otherwise.

My theory, and this is the point of this post, is that some cyclists have this competitive, tough person ‘I’m above the law’ stuff going on because to ride a bike on a road in Melbourne right now, in 2014, is dangerous. Of course you’re going to feel tough and above the law and a little competitive and just a little bit arrogant and maybe a bit too cool for school. What would solve this? Better infrastructure. If people didn’t feel that riding a bike was ‘tough’ then they wouldn’t have to prove themselves as it would be seen as any other mode of transport.

Do people who ride trains feel tough? Do people who ride buses or trams feel tough? No, because it’s an everyday thing with a very small degree of risk as it’s so safe and people from all walks of life do it – it is seen as normal.

Still not convinced? Do you believe that most of Amsterdam feel ‘tough’ and therefore flout the rules when they’re on their bikes? Of course not. It’s a normal, everyday form of transport that 7 year olds do amongst 70 year olds. Make it normal, allow people to feel safe and I believe attitudes amongst cyclists themselves (along with perceptions of them) will change.

 

I Just Want a Route

The next few – hundred – posts will undoubtedly be about issues related to the Bike Futures Conference that I attended last week, as there was a phenomenal amount of knowledge and insight that came from it.

My main impetus for going in the first instance was to see Paul Steely White talk (the CEO of Transportation Alternatives), as he featured so heavily in The Human Scale – the doco that made me want to get into planning in the first instance and really showed the connection between happiness and the built environment. He was an absolute delight. Charming, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, I couldn’t help but wonder what he made of the hosts that are Bicycle Network. They don’t really have that passion and the political will to do what TA have done in NYC, which is frustrating as I believe they could. Their focus tends to be greatly on organised bike rides, and riding ‘events’ where you pay a great deal of money, rather than advocating on behalf of everyday, commuter cyclists. If this is not the case, then why is it that this is my opinion? What is missing from their advertising or their marketing that leads me to believe this?

Transportation Alternatives logo

Transportation Alternatives logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not surprisingly, there was a significant number of representatives from local Councils, and a couple of people from my own. Also unsurprisingly, I sallied up to them and chatted to them about biking in the area as the night before the conference began, I was perusing the bike map for the area and I realised that there is not a single stretch of road that is genuinely safe for cyclists to ride into the city on. As I live in the East of Melbourne’s CBD, it would make sense that most people would need a route that goes from East to West in this area. There is a treacherous stretch of road that I use daily to get to work – Burwood Road. It is, I learnt from a council member, the busiest arterial road in the council.

I suggested that they implement a similar system as is on Nicholson street currently, whereby they could close one of the lanes of traffic and make that a bike path, and then, with the remaining three lanes of traffic, alternate the direction of these lanes with lights overhead indicating the changes. So, in the morning, you could have two lanes for traffic going into the city and then the reverse for when the rush hour means two lanes are needed for vehicles leaving the city. I could told that this would cost about 3 million dollars to do this, and that there are all sorts of problems because it is a VicRoads road, not a road owned by council.

My argument is this – what sort of money is going to be needed to be spent on health by this council if people just sit in their SUV’s and cars and don’t become more physically fit? And, even if they are getting enough exercise, I don’t understand why we can’t just have one road – just one! – that is a safe passage for people riding into the city. There is so much evidence that supports people using bikes as a legitimate form of transport, if the infrastructure is built that allows them to do this. My councillor informed that a vast sum of money had been spent on the Gardiner’s bike trail. That’s great, brilliant, wonderful and all, but I don’t live within close proximity of the trail so I’m not going to use it. Why should I be shunted in the gutter of Burwood Road, just because I don’t live near the river which is where the path has been upgraded? I just one road. Just one safe, alternative to get to work each day.

You could say, I just want a route.