As Adelaide’s 15th Tour Down Under looms, there’s a disconnect between spin and reality about cycling safety in the city.
Warnings 10 years ago that partially implementing cycling lanes in the city would be hazardous to cyclists have been overwhelmed by detail in a major report released recently. Despite a media focus on Adelaide’s city love affair with cycling, hyped annually when the big bike race comes to town, the city street reality is different, and many cyclists remain unaware of the dangers.
All agree that Adelaide is the perfect city for bikes, none more than the Copenhagen-based expert in city redesign, Professor Jan Gehl whom the city paid handsomely in 2002, and again in 2011, to write two reports on how the city might be (among other things) made more bike friendly.
In the 10 years between reports, however, and since Town Hall installed another 33kms of new on-street cycle lanes and hundreds of bike rails, a full overhaul of road infrastructure for safe cycling remains a distant objective. The city’s grid remains incomplete and cycling hazards abound.
Adelaide’s Lord Mayor, Stephen Yarwood, elected in 2010, is a cyclist and inner-city resident. He makes much of the proposals in the Gehl report and speaks passionately of the cycling opportunities. But Gehl’s warnings persist.
City administrators, aware of the politics, got in ahead of the release of Gehl’s second report with their own blueprint, in May 2012 – the City of Adelaide Integrated Movement Strategy 2012–22. It extracted four recommendations – with attribution – from Gehl’s unreleased report, signed off in December 2011 but only released by the state government in October 2012. Town Hall’s report featured many ideas and aspirations. Its release, ahead of the Gehl report, highlighted a plan to further pursue cycling policy implementation to meet Gehl’s and the Lord Mayor’s aspirations. Several weeks ago it was rebadged as Smart Move Strategy, featuring beefed up cycling plans. But contents revealed that Town Hall allowed itself a full 10 years to achieve the objectives. Its Bicycle Action Plan this year will cost $1.16 million, well below the amount needed to realise Gehl’s safety vision. It will spend an additional $198,400 promoting Smart Move; in particular, mode 2: ‘Safe Cycling’.
Ten years ago Gehl’s warning was explicit. “The [council’s cycle lane] effort and intention is good but more needs to be done in order to create a good cycle network. Today  there is no such network but bits and pieces of cycle lanes in the city centre which do not constitute a joint system. Cycling [in Adelaide] is not an integrated part of the city culture and motorists are not used to look out for cyclists. As such, the cyclists find themselves in unclear, undefined zones and tend to ride aggressively in order to be noticed by motorists. This behaviour, by the way, often causes conflicts with pedestrians at footpaths and at intersections.”
Ten years later, despite some improvements, in 2012 similar risks apply. In the 2012 (second) report, Prof Gehl warned: “The inconsistent bicycle amenities in the city centre do not invite or encourage people to use bicycles as a primary daily transportation. The inconsistent system has forced people to ride in between cars and buses, making it unsafe and hazardous for bicycles.”
In light of this, a city bikes hire system, which Town Hall describes as ‘council’s Adelaide free city bike scheme’ but is actually run by Bike SA, invites users to risk the hazards. About 100,000 hirer cyclists have pedalled around the city over the six years since it began in 2005, many from overseas or interstate who anticipate safer conditions similar to their home patches. During 2011–12, 15,000 bikes were hired. Bike SA’s contract’s small print absolves itself of any damages or injuries claims.
A classic illustration of the challenges to city transport planners – and the politics – emerged when August 2012 changes were announced that implemented bus priority ‘express lanes’ in the east-west CBD main thoroughfare, Grenfell (which becomes) Currie Street, in order to reduce congestion caused by heavy cross-city car volumes. The casualty of the infrastructure change was the removal of most bicycle lanes and channelling of buses and cycles into one lane – a highly dangerous outcome. Two months later, similar new bus priority lanes from Greenhill Road to South Terrace and from West Terrace east up Gouger Street created similar hazards. Buses 1; cyclists 0. The initiatives were government-inspired and council endorsed, contrasting Gehl’s philosophy on cyclists, but complementing his ideas on reducing traffic congestion. In the new Smart Move Strategy, illustrating yet another example of government policy over-riding local government’s responsibilities to reduce road hazards, Town Hall recommends developing another 15 kilometres of bus priority lanes.
More government-inspired ideas emerged in November 2012, in a document titled Place Shaping Framework for Adelaide. On cycling, it suggested the now-accepted idea of safe, separate bike lanes and associated reduced speed zones, but added a wacky suggestion to “pilot Australia’s first helmet-optional zones” in the city and park lands. The medical fraternity’s apoplexy is not recorded.
Gehl’s message was spelled out clearly in his 2012 report under the headline: “Hard times for bicyclists in the city centre.”
“Bicycle infrastructure is found in certain locations in the city centre, but does not create a coherent network … the system is very inconsistent”. Those words were signed off in December 2011, 10 months before the Grenfell Street-Currie Street changes and the recommendation to develop more bus priority lanes – weakening a previously (marginally) safer road environment. The creation of system-prompted, government-initiated safety hazards, worsening a previous situation, highlights a very poor understanding of cycling safety issues in the government offices. Many other sites across the city and on its edges also leave cyclists highly vulnerable.
Despite the best of intentions, and the attention of a world expert, twice in a decade, the city still has a long way to go, despite government and council cycling spin every summer.
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