Cycling and the City

27 February 2013

Alexander Sheko investigates bike safety in the CBD.

There is no doubt cyclists are vulnerable road users. In 2011, one fatality, 70 serious injuries and 200 other injuries were reported among cyclists in the City of Melbourne. Perry Singleton, a Melbourne University student, was recently hospitalised following a collision with a car caused by the driver’s carelessness.

Garry Brennan, of Bicycle Network Victoria (BNV), is adamant, however, that cycling is not a ‘dangerous’ activity, but rather one involving risks that should be understood and minimised.

In fact, the injury rate per cyclist has dropped by about 5% in the last five years. Brennan attributes this drop to greater social empathy and an adaption in driver behaviour following an increasing number of cyclists. However, more still needs to be done to improve cycling safety and reduce its perception as a dangerous activity.

In the inner city, the most common cause of cyclist injuries is collision with the door of a parked car (‘dooring’), comprising 23% of cyclist injuries within the CBD, largely occurring on St Kilda Road, Collins Street and Elizabeth Street. Melbourne University students, take note: the top locations for cyclist injuries in the municipality are along Swanston Street, Elgin Street and at the Haymarket roundabout.

Leader of the Victorian Greens, Greg Barber, says many safety issues are due to cycling infrastructure being added as an ‘afterthought’ and comprised of spare road space. Councillor Cathy Oke, chair of Melbourne City Council’s Transport Committee, believes a cultural shift towards the prioritisation of pedestrians and cyclists is necessary to deal with the root causes of these safety issues.

Barber, Brennan and Cr Oke all agree that significant investment in cycling infrastructure and the creation of a connected network of bicycle routes is necessary to improve cyclist safety. Cr Oke particularly stresses that cycling infrastructure should separate cyclists from motorists, while Barber believes more state government action is needed to fill in gaps in cross-municipal bike routes, to greater penalise ‘dooring’, and further reduce speed limits in inner-city roads.

Brennan similarly emphasised that the behavioral changes outlined in BNVsafety campaigns, such as caution while opening car doors and using helmets and lights, are fundamental to reduce risk.

While work still needs to be done, the good news is that a lot has already been achieved. Speed limits in the CBD were recently lowered to 40km/h and are estimated to prevent one fatality and 25 injuries per year.

According to its Bicycle Plan 2012-16, Melbourne City Council will spend $5.6m on 15km of new lanes and paths for key routes such as Princes Bridge, La Trobe and Exhibition Street, early starts for cyclists at intersections and increased safety signage.

In the meantime, while cyclists wait for infrastructure upgrades and a greater recognition as legitimate, albeit vulnerable, road users, there are several ways to maximise their safety.

Brennan urges inexperienced or nervous cyclists to resist their instinct to ride too far to the left, as this actually exposes them to greater danger. Cyclists should also always wear a helmet, carefully choose cycling routes to avoid unsafe roads, stop at red lights, and wear lights at night- something university students fail to do at a rate four times that of the general cycling population.

Perry says that assuming other road users haven’t seen you or might move without indicating is vital, and that cyclists should aim to make themselves as visible as possible to motorists and be aware of potential hazards at all times.

Cycling should, ultimately, not be seen as a ‘safe’ or ‘dangerous’ activity, but one that involves risks that can be mitigated. The risk of being injured as a cyclist is lower than it was five years ago and people like Mr Brennan are optimistic that with further investment in cycling infrastructure and growing cyclist numbers, cycling will continue to become safer.

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