CYCLING SERIES No 4: They say a picture tells a thousand words. So let’s take a look at a random street in the city of Utrecht in The Netherlands and compare it to what we do here in Australia.

Here’s a picture of a Dutch street, taken from Google Street View.

There’s nothing particularly special about this street. You could pick any street in almost any Dutch city – including in the suburbs – and observe the same things:

How’s about the dedicated bike lane, that’s clearly demarcated, barrier-protected from motor vehicle traffic and separate from both the pedestrians and cars?

Notice the wide footpath that has plenty of room for cafe seating? 

There’s a large number of bikes parked – just imagine much road space an equivalent number of parked cars would take up.

There’s only one car in the entire photo, yet quite a few pedestrians. That’s because the street is designed to provide amenity to the customers of local businesses, rather than to allow cars to pass through on the way to someplace else.

The lack of traffic makes it a breeze for buses to move quickly through the city, and drop off large numbers of passengers.

There’s also multi-storey buildings that are built out to the edge of the footpath, with cafes and shops on the ground floor, and apartments or offices above. They’re not super tall – most are three to five floors.

Think that’s a fluke? Here’s another example:

Australia’s streets of shame

Now let’s compare that to how we build our main streets in Australia. 

Just to make this a fair contest, rather than looking at a typical street in car-dependent suburbia, we’ll look at one of the main cafe strips in Melbourne – Brunswick Street in Fitzroy. 

This is one of the best urban streets in Australia, in the inner-city of the “progressive”, “cultured” and supposedly bike-friendly city of Melbourne, home to Australia’s biggest tram network.

Stop for a moment and think: How would walking or cycling along this street – or sitting at a cafe for that matter – feel compared to the Dutch streets?

This public space is dedicated almost exclusively to cars.

Most of the cars in that traffic jam are passing through from Melbourne’s northern suburbs to the city – they’re not here to stop at any of the local businesses. They use this public space without contributing anything to its amenity or the local businesses.

Notice how much of this space is dedicated to parking for cars. If each single passenger car parks for 15 minutes, then that road space is being used by exactly four people per hour.

Each of those cars takes up far more space than a parked bike would, meaning fewer patrons for local businesses. 

Look at the laughable excuse for a bike lane on the left-hand side, which ends abruptly at a parking spot. On the right-hand side, it’s sandwiched between cars and trams, where cyclists can be struck by opening doors, rather than beside the curb. 

Yes, there are good bike paths and lanes in Melbourne – but this isn’t one of them. What sensible person would want to ride their bike here?

The narrow footpaths have little room for outdoor cafe dining. Where it does exist (such as in front of the cafe on the left), patrons get a lovely view of a traffic jam.

The trams in the distance, each potentially carrying a hundred paying customers, get stuck behind single-passenger cars. They don’t have their own dedicated lanes. 

The traffic lights make the 100 passengers in the tram wait for a red light so a single passenger car can pass through the intersection.

If you want to cross the street as a pedestrian, you’d better be willing to take a long walk to cross at the traffic lights.

And just think, this is the street that Melburnians like to tell international tourists, including from European cities like Utrecht, to visit for the best cafe culture and street life Australia has to offer.

Is this really the best we – as Australians – can do?

Traffic engineers, we need to talk…

So far in this series, we’ve explored two of the key reasons why many of Australia’s supposedly best streets look like Brunswick Street: a car-centric planning mindset and budgets.

But there’s a third factor at play: inexperience. 

How to build low-risk cycling networks, like the Netherlands or Denmark, is now well documented. 

But, according to Professor Matthew Burke, chair of the Transport Innovation and Research Hub at Griffith University’s Cities Research Institute, many Australian traffic engineers don’t have experience with how to do it.

“There’s a lack of local engineers with understanding of these treatments, and how to do them. Once you’ve done one, it’s very easy to do another. But most Australian traffic engineers who’ve done zero of these treatments. 

“They’ve done the bog standard, basically designed in the 1990s or earlier, suburban layouts we continue to replicate. They’ve done that over and over again.”

There’s a lack of local engineers with understanding of these treatments, and how to do them. Once you’ve done one, it’s very easy to do another. But most Australian traffic engineers who’ve done zero of these treatments.

Professor Matthew Burke

A big part of the problem, according to Professor Burke, is that we’re terrible at retrofitting our streets. When streets are resurfaced, many local councils don’t bother to look at what improvements could be made.

This tends to be combined with a very rigid standards based approach to engineering, which means that outdated street design practices from the 1970s persist.

“My street just got relaid for the first time in decades. All I got was a letter from the council to tell me it was happening and they relaid this street with exactly the same problematic element that it always had since it was first curbed and channelled in the 1970s.

“There’s no way that I have any agency, or the people who live in my neighbourhood, have any way to change our streets. The council doesn’t come and ask: ‘How would you like this changed?’”

This is in stark contrast to what happens in countries like Denmark or the Netherlands, when their streets are resurfaced every 30 years or so.

“They actually go to the neighbours and say: ‘Hey, we’ll be coming to relay the street soon. Tell us your ideas. What are the top five things around here we should fix?

“Rather than the terrible curvature we’ve created that allows cars to get around the corner at 60 kph in a 50 kph zone, how about we build a crosswalk so that pedestrians have less distance to walk in the zone of danger and cars have to slow down?’ Wouldn’t that be a smart idea?” 

As a result, cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen have steadily retrofitted their streets to be more friendly for pedestrians and cyclists in a way most Australian cities just haven’t done.

This is a massive wasted opportunity. When a council calls out a road crew to maintain a street, getting them to also install a wider footpath or protective barriers for cyclists is a marginal cost. 

“It’s really cheap to retrofit everything when you’ve got all the kit out in the street ready for the relay, and it’s easy to do. It’s low cost, communities love it and you can literally solve those four or five problems for pedestrians or cyclists in your neighbourhood.”

Ironically, as Bicycle NSW chief executive officer Peter McLean points out, on some larger-scale road projects, the lack of local council involvement can be an issue. 

“In most instances, the local council isn’t involved in the day to day detail as it might be a state significant project and managed by the state government and a construction partnership which is more often than not made up of joint ventures and a myriad of sub contractors.

“As a result, there can be details lost and overlooked in the instruments of approval and regulatory requirements, which result in poorer active transport outcomes.”

Yes, we can do better – check out Queensland

The good news, according to Professor Burke, is that you don’t need to travel to Holland to find a great example of how to build a protected on-street bike lane. In fact, there’s now many exemplar projects across Australia on how to do it.  

“Jurisdictions like the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads have put a lot of effort into trialling different forms of barrier, including a bright yellow barrier. It’s only ankle height but with a particular profile on it. 

“It provides good barrier protection and dissuades cars from entering but also doesn’t create unnecessary road traffic risk, or pedestrian risk or risk for the cyclists themselves.”

“We’ve been trialling those things and we’re beyond the trial stage now. It’s not rocket science, we know what to do. We’ve got exemplar treatments out there.”

Mr McLean adds that cycling advocacy groups across Australia are more than happy to work with local councils and provide resources to ensure you get the best outcomes.

“For anyone who does need help or advice then they can always contact Bicycle NSW at info@bicyclensw.org.au. We are here to help and get the best and safest outcome for all bicycle riders and the community.”

Join us next week for the final instalment in this series, when we’ll look at some possible solutions for better cycling.

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  1. This is a really good article, something I’ve thought about a lot after having lived in Helsinki and spent a lot of time in Copenhagen and Amsterdam.
    Agree with all of the points raised, but what can we do now we have properties built to the boundary and limited space in between to cater for public transport, pedestrians, cyclists and cars? And trees! We’ve stuffed ourselves because we’re in the crap middle ground of a medieveal European street and a wide Dutch boulevard. We’re now limited to band aid solutions that reduce amenity for one of those sectors rather than fixing the issues completely.

  2. my understanding in Sydney CBD is the roads are ‘owned’ by the State Government authority RMS (previously the RTA aka ‘The Evil Empire’) whose remit is to maximize vehicular throughput

    so when Sydney Council wants to improve streetscapes, it has to ‘ask’ the State Government (who are Liberal and loathe the Independent Lord Mayor of Sydney since she stopped the brown bags of cash arriving for their mates)

    so – easy to blame the city – but it’s the State Government that ‘owns’ and controls the roads.

  3. As a Melbourne based Transport Engineer with almost 20 years experience. I dream of Dutch or Danish treatments being implemented here (and I have experience in implementing them overseas too). Yes there are some poorly educated and informed “Traffic” Engineers out there, they reflect the general population. The biggest problem is lack of political will to do anything about car-centric planning. Even if such will exists (such as in Greens controlled Yarra Council), it is completely undermined by hostile media (e.g. Herald Sun) and right-wing aligned “community” groups. The combination of these factors along with the lack of imagination of the average Australian in relation to moving away from car dependence means my dreams will never come to reality.

  4. I understand the purpose of the article however the comparison is misleading and lacks the context it should have been written. There is little mention of the fact that the Utrecht approach is to force motorised vehicles to access different parts of the city via a ring road with direct connection for active transport options. This gives a significant time advantage for active transport over motorised transport. The creation of the environment is not enough and this has been noted in much research on the topic. Especially in the Netherlands. The political will needed to change the paradigm for transport is a well known history and most noted in the paper evaluating the Utrecht model. Blaming development planning and traffic engineers is an easy target to a very difficult political, behavioural and sociological problem that requires a significant event to ‘shock’ the political will and support for change. The cost of implementing such measures needed for the Utrecht approach is very significant and not likely to be supported in the current political and economic climate.

  5. Thankyou for this cycling series. More stories about this in Australia are desperately needed.

    I would say to look at the work from Not Just Bikes and Strong Towns as they talk much more about the impacts of car-centric planning, the alternatives and their benefits.

    We could even get the Dutch Cycling Embassy to give (more) chats to councils and cycling advocacy groups alike (not just to the big cities).