“A complete mess”: Unprecedented public response as council muddies bike lane message

David Schout

The City of Melbourne was heavily criticised for reportedly slamming on the brakes of its accelerated bike lane rollout in June. But while this wasn’t really the case, it has few to blame after a series of mixed messages.

On a cold Thursday afternoon in early June, the City of Melbourne dutifully uploaded its agenda papers online for an upcoming meeting the following Tuesday.

The standard, five-day period of notice from the council gives residents and all those interested the chance to make a submission about particular items on the agenda that might concern them.

 

On a typical night there might be 10 submissions, and on a particularly controversial meeting it might nudge 100. But this time, it surged past 1000.

 

A recommendation in item 6.9 that councillors vote for a 12-month “deferral of further installation of new protected bike lanes in the Hoddle Grid” caused uproar from Melbourne’s growing and, as the council would find out, highly engaged cycling community.

The justification was that “following two years of accelerated delivery” during which 19km of bike lanes were installed, it needed time to take stock, as the city “continues to recover and travel behaviour settles into a new rhythm.”

The recommendation, nestled in among a much larger update on the implementation of the council’s Transport Strategy 2030, snowballed into an issue the council clearly had not forecast.

By Friday the topic was front and centre of both major newspapers in the city, which then spilled to considerable airtime on both TV and radio.

Those ardently opposed to bike lanes felt emboldened by the recommendations from the council’s management in the agenda, and in interviews spoke of how they now hoped they would not only stop the accelerated rollout of bike lanes but also “rip up” existing lanes.

Those at the opposite end of the debate were outraged that the city would halt what it had promised to do, and had been doing, for the past two years.

Days of analysis followed — ranging from talkback callers to economic think pieces — on a topic that had yet to be put before councillors.

When that time finally came on the Tuesday evening (June 7), protestors stood outside Melbourne Town Hall and the public gallery was full.

The topic was debated for well over two hours — a period longer than many entire meetings — as 33 people addressed councillors.

All 33 were in favour of the council’s protected cycling lane projects to date, which had been accelerated in recent years.

In fact, of the more-than 1100 written submissions that eventually landed before the meeting, less than one per cent were in favour of pausing the CBD rollout.

Many spoke of an improved confidence travelling to and from the CBD on their bikes as a result of the lanes and warned that any halt to the rollout would set a dangerous precedent.

Others spoke about the recent tragic death of a cyclist on King St, and how that only reinforced the need for physical separation between cars and cyclists.

Almost all councillors, too, spoke positively of the bike lanes and what they had meant for the city.

In fact, very few of the many voices at Town Hall that night had a bad word to say about the lanes, which would only add to the confusion in the room: why, if bike lanes had been such a positive addition to the city, were they being “deferred” in the CBD?

Councillors eventually voted 10 to 1 in favour of the pause, although an amended motion specified it would be restricted to the 2022-23 financial year only.

But confusion remained.

The positivity of the night seemed incongruous with the vexed debate prior to the meeting.

It took one questioner to stand up at the end of the five-hour meeting to ask, quite simply, what had just happened.

“Could a councillor explain the reason for the one-year pause?” He asked.

“I don’t think that really came through tonight. It didn’t come through to me in the council report either.”

“The optics have been shocking”

The question struck a chord, and many following the meeting online were similarly puzzled.

“I have only come away feeling more confused by this pause issue,” one user said on Twitter.

The reality was that yes, the City of Melbourne voted to pause the installation of bike lanes within the CBD until July 1 next year.

But a look at the fine print would suggest the move is far from catastrophic for cycling advocates.

The council would still spend its budgeted $4 million allocation for bike lanes within the next 12 months, merely outside the Hoddle Grid.

It would instead focus on delivering protected lanes to the area immediately north of the CBD, including on Arden St, Macaulay Rd, Grattan St and Royal Parade, which would start in the coming months.

No financial cut was made to the rollout.

What made the issue an own-goal from the City of Melbourne was that the installation of key CBD bike lane projects to come — including on Flinders St — were still a considerable way off being ready for approval from the Department of Transport anyhow.

The council had not, as had understandably been assumed by many of the protesters and submitters, called a halt to shovel-ready works within the Hoddle Grid.

This makes recommendations for a year-long pause appear excessive; a move that unnecessarily re-empowered the same bike lane sceptics that the council was trying to overcome.

Outspoken bike lane advocate Cr Rohan Leppert was highly critical of council management for the “complete mess”, and accused officers at Town Hall of “playing 3D chess”.

“Where this stupid episode all went wrong is when City of Melbourne thought it would be a good idea to sell the non-delivery of new bike lanes in the Hoddle Grid for a year as a ‘deferral’. That happened on Thursday, The Age headline didn’t help, and outrage followed,” he tweeted after the meeting.

“The recommendation to pause Hoddle Grid bike lanes for a year was not supported by the data and arguments in that report. But that was the recommendation, and so it generated the perception that council had a raft of Hoddle Grid projects ready to go and for political reasons we would ‘defer’ them. Not so. Our significant shovel ready projects are outside the Grid.”

Cr Leppert said “the optics have been shocking” from a council perspective.

The confusion of the evening was perhaps best underlined by the fact that outspoken anti-bike lane councillor Roshena Campbell voted against the motion to pause the CBD rollout.

Pro-cycling councillors voted for the deferral, despite almost every pro-cycling submitter urging them not to.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp attempted to provide some clarification to that concluding question asked by a member of the public.

She said it gave the council a chance to “adjust” and respond to “issues raised by our business owners and delivery vehicles” about the new makeup of the roads.

While lamenting some reporting around the issue, Cr Capp acknowledged mistakes on the council’s side.

“As misleading as the headlines have been, as confusing as some of our own wording might have been, this motion this evening — and voting in favour of it — represents a balanced approach to safe access to and around our city for all modes of transport and the work that needs to continue to achieve that.”

One would assume that the whole sorry saga might’ve been avoided with clearer, concise communication about their plans prior to the meeting.

The community response, both prior to and during the meeting, was unprecedented, and the council will likely tread far more carefully when next approaching the hot political topic.

 

Caption: Protesters at the front of Melbourne Town Hall before a marathon five-hour meeting on June 7 (Picture: Twitter, Boroondara Bicycle Users Group @BBugVic).

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