Cars, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles all share the road. Simon Vincett explores the benefits of separating motor vehicle and bicycle traffic.

As cycling networks extend throughout Australian cities, a host of new riders are poised to take up active transport. Louise Treloar, 25, of Sydney, started riding to work this year.

“It’s been a good option for me—it’s really cut my time to get to the station,” Louise explains. “I ride from my home in Bellevue Hill to the station at Bondi Junction. It would usually take me 20 minutes to walk but on my bike it only takes five minutes.”

“When it gets a bit warmer I want to ride all the way to work. It would take about 40 minutes but it would avoid me having to catch the train. They are just building a proper bike lane which would be on my way, so it will be really handy when that’s done. If I don’t have to take the train I’ll save a lot of money and then I’ll get my exercise done for the day as well.”

On her current commute Louise uses an on-road bike lane and a shared path. Her route all the way to work, when complete, will also offer off-road sections including through parkland, as well as on-road bike lanes. She is one of many who will be encouraged to ride (and maintain or improve her health while doing it) because infrastructure which separates her from the traffic is in place.

Experts say that separating bike routes from motor vehicle traffic is key to encouraging people to take up riding as a mode of transport. From the example of Copenhagen, where between 1995 and 2005 bicycle trips increased by 30% and bicycle-related crashes reduced by half, Australian cities have drawn inspiration to develop cycling-specific road facilities in an attempt to achieve a similar growth in people riding bikes.

These cycle-specific road facilities include what are sometimes called in Australia ‘Copenhagen lanes’: bicycle-only traffic lanes that are separated from motor vehicle traffic by a physical barrier of some sort. These are also separate from pedestrian footpaths. This degree of separation is considered the gold standard for facilitating bike riding for the broad range of people who can ride bikes for transport, which includes children and senior citizens.

“Separation is all a matter of degrees,” explains Bicycle Network’s Senior Policy Advisor Garry Brennan.

“A small amount—say a standard bike lane—will get you some additional riders, but greater separation—a physically separated lane—will get you a great many more riders, and, critically, they will be different riders, the riders we need on the road to make cycling an everyday event for every person,” Brennan says.

“The real magic of good separated infrastructure is that it completely changes the composition of the riding community, introducing a wide cross-section of society—the people that always have had a desire to ride a bike, but feared the threat of traffic.”

This starts with encouraging more women to ride, because they aren’t currently braving Australian roads in sufficient numbers.

“Anywhere in the world where we have great, separated infrastructure, women are more than 50 per cent of the riding population, but in Australia we get nowhere near that, even in Melbourne we struggle to get above 25 per cent,” Brennan points out.

“But once you put some distance between the bikes and the cars, that figure changes rapidly: you go from 25 to 35 per cent as has happened with the eastern end of La Trobe Street in Melbourne, or up to 45 per cent in Swanston Street.”

Australia’s first ‘Copenhagen lanes’ opened on Melbourne’s Swanston Street in April 2007 and cost $550,000 to construct. Bicycle Network praised the Victorian government for their vision in upgrading the existing ‘economy’ on-road bike lanes which had limited appeal for the wider commuting public.

Melbourne now has two more major stretches of separated bike lanes serving the CBD: Albert Street connecting the inner east and La Trobe Street providing a cross-city route in the north of the CBD. In addition, there are shorter sections on Cecil Street in South Melbourne, connecting an off-road path to the South Melbourne Market, and on St Kilda Road where this major arterial connects to the CBD at the bottleneck of Princes Bridge. All of these separated lanes collect from and distribute to on-road lanes to complete the through-journey of the rider and make a viable network of routes to traverse the city.

A focus on network building has been notable in the approach of the City of Sydney, under the direction of Lord Mayor Clover Moore. The City website declares it is working hard to “fully interconnect the City’s villages with a high-quality cycleway network that is within a five minute bicycle ride from all residents”. This is in line with the municipal target to “increase the number of bicycle trips between 2 and 20km made in the City of Sydney, as a percentage of total trips to 20% by 2016”. It is realising its ‘cycleways’ by combining on-road lanes, off-road shared paths and separated bike lanes according to the type of facility that can be applied in different streetscapes.

Garry Brennan agrees this pragmatic approach is the best path forward. “It makes sense to prioritise these designs for where you know you have popular destinations that can generate large numbers of trips: central cities, universities, hospitals—anywhere where there are large employment attractors with residential communities within 15km.

“This is where you will see the most benefit for the cost outlay. Retro-fitting separated infrastructure comes at a cost, but it is by far the least costly way of increasing capacity on a road. For example it could cost $20 million for separation on a long major route into a CBD, but to add the same capacity by train, tram or bus would cost hundreds of millions, so there are tremendous savings for the taxpayer.”

Brisbane is another Australian metropolis seeking to encourage and accommodate bike riders as a larger proportion of commuting traffic. As in Melbourne, this comes with the backing of the state government, which has produced the Queensland Cycling Strategy that sets a target of doubling cycling for transport by 2021.

In January 2014 the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads led the charge in Australia for facilitating more people cycling by producing a guideline for design and construction of separated bike lanes. The Separated Cycleways guideline takes up the focus of the Queensland Cycling Strategy, explaining that to achieve the target: “road design must focus on the comfortable daily transport of new bicycle riders, especially women, as well as current bicycle riders.” This document comes prior to any guideline prepared by the national body Austroads, which is the usual arbiter of Australian road-design standards.

“It is noteworthy that Australia started building separated lanes before there were any standard engineering guidelines,” Garry Brennan observes. “It was such an important advance that we just could not wait. Queensland has led the way with its guidelines, and a national standard is now urgently required to give practitioners the confidence to get on with the job.”

Bicycle Queensland CEO Ben Wilson says the document has put separation on the agenda in the northern state.

“Before this guideline existed separation was not part of the Queensland agenda but something from the south or a freaky overseas model. Now we’ve got a true-blue Queenslander version, which is well done, and will provide engineers in towns in the north of Queensland and the west of Queensland—people a long way from head office—with a reference to deliver a safe cycleway system in existing roads and new roads in their regions.”

Of course, installing separated bike lanes, with their wider footprint than an on-road bike lane, is not without its challenges—a major one being its impact on existing car parking.

“We have a narrow road reserve—12m rather than 14m in Melbourne, for instance,” Wilson explains, “and separation can only come at the expense of car parking. That can be intolerable in some circumstances.”

While it can be a downside, the upside according to Garry Brennan is that separated lanes move bike riders away from parked cars and car doors that can open into a rider’s path.

“Not only do riders experience a greater degree of security with separation, but the risks of doorings are greatly reduced. In fact, mid-block crashes come down significantly, and will drop further as pedestrians slowly adapt to the presence of bikes in those lanes,” Brennan says.

Ben Wilson is convinced separation is the necessary condition to make the next population of cycle commuters start up their regular riding. While in the 1970s advocates including John Forester (in the USA) believed ‘vehicular cycling’ was the answer—where riders share the road and behave assertively to mix with motor vehicles.

However, there’s now a new school of thought emerging

A more recent study in Portland, USA, by Roger Geller, found that people fall into four categories in terms of their willingness to ride for transport: ‘the strong and the fearless’, ‘the enthusiastic and confident’, ‘the interested but concerned’ and ‘no way no how’.

John Forester’s model, it seems, appeals to ‘the strong and the fearless’, which according to Geller’s study comprises less than 1% of the population.