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Safer cycling or folly?

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Opinion Piece Mary Debrett

Safer cycling or folly? – Vic Roads’ BSCC project A summary of public feedback on Vic Roads Ballarat Safer Cycling Connections project is apparently due out soon. Controversial key components of the project, the addition of a cycle path down the middle of the Sturt Street Gardens for the eight blocks between Lyons and Pleasant Streets, and closure of four inter­sections, have also drawn much discussion on a recent ABC Ballarat facebook post. Many who support the central path regard those opposing it as anti-cycling, and seek to seize the moral high ground by citing Vic Roads’ claim that public safety concerns under­pin the project. Certainly expanding our city’s network of cycle paths is a worthy aspiration. But whether a new cycle pathway down the centre of the Sturt Street Gardens is the best way to do it, and whether it will improve public safety appears highly debatable. Diverse criti­cisms of the central path are on offer and it will be interesting to see how these emerge in Vic Roads’ summary.

Many have noted the heritage significance of the Sturt Street Precinct, described in the Victorian Heritage Register (VHR) as ‘a grand elegant boulevard in the European tradition,’ and listed as ‘significant’ under no less than five separate categories. The City of Ballarat’s own Sturt Street Gardens Conservation and Land­scape Management Plan of 2007 notes: The many statues, fountains and memorials located within the Sturt Street Gardens precinct have been described as one of the best collections in a single street from the Victorian era in the southern hemisphere. The proposed route for the new cycle path raises concerns about centrally located foun­tains and statuary in the Gardens. Reassurances have been made that these will not be affected; however, little detail has emerged as to how this is actually to be done. In the block between Dawson and Lyons Streets the cycle route is directed along the side paths, presumably to re­spect the Cenotaph. There are, however, other memorials also worthy of respect. The Petersen Fountain in the block between Drummond Street and Windermere Street is a case in point. Dating back to 1923, the fountain, ‘constructed in carved marble, with bronze frogs and a sur­mounting bird, with a granite circular base,’ sits in the middle of the block opposite the Ballarat Base Hospital. It is framed by a circular garden and a path that effectively integrates each of the side paths on either side of the median strip.

There are marble benches east and west of the circular path to enable people to sit and enjoy the view and sound of falling water. There are also two marble drinking fountains on the north and south sides of the circular path. This is a popular place to wait for hospital visitors and out-patients and a pleasant lunch spot for local workers. If the proposed central bike path is going to curve around each marble seat in order to then use part of the existing circular path, diverging again around the bench opposite to return to its cen­tral route, the symmetry of the fountain’s design will be destroyed, and so too will the peace and privacy of anyone sitting on one of the benches or using one of the drinking fountains, as cyclists whoosh by.

The obvious solution here would be for the bike path to take over one of the side paths – something many in online discussion threads have advocated as the common sense approach. Yet, if that is agreed to for this block, then why not for all of them? Why not just leave these beautiful, heritage gardens as they are? The width of the Gardens is nicely judged to offer a tranquil retreat from the traffic on either side. A central cycle pathway will alter this and make sit­ting on either side the gardens about as pleasant as sitting on a nature strip. The Technical Report for Ballarat City Council’s own Ballarat Bicycle Network 2017-25 identified the existing side paths in the Sturt Street Gardens as appropriate for this purpose. So why has Vic Roads decided that a new central path is needed? It’s a question dogging many of the online discus­sions of this topic. The claim that the central pathway and closure of intersections – at Talbot, Ascot, Windermere and Raglan streets will improve safety has also confounded many. Vic Roads has cited accident black spots, at Ascot Street for example, as a justification for the closure, with the dual aim of also enabling cyclists to travel unhindered along the centre of the Sturt Street Gardens.

Ques­tions have to be asked about this. The available traffic data is far from convincing and common sense also suggests it is naïve to expect closures to reduce accidents. It seems more likely that the closures will just shift traffic and accidents elsewhere. Where is the traffic flow modeling to show the likely alternative traffic routes and how those streets and intersections will cope with the increased volume? Another concern regarding safety and the cen­tral bike path is for cyclists negotiating those intersections that are not closed – Drummond and Ripon Streets. Drivers doing right-hand turns will have to give way to cyclists on the new cycle path before they turn and stop in the middle of the intersection, to wait for the lights to change. Drivers on Australian roads have been notoriously recalcitrant in looking out for cyclists. Is it really a good idea to pit cyclist against driver head-on in this way? Given the multiple lanes of traffic that bank up in the middle of these intersections, having a separate cyclists’ crossing point may well be imperiling cyclist safety rather than improving it. Vic Roads gave the residents of Ballarat a month of ‘consultation’ with a pop-up display in a vacant shop front in the CBD and the op­portunity to comment on their interactive map of the project– via the Engage VicRoads site. Perhaps this seems like a lot of time to some.

Unfortunately it is evident that many residents who will be affected by the closures of intersec­tions were until recently unaware of it, perhaps because as a cycling project it didn’t initially peak their interest. Cycling is a great sport and an enjoyable rec­reational activity for many, and a very sustain­able, convenient and cost-efficient mode of transport for those commuters who like the challenge. Making cycling safer is undoubted­ly a public good and so building safer cycling pathways is also obviously a public good. How­ever, dividing eight blocks of the city’s elegant Victorian era boulevarde longitudinally into two would be an act of vandalism, while clos­ing four busy Sturt Street intersections–on the pretext of public safety–would be absolute folly. There are other ways to build safer cycling net­works. Over the next few months as Vic Roads moves to turn this concept into reality it’s to be hoped that Ballarat City Councillors have the courage to uphold the City’s own published plans: the Sturt Street Gardens Conservation and landscape Management Plan (2007) and the Ballarat Bicycle Network 2017-25. An interactive map showing the Vic Roads Ballarat Safer Cycling Connections can be accessed at https://engage.vicroads.vic.gov.au/safercyclingballarat The discussion itself is now closed but the 44 comments on this topic can still be read by clicking on the relevant cycle icon on the map. Other Facebook discussions on this topic can be found on ABC Ballarat and Ballarat Heri­tage Watch.

The Miner could not attend the Meeting on the fate of the Sturt Street Cycling rout that is being decided on, because we had to go to print. Editors note: It is ludicrous to think that we have voted in nine Councillors all of whom are intelligent enough to know that if they vandalise this City’s heritage in any way, they would all go down in History as just that, Vandals. Rest assure that it will not happen, three are other ways that this Council will go as not to defame the main strip of Ballarat, for the sake of a few cyclists.