“The optics have been shocking”: council communication meltdown over bike lanes
By David Schout & Sean Car
After years of unwavering support for the rollout of protected cycling lanes in the CBD, the City of Melbourne had seemingly got a case of the wobbles. But following its marathon June 7 Future Melbourne Committee meeting, it would appear this wasn’t so much the case.
In a move that diverges from a years’ long strategic push, the council’s management proposed to stall the delivery of new protected bike lane projects within Hoddle Grid for the next 12 months.
And while 10 out of 11 councillors voted in favour of the move on June 7, the suggestion that the council was putting the brakes on the CBD rollout, in fact, wasn’t the case at all according to Lord Mayor Sally Capp.
It came after Cr Capp publicly backed the move to halt the program in the Hoddle Grid in the lead up to the meeting.
“We accelerated the rollout of bicycle lanes in the Hoddle Grid during the quiet months of COVID, and we’re now taking a pause on that,” she told ABC Melbourne prior to the June 7 meeting.
“There’s no doubt as people return to the city they feel that they’ve been surprised by the bike lane rollout. They’re needing to adjust, whether it’s work vehicles, whether it’s visitors, whether it’s residents, so we’re giving people time to reacquaint themselves with the city.”
Some argued the comments constituted a backflip from the Lord Mayor, who as recently as April hit back at the “loud chatter” surrounding the City of Melbourne’s cycle lane push. The news was slammed by certain tabloid media outlets as a “fiasco” and opened the council up to many pro-car lobbyists who wasted no time calling for all the lanes to be ripped up.
Business groups in particular have been critical of the rollout, arguing it has stalled the city’s economic recovery.
But the Lord Mayor and councillors, with the exception of Cr Roshena Campbell, would ultimately back an amended motion that only went some way to clarifying the confusion many still felt following the lengthy discussions.
The update on the implementation of the council’s 2030 Transport Strategy attracted an unprecedented level of interest at the meeting, with more than 1000 public submissions having been made, of which only four showed support of pausing the rollout or ripping out lanes altogether. In a meeting which finished at 10.30pm, nearly 50 also registered to speak, all of which were pro-cycling.
Many spoke on the grounds of safety, describing the many near-misses and serious injuries that came with cycling on Melbourne’s streets, while many also relayed their disappointment at the timing of the pause following the very recent death of a cyclist on King St.
Others also sought to dispel the myths that the bike lanes were deterring the city’s economic recovery, with uptake in cycling having significantly increased since the start of the program. More than one million e-scooter trips have also been made since the beginning of the hire trial.
While the trialled bike lane rollout on Exhibition St has attracted the most opposition to date, namely from businesses, a representative from Marriner Group – which operates Her Majesty’s and Comedy theatres – even spoke in emphatic support of safe cycling infrastructure.
But while all of the speakers would have converged on Town Hall with a mission to “stop the halt” and force the rapid continuation in the CBD, it would appear a deliberate deferral was perhaps not entirely the council’s intention despite the public rhetoric coming from the Lord Mayor in the lead up to the meeting.
While endorsing the delivery of “shovel ready” protected bike lanes outside the CBD during the next financial year along “high value routes” on Arden St, Macauley Rd, Grattan St and Royal Parade, the situation in the CBD represents less of a “deferral” and more of a self-induced PR nightmare for the council.
The decision to defer its Hoddle Grid rollout is instead seemingly based on the fact that there are currently no CBD bike lane projects anywhere near being signed off by the Department of Transport during the next financial year. Hence, the council is instead focusing its efforts on those that are ready to go outside of the CBD.
Greens councillor and pro-cycling advocate Rohan Leppert admitted on Twitter that “the optics have been shocking”, with the council on track to deliver more than 10km of bike lanes in the municipality during the next year – more than any other year to date.
"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,” Cr Leppert Tweeted following the meeting.
“The report before us noted the economic boon that cyclists bring to the city, and that bike lanes are busting congestion, moving people from cars to bikes. 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 the 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 that the amended motion ultimately endorsed sought to “rebuild a clear political consensus for the continued rollout of bicycle lanes throughout the municipality”, with design work for CBD lanes to continue, including detailed design for Flinders St well ahead of the opening of the Metro Tunnel.
The report did not recommend the removal of any existing bicycle lanes, and the council would still spend the allocated $4 million on new cycle infrastructure across the 2022-23 financial year.
While the Lord Mayor and others acknowledged the confusion caused by the miscommunication over the issue at the meeting, Cr Leppert said the “silver lining” was more than 1000 submissions and “over two hours of powerful stories”.
“The payoff is renewed political consensus, renewed unity among cyclists who won't tolerate council straying from its 2030 targets ever again, and a realistic plan to build more bike lanes, including Flinders [St],” he said.
But how all of this could have been avoided if not for some errant miscommunication by the City of Melbourne, which predictably re-empowered its opponents to reignite the “cars versus bikes” battle – one which the council was beginning to overcome through stoic persistence.
While the optics are undeniably bad, the council’s next challenge will be to use its “deferral” wisely over the coming year by continuing to bring consensus to its vision for a safer and less-congested Hoddle Grid. However, this will only occur with a much higher standard of communication than what it has displayed to date.