The recent road rage incident in Sydney involving a lycra-clad road warrior confronting a bus driver in Sydney perfectly illustrates the growing resentment building between road users on four wheels and their two-wheel counterparts.
The introduction of power assisted bicycles such as the increasingly popular electrical bicycles will introduce another level of complexity in the potentially lethal mix of road users. Electrical bike commuters have the choice of negotiating the traffic on congested roads or weave around electrical scooters driven by the physically infirm, or pedestrians out walking their four-legged companions.
In New South Wales the former Minster of roads Carl Scully’s philosophy in dealing with the problem of the different speed of potential road users and the different protection offered to drivers of cars, motorcyclists and push bike riders in case of an accident is to insist that these different categories don’t mix. While he was in charge of NSW roads he instigated the building of dedicated off road bike paths like the one constructed running along the M7. Indeed in the absence of off road bike paths he suggests that bike riders should be sharing footpaths with pedestrians or that bicyclists should be restricted to sharing the roads with motor cars when the traffic is lighter i.e. typically in the middle of the day or on weekends.
However, bicyclists are not one uniform group: they form a broad church of lycra and non lycra clad riders. The group of bicyclists that all governments want to see more of and need to protect are the commuters who choose their bikes over the car to get to work. Indeed the people that the Victorian and New South Wales governments are trying to entice onto the roads and bike paths are the people stuck in traffic on the motorways leading into our cities.
The NSW Government have set aside $13.5 million for bicycle initiatives in the current financial year including new bike paths, education programs and local road works.
The NSW Transport Minister, David Campbell is continuing with building shared bike paths "wherever practicable" when new roads are built.
In Victoria, Vic Roads is upgrading its Principal Bicycle Network - arterial cycling routes in Melbourne, managed by Vic Roads while local councils are maintaining the municipal bicycle network of local cycling routes. Also, Parks Victoria are looking after recreational off road bike routes which are shared with pedestrians.
The problem is that the links between the networks are often missing and the local bike routes might stop at the council border. The Victorian Cycling Strategy and the bicycle strategies of local councils are trying to address this.
However, none of the bicycle strategies in my view have properly addressed the future of bike commuting and what infrastructure investment is required for mass bike commuting in metropolitan regions. This is best achieved by electrical bicycles or with the assistance from a electrical engine driving one wheel powered by the latest in battery technology. The Lithium ion batteries powering the second and third generation electrical bicycles on sale now are light, 2-3kg, can be recharged in a few hours (the electricity cost is around 20 - 30 cents), and are relatively inexpensive. These will give the commuter a range of 30-50km if pedal assisted.
The problem of integrating these bicycles in the existing road infrastructure has already raised safety issues for other slower categories of road users and has in some instances led local governments or local police to restrict their use on roads. The question is, are we going to look at power-assisted bikes as a safety problem or a mobility opportunity?
I certainly favour the opportunity ebikes offer the typical, not-so-fit, commuter in their middle age like myself to get on their bike and get some exercise while they travel to work in a safe and convenient way.
My concept for the investment in public health, the environment and building communities lies in the investment in new infrastructure for bicycle commuting. We need to develop under utilised road reserves on major metropolitan roads into a dedicated commuter bikeway that will allow the separation of commuters in cars from commuters on electrical or pedal powered bikes and also give bike riders a convenient and direct route into the city.
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