The Fence

The battle for space on city roads and footpaths


In a city context, the good news is that there’s a slew of new mobility options here now, with more on the way. Share bikes, e-bikes, scooters…

The tough component of all of this new activity and options available to us is that right now we have to make it fit within the finite bounds of our existing roads and footpaths. And quite frankly for some time now that finite space is under severe stress.

But change is afoot. Or at least talk about change is afoot. What are the problem(s), and what is the talk?

Historical context

As outlined in a recent Washington Post article, footpaths are a quite recent development. They had come into existence a couple of thousand years ago, but in terms of becoming a major city feature, that wasn’t a reality until the 19th Century, in places such as London and Paris.

And right from the start of this golden age of footpaths there was friction due to competing needs. Street furniture, café seating, pedestrians, bicycles,

As for roads, the rising truth for the past 100 years is that the car is king. That crown though, is wobbly, and is increasingly more difficult to justify. The space afforded motor vehicles, particularly in city centres, is inordinately inequitable. It has been estimated that up to 60% of the real estate in cities is given over to the movement and parking of cars.

It seems like common sense to say that cities should be tailor-made for places and people. Not cars. Right?

Why now? Why right now?

There are probably those out there that don’t see the need for change. For mine, the critical need for is driven home every time I visit Melbourne’s CBD. There’s often a massive press of people moving about on the streets. To pick Swanston Street out as an example, existing with that finite space between buildings are:

  • pedestrians (both locals and out-of-towners)
  • cars
  • trams (in which to gain ingress and egress you have to walk from the footpath over a bicycle lane)
  • bikes
  • scooters
  • café tables
  • motorcycles parked on the footpath
  • tourism points and places of interest
  • footpath advertising signs
  • street furniture
  • food couriers and so on …

From that list it’s clear that there’s an incredible amount of movement happening, with a high degree of competing priorities for the space. All of this in what, for all of this movement, is not that large a space. Within this space and commotion is a complex chain of issues – multiple transport modes travelling at varying speeds, of varying sizes, vulnerable road users …

With a growing urban population, and growing demand for movement, and new transport modes, means we need these to assess what’s needed, and implement change urgently. And we must be more adept at making changes.

Is something happening?

Apart from my observation of the need for change, not only in Melbourne, but as I travel around other Australian cities, I’ve been pushed to think about this more because of recently floated ideas for change.

One is a series of five design concepts from VicRoads for Sydney Road, Brunswick. VicRoads not only released the designs but asked for the public to vote on them.

“We are investigating how we can improve Sydney Road for residents, traders and the thousands of motorists, pedestrians, cyclists and trams that travel along the busy corridor each day,” said Fatima Mohamed, VicRoads’ regional director.

Is something happening?

The winner, with 57% of the vote, was an option that suggested:

  • Removal of all parking along Sydney Road to facilitate extended footpaths for increased trading space, trees, and placemarkers
  • One shared lane for traffic (i.e. motor vehicles) and trams at all times
  • Removal of all parking along Sydney Road to facilitate a protected bike lane

Needless to say, this article attracted more than a few comments. Many of the article’s comments are a clear pointer to the divisiveness that a call for a reduction in the premium status of cars on our roads provokes, along with the not insignificant contempt for cycling as a mode of transport in Australia.

The second thought-provoker for me was the plan recently floated to close the Melbourne CBD to motor vehicles. In justifying the reason for this change, Melbourne Deputy Mayor Arron Wood I think nailed it, when he said, ‘There is no forward-thinking city in the world that is aiming to bring more cars into its central city.”

He also stated that these ‘proposed changes are a compromise between providing greater access to pedestrians and people using public transport, and those who need vehicle access.’

I couldn’t agree more. You simply cannot please everyone, nor make the city perfect for every person, and every transport mode. It’s also paramount that designing compromise has to be underpinned by principles, and by and the demands of throughput, access, amenity, equity, safety, commercial interests, fiscal constraints and demands …

Any change must also accommodate the shifting context of a city – tram stop, retail, point of interest, and so on. And just as there is no one fixed approach to heal the movement issues within one city, nor is one city’s approach a panacea for all cities.

More modes!

One thing that is certainly taking place, an agent of change if you will, is the addition of new transport modes. Shared bikes, both docked and dockless, have been added to cities, with perhaps varying degrees of success. And controversy. Electric share bikes too are on the way, with a trial underway in Newcastle, NSW.

A little more recent, and just as controversial is the addition of the e-scooter to the transport mode mix (see Brisbane’s Lime Scooter trial, and Lime e-scooters: a first-time rider’s experience). It would be fair to say that the controversy over just how e-scooter and share bikes have been introduced and implemented has been an issue right across the world. I don’t think it’s been quite the shock to the system and slow official (and continuing) response that Uber caused, but it has definitely been a troublesome birth for these new modes.

Before I leave the topic of e-scooters, a recent comment on Twitter by transport journalist Carlton Reid caught my eye. On retweeting the article ‘Invasion of the electric scooter: can our cities cope?’, he added the comment, ‘Wait until they hear about cars!’

Regional cities too

It’s important also to state that all of this is not to say that large regional population centres aren’t experiencing similar issues. They are, and there needs to be work in those areas too, it’s simply that in urban areas these issues are writ large.

What’s next?

It’s increasingly clear to many in the field that the premium status afforded the car in city environments is usage inequity. A diminished status for motor vehicles, and an accompanying refresh of the design of roads and footpaths will see improvements in safety, health, and well-being. Also, it will help local businesses. In a shift to bringing active transport use more to the fore, Arup has estimated that a 10% increase in walking results in a 6.6% uplift to the local economy.

This combination of change will also help hasten into the greater transport system the wider world of new mobility advantages and options that are either here now, or just around the corner.

In order to bring about change we need to not only start the discussion, but to have all parties – all levels of government, business, transport planners and users – be involved, and sensibly and fairly participate in that discussion.

It’s clear that government at all levels is beginning to show a desire for change, and a desire to reconsider the amount of space and importance given over to

“Successful cities don’t happen by accident. They need long-term strategic planning, coordinated action and sustainable investment.”1

Australian cities are ready to be successful. Is everybody willing to work on that? Everything’s in play, but everything has always been in play. The history in this mobility space makes this perfectly clear.

What do you think?

What are your thoughts on the need for change on our roads and footpaths? Necessary, unnecessary, too hard? What would you change first? What would you leave alone? Do you agree that cars take up too much space? What do you think about share bikes and e-scooters?


1. 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide 2017 Update

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