In praise of the humble old bollard.

Though I know some pedant will dispute some fine detail, I’m going to generalise anyway, and say Australian bike planners are unduly smitten by Copenhagen’s and now New York’s cycle tracks, before they have really understood the Dutch model that is more applicable here. Copenhagen, due to a former lack of pedestrian bridges, and New York due to 200 meter long blocks, both have avenues like giant funnels. They had no choice in those cities but to find some way of accommodating all forms of traffic on the same streets. Sure this can be post-rationalised as democratic, giving all users the same mental maps of their city, but come on, for Christ’s sake, why should drivers be given any chance at all to see neighbourhood shops? Put them on poo-shoots to the malls they prefer.

(That was my anti motorist rant for the week. Now back to Australia, and what we could be doing for cycling).

With the sad exception of Australia’s three oldest settlements (Sydney, Hobart then Launceston) that grew almost by accident into hilly terrain, it was flat planes that were chosen as the sites of Australian cities thereafter, at a time in history when relatively permeable grids were being drafted for us in the UK.

This has left us with cities where quiet streets outnumber arterials by at least ten to one. The Netherlands has this, and as our mate cranky Hembrow keeps trying to tell us, Dutch traffic engineers can exploit this situation to block through-traffic on most of their streets. Never mind cycle tracks. When a street is blocked to through traffic it is inherently safe for playing, walking, and of course cycling.

I feel sorry for the guy, bleating over there in Groningen or wherever they keep him, about embedded principles that can’t be summed up with one photo of hundreds of hot Danish blondes riding down the one street. A Copenhagen cycle track is one sexy baby, a silver bullet, something to rally for, but not worth a zak if it is just fifty meters from a parallel street that could be blocked to through traffic.

My own home town of Newcastle has a hand full of cycle tracks, and could use a few more, but I don’t see them as a priority, either here or in other Australian cities that are relatively flat with permeable street grids. These are inherently bike friendly cities. If the car mode share is high it is because these cities have had a lot spent to help driving in the post WW2 era and because lazy bastards like cars. But what concern is that to me, if I never use the arterial roads that driving effects? I use the bulk haulage routes, the equivalent of Holland’s canals, and quiet back streets, that if I were in Holland would be blocked to through-traffic.

Which leads to my pressing complaint about the country I live in: drivers taking short cuts through backstreets. Our backstreets may be 40k zones, but these pricks are all doing 60 and racing through intersections without really looking. Locals with children would welcome some bollards—the rest can get fucked—and of course bollards are cheap.

To conclude: Gehl and Mikael are more charming, but cranky old Hembrow is the one with the message.

I was inspired to write this by one of david’s tweets, retweeted by Edward from Bike Adelaide a few days ago. 

16 Comments

  1. Nik Dow says:

    Couldn’t agree more about rat-running through traffic, See “real safety” on http://www.freestylecyclists.org/

    However one thing I noticed cycling in NL was that the most direct and convenient bicycle routes were on the main roads. The main roads that have a separated cycle path that is, which is most of them. Initially on my first visit to NL I instinctively (as an Australian) took to sneaking around the back streets, which is frustrating when canals etc get in the way. After a few days it became apparent the main roads were the way to go.

    The problem with giving up on the main thoroughfares is that these are the places where most of the activities are located. The big trip attractors, strip shopping centres etc. They are also the most direct routes, and have the best social safety (think women riding home late at night).

    Sydney Rd Brunswick is a case in point. There is a narrow, broken-up cycle path running parallel along the railway line. Apart from losing time at all the road crossings, at which bikes have zero priority, it’s unlit at night and slower than Sydney Rd. In the morning peak, numbers of bikes are about equal between the two routes. If Sydney Rd ever gets rid of car parking and installs protected lanes – which the council is now shooting for – numbers of bikes there will skyrocket, and I’d predict an overall increase in bicycle traffic, not just a reassignment.

    • Steven says:

      I don’t agree Nik. It’s likely you were using main roads in N.L. because you didn’t know better.
      And screw destinations served by cars. Either come at them from the opposite side, or better still patronise destinations on quiet back streets or that are easily accessible from those rail corridors like the one you mention parallel to the back streets. For 4 decades now cyclists have been asked to reclaim car land, when really we aught to colonising liminal space. Cyclists need to become discerning consumers of urban space, shunning housing and shops with car parking and road access, in favour of new housing and shops that activate the kind of space where you say risk averse cyclists will be mugged after dark. I don’t know Sydney road Melbourne, but looking on google maps I see it runs parallel to a rail corridor. My hunch is you have a better chance of securing that as a greenway and filling land either side with bike centric development than you do of convincing elected representatives to remove on street car parking along some polluted and boring old “stroad”.

    • crank says:

      Interesting. In some regards, you are correct Stephen, however the main problem is the allowance by the rail corridor is too narrow, and as I understand it, rails network are unwilling to relinquish space. However, there is indeed business activity along there:

      https://www.google.com.au/maps/@-37.7685764,144.9595924,3a,75y,20.36h,82.1t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sxg2yp2Tp8BDCp5P167xmCA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1

      https://www.google.com.au/maps/@-37.7740262,144.9590048,3a,75y,21.4h,84.74t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sU5s9sihUM6XxRyL_m8jUHw!2e0!6s%2F%2Fgeo2.ggpht.com%2Fcbk%3Fpanoid%3DU5s9sihUM6XxRyL_m8jUHw%26output%3Dthumbnail%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26thumb%3D2%26w%3D100%26h%3D80%26yaw%3D338.92545%26pitch%3D0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1

      I think the other barrier to activating bicycle corridors is council zoning. Away from the stroads it is harder to open a business. But the ones that are opening are getting my business (latest is Smith & Deli on Moor St – replacing the roundabout with bollards would be a winning move 🙂 But it’s easy to get to, and I can get there largely on quiet back streets.

      Also, the renovation of Sydney Rd will stall for years as they wait for Yarra Trams designs. The big win for NYC was the cheap installation using concrete planters, lawn chairs and spray-on gravel. The bollard is very much in that vein. The rat-run near me could be solved overnight with a big fat planter with a palm tree in it. Smarter bollards could allow for quick and easy emergency vehicle access (I think they have them in NL?). I think we are a bit too much in love with employing council contractors to lay curbs loving drawn by council engineers.

    • Steven says:

      Placing planters at midnight. Reminds me of a tune I often find myself humming. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9WMncHTtEI

    • crank says:

      When I lived in Toronto, “guerrilla gardening” was a big movement – using unloved and untilised public spaces to plant edible or beautiful vegetation. I think there is a great cross-section here. I’ll admit I have thought about taking to my closest rat run in the middle of the night, sticking a massive apple crate there and filling it with worms, soil and cabbages. As for my local street, while reading strong towns blog, I was thinking, why on earth do I have such an expensively paved street? As far as I’m concerned, it would be better implemented with packed soil or gravel, filled with grass, shrubs, flowers and trees. Absolutely great for getting kids back outside and in nature, and fine for riding bikes through. This would turn the fear around, some of my less enlightened neighbors would fear their SUV getting dirty I’m sure, while kids are out thwacking tennis balls at windscreens.

    • Steven says:

      Dirty SUVs… there’s a dilemma. I really enjoyed a few of those Strong Towns podcasts — could listen to them while I was riding. My neighbours are mad for guerrilla gardening, though so far they’ve only been stretching it onto the footpath. God I’m tempted to take my trusty old crow bar to the edges of their precious parking space.

  2. colin878 says:

    “For 4 decades now cyclists have been asked to reclaim car land, when really we aught to [be] colonising liminal space.”

    This won’t work. People “aught” to do a lot of things, but if travelling by bike means being asked to eschew 99% of the places they want to go to then the thing that will be eschewed will be the bike. The consumer sovereignty of people on bikes will never sufficient on its own.

    Quiet parallel routes are nice, but will never attract enough people on bikes for them to outgrow their status as “quiet parallel routes”.

    But on bollards…this is worth a look:
    http://www.sydneycyclist.com/forum/topics/the-bollard-game
    It shows non-gridded street layouts being rejigged via bollards to create plenty of quiet routes. Not so workable in hilly cities where the main streets follow the ridgelines though.

    • Steven says:

      Education has created a market for food without sugar or palm oil. It can create a market for healthy urbanism. Leave it with me.

  3. Nik Dow says:

    Normally I’d agree the chances of removing parking from the strip shopping of Sydney Rd would be slim, but in this case the local council rejected their officers recommenation and instead voted to ask the State Government to investigate removal of parking and provision of cycle lanes. The railway corridor is heavily developed and short of space. Melbourne has the same or similar road geometry on all the tram-route arterials that radiate from the city centre, and back street alternatives are indirect and have their own problems. The shops on those arterials have developed as strip shopping centres from pre-motor car years when everyone got home on the tram and shopped on their way home. They are not primarily visited by car drivers even now, despite what the shop keepers will tell you, most of their visitors come by foot or bicycle, and those that come by car are mostly not parking on Sydney Rd but off-street and are then walking to their end-of-trip.

    Incidentally the shop keepers want to keep parking mainly because they park their own cars in the street and they like the free car parking for them and their staff.

    I know this blog is looking forwards at how to build new cities for bikes, and my remarks aren’t directed at those possibilities. Sydney Rd, at least the southern portion, is in an area with high ridership. People who live nearby are in an area with amongst the highest % riding to work in the census data c.f. the rest of Australia. The street grid is pre-car. We can envisage re-claiming this type of area for bikes and pedestrians because it is still structured to suit them. There is one mall with extensive car parking at the southern end of Sydney Rd, and one other supermarket with a large car-park (I’ve never seen it even near to full). Naturally I have (almost) never patronised either, concurring with your suggestion that we “screw destinations served by cars”.

    • Steven says:

      Sound like a good place for some cycle tracks then 🙂 Good luck with the campaign. Don’t show them my blog post!

  4. Nik Dow says:

    I should add, apart from replacing onroad parking with cycle lanes, a whole shit-load of bollards are also very much needed.

  5. Nik Dow says:

    Sorry to be a pedant!

  6. Francis says:

    I too agree that the humble details which everyone take for granted is what actually count. On the other hand, marketing the message to the public and politicians is very important, especially for cities waiting for the transformation.
    Yes, get me some sexy bollards to block the traffic into all the small streets!

  7. Luke says:

    “Locals with children would welcome some bollards—the rest can get fucked—and of course bollards are cheap.”

    Cheap, and you can stick them down without too much of a fuss. That’s been done in the streets around me, which are now effectively access only. The area’s been Netherlised by stealth. Try to put a cycle lane in (like Boris is trying along the Thames), and you get the Taxi Drivers Association launching a judicial review.

  8. Nik Dow says:

    Although the tram stops may be some years off, the design work for them can be done sooner, and the bike lanes installed before the tram stops. I’m thinking, cars follow trams through the centre, bikes ride over the platform. Exit-side stops so the traffic light goes red immediately behind the tram, protecting the pax – this also opens up empty space ahead of the tram while it is stationary so cars can never overtake so tram is faster. Not being held up by parking movements makes tram and cars faster.

    Back to bollards, there are the cheap ones, and for more nuanced uses, those ones that retract into the ground for authorised vehicles, or at least those vehicles carrying the special device. I’ve seen these in lots of places in EU, allowing garbage trucks, deliveries (after hours maybe) etc. Could even be given to nearby residents so they have choices of route – and makes the project easier to sell.

  9. Dr. Behooving, more broadly, your reasoning here provides an antidote to the who-bells-the-cat thinking that so many bicycle advocates seem to catch onto. An example, from the comments to the Bike Portland post linked below: “We need to a broad network of bikeways 10 feet wide in each direction, protected from automobile and truck traffic. Such a network will serve as a network for people to access major destinations and very simply serve as the freeways of the future – only just for bicycles. Everything else seems to be minor half measures.”

    http://bikeportland.org/2015/08/04/big-bike-investments-loom-debate-goes-neighborhoods-need-145972

    Now that I have become educated by reading your blog, it seems to me that asking for the “freeways of the future, only just for bicycles” is as full of preconceptions and biases as asking for the “canals of the future.”

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