signs along edges of shared path

Sharing Softly

The Melbourne City Council is rolling out its efforts to “improve the relationship among road users” as part of its road safety plan with a rather gentle behavioural program, putting positive messages onto the streets with all the good intentions in the world and little substance.

Filling out Queensbridge Square with signs (considerately placed outside of the traffic areas), each carrying a short and snappy message and while too densely spaced to take in for someone cycling past they were spaced perfectly to allow pedestrians to see and absorb all the material presented. The messages themselves are the curious part, an undifferentiated mixture of nice ideas and requirements by law.

sign reading "Look Up for Cyclists"The graphic designers went to town on these putting in a unifying visual style repeated across all the signs. Starting with those repeating requirements under the road rules we have this suggestion to pedestrians that they should look for cyclists, but forgetting that most of the confusion is around where cyclists and pedestrians mix. Cycling is effectively banned on footpaths (except for minors) but the shared spaces such as this square are poorly signposted or differentiated from areas that are pedestrian only. Its not uncommon to have particularly ignorant people to make loud and or aggressive suggestions that cyclists are breaking the law by riding through here even though it is expressly permitted and intended.

sign reading "be bright for pedestrians"Lighting is required for all cyclists at night or in circumstances of reduced visibility (such as thick fog) but here the message is narrowed to frame it as consideration for pedestrians, not a very inclusive message when lighting is beneficial to all road users. Following the URL on the signs to melbourne.vic.gov.au/shareourstreets shows the pedestrian focused nature of the program, which has taken the concept of sharing and made it all about pedestrians instead. Particularly when you get to some of the “tips” such as:

[when you’re riding a bicycle] Give way to people walking

Which completely ignores the equal treatment pedestrians and cyclists are afforded in shared space, so much as the road rules use exactly the same language for both modes of transport:

A pedestrian must not cause a traffic hazard by moving into the path of a driver.

The rider of a bicycle must not cause a traffic hazard by moving into the path of a driver or pedestrian.

Where driver includes a person riding a bicycle, further pedestrians are given additional requirements to make space with the following rule that applies only to them:

A pedestrian must not unreasonably obstruct the path of any driver or another pedestrian.

sign reading "be alert for cyclists"Suggesting that only cyclists give way to people walking and failing to mention that the reverse equally applies only reinforces the mistaken belief that pedestrians are free to use footpaths and shared spaces as they see fit without regard to other users. So instead of an inclusive sign reminding  all shared path users they should make space for others we just get a repetition of the message for pedestrians to be aware of their surroundings which adds little beyond the previous message of “look up for cyclists”.

sign reading "go slow for pedestrians"From here the signs get more controversial with suggestions which are not backed by requirements of the road rules. Simply asking road users to slow down is unlikely to have any impact but again its rolled out for cyclists. Segregation and more space are the methods the standards propose to fix contention between users of different speeds, but even with the expansive widths along this section pedestrians seem to instinctively fill the space and take no regard for the little segregation which has been tried.pedestrians walk in a line along shared path

Which brings us to this helpful suggestion to mirror the requirement of all other transport modes to keep to the left. Again rather than framing this as an improvement for all users its partitioning it down to a narrow purpose and suggesting an us versus them situation where pedestrians and cyclists are not the same but focused against one another.sign reads "keep left for cyclists"

All road users should keep to the left for the benefit of all other road users regardless of transport mode, a predictable and uniform situation that is easily understood. Austroads (the organisation behind the national road rules) lamented in their document “Pedestrian-Cyclist Conflict Minimisation on Shared Paths and Footpaths”

It should also be noted that the Australian Road Rules (National Road Transport Commission 1999) have abandoned the requirement for pedestrians to keep left on shared paths. It is however recommended that they be amended to re-introduce this requirement for all path users on shared paths in order to match and support the many sensible codes of conduct already in use and the widespread and effective practice of centre-line marking with ‘keep left’ and similar stencils.

The omission of this as a road rule is seen as a substantial oversight but instead of reintroducing this to law the Victorian Government speeds time introducing convoluted laws for commercial use of segway type vehicles with the Road Safety Road Rules (Electric Personal Transporters Trial) Amendment Rules 2016 which has gems such as:

224D Electric personal transporters must only be used on roads or road related areas as part of an electric personal transporter tour

A person must not travel on an electric personal transporter on a road or road related area unless the person is taking part in an electric personal transporter tour on an electric personal transporter supplied to the person as part of that tour.

Not even attempting to hide the commercial nature of the regulations, for the benefit of a narrow few. While the public are quite vocal about their dissatisfaction with the current state of the shared use areas, I’ve not heard anyone complaining they couldn’t access a guided tour on a segway but such is the detachment of government. For those interested they made such vehicles a new special category halfway between a wheelchair complete with 10km/h speed limit and a bicycle with the requirement to wear a helmet. But it must of course keep to the left at all times and like a bicycle have:

a bell, horn, or similar warning device, in working order.

sign reading "ring bell for pedestrians"Which brings us to the final and possibly most controversial sign displayed “ring bell for pedestrians”, which reverses the legal function of a bell or horn on a vehicle from a sparingly used warning device to something which should be used routinely at all times. Motor vehicles do not sound their horn when approaching other road users yet the council is joining in with Vicroads in suggesting bicycles use their warning device almost constantly in these areas. There are several general responses to a bicycle bell or horn:

  • person makes adjustment to their course accounting for the approaching bicycle
  • startling someone who then acts erratically
  • person ignores the information and continues with their course

Sadly the tiny minority of interactions are in the first group and the vast majority in the last, for additional excitement sometimes you get a strongly negative response or straight out abuse for using a bell or horn.

So while the councils stated claim was to “improve the relationship among road users” they have done so with a divisive approach focusing on the affects of actions from one group to another. Instead it could have been much more inclusive with common desires and obligations of all users interactions with each other regardless of transport mode.

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