Melbhattan: Bicycles are on the rise in New York and Melbourne should take note

New York City is doing amazing things for bicycles and Melbourne could learn a thing or two. New York offers a good example for Melbourne of a city that, against the odds, is taking bicycles seriously as a transport mode.

Since the early 2000’s the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn have laid down infrastructure signalling the arrival of the humble bike as a serious transport option for New Yorkers. In a city famous for its traffic, planners have managed to carve out a well designed and connected network that provides safe and attractive options for travel by bike.

Protected bicycle routes

Separated, parking-protected and off-road routes have been laid out with deliberate intent to provide safe, connected routes to travellers wishing to make trips to myriad origins and destinations – just like the transport network offered to cars. In Manhattan, many of these routes take advantage of the grid pattern of the street network. Almost any trip can be made using only a handful of turns.

Planners took the view that not every route needed to be a protected route, but that the protected routes form a kind of ‘bicycle highway’ network with unprotected painted and shared-space routes connecting the first and last kilometre. Even famously bike friendly Amsterdam has a lot more shared space infrastructure than one might expect.

Since the start of the 2000’s, there has been a significant decrease in real risk of serious injury or death on New York streets for bicycle riders. The cause of this decrease is most likely related to higher cycling rates (the ‘safety in numbers’ effect) hand-in-hand with the rollout of safer bicycle infrastructure.

Unique design

The design of the protected lanes in New York are also relatively unique – but they seem to work. Unlike the style of protected lanes favoured in Melbourne, New York style lanes utilise paint much more than concrete. Concrete islands are constructed near intersections to demark the start of a section of protected bike lane, but from then on paint, space, and parked cars do most of the separation. Added bonuses of the islands are that they provide a narrowing of pedestrian crossing distances, and provide locations for essential tree planting.

Key criticisms some detractors make of Melbourne’s Latrobe Street ‘Copenhagen lanes’ are that they reduce parking, but that they also can be difficult for motorists with disabilities due to the concrete barrier making entering/exiting a vehicle with a wheelchair difficult. New York Style lanes may offer a design solution to these perceived problems for new protected routes. How transferable this design would be may is up for debate.

Many of these routes are placed on roads that are wide and one-way. Would a New York style lane work on St Kilda Road and would it offer a cheaper and easier solution to implement?

New York style protected lanes. Image: James Ramsey

Trial and trial again

New York’s planners are not afraid of testing ideas, and if they don’t work – changing them or trying them somewhere else.

Bicycle advocates, urbanists, and road safety experts love protected bike lanes but they are often loathed by some who see a perceived disadvantage to cars (e.g. in Sydney). They can be politically explosive but New York’s planners have shown that the way to demonstrate that they work, that they improve transport efficiency and that they do not impact motor traffic is to build up evidence by testing and trialing, and collecting data to show that negative impacts do not eventuate.

New York planners test out new interventions by using temporary measures like movable planter boxes and paint and study how traffic is impacted over trial periods. There are numerous examples in New York of trials of new pieces of infrastructure to see if they work and to build up community acceptance.

The most famous example is the pedestrianisation of large parts of Times Square – including creating a protected bike lane through the previously chaotic junction.

This is starting to happen in Melbourne, the City of Stonnington’s pop-up trials on Greville, King and Porter Streets showed that testing ideas on our streets can be done. The City of Yarra has also had success with its trial of a plaza in Jonas Street. If you look back Melbourne does have a history of trying these sorts of things (Swanston Street got a makeover for a weekend in the 1982!).

Testing out new protected bike routes in Melbourne using temporary measures like planter boxes could help determine the best place to construct new protected bicycle routes missing from the current network. An example could be a bi-directional route along Flinders Street froM Docklands to Fitzroy Gardens, which if successful, could be implemented as tested or could prove the demand is there to provide permanent single-direction protected lanes on both sides of the road.

Another example would be the use of temporary measures like planter boxes and street tables and chairs to trial a pedestrianisation of Elizabeth Street from Flinders Street to Flinders Lane.

Data and statistics

NYC Department of Transportation collects a lot of data. Winning the war of words using data was a crucial way planners in New York brought about the huge array of positive changes to streets since the year 2000.

In Infrastructure Victoria’s 30 Year Strategy (released last week), improving and standarising data capture and analysis on walking and cycling was a prominent recommendation to “enable the development of high-quality investment proposals and better promotion of walking and cycling, including by providing information on route choice” (See the 30 Year Strategy, page 124).

This is a critical and overdue step and will hopefully be one of the key roles of the newly established Active Transport Victoria.

Prospect Park bike lane, Brooklyn. Two way tracks like this are common in New York (and on London's cycle superhighways as well). Image: James Ramsey


New York, that city renowned for traffic problems and this, is taking bicycles seriously as a transport mode. Melbourne needs to start doing the same.

Like London with its bicycle super-highways, New York is laying down a network of protected lanes with its own local flavour. The city is not afraid to trial changes with temporary measures, build evidence for interventions and to prove the worth of new projects and street designs.

Admittedly, New York’s network of safe cycling infrastructure is still developing, and there are frequently gaps and areas where it’s not perfect. But New York is making huge strides in the direction of becoming a seriously bicycle friendly city.

Melbourne should look to New York’s example as a city once known for infamously forbidding streets now making its roads safer for bikes. If they can do it there, they can do it anywhere.

James Ramsey is a transport planning consultant based in Melbourne at global engineering and professional services consultancy Jacobs.


George D's picture

How do we make this work in Melbourne?

City of Melbourne are now dragging their heels, VicRoads and the state government are giving this little attention, and while there are piecemeal efforts across the city (City of Yarra is a standout) there's very little interconnectedness or proper investment.

James Ramsey's picture

George D, It's a good question. New York's bike lanes were put in place by the City's Department of Transportation which is a transport authority just for the metro area. There isn't a exact equivalent here in Melbourne because our agencies are state wide and our councils only look after their own areas. Perhaps Transport for Victoria and Active Transport Victoria will be able to make progress.

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