Can we do more to keep cars out of pedestrian spaces?

Part of what makes Friday’s tragic events in Bourke Street so horrible is that it could have been any of us who got hit. One can only have the deepest sympathy for all those affected.

I work on Bourke Street, and often go walking along it at lunchtime.

On Friday I was on Spencer Street on a tram coming back from Docklands when it happened. Two police cars and an ambulance passed our tram, then as the tram turned into Bourke Street it was obvious there was something going on – a large crowd had formed and many emergency service vehicles and staff were on the scene.

As I got closer, it appeared the incident was still ongoing. I shot this footage of police running towards the scene – this clip and stills would later get used on TV news and online. (I’d prefer a credit, but in the circumstances it would be churlish to demand it.)

On the ground amongst bystanders it wasn’t at all clear what had happened — at least having approached the scene from the west.

A lot of journalists follow my Twitter feed. As I was tweeting, an ABC 774 producer rang me and asked me to go on-air live to describe what I was seeing. I went on, and described the large number of police, that they were expanding the cordon pushing the crowds back, and closing off streets, which included closing off the front entrances of numerous buildings. It later became apparent that some of the injured were still being treated along the footpath where the car had travelled.

Numerous bystanders helped the injured, and in some cases ran to get medical supplies to help. They forever deserve our gratitude. You often see random acts of kindness in our big city — when something horrific like this happens is when it really counts.

There’s plenty of speculation and discussion about what motivated this tragedy, the bail the suspect was granted a few days before, and the police response, as well as the mental health system. John Silvester has a good article on all these issues in The Age. All that is worth picking apart to see how an event like this could be prevented in future.

I want to consider another issue which seems to be getting no attention.

Pedestrian safety

Over the years I’ve written a lot of snark about CBD motorists pushing the boundaries, encroaching into pedestrian spaces. I never, ever imagined anything as horrific as this.

Normally it’s drivers being careless or thoughtless or clueless, but not malicious.

Being lunchtime, it’s not surprising large numbers of pedestrians were around. Being school holidays probably increased the number of children present in the city.

While nobody could expect this maniac to do what he did, I wonder if the infrastructure is appropriate, and if adequate protection has been provided for pedestrians to prevent motor vehicles accessing areas they shouldn’t go.

Eastern entrance to Bourke Street Mall

Swanston St and Bourke St Mall – car-free… in theory

Despite cars being banned, it is very easy to drive into Swanston Street — in part because service vehicles need to access some parts of the street. And it is common to see bewildered motorists doing this.

It is also very easy to access Bourke Street Mall, which has theoretically been car-free since 1983. It’s protected only by signage — in a similar way to painted bike lanes and laws that don’t physically prevent collisions, that some cycling advocates describe as “Administrative hazard controls” — a term also common in risk management and health & safety circles.

Despite a mass of signage on approach, it is common to see vehicles enter the Mall, and drive through or even park:

It’s not just a problem in the CBD, and Friday’s incident is not the only recent one involving an erratic driver in a pedestrian mall. In northern suburban Coburg in 2015, a driver fleeing police drove through a pedestrian mall, hitting a pram which was thankfully empty.

Clearly, signage alone doesn’t prevent vehicles from entering pedestrian malls when they shouldn’t.

Many cities employ tactics such as movable bollards that can drop into the road to let authorised vehicles through. Judging from this video, they seem to be quite effective.

This would only work on Swanston or Bourke Streets with some careful design. The frequency of trams would mean they’d be likely to cause delays unless they were somehow positioned and synchronised at tram stops with the traffic lights. Perhaps an arriving tram at the stop could trigger the bollards to open, with them closing after the tram had departed.

Even if only possible at the tram stops (in Bourke Street Mall these are at the western end) it would prevent unauthorised vehicles using it as a thoroughfare. (There’s certainly very little enforcement.)

Alternatively there might be options for fixed bollards which allow trams to easily enter, but discourage or at least slow down other vehicles. Currently we have narrowly-placed structures on the bicycle ramps onto the Swanston Street tram platforms; these are very effective at keeping cars off the stops.

Moorabbin shopping centre

Even in the somewhat neglected Moorabbin shopping centre there are bollards in place to prevent vehicles entering pedestrian spaces.

Of course any such methods need to allow through emergency and authorised service vehicles where required. (The current design at the northern end of Swanston Street doesn’t stop cars, but can delay ambulances when they get stuck behind trams.)

Bourke Street Mall tram stops

Tram stops

I don’t know precisely which path the car took, but perhaps we can be thankful that the busy tram stops at the western end of Bourke Street have barriers at each end of the platform.

Barriers also prevent a visible impediment to cars getting up the ramps onto other platform stops, though I don’t know if they’re crashproof.

As noted above, the bicycle lane onto the Swanston Street platform stops is too narrow to allow through most vehicles. (Some motorists who ignore the signs actually get stuck there.)

Swanston Street

Footpaths

What of the footpaths? It sounds like the car drove a full two blocks along Bourke Street on the northern side footpath, though it’s unclear when it left the road.

Intersections and pedestrian crossings need ramps to be wheelchair accessible. But is there something that could be employed to prevent a motor vehicle using them to mount the footpath?

Pavement edges are usually sharp, and might prevent a typical car mounting them at speed without doing some damage, but in some locations the edge is much more curved, more like a ramp.

An example I noticed years ago was the Tooronga Road bridge over the Monash Freeway, built in the 1990s — and this section newly completed as part of the Bentleigh level crossing removal also shows this design.

If we don’t want cars mounting the footpath, why is it like this? To prevent damage to vehicles that hit the kerb? Should that be the priority?

Bentleigh kerb

Ensuring car-free spaces are free of cars

Many public spaces have had skateboard prevention brackets fitted to walls, steps and other surfaces. In most cases they don’t prevent other uses such as sitting. These seem to have been a fairly recent development, yet are cheap and effective.

There may be similar emerging technologies that can be employed to keep cars out of pedestrian areas and off footpaths, while not inhibiting the movement of pedestrians including those with prams or mobility aids.

Of course care must be taken to cater for service and emergency vehicles that may need to access these spaces, or pass through them to bypass traffic.

And we don’t want to over-react. Even bearing in mind last year’s horrific incidents in Nice and Berlin, Friday’s incident doesn’t necessarily mean that malicious drivers are a huge problem or that we should destroy Melbourne’s streetscapes for what is a very rare set of circumstances — or indeed that we can protect against every scenario.

But there is no shortage of clueless and careless motorists entering spaces they shouldn’t. It is worth considering whether the infrastructure currently in place is appropriate to properly prevent this, and protect pedestrians.

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19 Replies to “Can we do more to keep cars out of pedestrian spaces?”

  1. It’s amazing to think that video with comical music could have been a very real life saver in this situation. It could even be that he veered down Bourke St _because_ Swanston was effectively blocked. The police, however, should not have even let this maniac get anywhere near the CBD.

  2. Would it be possible to place one of those barriers between the two tram tracks at the beginning of a section of the mall after an intersection. If this barrier was like the one in the video, then only motorbikes could illegally get through.

  3. Even before the events of last Friday, I often feel unsafe when cars are driving through crowded pedestrian only zones.

    If a driver is so clueless as to drive through the Bourke Street mall (and this happens several times every single day), I don’t trust their ability to drive safely through crowded areas without bumping into me. Exception of course is vehicles that clearly should be there and with drivers who know what they are doing, eg emergency vehicles, garbage trucks, Yarra Trams maintenance vehicles, etc.

    What’s even worse is to be have a driver honking their horn at me, for not getting out of their way – in the Bourke Street mall!!!

  4. Tire spikes would do the job nicely. You sometimes see them in private car parks, integrated into speed humps, to prevent people from driving the wrong way around a boom gate.

    Position them at the entrance to malls and service roads (between and around the tram tracks where they exist), and have a system that can retract the spikes briefly when an authorised vehicle (bus, goods delivery vehicle, emergency services) approaches.

    You could also start integrating them into city footpaths, where a panic button could be supplied. Someone hits the button and the entire footpath turns into a hedgehog.

    This is the price we have to pay for allowing the wrong kind of people to live in our society freely.

  5. Tyre spikes? In a heavily trafficked pedestrian area? No. Far worse than the status quo. You don’t protect pedestrians from one hazard by placing them at high risk of serious injury from another.

  6. If there are motorists driving down Bourke St mall everyday, the least Vicroads could do is issue fines via CCTV if they’re not doing so already.

  7. You can get pedestrian-safe tyre spikes. Even the ordinary spring loaded ones would be fine if properly recessed (until activated by induction loops or pressure mats or a panic button)

  8. Even if tyre spikes can be made safe for pedestrians, if they are effective at disabling cars that regularly drive on the tram lines where will that leave the cars? Disabled with 4 punctured tyres, blocking the busiest tram lines in the city. Trams would bank up behind such a car until a tow vehicle arrived to remove it.

  9. A car with blown tyres can move under its own power – albeit very slowly. And if the driver refuses to move their disabled car off the tram tracks, the tram drivers should be given authority to ram them.

  10. Actualky I believe the mass murdering bastard drive along the southern side of Bourke St; there’s a smaller memorial outside the Bardot shop where I believe one of the victims was killed.

    I read in one report that the driver originally tried to turn down Little Collins St. I assume he couldn’t because the lunchtime bollards were raised, which perhaps then prompted him to swing around into the Swanston footpath at that point. It’s a pity he wasn’t able to enter Little Collins actually, as he would’ve had to stay on the road there and would be less likely to hit anyone.

  11. @Simon, a disabled car is better than one hitting pedestrians. If it’s common knowledge that tyre spikes are in place, I think we’d see the number of vehicles passing through there drop to zero very quickly. Not that I think it’s the best solution.

    (If anybody wants to see tyre spikes in a Melbourne context, there are some at the back of the Exhibition Buildings, at a car park exit to Rathdowne St.)

    @Tim, it’s a strange situation where the temporary bollards stop a motorist driving down Little Collins St at lunchtime, but Bourke Street Mall, a fulltime mall, has no such bollards.

    Little Collins St probably doesn’t need bollards in that location; most traffic comes from further east, and that is diverted at another set of temporary bollards before reaching Swanston St.

  12. Yes, the car went down the southern side of the mall, right next to the shops. Having the unfortunate pleasure of bearing witness to it as it happened, it is, frankly, a miracle more people were not hit, hurt or killed.

    I see cars turn down the mall regularly. They also turn right up towards Russell, and straight ahead towards Lonsdale. The worst is when they decide that rather than follow the trams, they’d rather veer left and go along the bike lane/tram stop platform! Often they do this at some speed, confused or frustrated. I’ve spoken to a few stranded drivers in the middle of the intersection who have followed their GPS religiously- and it’s led them astray.

    But that’s not what this is about, really. How do you block cars, but not trams/bikes/pedestrians? Electronic bollards maybe, but if they fail (and inevitably they will) then trams could be choked up for some time. Better policing would be nice. You could station a couple of probationary constables there, with the added bonus of deterring jaywalkers in front of the trams.

  13. The solution is to build cycleways with bollards to protect people from being hit by a car – both deliberately and accidentally.

  14. Firstly, my sympathy is with everyone affected by this tragedy. We need a city that allows people who should be there – pedestrians mostly, and certain essential services such as ambulances and police – to access spaces, and for everyone else to be excluded. Doing this is not always as simple as we’d like, but is almost always achievable.

    “[The] exception of course is vehicles that clearly should be there and with drivers who know what they are doing, eg emergency vehicles, garbage trucks, Yarra Trams maintenance vehicles, etc.”

    In many places service vehicles are permitted in particular hours (eg, outside 7am-7pm). There are certainly many more delivery vehicles in the mall than there should be.

    With the likely pedestrianisation of southern end of Elizabeth Street, these issues should be considered promptly.

  15. @Ash, that’s a good find – though it appears to have several caveats indicating it is intended to be within the context of local streets. That type of kerbing can be seen in locations where street parking and narrow carriage ways are not obstructions that emergency services have to deal with, such as the Tooronga Road bridge over the Monash Freeway.

  16. For many years, in fact decades I have been warning politicians about Bourke Street mall being targeted for mass murder. And as my submission to the coroner makes clear I did so specifically mentioning Bourke Street Mall on 15 July 2016 PRESS RFELEASE to all politicians including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. I find it not just disgusting but appalling that Malcolm Turnbull now is going about pretending as I view it to care about the victims, including the death yet did you or others realise he could have avoided it all had he acted upon my past warnings? The same with Premier Daniel Andrews! At least when Jeff Kennett was premier and I warned him that there were people contemplating to murder judges and metal detectors were needed at court entrances he acted very quickly to have them installed. I must comment you for your article and showing bollards going into the ground, as I suggested in my 15 July 2016 PRESS RELEASE. Will you follow up on Malcolm Turnbull and other politicians why they failed to act on my 15 July 2016 PRESS RELEASE? If you had been a victim or one of your loved ones was killed and you discovered that Malcolm Turnbull did nothing regarding my various warnings would you not regard him as a hypocrite and using tragedy for political scoring? Again, the same with Premier Daniel Andrews!
    A full copy of my 15 July 2016 PRESS RELEASE is included in the submission to the coroner.
    Will the coroner burry certain details to protect the government’s incompetence, I wonder?
    The document can be downloaded from:
    https://www.scribd.com/document/339180230/20170213-G-H-Schorel-Hlavka-O-W-B-Re-SUBMISSION-to-Coroner-Sara-Hinchey-J
    And the PRESS RELEASE ITSELF CAN BECHECKED TO HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED ON 15 jULY 2016 AND AS SUCH NOT MADE UP AFTERWARDS!
    Cowards hiding behind security while leaving the public at risk for their warmongering.
    The documents can be downloaded from:
    https://www.scribd.com/document/318379891/20160715-Press-Release-Mr-g-h-Schorel-hlavka-o-w-b-Issue-Re-the-Failure-in-National-Security-Etc-the-Constitution

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