The use and misuse of footpaths

I ran a Twitter thread over the last fortnight, highlighting some of the ways that footpath space is misused, or mis-allocated.

This blog expands on those posts.

In some of these cases, capacity constraints are causing problems for large numbers of pedestrians. Able-bodied people are often able to avoid those hazards, though it does slow them down.

More seriously, for those with limited mobility, such as those in wheelchairs, these issues can cause real problems for people just trying to get out and about.

1. Advertising

Real estate advertising blocking footpath

This is commonplace. It’s also in contravention of local council law. For instance, Glen Eira outlaws the following:

  • Placing advertising sign/s or displaying any goods on a Road (including a footpath) or Council Land unless permitted under the Glen Eira Planning Scheme.
  • Owning or occupying a Property from which trees, plants, shrubs or any other thing overhang or encroach on any Road (including footpath) at a height of less than 3 metres or from which a gate obstructs any Road or footpath.

Typically if you ask a real estate agent on Twitter why their banners are blocking the footpaths like this, they’ll invariably say they’re investigating, and ask for details of the specific property, as if it’s some unique occurrence.

It’s not of course. It’s a style of banner that is widely used. There have been occasional prosecutions for this — perhaps there need to be a few more so the real estate industry starts adapting. Some have found a solution: a smaller banner that is clear of pedestrians (though probably not 3 metres above the path).

2. Motorcycles

Motorcycle blocking footpath

Motorcycle parking on footpaths is legal in Victoria — a situation that is unique in Australia. In this post from 2013, I looked at the guidelines (which are not enforceable) and asked the obvious question: are the laws actually appropriate, particularly in busy city centres?

One can argue that motorcycles are more space-efficient than cars. Not if they encroach onto footpaths they’re not.

City of Melbourne’s 2012 transport strategy paper on “Flexible and adaptive private transport” estimates that just 1-2% of trips to the City are by motorcycle. From how they take over vast areas of footpath in some areas, we should be thankful it’s not any higher.

The paper identified this Action (number 42): Increase the supply of motorcycle parking in congested areas to reduce the need to park on footpaths and prohibit motorcycle parking where it obstructs walking, or other complementary activities.

Sounds good, but as far as I know, the short list of three locations in the CBD where motorcycle parking is banned in 2017 is exactly the same as it was in 2001.

There is a law that if the motorcycle obstructs the footpath then council officers can take action. But this is vague. The above example blocks half the busy footpath. Is that an obstruction? (If I blocked one lane of a busy road, I’m sure that would be.)

3. Narrow footpaths

Inadequate narrow footpath

Footpaths like this are found right along most of the Little streets in Melbourne’s CBD: one lane of traffic, two lanes of parking, and two narrow footpaths for pedestrians, despite them being in the majority.

I’m guessing the street has been this way for a long time. Doesn’t mean it still should be. And with City of Melbourne progressively replacing footpaths with bluestone, there’s an opportunity to re-allocate space in favour of the most space-efficient, most desirable mode.

Priorities, right? Recently there have been calls to make Chinatown car-free, at least at some times of day, but throughout the CBD there’s a good argument for reducing parking and widening footpaths to cope with crowds and encourage more walking.

4. Parked vehicle overhang

Motor vehicle blocking footpath

Another common sight where car parks are adjacent to footpaths, including 90-degree street parking.

Someone with limited eyesight who didn’t spot this huge vehicle sticking blocking half the footpath could do themselves a serious injury.

Education of motorists could help, but a design change to prevent this type of overhang would be better.

Possibly this is illegal under the same laws quoted above; it’s not really clear.

5. Traffic signs

Road sign blocking footpath

This one was first spotted by Victoria Walks. Notice how the road is blocked anyway — though this is a temporary (every lunchtime) measure.

Certainly though the roadway is wide enough that it could accommodate the sign plus traffic.

I complained to City of Melbourne about it. They replied that while the placement:

was not ideal, it was not appropriate to locate it on the carriageway, taking up a parking space, as it would affect the servicing requirements of abutting properties within this limited parking area.

They also acknowledged that they only left 1.1 metres of footpath clear, narrower than the recommended clearance of 1.2 metres to allow for wheelchairs.

So there you have it. As far as City of Melbourne goes, parking in the middle of the CBD is more important than footpath users, including those in wheelchairs. And that includes when it’s a sign to advise of No Parking!

6. Driveway extensions

Parked car blocking footpath

This is pretty common in the suburbs. Some motorists think their driveway includes the footpath.

It’s possible to dob people in for this. In the past some have been issued with fines.

But more widely educating might be a better start. Glen Eira have publicised it in their regular newsletter, but given how common it is, more is needed.

7. Motorcycles moving on footpaths

Motorcyclist riding along busy footpath

This is just south of Flagstaff station, one of the busiest pedestrian locations in Melbourne.

It’s not just that the motorcyclist is parking on the footpath; it’s also that he needs to ride it from the nearest ramp. Thankfully he was doing so slowly, walking it (even though he’s sitting on it)… apparently undeterred by the swarm of pedestrians coming towards him.

The bigger problem is that, this footpath is so busy that City of Melbourne have an automated pedestrian counting device to monitor it, and pedestrians regularly walk on the road to avoid obstructions. Despite that, no action has been taken to simply ban motorcycle parking along here.

As per number 2, the ban locations haven’t changed since 2001. Given the explosion in growth in the CBD, that’s just ridiculous.

8. Parked cars

Parked cars blocking footpath

Meanwhile in the burbs, this is happening.

It’s not even clear why these motorists have chosen to mount the footpath, as there’s plenty of space on the road. It’s permitted in some countries, but doesn’t seem to be here. (When I was learning to drive, I was told this was an instant fail.)

For someone with a pram or mobility aid, the choice is try and get past on the grass (and hope you don’t get bogged down) or use the parallel cycling path — not ideal.

9. Caravans

Caravan blocking footpath

Similar to number 6, though trailers and caravans seem to be even more of a blind spot for some owners.

10. No footpath at all

No footpath

Common in some outer-suburbs, but also a problem in Glen Eira. There are a number of streets around Bentleigh and East Bentleigh with no sealed footpath at all.

Pushing a pram? Or you have wheeled luggage? Or in a wheelchair? I guess you just use the roadway and hope a car doesn’t zoom around the corner and skittle you.

Why this persists I have no idea, though I’m told City of Glen Eira at least is moving to address it.

11. Trees and bushes

Bushes blocking footpath

Refer to the council laws quoted in number 1. These are meant to be maintained to leave clearance of 3 metres above the path, which would allow plenty of space, even for an adult on a bicycle (legally on the footpath if they’re supervising an under-12).

The couple pictured above (they’re walking in single file) had to manoeuvre around the bushes to get their pram past. Lucky the weather was dry so the nature strip was okay.

How would someone in a wheelchair go? Onto the grass or cross the street I suppose.

William Street 9am. Narrow footpath + obstructions = people walk on road

The common theme here

Most of us were born with two feet to walk around.

But those who choose to walk, rather than drive, are constantly marginalised, by poor planning, and poor regulation.

The built environment, and the way some people are allowed to misuse it, actively discourage walking.

And almost nobody cares.

This is despite the numerous benefits to personal health, as well as society at large, from more people walking instead of driving.

A tale of two Bentleighs

Census data for Journey To Work was released on Monday, and many are taking a good look at the results.

In Greater Melbourne, overall about 16.3% of people are using public transport to get to work — up from 14.5% in 2011.

(It actually depends how you define “Melbourne”, and how you analyse the figures. I’m going to keep it simple and use the QuickStats figure for “Melbourne (Urban Centres and Localities)“, population 4.2 million, but people smarter than me are doing further analysis to get a more accurate figure — Charting Transport says 18.6%.)

Bentleigh and East Bentleigh

Comparing the Bentleighs

Comparing Bentleigh (3204) with neighbouring East Bentleigh (3165), I found some interesting differences.

They have very similar populations. Bentleigh has about 31,000 people; East Bentleigh has 28,000.

Bentleigh median age 38, East Bentleigh 40.

Across both suburbs, there is an average 2.7 people per household, and in families with children, an average 1.8 children.

Transport

Diverting from the Census data for a minute, let’s look at the suburbs’ transport infrastructure and services.

Neither suburb has any freeways.

Bentleigh has four railway stations: Patterson, Bentleigh, McKinnon and Ormond are all within 3204; Moorabbin is just outside the southern border. All of these are within about a 15 minute walk. Services are about every 10 minutes for most of the day (the graph below excludes express services, which don’t stop in Bentleigh).

East Bentleigh only has buses. Major north-south routes include the patchy and indirect 822 and 767 services, plus the far better 903 Smartbus along Warrigal Road (on the suburb’s very eastern edge), which is reasonably good on weekdays as a feeder into Oakleigh or Mentone stations, with almost as many services per weekday as the trains.

Both suburbs are served by the 703, 630, 824 and other local buses providing east-west services, but none of them are as frequent as the trains, particularly after 7pm and on weekends.

Buses of course get stuck in traffic, and average speeds are slower than trains. The 903 from Mentone to Chadstone, about 11 kilometres, is scheduled at 45 minutes in peak hour. Frankston line stopping-all-stations trains (which serve Bentleigh) cover the 12 kilometres from Mentone to Caulfield in 24 minutes in peak.

This graph shows that the Frankston line provides far more services than most of the bus routes. This is especially marked on the weekend, which doesn’t directly affect the Census results, but influences whether people feel they can depend on public transport for their travel generally.

Note: these figures simply add weekday + Saturday + Sunday services in both directions, so this is not a weekly service figure. Express trains that don’t stop at stations within Bentleigh are excluded.

Transport outcomes

Back to the Census. How does this play out in the transport modes people use?

Here’s what the Census Quickstats tells us:

In Bentleigh, 20.8% of people get to work by public transport, well above the Melbourne average. In East Bentleigh it’s 14.9%, slightly lower than the Melbourne average. So Bentleigh is about 40% higher than East Bentleigh.

In Bentleigh, average number of motor vehicles in the home is 1.7 — most popular answer: one (39.4%). East Bentleigh average is 1.8, most popular answer: two (44.3%).

In Bentleigh, 7.4% of households have no motor vehicle. In East Bentleigh it’s only 4.7%.

(If 46.8% of households in Bentleigh have zero or one car, you can bet those are mostly near the stations. Perhaps it’s perfectly reasonable for new apartment developments to be built with one car space, with no street parking?)

Bus stop in East Bentleigh

What can we learn?

Owning an extra motor vehicle has a huge economic impact on a household. It can easily add up to thousands of dollars per year.

Of course, 20.8% public transport mode share in Bentleigh is higher than many suburbs (certainly well above the Melbourne average), but is not as high as it could be.

The relevant data isn’t available yet, but my suspicion is that public transport mode share is very high for trips to work along the train line, particularly to the CBD and inner suburbs — and Southland will be another major rail destination once the station opens in November.

But public transport mode share is likely to be much lower for trips not served by rail — probably not much higher than non-rail suburbs, because most of the buses (even the 703) offer such poor service.

This pattern would be repeated right across Melbourne. Correlation isn’t causation, but it’s pretty clear that in suburbs with good public transport options, people use it more often, particularly where the service offers a good quality ride to a major destination.

The key is to keep improving the non-car options: walking, cycling, and of course the public transport service.

Not just trains, but also buses and trams, and giving every suburb transport options that are competitive with car travel, more of the time.

For PT that means ride quality, reliability, speed/priority, but most of all, service frequency.

Whoever programmed these traffic lights is treating pedestrians with contempt

If they want to encourage people to walk, they should at least ensure it’s as easy as possible.

But in many cases, traffic lights are programmed to make it difficult – even where fixing it wouldn’t disadvantage motorists at all.

Example 1

Here’s the T-junction at Centre Road and Eskay Road, Oakleigh South.

I’m walking along Centre Road, crossing Eskay Road. It’s a quiet street with virtually no traffic – so by default the traffic light is green for Centre Road traffic. But not for pedestrians.

Pressing the button has no immediate effect. The signals stay as they are… for over a minute.

80 seconds later, the green man suddenly pops up.

Governments spend millions trying to cut car commutes by a few minutes. Meanwhile, this deliberate decision by whoever programmed the traffic signals makes people wait 80 seconds for no reason.

I suspect the signals are programmed to wait and see if a car on Eskay Road triggers the sequence giving green for them, which would then provide a green man in the next cycle for Centre Road.

But because no car turns up, eventually it gives up and just gives the pedestrian the green man anyway.

This is absolutely appalling treatment of pedestrians. It almost begs them to walk against the lights. (Alternatively, I could walk 20 metres from the crossing and legally cross whenever it is safe. That of course would be a ridiculous outcome.)

By the way, this is next to where the Vicroads office used to be. Treating pedestrians like this is the perfect way to remind people coming on foot or from the bus (say, to apply for a driver’s licence) that they should have driven instead.

Example 2

This is not a once-off scenario. Further west down Centre Road, I found an identical situation outside the Moorabbin Hospital (in East Bentleigh).

This one “only” made me needlessly wait 40 seconds for a green man.

Obviously outside a hospital you wouldn’t want people walking. It might benefit their health…

Example 3

Okay, so maybe this is a problem with old installations.

Vicroads are doing some good stuff with priority for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport, but I’ve heard that there are issues with getting enough qualified staff to be able to re-program old traffic lights.

So brand new traffic lights would be much better, right?

Well, here’s a brand new set. Oakleigh Road and Grange Road in Ormond. Installed earlier this year. I’m walking along Grange Road, which gives traffic the green by default, and crossing Oakleigh Road.

This was always a hairy intersection for drivers going straight or turning right from Oakleigh Road. Ditto, pedestrians crossing Grange Road. So it will bring undoubted safety benefits.

But it has made things far worse for pedestrians walking along Grange Road.

The lights don’t wait for a while to provide a green man, as in the above examples.

Instead, they switch to giving a green to Oakleigh Road — which doesn’t have any traffic at the time — then switch back to green for Grange Road, with the green man.

Yes, these traffic lights prioritise non-existent traffic over pedestrians.

What should happen?

Why should I even need to press a “beg” button? Why don’t traffic lights provide an automatic green man?

It’s possible. It’s used in the CBD, and in some suburban shopping areas, as well in areas with large Jewish populations on the sabbath.

Okay, so sometimes the traffic sequence might be too short to easily provide a green man. But why can’t they at least provide it when it is long enough, particularly in situations as shown above where one road is the default to get the green for traffic.

Motorists usually don’t have to stop and “beg” and wait. In some cases they have to trigger a sensor in the road to get a right turn arrow or a green from a minor street (as above), but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Maybe there’s not the political will to give pedestrians higher priority than cars, especially in the suburbs. There should be, to encourage more walking, but there isn’t.

So how about at least not treating pedestrians with contempt?

Brussels has zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings. Could we have more too?

One of the things I found fascinating about Brussels on our recent holiday was – in contrast to Cardiff – how they’ve gone out of their way to make life easy for pedestrians.

Most striking was that there were zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings.

Zebra crossings in Brussels

When I first spotted how many there were, I wasn’t totally sure what I was seeing, and actually warned my fellow travellers to watch and observe the locals, just in case the road markings didn’t mean what they mean in Australia. Did vehicles really have to stop for pedestrians at all these locations?

Yes. The stripes mean the same thing (except if there are traffic lights). There are just lots of zebra crossings.

Walking to the Metro in the rain, Brussels

Zebra crossings on main streets, zebra crossings on minor streets, zebra crossings on divided roads with trams in the middle, zebra crossings at intersections and mid-block.

Lots and lots of zebra crossings, and drivers observed them – perhaps because they’re so used to them.

Roundabouts? Not a problem. In Australia, these are virtually the only locations where vehicles in any direction don’t have to give way. Exceptions are rare. The Belgian roundabouts I saw had zebra crossings on all sides:

Brussels street

Two T-junctions so close together that putting zebra crossings on every side would mean three in row? Sure, go ahead. The motorists will survive:

Zebra crossings in Brussels

Generally, motor vehicles had to give way to pedestrians, but pedestrians had to give way to trams.

Zebra and tram crossing in Brussels

How much does having lots of zebra crossings affect traffic? It’s hard to say, but the cars driving around didn’t seem to be unduly held up. When I saw peak hour traffic set in, it was clear that – as anywhere else – the main thing delaying cars was other cars.

Some wider streets had traffic lights with pedestrian crossings. At many of these, you didn’t have to press a “beg” button – there was no button. The green man triggered automatically:

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

This not only tells pedestrians approaching that they don’t have to press a button to cross. It also indicates the authorities have no intention of changing it (and necessitating having a button) any time soon.

This of course is how it should be. If you’re giving the green to vehicles, why wouldn’t you also give the green to pedestrians? (More about this in another rant post soon.)

Note the signalised crossings have the same on-road markings as zebra crossings. I wonder if that helps with compliance? They’re much more obvious than the Australian dashed line markings.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

At a few spots I saw, buttons were necessary to trigger the green man. These seemed to be reasonably responsive, not making you wait too long:

Pedestrian crossing button in Brussels

In some locations, presumably those that get very busy at times, the crossings were very wide.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

Along with mostly wide footpaths (at least, wide enough to cope with pedestrian traffic), the design of the crossings left one with the impression that Belgian authorities would prefer you walked than drive.

It’s the sort of thing that some might not even notice, but it left an impression on me. If only Australian authorities were so inspired.

Could we do this in Australia?

Sure. But while some new zebra crossings have popped up over the last few years, they don’t seem to be routinely installed.

This spot outside Gardiner Station clearly should have been a zebra crossing:

This was almost a zebra crossing, but someone messed up. (I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth. It’s now entirely a signalised crossing… which thanks to the beg button, many people ignore):

This is the newish tram stop on Collins Street at William Street. It could have had zebra crossings at the non-intersection end. But someone decided a signalised crossing was a better idea. It’s maddeningly slow to wait for if you’re crossing, and many people just cross whenever there’s a gap in the traffic:

Collins St near William St

I would think there’s also scope to place zebra crossings on side streets at intersections, particularly in suburban shopping centres.

Main road/side street intersection, Bentleigh

The law says a vehicle turning into the street gives way, but convention is often the opposite, with vehicles exiting the street often giving way instead.

And pedestrians sometimes wave stopped motorists on, when the motorist is doing the right thing and giving way. (Do me a favour: if you’re crossing and other people are too, don’t wave the car on. You might not be in any great hurry to get where you’re going, but you don’t speak for everybody else.)

Painting zebra crossings right across the side street would not just encourage walking, it would also help reduce the confusion over who’s meant to give way to whom, in what are typically high traffic (pedestrian and vehicle) areas.

Ditto car park entrances, where motorists entering and exiting are meant to give way to pedestrians.

More zebra crossings are perfectly possible. Here’s what they’ve done in Footscray. It was quiet when I took this photo, but often there are lots of pedestrians around. Somehow, the traffic still gets through:

Zebra crossings in Footscray

Potentially two-lane main roads like Centre Road and McKinnon Road could have zebra crossings too. That would be bringing it up to Belgian standards, and would be in line with the Vicroads Smartroads strategy which says it’s meant to prioritise pedestrians and buses. What would be the effect on traffic? It would be interesting to see it modelled.

Ultimately, if we prefer people walk where possible, more needs to be done to encourage it.

PTV’s web site timetables are broken

A few weeks ago I looked at problems with Metro’s paper timetables.

Now, can we talk about how hopeless the PTV web site timetables are?

Most of the rest of the web site works quite well, but the timetables, a key part, really are horribly unusable.

If you’ve got the patience, see how many steps it takes to view the Hurstbridge line timetable for Sunday. Or you may prefer to read on.


(No audio, not even the sound of me banging my head on the desk in frustration)

Step by step

So we want to look at the Hurstbridge line timetable, to the city.

Go to the PTV web site, click Timetables, and on the dropdown, choose the Hurstbridge line, To City.

This displays the timetable for today.

There’s bus replacements this week due to level crossing works this week, between Macleod and Clifton Hill. Here’s how it looks at about midday today:

Hurstbridge line timetable during bus replacements

The times are all jumbled up. It shows a few train times, then a few bus times, in semi-random order. How are you meant to read this?

If you were actually wanting to travel at midday from Hurstbridge to the City, your trip might look like this:

Hurstbridge line timetable during bus replacements

Note: don’t hop on the first bus at Macleod, because it takes longer than the express bus 8 minutes later. Hopefully on-the-ground there are staff to tell you this.

H means replacement bus, by the way. Not that you’d necessarily realise what H means, because for most lines, the timetable will fills your display, so you won’t spot the annotations unless you scroll down. I actually had to mash two screen dumps together to get the above image.

Why H? Because it’s so slow in the traffic you’d rather be in a Helicopter.

I dunno. It’s probably steeped in railway folklore, similar to codes like WOLO (which means a heat-related speed restriction, and comes from — believe it or not — an old telegraph code).

(When I first looked at this, on Monday, according to the timetable, trains inbound ran to Macleod, but the buses only commenced at Heidelberg, 3 kilometres away! They’ve since fixed this problem.)

Now let’s say we want to see the times for Sunday. You have to choose a date, but it doesn’t tell you which date is which day, so you’ll have to guess, or look it up on a separate calendar.

PTV timetable - choosing day

Okay, Sunday is the 15th, so I’ll ask for 14 October to 15 October. The Day dropdown only has Mon-Fri for now, so I’ll just click Go. Wait for the entire page to refresh and load all the times, and…

PTV timetable - choosing day

Okay, I’m not even sure which day it’s showing. So I’ll choose Sunday off the Day dropdown and click and wait again…

Finally it shows the Sunday timetable. But why on earth does it have separate Date and Day dropdowns?

Now let’s look at next Monday. That’s the 16th October, so I’ll choose that. Click and wait.

Despite there being individual days you have to choose for this week, next week is a range of days: “16 to 19 Oct”. But peppered throughout the timetable are variations for specific days, with annotations.

PTV timetable - choosing day

Hurstbridge line annotations

And the footnotes are worded in some kind of broken English:

  • Mo = Operates on Monday only
  • T10 = Operates not on Monday

“T10”? “Operates not on Monday”? Seriously?

It could be worse. Here’s the annotations for the Frankston line this week.

Frankston line timetable during bus replacements

Frankston line timetable - annotations

“_n300” and “up300H”. Yes, not only have they munged codes together, they’re using codes with underscores in them.

Other issues with the online train timetables:

  • Some lines are so long that you can’t view them properly on smaller (eg laptop) screens — one workaround is to change your web browser setting to a microscopic font size
  • The indicator for Wheelchair accessible services is missing for most trams and some buses
  • Even if you have a big screen, it’s restricted to showing 14 columns at a time — though too many would hinder readability

Other cities do so much better at this, especially in terms of date selection and navigation around the timetable.

The silver lining? Tram and bus timetables are a lot simpler, thanks in part to simpler stopping patterns (though Mon-Thu vs Fri variations still abound) and also thanks to the wise design decision to hide minor stops by default, making the display more manageable.

And in many cases, you can use a journey planning tool — PTV’s has some quirks, though Google Maps is very good. (Some others such as Offi have been forced offline because of the withdrawal of PTV’s “EFA” API, which provided 3rd party software with access to PTV’s journey planning algorithms. Software which can calculate their own journeys with the timetable data still work fine.)

But if you need to use the PTV web timetables, overall there are basic usability issues that should have been resolved years ago.

Perhaps, given the data is open, someone should conjure up a more usable timetable display web site?

There was a Metlink/PTV beta web site being tested at one stage – perhaps parts of it made it into production, but the timetables have been like this for about 10 years, and are well overdue for improvement.