Interview in the Melbourne Times (Jan. 17, 2007) with Steve Barnett, YarraBUG co-convenor. For more on the YarraBUG Gipps Street Steps actions, see our campaigns page.

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The path to a better bike trail

The Yarra bike path is hidden from many Melburnians. But cyclists know it well, especially its obstacles. Simon Kidd reports on the push to make the path smoother. Pictures by Peter Weaving.

For Steve Barnett, cycling along the Yarra reveals a different Melbourne. It's the one place where, in an hour of riding, he can get a glimpse of the private boat ramps and landings of South Yarra and Hawthorn's privileged few, a view of Richmond from high on a Kew hill, and a vineyard metres away from heavy industry.

He can also pedal through the rural scenes around the Abbotsford Convent and Collingwood Children's Farm, and admire eucalyptus forests and billabongs. Barnett, the Yarra Bicycle Users Group (BUG) co-convener, says some of the scenes could be far away on the Murray.

"You'd be amazed at how you can feel like you're in the middle of the bush, while being within seven kilometres of the city centre," he says. "It's great having that ride really close to the city".

Winding 40 kilometres from the city to Templestowe, the Main Yarra Trail is a ride like few others. Mark Dixon, Bicycle Victoria's facilities development manager, says the route has been out of sight and out of mind for many Melburnians. But he believes this is changing. Dixon says that as the city's popluation grows the path is becoming an increasingly important recreational and commuter asset.

Counters in Burnley show that 3300 people a week use the trail in January (the busiest month), and the numbers are rising by about 5 per cent a year. But as the path's popularity has grown, so has the pressure to fix the outdated and unsafe parts.

At the base of Gipps Street, Abbotsford, there are 41 obstacles - the number of steps city-bound cyclists have to climb with bikes in hand. Another problem is the demanding one-kilometre hill climb that immediately follows, on the Kew side. For a fit rider it's an effort, but for a casual cyclist or a child the steps and the hill are daunting and dangerous, Barnett says. "It is much more of a workout than people expect." These are not the only obstacles along the trail. Barnett says another set of stairs under the Chandler Highway in Kew - are high on most path users' list of pet hates.

During Bike Path Discovery Day in 2005, puffed-out commuters snapped up 200 leaflets from BUG members at the top of the stairs. The campaigners even had to help several riders carry their bikes up.

While there is widespread agreement that the current set-up is unsatisfactory, solutions are more elusive. But it seems this is the year when a solution could be agreed to - if not built. The most elegant fix, according to Bicycle Victoria, is to bypass the hill and steps completely by continuing the path along the Abbotsford side of the river, behind the Carlton and United Breweries complex, connecting at Walmer Street.

The group has lobbied for this "Brewery Trail" for several years. It is even marked in the Melway as a proposed route. But the elegant solution, in this case, may also be the hardest. A recent Yarra Council feasibility study found the project would be complicated by privately owned riverbank land. Also, negotiating a path along steep banks and soft soil would require a major feat of engineering. "It's a very expensive proposition," Dixon says. Some estimates put the cost at about $6 million.

That reality has forced the groups - including Bicycle Victoria, Yarra, Parks Victoria and Melbourne Water - to come up with alternatives. The State Government allocated $1.5 million last year to plan and design a gently sloping ramp to bypass the Gipps Street steps.

But, believing the measure is a "half-solution", Dixon and Bicycle Victoria are pushing to save the money for a more comprehensive, long-term plan. One option is to build a small bridge near the Abbotsford Convent, allowing riders to continue through low-lying Andrews Reserve, on. the Kew side, avoiding the steep hill climb. A bridge would take riders back to Richmond at Flockhart Reserve. Richmond MLA Dick Wynne, who is also the new Local Government and Housing Minister, says the steps are a "major obstacle" and he is keen to see the problem solved soon.

In the meantime, Barnett, also a member of Yarra Council's Bicycle Advisory Committee, says fixing the steps should be the main priority. "Just having a ramp would make a big difference in the continuity of the path," he says. Dixon hopes that this year a solution will be brought several steps closer - if not the full 41.

But he advises cyclists not to hold their breath waiting. " As with many things, it's never as simple as it seems ... but that shouldn't stop anyone using it. "