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MAJOR changes being made to road conditions at the southern end of High Street in Northcote are ''the way of the future'' for Melbourne's tram routes, urban planners say.
But it is a future in which cars, bicycles and even ambulances and fire trucks will be drastically squeezed for space, and cyclists fear a disaster on the redesigned road is only a matter of time.
''What we're looking at is a state of chaos,'' said Bicycle Network Victoria's Jason den Hollander
As part of a state government project aimed at speeding up tram travel on route 86, one of Melbourne's busiest tram routes, High Street is being radically transformed: tram super stops are being built, greatly reducing the number of car spaces; footpaths have been widened, cutting the road from four lanes to two; and clearways for peak-hour travel have been done away with.
The changes will smooth traffic flow for trams, speeding up travel times by an estimated 25 per cent and creating scope for increased services.
VicRoads freely admits the changes are designed to force cars to slow down and discourage commuters from driving there.
''The project is introducing measures … to encourage through traffic that would otherwise have used High Street to use parallel arterial roads instead,'' VicRoads' director of tram and bus projects, Brendan Pauwels, said.
But cyclist groups say the new streetscape will increase the risk of accidents.
Once complete, the super stops will be a ''shared pathway'' between cyclists and pedestrians.
''They have designed into the project inherent conflict between pedestrians and bikes and potentially bikes and trams and cars,'' Mr den Hollander said.
''If riders no longer feel comfortable going up and over the platform because of the decisions council have made, they'll end up riding in the tram tracks, and we've seen previously what happens when riders are forced into tram tracks.''
Currently, cyclists on High Street have little choice but to ride in the tram tracks, because the super stops are under construction.
''That used to be the direct route for me to ride to work every day, and I've changed my route because it just became so hectic and dangerous,'' said Andrew Wilson.
''But sometimes going there is unavoidable, and you end up riding down the middle of the tram tracks,'' he said.
But Michael Ballock, the City of Darebin's director of city works and development, said that cyclists will have to give way to pedestrians at the super stops.
''We're trying to accommodate cyclists in High Street and make it safer for them, but the priority is with the trams and the people getting on and off, and then the cyclists come after that,'' he said.
He admitted there was a possibility ambulances and fire trucks could get stuck in traffic in some sections of the redesigned road, but said both departments had endorsed the design.
Ambulance Victoria agreed. ''Our crews are aware of the change and use their local knowledge to determine the quickest and most appropriate route to emergencies in that area,'' said Northcote team manager Rob Seale.
The $30 million project is a joint endeavour between VicRoads, Yarra Trams and the City of Darebin, and is viewed as a potential pilot for the remainder of Melbourne's tram network.
The Baillieu government has applied to federal agency Infrastructure Australia for an extra $70 million to extend the redevelopment several kilometres north to Albert Street, Reservoir, next year.
''We think this is the way of the future for roads in Melbourne that have got trams running through them,'' Mr Ballock said.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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