A rider uses a bike track running along Darebin Creek.

A rider uses a bike track running along Darebin Creek. Photo: Gary Medlicott

THE Darebin Creek bike track is at last to be linked to the main Yarra Bike Trail. It has taken 17 years for this 1.8-kilometre stretch of track to gain planning approval and the money to build it. Once it is complete the residents of the northern suburbs drained by the Darebin Creek will have access to the main Yarra bike track and hence to the whole bike network.

I don't know how the advocates of this plan have kept their patience while they jumped through all the planning hoops. I took up the cause briefly and read all the planning documents. I was ready to give up when I read that the scheme was a threat to the environment because three trees were to be cut down on the Yarra bank to make way for a bike bridge.

A revised plan was drawn up that limited the damage to one tree destroyed.

Admittedly the track is to pass through a lovely stretch of park and bushland and skirt a billabong on the Yarra. The chief objectors to the bike track were the local residents who had a park at their front door, which few people knew of and they regarded as their own. They suffered a setback when a consultant's report found that their dogs were more threatening to the native wildlife in the billabong than bikes.

A track for bikes took 17 years to overcome the hurdles set for it and it still remains to be built. Meanwhile, great swaths of country have disappeared under asphalt. The eastern freeway, which runs beside the billabong, has been extended from Doncaster to Nunawading, and now to Ringwood and Frankston. Ten lanes of road run for 40 kilometres while a narrow track for bikes running for a kilometre or so has yet to be built. The environmentally friendly bike suffers while the petrol-guzzling car still carries all before it.

When concern for the environment began, the emphasis was on preservation and conservation. Stop the bulldozer and the developer; keep open spaces and old buildings and old forests.

Now concern for the environment is a project to save the planet from global warming. That requires fundamental changes to the economy and how we live. If these changes are to be made quickly, the sensitivities and procedures developed in the first stage of environmentalism might get in the way.

Or to put it another way, should a wind farm be stopped by concern for one orange-belly parrot? Or should Green groups be so opposed to nuclear power that can generate clean energy? Or should a bike path be stopped because it crosses a small park where a few people walk their dogs?

If we are concerned for the environment, bike tracks should be fast-tracked and never be construed as a threat. It is an odd politics that allows a handful of people to stop the creation of a crucial link to Melbourne's bike network on environmental grounds.

Trams are the old wonder of Melbourne; the bike tracks are the new. Not the tracks that are painted on bitumen roads that can annoy motorists when they have bikes in them and even more when they do not. The bike tracks proper follow the rivers and the creeks, old railways and new, and the freeways, providing an alternative network to the roads so that bikes can traverse the city in their own realm.

Melbourne kept its trams more by luck than good management. A more determined and go-ahead government in the 1950s would have accepted the argument that, with petrol cheap and motor transport flexible as to route, trams were outmoded.

The bike tracks we owe first to the favourable topography and then to the commitment of the Liberal premier Dick Hamer. He now very properly has Hamer Hall named after him in acknowledgment of his support for the arts, but more people ride bikes than go to concerts. His bike tracks are a wonderful legacy.

John Hirst is a historian.

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