Well, entirely unsurprisingly, it hasn't magically made the inherent conflict between tram passengers and cyclists go away.
But has it improved the situation or made it worse?
I've traversed the area as both cyclist and pedestrian, and these are my initial impressions.
Well, it's wide and smooth to ride on, but despite Robert Doyle's protestations, it isn't immediately obvious where one is supposed to ride and where the waiting passengers are supposed to stand and walk.
I was a bit concerned that the fancy bluestone surface might be a bit slick in the wet but that doesn't seem to be the case.
Part of the design is to separate the road level for each mode—foot, bike and tram—the act of stepping down from the pedestrian area to the shared space should cue-in pedestrians that they are moving into a different space. This effect is diluted a bit by the disabled access ramps—wide, gently sloping ramps mean there is no sense of stepping down (at least, I didn't notice it). But for the most part, there is a noticeable step down at the edge of the footpath.
People, like water, follow the path of least resistance. In the afternoon large numbers of people get off trams on the southbound side, then queue to cross at the lights, heading for the train station. And in order to get to the crossing, they take the shortest route—down the bike lane:
As a tram passenger, I found this was the natural thing to do. Bear in mind that this doesn't feel like stepping down onto a road or even a safety zone—it feels like stepping down into a safe pedestrian-friendly space. Inevitably, people are going to walk with a bit less caution than they otherwise would when leaving a tram.
The cyclist's experience of this is to ride through a narrow tunnel of people wandering aimlessly along the bike lane. This is sure to lead to verbal, and possibly physcial, clashes between cyclists and pedestrians.
Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has courted criticism by making much of the top-notch bluestone that's been used in the upgrade, saying it's like paving the streets in gold—the sort of thing every rate-payer loves to hear. I don't see it myself—it appears to be largely indistinguishable from concrete. I guess it's attractive. But in an interview with 3AW's Neil Mitchell, Doyle states that this installation is effectively a prototype: "We always said we would open this one first, we would see how it operates knowing there would be difficulty and confusion. And that means when we do Bourke St and Collins St then the onus is on us to get it right". Why then would you use the most expensive materials when the design may need later modification as we learn more?
But one of the main criticisms of the new setup is that it's confusing. But is this really a problem? Let me run a half-baked idea past you: maybe a lack of signage and markings (and the consequent ambiguity) is a good thing.
David Engwicht talks about intrigue and uncertainty as mechanisms to bring about calmer traffic. And if there's anywhere that needs clam traffic flow, it's a site like the new Swanston St tram stop.
Engwicht's first proposition is "It is a myth that the only way to improve safety is to increase predictability". It's counter-intuitive, but it makes sense when you think about it: increase predictability and vehicles (in this case, bikes) can move faster, decrease predictability and increase the need for 'negotiation' and vehicles will move slower.
Hang on, I'm a commuting cyclist—why am I advocating slowing down cyclists? Because everything about the design of this new tram stop screams "shared space". No amount of yellow lines and bike stencils on the ground is going to stop people sauntering along in the 'wrong' place, in the 'wrong' direction, without paying enough attention.
But it seems that the City wants to increase predictability on the new tram stop with lines and stencils being laid down, and no doubt all sorts of warning signage is also being prepared. Like some others, I'm a bit disappointed that we weren't prepared to give a fair trial to a true shared space before giving up and daubing paint all over the place and putting up 'thou shalt not' signs.
Overall, it doesn't seem significantly different from the previous arrangement. The same effect could have been had much more cheaply by making the same stretch of road car-free (e.g. by putting up some barriers to motor vehicles) and leaving the walkers, riders and tram drivers to sort it out on the unmodified roadway. But it does look great (or at least it did before the line-painters got to it)…I'll leave others to decide whether looking fabulous is worth the price tag.