After a year of tacks on Yarra Boulevard, what’s being done about it?

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It’s been more than a year since the first upholstery tacks were discovered on Yarra Boulevard, one of Melbourne’s most popular cycling routes. The ‘Boulie tacks’ have almost certainly been placed on the road by a local resident, deliberately to inconvenience cyclists, but despite police, council and the local road authority’s involvement — not to mention significant outrage from the cycling community — tacks keep appearing on Yarra Boulevard. So where to from here? CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef investigates.

The first mentions of the “Boulie tacks” started appearing online in a thread on the Bicycle Network forums 13 months ago. Forum user “acid_rider” wrote on February 23, 2014 that “1/4 inch nails were deliberately thrown in both directions of Kew Boulevard this weekend”. In the intervening months that thread has attracted more than 660 replies, including rider reports of fresh tacks being laid in the past fortnight.

Riders continue to use social media — Twitter and Instagram in particular — to document cases of being affected by the tacks.

While it’s hard to determine whether rider numbers on the Boulevard are down as a result of the tacks, it’s clear, at least anecdotally, that many riders have been and still are hesitant to visit. One group that has started avoiding ‘the Boulie’ is Blackburn Cycling Club, which has been running time trials along much of the 6.6km stretch of road for years.

Many competitors suffered punctures during a Blackburn ITT last year and entry numbers in a future instalment dwindled as a result. With no resolution to the Boulie tacks issue in sight, Blackburn made the decision to cancel its ITT series, not least because it wasn’t safe for competitors.

So given tacks have been an issue on Yarra Boulevard for more than a year, what’s being done about it?

Police investigation

While throwing tacks on the road is clearly a great inconvenience and safety hazard for cyclists, it’s also a criminal act. Senior Sergeant Mark Standish of the Boroondara police told CyclingTips that any offenders will be charged with “criminal damage” and “aggravated litter” when caught, and possibly “reckless conduct causing injury” if a rider is hurt as a result of the tacks.

As such, the Boroondara local police have been trying to identify the individual(s) responsible for roughly a year now. Inspector Steve Frost, the lead investigator on the case and a keen cyclist himself, told CyclingTips that the search has been a fruitless one thus far.

“At this stage we’re finding it increasingly frustrating,” Inspector Frost said. “We haven’t had any great success to date in identifying who the offenders are. We remain committed and very keen to do that but at this stage we haven’t had any great luck.”

Police had one promising lead last year when someone posted on the Bicycle Network forums saying they’d seen someone dropping tacks from a car and noted the car’s registration number. Unfortunately that lead failed to get police any closer to finding the offender(s).

Inspector Frost told CyclingTips that his team has tried “all the common sense things” to try and identify the offender(s) including routine patrols of Yarra Boulevard, letter drops to residents and, just recently, “a highly visible operation” on the Boulevard which, unfortunately, failed to yield any meaningful results.

Police have also had discussions with local upholsterers to try and ascertain the nature and origin of the tacks being used. But given upholsterers use mainly air-gun-fired staples these days, not to mention how cheap and freely available tacks are in stores and online, pursuing the supply angle hasn’t yielded any results either.

Inspector Frost told CyclingTips that while cyclists may be frustrated, they need to be aware that this case is just one of many requiring his team’s attention.

“Police have got a number of competing priorities,“ Inspector Frost said. “I’ve had members down there working [at Yarra Boulevard] and trying to … elicit some information about who might be depositing these tacks, when realistically [the officers] might have been deployed in some other area.”

“There are a multitude of other things police could be doing than looking for some fool depositing tacks on the road.”

But, Inspector Frost added, his team is committed to the investigation and more than keen to find whoever is responsible.

“We support the cyclists. It’s a shared road and they can use it in a proper and lawful manner and we want them to continue to use the road,” he said. “We want that to be safe so obviously we’re working hard to try and understand who’s committing the offences.”

Local council and VicRoads

Responsibility for the management and upkeep of Yarra Boulevard falls with the local roads authority, VicRoads. VicRoads would normally sweep Yarra Boulevard once every three months and inspect the path weekly. But VicRoads’ metro south east regional director, Aidan McGann, told CyclingTips that VicRoads is “currently sweeping three to six times a month” as a result of the Boulie tacks.

These extra visits come at a significant cost. VicRoads’ metro south east clean-up team is based in Dandenong and getting the team out to Kew to use the streetsweeper with its magnetised attachments (to pick up the tacks) costs anywhere between $1,000 and $2,500, depending on the length of road swept.

Yarra Boulevard sits within the City of Boroondara and the organisation’s sustainable transport officer, Chris Hui, told CyclingTips that the local council has been looking into a cost-sharing arrangement with VicRoads to reduce the burden on the roads authority. But reaching an agreement has proven difficult.

“Being quite a new issue and a different issue, nobody’s really been able to break any ground on that,” Hui said. “But that would certainly help … if that could be arranged.”

The City of Boroondara is also looking at the possibility of installing public-use bike pumps along Yarra Boulevard to assist riders that have fallen foul of punctures. Such measures would complement initiatives like Cycling Karma, which has seen spare inner tubes placed at various locations along the Boulevard for stricken riders to use and then replace at a later date.

And while measures like these are reactive in nature, the City of Boroondara is also trying to be proactive in dealing with the issue. Chris Hui told CyclingTips that the council is working on a media campaign to encourage cyclists to report on conditions on Yarra Boulevard, not just when they ‘get tacked’, but also when they have an incident-free ride.

“The idea there is trying to help us and the police narrow down the timeframe when these are happening so that they can target any surveillance or other efforts to a narrower timeframe,” Hui said. “Just to see if there’s been more of a pattern of when it’s been happening.

“Looking at some of the forums and some of the reports we sort of have a feeling it might be something happening Monday night, Tuesday morning — a few times in the last few months there have been a lot of reports coming in on a Tuesday.”

Community engagement

In the past 13 months a number of cyclists have spent time on Yarra Boulevard collecting tacks and warning riders where tacks might be encountered. Chief among these was time trial specialist and multiple-time Masters national ITT champion Shane Miller. Throughout 2014 Miller spent 19 sessions down at Yarra Boulevard, collecting a total of roughly 3,500 tacks using a home-made magnetic device. He also mapped out the areas in which the tacks most often seemed to be deposited.

Miller frequently posted to social media about his trips to Yarra Boulevard (using the #boulietacks hashtag), he published relevant information on his blog and he provided regular information to police and local council.

Inspector Steve Frost told CyclingTips that information leading to an arrest will likely come from a member of the public. So with that in mind, what can cyclists do to help?

Most importantly, Inspector Frost said, cyclists (or indeed other members of the public) should report any relevant information to CrimeStoppers (see details below). Boroondara police are also keeping a record of cyclists that call the station having received a puncture as a result of the tacks. Furthermore, local police and the local council are also monitoring the #boulietacks hashtag on Twitter and Instagram so any information that helps the case can be posted there.

Taking responsibility

While police will continue their investigation and the local council and VicRoads will continue their clean-up efforts, perhaps there’s more that cyclists can do to address the issue from their end.

One thing that’s clear from speaking to the authorities involved is that all parties believe a local resident (or residents) is to blame for the tacks, in protest, it’s assumed, of cyclists using Yarra Boulevard in the early morning and making noise. It’s an issue Cycling Victoria is keenly aware of and the organisation’s CEO, Kipp Kaufmann, told CyclingTips that it is considering ways of responding.

“A number of rides start or meet at the corner of Yarra Street and Walmer Street. It’s a reasonably built-up area and the noise may be a cause of friction with local residents,” Kaufmann said. “While this isn’t a reason to throw tacks on the road and endanger the public we recognise the importance of understanding the broader community and being a proactive cycling community to respond.

“As such Cycling Victoria is considering recommending to groups that they start their rides further up the Boulevard.”

I cannot believe I got #boulietacks attacked this morning. Isn't this over yet? #wymtm #rfwya

A photo posted by Caz Whitehead (@caztheturtle) on

Some might argue that this advice is akin to victim-blaming. But for Guy Underwood, director of the risk management group RISQ which has been collaborating with Cycling Victoria on the issue, it’s all about putting yourself in other people’s shoes.

“Imagine if you were a home-owner and bought a house in what was a really nice, quiet, leafy suburb and every morning at 5.30 a heap of blokes in lycra were chatting about their new SRAM Red or their PB on the weekend,” Underwood, a keen cyclist himself, told CyclingTips.

“We’ve got to accept some responsibility for our actions. It’s the same as riding through red lights or riding three abreast in a lane — of course it’s not right for someone to run us over in a car but we’ve got to accept responsibility.”

“By us doing this we’re showing to the wider community we accept that we are part of the larger community and we just want to cycle and enjoy our sport in a safe and peaceful environment.”

One of the groups that uses Yarra Boulevard early on a weekday morning is Hells 500 (disclosure: the group’s founder, Andy van Bergen, works at CyclingTips). Hells 500 moved its Tuesday morning ride away from the corner of Yarra Boulevard and Walmer Street roughly six months ago to reduce any impact they might have been having on local residents.

“While there is never any justification for potentially endangering cyclists, our group felt there were some easy changes we could make to reduce our impact,” Andy van Bergen said. “After chatting with Cycling Victoria about the issue we moved the starting location of our ride and removed any regroup points (where riders will often chat). We also change our route every week to reduce our presence on any one particular part of road.”

Cycling Victoria/RISQ Group is also considering a door-knocking campaign to speak with local residents.

“[We’d] say to them ‘This is an ongoing issue, the police are involved, so there’s waste of police resources; VicRoads is involved, council have been involved cleaning up the tacks etc. — it’s cost a lot of people money,’” Guy Underwood said.

“The other thing is it’s particularly dangerous because people take their dogs for a walk, they go running, there are kids playing in the area. Hopefully if one of the people we speak to is the person responsible, they might decide it’s worth them not throwing tacks any more.”

The saga continues

In the meantime, cyclists continue to be frustrated by a lack of progress in the case. But as Guy Underwood — a former police officer himself — told CyclingTips, riders need to understand that the case could take quite a bit longer for police to solve.

“[Cyclists] can blame CSI, NCIS and Law and Order,” Underwood said. “Real crimes don’t get solved in 45 minutes.”

And, sadly, the reality is that the offender(s) might never be caught.

“We’re talking a stretch of road that five, six, seven kilometres long. If someone is just walking along and dropping [tacks] out of their trouser pocket, or driving along in their car … it’s not an easy thing to investigate,” Underwood said. “The police can’t afford to have somebody there 24/7.

“But having worked with them, various agencies are trying to do their best given the difficult circumstances.”

#boulietacks are well and truly back. this my first after dodging them for a good year. #rfwya

A photo posted by Dean Tran (@deancycle) on

While the Boulie tacks issue is cause for ongoing frustration for cyclists, it’s clear in speaking to the key players at Victoria Police, VicRoads, the City of Boroondara, Cycling Victoria and RISQ Group that this frustration is shared by all involved. But despite this, and while the relevant authorities certainly seem committed to continuing the investigation, there’s also a sense that this is not the only issue they have to deal with and certainly not the most pressing.

For now, further patience seems to be required on the part of cyclists. The authorities don’t want cyclists to stop using Yarra Boulevard and nor should they. At this stage we aren’t aware of any serious injuries as a result of the tacks and we can only hope it stays that way.

If you have any relevant or useful information that might help police with their investigation, please call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000, anonymously if you prefer. Punctures and other incidents that result from tacks on Yarra Boulevard can be reported to the Boroondara police station: (03) 8851 1111. You can also post relevant information to #boulietacks on Twitter and Instagram.

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