Adelaide’s Bad Decision is Just a Symptom of Deeper Issues

Adelaide / South Australia

Let’s start with a confession, then some context, before I offer my opinion for your consideration and comment. 

My confession is that I grew up in the city that will be ‘Exhibit A’ in this opinion column. 

I lived in Adelaide from the age of two, ‘started leaving’ at age 19 and was gone for good by age 23. Therefore I have extensive first-hand experience of cycling throughout Adelaide, as well as having close family members who still live there. 

Now some context. Adelaide is the fifth largest city in Australia with a total greater urban area population of about 1.3 million. That’s already way behind the next ranked Perth at two million, Brisbane at 2.2 million and a virtual ghost town compared to Sydney and Melbourne at about five million each. 

As anyone who has visited will remember, the city centre of Adelaide is almost pancake flat. History records that in 1837 on of the first European settlers, Colonel William Light designed a grand city, with wide, straight streets surrounded by parklands. His pointing statue, erected by grateful citizens, overlooks the city from nearby North Adelaide, at the top of the only small hill. 

So as a result of Colonel Light’s plan there are no less than 11 dead straight streets that traverse the city centre from east to west, half of these are super-wide. 

Not from a precise survey, but from my memory in having ridden almost all of these streets over the years and some help from Google satellite,  six of these streets are six lanes wide and five are four lanes wide. In total, about 56 east-west lanes. 

Like everywhere, as is human nature, the good citizens of Adelaide think of their city as the centre of the universe. But having spent far more time in the larger four cities over the past 30 years, I know that Adelaide rarely rates a mention or a thought. That’s especially true for Sydney siders, most of whom think that Australia ends at the Blue Mountains.

 So why should I worry, or spend hours on an Easter Holiday, writing to an Australia-wide readership about a recent decision made in this largely ignored city? Because it’s a symptom of some major underlying issues, that until we can effectively address, will mean that progress towards safer and more widespread use of active transport and micromobility will remain painfully slow throughout Australia.

So, what was the bad decision referred to in my headline? As you can read in slightly more detail here, 11 Councilors of the City of Adelaide recently voted 8-3 against proceeding with a critical east-west protected cycling lane across the city

Of course, it’s up to local authorities to decide how to allocate this space between parking, general traffic lanes, bus lanes, media strips and of course bike lanes. 

But when the debate began in earnest, four years ago, to allocate lane space for a protected cycle way, the predictable arguments began that the sky would surely fall in if this terrible idea went ahead. 

I only posted a small fraction of the full news article that appeared in the Adelaide Advertiser on the morning after the ‘no’ decision. The rest was mainly long rants by various property owners about what a disaster it would be if they lost any parking spaces, how dangerous the proposed cycle lane could be for elderly citizens and so on. 

At the end of the article came a stream of reader comments along the lines of this one, ‘Good! It’s a waste of OUR money and council’s time.’ 

What should we make of this episode? As an Adelaide emigrant who now lives in the nation of New South Wales, not far from those self-centred Sydneysiders, it would be tempting to dismiss this as the travails of hicks in Australia’s equivalent of ‘fly over country’. That’s the demeaning term that sophisticates on America’s east and west coast cities such as New York and San Francisco give to all the people living in the smaller inland cities and towns that lie between them. 

But I know that Adelaide has a proud history of cultural, political, scientific and other achievements. Therefore, such a backward decision cannot be explained away so easily. 

I suggest that this decision is simply a symptom of deeper issues that are entrenched Australia-wide. The brutal truth is that when it comes to encouraging active transport and micromobility, there is not a single boldly progressive city, state or territory in Australia. Certainly, some states, territories and local governments are more progressive than others. 

But even the poster child, Canberra, only had a 3% cycling mode share based upon the most recent official figures that I have seen. That’s barely a tenth of western world leading cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen. 

Car parking is the canary in the coal mine. To even objectively define on-street car parking as, ‘the storage of private property on public land’ is seen as an affront by many Australians.

Their definition would be closer to, ‘I have the God-given right to park wherever I want, whenever I want and anyone who tries to mess with that is a @#*! who needs to be cut down to size!’ 

Compare that mindset to the situation in those circa 30% mode share cities. In Amsterdam a party was elected to power on a platform of removing 10,000 on-street car parking places. For years Copenhagen and other cities have been carrying out a policy of reducing car parking every year. 

I’m fairly sure that 90% of the protagonists in the City of Adelaide debacle would not be aware of these facts. But if they were told, they would think it was crazy.  

Their next comment could well be along the lines of, ‘That’s alright for them, but it would never work here. We’re different!’ 

If they were then told that in those cities a whole range of measures have been improving as a result of reducing space of cars: everything from air and noise pollution to social engagement, equity and urban amenity, they would simply not comprehend what you were saying and certainly not believe you, despite this being objective fact. 

The recent decision in Adelaide simply reminds us how far we still have to go, not just within the City of Adelaide Council, but Australia-wide. Normally cultural and mindset changes take decades. But on our delicately balanced blue ball floating through space, we don’t have the luxury of time. 

It certainly won’t be easy, but we’re going to have to figure out how to progress more rapidly. 

Join the Conversation: How do we get the message across about the increased safety outcomes that protected bike lanes provide, to all transport users, pedestrian, cyclist and driver alike?

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