Friday, 21 August 2015

Walk in my shoes

A good friend of mine has had problems with her eyes for some time. Recently she received the disappointing news from the eye surgeon that she's kind of stuck with it now. She's not blind but can no longer drive and she does now require a certain amount of assistance.

She went to the Royal Society for the Blind to get some equipment, including magnifying screens for her PC and iPad, a small telescope for looking at menus on walls at cafes along with other little things. So more than anything, it is just getting used to a new set of circumstances.

There are various things that can be done to make life a little easier for people like my friend. When we were chatting, I mentioned a European directive that requires the doors of suburban trains to be a clearly different colour from the rest of the train:

Borrowed from here.

My friend pointed out that that is one of those small things that costs nothing but brings not only comfort but also confidence. Instead of having to hope, guess or ask for help, the work is done with no effort.

Another easy thing to do is keep hedges and low hanging trees well pruned to avoid easily avodable scratches to the face.

It is walking around the city with someone who has a small difficulty that you notice how much easier life could be made for many people with just a little thought. I see my friend stop while she is crossing the road because she has to peer down to work out where the edge is on these camouflaged dropped kerbs:

Why do we even have them on minor intersections? Why not just continue the pavement over the road so the cars have to stop and cross that?

Just navigating pavements can itself be a problem. For example, this is a view along Market Street. The entrance to the Central Market is just behind the white van:

For those of us with good eye sight, those three poles are quite visible. Not for my friend. She notices getting close to them that something is there and has to put her hand up to stop her self bumping into it and then guide herself around. The streets are actually full of clutter like the poles. They are difficult to see because of their shape and their colour which allows them to blend in with the asphalt grey that is everywhere.

The poles serve no purpose other than to indicate how long you can store a car alongside them free of charge. Could we not achieve the same end with a single sign at the end of the street? This is a 2 hour parking area. Or better still, instead of leaving the street with silly narrow pavements, why don't we widen them to help the already struggling businesses? Narrow the street or even block it off. The cars can be parked in the car park above the market surely?

Another obstacle is crossing the road. If you happen to be going to the market, there is only one place that actually has a signalised crossing on all of Gouger Street. There are a couple of other designated crossing points but it is the people who have to wait. Good luck if you can't see very well. And good luck if you wish to cross a moat of asphalt like this:

This is fairly typical of the city. All roads almost without exception have a 50km/h speed limit. The only place where you will be offered any assistance to cross the road is at a signalised intersection. And they are there not to assist pedestrians but because they are needed to regulate motorised traffic.

Here's another example that is a nightmare for anyone who can't see very well or cannot move quickly:

I see people being beeped at all of the time when they mis-time their crossing. I make a habit of giving them the finger even if they don't see me.

I took the picture during a very quiet part of the day. It is worst during the rush hour. The white car you see has just come around the corner. Although there is a green bike lane, the bend does not have a tight radius and cars can come around there at a high speed. Crossing the road is an exercise in hope when you finally get a space in the traffic.

Vehicles also come from the two lanes to the left of the white car. And in the case of all traffic, despite a requirement to indicate, you can only guess as to whether they may be going left or right. Indicating seems to be optional.

Now imagine all of that during the evening rush hour when it is often dusk and even harder to see.

It is very easy to assume that everyone experiences the world in the same way you do. We all fall into that trap. But the danger is that we then fail to see the difficulties that others sometime face. A consequence of building streets and cities with cars at the forefront of our minds is that we risk ignoring the needs of people close to us. If nothing else, it makes us appear quite thoughtless.

Perhaps it's time we established a dedicated bicycle and pedestrian office.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

The itch that won't go away

You would think that adding a protected bike lane to a street would be a fairly mundane affair - almost a non-event.

Not in Adelaide.

The Frome Street Bikeway has used up more newspaper column space and talkback radio time than any other correspondingly minor issue. For the first time in the history of the Adelaide City Council, it dragged enough people out of their homes for it to be necessary to film the council's debate so that the stragglers could watch it in a separate room.

The Bikeway was completed just before the Velo-City conference in May 2014. Delegates were invited to go and try it out. It was, and still is, the only part of a long-since planned north-south protected bike route through the city (emphasis on the singular).

Now that it has been in existence for over 12 months, the council ordered an independent report into its performance. The report (which cost $90,000) made a number of findings. In summary, business trade, property prices and the street’s amenity had not been negatively affected by the project, and there had been a 23 per cent increase in cyclists using the bikeway since the concrete barriers and car parks were installed. However, there was some confusion about right of way at intersections and the report authors made some suggestions about that.

The finding that seemed to cause concern was the "significant decrease in motorist volumes along Frome Street since the separated bikeway was introduced". At the same time, there was "no indication that reduced traffic on Frome Street had caused in any increase in traffic on adjacent routes."

A day after the report was released I was listening to that Penberthy fellow on the radio. His suggestion was that the bikeway was a "debacle" because it had scared people away from the city. That was the only explanation for the drop in car numbers. That is also what I understood Councillor Moran's attitude to be when she was interviewed - although I stand to be corrected.

It should be remembered that the reduction in traffic is exactly what we should expect. Traffic volumes are not a fixed thing to which we must cater by building more roads. It is the other way around. Traffic volumes are reflexive and respond to the road-space available. Increase the road-space and traffic volumes increase. Decrease the road-space and the opposite happens. That is not even remotely controversial. It just happens.

In the case of the Bikeway, some previous car trips have been substituted - either by changing the mode of transport (witness the increase in bicycle numbers), a substitution by time or a substitution by route.

The well-worn issue of the reduction in traffic lanes was covered in the report. Indeed, that was one of the reasons for the report's commissioning. In short, the authors said that returning the street to two driving lanes at peak times would have a “negligible” impact on congestion, which was mainly affected by intersections rather than by mid-block capacity.

Anyway, a motion was put in council. On 23 June, the Economic and Community Development Committee voted to develop options and costings on how to return the street to four lanes of traffic during peak times. The proposal was planned to be put to council for approval at its meeting on 30 June.

And that was the day we all turned up.

We met at the Box Factory on Regent Street South:

rode along the Bikeway and left on to Pirie Street:

in time for the debate. I am embarrassed to say that I had never been inside the Council Chamber to watch democracy in action.

(Please excuse the grainy pictures. I had to zoom in from the back of the public gallery)

It is unnecessary to bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that it is back to the drawing board. The motion that was ultimately passed can be read in all its glory here (go straight to page 6).

It was all very courteous.

A couple of things to note. First, each councillor who spoke confirmed their support for a rollout of protected bike lanes across the city. That is at least welcome. Once Councillor Simms' proposed amendment was defeated, the motion (on p6) was passed unanimously. They all love the idea. Second, while councillors (and their constituents) like protected bike lanes, there is something about Frome Street that bothers them. Words and phrases such as "over-engineered", "clunky" and "concrete blobs" are heard repeatedly.

Both Councillor Moran and another (possibly Councillor Clearihan) sang the praises of Danish bike lanes. One of them even carefully described the gentle drop from pavement to bike lane and the other gentle drop from bike lane to road. The Danish design is something Councillor Moran has repeatedly raised since her visit there and, in response to my email to her, wrote that she too loves the Danish design and will promote it.

The concrete blobs that they refer to are nothing unusual, eg:

They can be seen on many intersections across the metropolitan area. The reason for them being used on a bike lane remains a mystery to me but it seems to be a requirement of the applicable design standards, the source of which I cannot fathom. It is those standards that seem to be the problem.

If Danish design is what the Councillors want, that is the design they should adopt. It is interesting that people from around the globe visit Denmark each year to learn from one of the leaders and yet not a single country or even city has come close to properly adopting what they see. The Streetfilms movie about the US visit is now 5 years old.

Wouldn't it be great if all of a sudden, we were the first city to roll out something that has been proven to work and then - surprise, surprise - it suddenly works here?

It would be easy.

It shouldn't cost much.

And drains are not a problem. Mikael Colville-Andersen told me :)

It was a great experience to watch the council in action on a topic about which people feel so strongly. Nobody could deny their commitment and dedication. All of them agreed that this is the right thing for Adelaide. They all wanted to make sure they get it right and bring the public with them for the ride. I just hope that Anne Moran's love of Smørrebrød and all things Danish translates into some decent cykelstier.

It's as if the bike lanes are not even there. What's not to love? Via David Arditi @VoleOSpeed

NB: Yet again though, this is a compromise. If you are going to redesign the bikeway, why not do it properly? Why not treat it as part of a larger plan that includes a genuine desire to cut traffic, prioritise safety and provide a complete network that works seamlessly with public transport. This report from Cycling in Christchurch covers it all and applies equally to a city like ours.

Monday, 6 April 2015

If I were Mayor - a CBD Bike Network

Of all the talks at Velo-City 2014, it was the one from Calgary in Canada that I found most relevant to Adelaide. I blogged about it then but just to recap, rather than installing individual bike routes one at a time and having to justify each, Calgary city council (after a lot of deliberation) decided to install a network of routes on a pilot basis. The benefits of the pilot proposal were that it was easier to "sell" to reluctant councillors and to a public unfamiliar with cycling networks, plus the benefits of a complete network would be experienced first hand.

You might think it would be obvious but it took some effort. It is now at the installation stage. The final evaluation report goes to council in December 2016:

There are many important lessons to learn from the Dutch but to my mind one of the most important is the necessity of having a dense grid that serves all destinations and which everyone (that is everyone) can use; "complete, connected, efficient, predictable, and safe in both perception and reality".

Single routes can be useful (and Frome Street has already shown a clear increase in traffic even though it is unfinished) but they work far more effectively as part of a wider network. The network becomes greater than the sum of its parts. That is why I think what Calgary has done is a realistic example to follow.

Wide, good quality bike tracks would fit on pretty much all of the Adelaide CBD's major roads. Almost without exception they are ridiculously wide. And in their current state, acres of space is wasted:

This is Pulteney Street at Hindmarsh Square (another perfect street for protected bike lanes)

That wide space is in many places used for on-street car parking. It is very difficult to remove parking without people getting very upset even though converting on-street parking to bike lanes makes a lot of commercial sense. But it is one of the obstacles you face before a project like this can even get off the ground. People get upset and MPs and council members get very nervous about suggesting any limit on car use - even though it may be entirely reasonable and for the greater good.

So if something like this is to work, it has to result in an absolute minimum reduction in on-street parking and it must not in any way be allowed to look as if you are forcing people out of their cars. If not, it is nigh on impossible to sell.

Here goes:

The orange represents two-way protected bike lanes (and parklands paths). The red represents one-way protected bike lanes. The pink is the already existing (and tentatively planned extension of) Frome Street Bikeway. The green just shows where possible future treatments might go.

Obviously missing from the plan is a north-south route on the western side of the city. That is what I am still struggling with. Morphett Street seems the ideal choice, especially with how easy it would be to move the parallel parking closer to the middle of the road to allow for bike lanes on the safe side of cars but it is Light Square and Whitmore Square that cause difficulties. I'm still contemplating them.

North Terrace

Under the plan, North Terrace has a two-way protected bike lane on its northern side. Two-way bike tracks are admittedly not best practice but along that stretch of North Terrace there are really not that many intersections so it is not a bad compromise. It would also be on the right side of the road to serve the universities, museum and new hospital (and new high school if it is ever built). While the network is in its pilot stage, the lanes are delineated using concrete or rubber sleepers and temporary markers - tall enough to be seen, hard enough to put a dent in a plastic bumper but removable so that fears are allayed:

Borrowed from here

When you get to East Terrace, the lane cannot continue because of the bus lane along North Terrace to Hackney Road. Instead, the plan uses a diagonal crossing to cross into the parklands. That connects the route to the eastern suburbs and to the paths along Hackney Road that are planned as part of the o-bahn extension. Ideally, in the parklands, rather than a path shared with pedestrians, we would ultimately be able to avoid that conflict:

Borrowed from Brent Toderian

To be useful, the lane would have to be at least as wide as the current traffic/parking lane closest to the northern side of the road. There will inevitably be complaints about the removal of car parks. However, they are part-time car parks and there is in fact a very small number of them - maybe 8:

They are all in front of the South Australia museum. From what I can tell, that is really all that will be lost (or reclaimed). There will be some expected whining about congestion being caused through their removal but frankly we must have a serious transport problem if we need more than two lanes of traffic each side of a road running right through the city. Besides, at each end, there are only two lanes in each direction anyway. The only reason the third lane gets filled up is because it is there.

The problem is with the western side of King William Street. Politicians like their limos to be able to stop out the front of Parliament House and there is a long taxi rank outside the casino and Intercontinental Hotel. I am sure something could be worked out though because that section of road is part of the State Government's Greenway plan anyway.

Bus stops would also need to be dealt with but that issue can also be solved - something along the lines of what is done on the tram stops on Swanston Street in Melbourne could work.

King William Street (KWS)

At the intersection between North Terrace and South Terrace, quite a number of bike commuters come from the south west via the Mike Turtur Bikeway. There are also riders coming through the parklands from Unley via the Parklands Trail. They all converge and result in a fair amount of bicycle traffic each morning along King William Street in the direction of Victoria Square.

(There's this green thing there but only painted lines beyond)

The plan incorporates protected bike lanes each side of KWS for them. Again, it is a pilot and so temporary measures are put in place:

Importantly, the idea is to put people on bikes on the safe side of parked cars. It is easy to sell because no car parking spaces or traffic lanes are lost.

Once the route reaches Victoria Square, it diverts. The reason for this is that between Victoria Square and North Terrace, KWS is a very busy bus route that is also blocked by large numbers of private cars. Frankly, there should be a double width bus lane each side to stop the buses getting held up but that is a topic for another day. The point is, it is simply too clogged to try and use it for a pilot project like this.

Instead, the route uses the new lanes that travel east-west across Victoria Square

and the route continues along Gawler Place, over North Terrace and potentially down Kintore Avenue to join Linear Park. Along Gawler Place, the idea is to use a two-way track again but this time on a quieter non-through street to see how it works (it's a bit like Dunsmuir Street in Vancouver):

Borrowed from here

Predictable complaints will include that the road is too narrow to accommodate anything but the current traffic and parking lanes but it should be remembered that Gawler Place has been blocked like this for months and the world has not stopped turning:

For almost its entire length, the road is one-way and the few car parks it has are short-term.

There will be some potential conflict as the route crosses Rundle Mall but I would hope that people would be able to sort themselves out by just taking their time and looking around.

Flinders/Franklin Street

This is the second of potentially three east-west routes. This is a very wide street and if we really wanted to we could easily find space for wide separated bike lanes and still have room for parking plus two traffic lanes each side. However, as with all of these things the hurdle is convincing people. The idea behind the pilot is to cause as little perceived disruption as possible while showing that this can work and benefit everybody.

Along the street there is a lot of on-street parking. Some of it is parallel parking but some is that country town style parking facing the kerb. To be acceptable, any plan has to remove as little of it as possible. And so this is where a further compromise comes in.

For those parts where on-street parking is parallel (like between Pulteney Street and Victoria Square) it is easy. With no change to the street layout, the bike lane is placed the other side of parked cars. Temporary protection for the purposes of the pilot can be supplied with sleepers for example:

Borrowed from the Alternative DfT

The same thing could be done where the parking faces the kerb but on those parts of the streets there are also well-established trees to deal with. Where the trees are on the footpath (like the western end of Franklin Street), the same sleepers can be used to protect the bike lanes. However where the trees sit in the road (Flinders Street between Pulteney and Hutt Streets),

one option might be to keep the street layout but provide protective barriers every so often to prevent drivers straying into the bike lanes. The trees are quite closely spaced so if the barriers were opposite them it might work up to a point.

Here's what I mean:

It's a bit rudimentary because I only know how to use Microsoft Paint rather than Illustrator. The idea is to have a kerb extension (with greenery) around the tree and for it to be extended to the edge of the bike lane. Opposite that is a physical barrier to protect the other side of the bike lane. It's far from ideal because of cars entering and exiting the parking spaces between the trees but it should at least significantly reduce the chances of being struck at speed from behind (which is one of my biggest fears). As I say, the idea is to cause as little friction as possible to get the pilot off the ground.

Leaving the CBD

To the right of the map, you can see that the routes join up with selected streets, including Beulah Road through Norwood. The idea is to illustrate the network idea and to suggest possible routes between arterial roads as a safer alternative to them. They would of course need a bit more than a fancy name and some speed limit signs. Where roads are successfully turned into priority streets for bicycles, they work because they are blocked to through traffic. There are many ways that can be achieved without too much expense:

Or this:

This is borrowed from here where there are a few other potential designs.

It may well be that there are currently 2,000 traffic movements per day on those roads but that only happens because it can. It is not inevitable. If the roads are blocked in some places, the traffic will sort itself out as it always does.

The same thing should happen in the west but I am not as familiar with that neck of the woods. I cannot imagine it would be that difficult incorporating the current West Terrace path and, if nothing else, the space available next to Sir Donald Bradman Drive and Glover Street. Beyond that, Keswick Creek is an obvious route for a new Greenway.

So there you go. Nothing amazing. Just the beginning of a conversation. Not best practice - far from it. But potentially do-able and sellable. For the period of the pilot project, as it is in Calgary, it would also be measurable and if successful, could be justification for making it permanent and for investigating further extensions (including the enormous amount of spare space next to Adelaide's ring roads).


Depending on who you ask, a plan like this is either the end of the world or so woefully inadequate as to be embarrassing. Go on to talkbalk radio to be interviewed and you would likely be criticised and told this is going too far and how it is now time for some balance in favour of motorists. Speak to any progressive urban planning advocate and you will be looked at with incredulity and asked why you are trying so hard to achieve mediocrity.

And this is my dilemma. Do we insist on the absolute best or nothing? Or do we adopt what cities similar to us have done - not just what they build but how they got the decision made to build in the first place even though the entire process and result are a series of compromises? It is a debate that could go on forever.

I look at places like London and the rest of the UK. Their cousins just across the North Sea have all the expertise and examples (good and bad) they could ever require. An ex-pat has study tours on offer for anyone who is interested. Invitations have been extended to mayors and MPs but as far as I know, few if any have taken up the offer. And despite all of the hype, absolute garbage continues to be built - or painted.

I would love it if we could have what the Dutch have right away. The thing is - how long will it take? And I don't mean how long will it take to build something but how long will it take before something even begins? Is it even possible with the heavily car-based history we have now? I don't know. But I do know that cities similar to ours (wide, dispersed and heavily car-centric) have made some progress despite all of the obstacles that are in their way (remember Calgary City Council debated for 13 hours just to get a majority of votes). They are not a bad example to follow, especially if change is achieved that people can see really works. That can then be built on.

Your average punter views any change to their habits with extreme scepticism and as we know, Adelaide is absolutely petrified of change. Not only that, alternative ways of getting around are viewed differently here from over there. Don't believe me? This is a picture of the Canberra Parliamentary Cycling Group being introduced to Dutch e-bikes:

Borrowed from the Gazelle Bikes Facebook page

These are the sort of bikes that Dutch grannies ride every day but those blokes dress like they're in the Tour De France. That alone is one of the biggest obstacles we face. It cannot be knocked down in one hit but it can be chipped at slowly and steadily.

Saturday, 28 February 2015


A few years back I was involved in a project about the delivery of mental health services. It required meeting a few experts to get an understanding of the system. One day, a colleague and I were sent to Sydney to meet a fellow by the name of Dr Gavin Andrews who at that point was Professor of Psychiatry at the University of New South Wales. He was one of those supremely intelligent people you occasionally meet - he had an excellent way with words and, as you would expect, had an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject. He did not come across as arrogant but if he had, he would have had every right to be.

He had written a book called 'Tolkien II : a needs-based, costed, stepped-care model for mental health services : recommendations, executive summaries, clinical pathways, treatment flowcharts, costing structures'. As he explained in an interview with the ABC, in summary the book is about how State and Federal Governments should allocate their mental health budgets.

I could have listened for hours when we met. You could not argue with what he said. However, what really struck me was when he said, in a very matter of fact way, the reason the book was called 'Tolkien 2' was because it was fantasy - it would never happen.

In many areas of government policy, there are things on which reasonable minds will differ but this made so much sense. It was obvious that money was not being spent wisely and Dr Andrews and his team had done the painstaking research.

I suppose it is because most policy areas are not really on people's radars sufficiently for them to research, learn, lobby or just discuss. You might be an aviation expert and could point to a small number of fairly easy changes that could be made that would noticeably improve commercial flights. Because I don't understand the aviation industry, the best you could probably expect from me is "yes, they should do that."

That leads me to my particular interest. Transport and urban planning is an area that affects everybody. As soon as we walk out of our front door, our decisions about how we get around are shaped by policies made at local, State and Federal Government levels. A change at even one of those levels is usually not quite as easy as pushing a button on a keyboard or telling a group of public servants to "do that". People are affected by decisions and, right or wrong, they have opinions. The people making the decisions also have elections and/or jobs to worry about. Any change takes time and is inevitably a compromise.

I don't claim to know everything in the area (far from it) but there are certain things that we have come to know based on experience all around the world; things such as:
  • induced demand and related to that, Braess Paradox which shows that building more roads can paradoxically slow traffic down;

  • the negative correlation between neighbourhood interactions and the amount and speed of traffic on the road;

  • the positive effects on local retail business when bike lanes are installed or traffic calming is introduced;

  • and what we now know about the relationship between our built environment and how healthy we are.These things are not secrets. It is making them the basis of new policies that is the difficulty. Australia is not alone in occasionally finding it difficult to adopt new ways of doing things. Even though they are not optimal, we become comfortable with the way things are done. Sudden and large changes upset people and make them feel uncomfortable. We see this when our workplaces are restructured or reformed.

With land used and planning, I have noticed that our car-based culture permeates everything. An example: just recently I watched a workshop at Prospect Council Chambers about the new Braund Road Bicycle Boulevard. As far as these things go, the proposed changes are about as conservative as can be. One change is to stop right hand turns from Braund Road on to Fitzroy Terrace:

One of the main reasons for the change is not so much about reducing or slowing traffic. Rather, right turns are a small percentage of traffic movements there, they are disproportionately represented among the crash statistics. Despite that, the feedback was that there should be some consultation with those motorists affected because they might feel "disenfranchised". That is no criticism. The councillor was right to raise it but it says something about our entrenched thinking when a no-right-turn sign is said to lead to disenfranchisement.

Anyway, over many years, ideas slowly catch on and things slowly change. Look at how many years (and how many lost lives) it has taken to achieve the N-S and E-W superhighway plans in London. They fall some way short of best practice but they are, for England, revolutionary. London has never seen anything like them before. Boris Johnson did not suddenly wake up one day with that idea. They are the result of years and years of patient campaigning. That is assuming they go ahead.

Back in Australia, government policy (at least on paper) according to the Australian National Cycling Strategy 2011-2016 is "to double the number of people cycling in Australia by 2016." It devotes 4 pages (in small print) to the various benefits of such a policy. However, in the latest update, the results of the 2013 National Cycling Participation survey say that:

While bicycle ownership has remained steady in comparison to the 2011 Cycling Participation Survey, there has been a small but statistically significant decrease in the level of cycling participation in Australia between 2011 and 2013.

Something's not working. And it might be time to try a different strategy. It's timely too. Yet again, the Clipsal 500 street race has caught everyone by surprise this year and there are reports of "traffic chaos" in the news each day. Unsuprisingly, during the week when some roads are closed, it was found that driving to work was marginally slower than walking and riding took a quarter of the time:

(This picture belongs to AdelaideNow)

This is not going to get any better. If there was a choice provided so that everyone, if they chose, could benefit from the 10 minute journey rather than the 41 minute one, I am sure the uptake would be good - even with all of the barriers in the way such as the very hilly Adelaide plains and our unforgiving temperate Mediterranean climate.

There are ways this could easily work even in car-centric Adelaide and without even having that much of an effect on car-parking if that's really what you want. Anyone who has come out of Sydney's airport and got into a taxi or hire car will have noticed that the driving lanes there seem to be narrower than in Adelaide. It's unnerving for the first five minutes but you get used to it because they're like it everywhere, even in the Harbour Tunnel. So step one is to make a decision to narrow our road lanes. All of a sudden, drivers are more careful without even realising and you suddenly have a whole bunch of additional space at no cost.

Step 2 is to start using that newly freed-up space. And you achieve that using the current maintenance budget. Each time a road is scheduled to be resurfaced, instead of simply repeating what is there, change it while you have the chance. It works on almost any road:

(Not perfect but easily emulated - via between yellow and blue)

And Anne Moran likes them:

In other words, in 15 years (the life of a road) - at no additional cost - you could have the makings of a complete network, useable by most people and guaranteed to make a huge difference.

Easier said than done of course. Building raised kerbs is easy. It's taking down walls in our heads that is difficult. As Dr Andrews said - total fantasy.

Mathematically justified. Thanks to Copenhagenize

Saturday, 14 February 2015

So are helmet laws sexist or what?

Back in May 2014 when our friends from overseas were visiting for the Velo-City conference, there were a few times when it made the news. One time was when a couple of streets were blocked for the breakfast ride. Another was when Mikael Colville-Andersen said 'suck it up buttercup' :-) And then there was the time when the always awesome Sue Abbott made it to the front page of the Advertiser for ... gasp ... riding a bike. It just so happened that she also committed the cardinal sin of not wearing a helmet.

It is not hard to understand the point Sue was making. There is no doubt that the introduction of helment laws in Australia and New Zealand coincided with a fairly sizeable drop in the number of people using bikes. It is also fairly clear that the drop in numbers was disproportionate among women. We know and see every day that men on bikes easily outnumber women five to one. On top of that, other demographics have never recovered from that initial drop. How often do you see teenage girls getting themselves to school on a bike? Compare that to their Dutch sisters:

This is borrowed from this post by aseasyasridingabike. Hope that's ok.

A completely different picture altogether. Now admittedly there are other reasons for this sorry state of affairs but I don't think what Sue Abbott says can be ignored.

I came across a short video the other day called 'Der Fahrrad-Doktor' (the Bicycle Doctor) on NDR television. It's about a business owner who runs a mobile bike workshop in Garbsen, which is a little way north east of Hannover. The full length film (30 mins) can be seen here. It's actually worth a look. If nothing else, it shows a pretty good business idea for anyone looking to capitalise on an increase in bicycle use in the near future.

At one point in the film, the owner, Herr Schwetje, is seen selling an e-bike to a woman who is described later as a pensioner - the sort of woman you would rarely if ever see riding a bike in Australia. I have edited out the two scenes involving her:

At the beginning, Herr Schwetje introduces her to the white e-bike. With introductions out of the way, the conversation about helmets begins (at 0:55):

Do you have a helmet?
So you generally ride without a helmet?
I ride without.
Ok, you want to continue to doing that?
I'll continue doing that.
Ok, I can't change that but would you like to be convinced otherwise because it would be much safer? These bikes have a tendency to go much faster than the others.
I don't want to ride so quickly. I don't want help. And I want to ride far. I am really not in a hurry any more.

The good lady goes for a ride - beyond the horizon.

When she returns (2:28), she's impressed. It's windy and she's not puffed out. Being the consumate salesman, Herr Schwetje offers to leave the bike with her for the weekend so she can properly try it out. Sounds like a plan she says. But at 3:14 he has one more try. A condition is that she takes the helmet. Then he can say he has at least given her one even if she doesn't wear it.

Off she goes.

He's back the following Wednesday and is pleased to make the sale.

He begins again (4:25):

You know what I've got for you? A helmet that matches your glasses - black.
Whatever. I'm *sooo* pleased.
Promise me that when you're out in the dark alone you'll wear it.
I don't drive in the dark - not in the car, not on the bike.
But please try it out. It's for your safety and my conscious.

Seconds later, she's off again - but helmet on the wrist :-)

Now here's the thing. If the State Government of Lower Saxony were to introduce a helmet law, what might that good lady do? Maybe she'd wear one. But maybe not. Would she still be riding at her age if Lower Saxony had had helmet laws for the past 23 years? I don't know for sure but I reckon the answer is probably no. She'd either be riding the bus everywhere or driving her Volkswagen Polo.

Herr Schwetje likes to encourage people to don their helmets. There's a scene in the full length version of the video where he tells his mountain bike team off because only 5 out of 12 of them had one on. And that's fine. By all means "encourage" but it's when you mandate that the problems begin.

In Australia, we like to encourage people to share the road and to be nice to each other. But actually taking steps to protect people through engineering or safe systems? Much slower on the uptake. At the same time, we don't encourage helmet use but instead like to use the blunt instrument of the law to force it on anyone and everyone. We might have our priorities a little mixed up there.

We've seen it in Australia and New Zealand. Numbers drop. If they recover, the demographic is different. Women? A few. Women above 50? You'll be lucky. Children? Maybe but only with parents walking close by. Teenagers? Even fewer. Teenage girls? Zero. Sporty men on mountain bikes and racing bikes? Tons.

And that is what is meant when Sue Abbott says helmet laws are sexist.

Monday, 26 January 2015


Back in 2002, the famous Professor Jan Gehl was invited to make some recommendations about how the city of Adelaide could improve things for people. As part of his 83 page report, the Professor made a number of suggestions about changing the environment for people on foot. He also made some recommendations about bikes:

The walking recommendations included some that would have made an enormous difference, such as improving pedestrian connections generally and avoiding footpath interruptions by taking them across side streets. Leigh Street has since been quietened but I'm not sure what else.

Of the recommendations that were made back then, the two obvious ones that I can think of are the extension of the tramway and removing that terrible slip lane that used to be on the corner of North Terrace and Frome Street.

Professor Gehl came back in 2012 and from what I could tell, more or less made the same suggestions (and pointed out how little we had done in 10 years).

On the topic of bikes, he pointed out the lack of any coherent network and said this:

Adelaide has excellent conditions for bicycling, with climate and topography presenting few difficulties, an increased student population and more residents. The street widths in Adelaide offer obvious possibilities for integrating a superior network of bicycle lanes.

In the meantime, Professor Fred Wegman was South Australia's Thinker in Residence in 2010. He is the Managing Director of the SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research in the Netherlands, which has a pretty decent road safety record. He also produced a report and in it he too briefly touched on the issue of bikes as transport (see p57). He recommended, among other things, two major bike routes across the CBD, one north-south and one east-west, segregating the cyclist route from motor vehicle traffic and creating appropriate traffic management schemes at intersections. He used Vancouber as his example. Vancouver has since gone further and has done that on a number of city streets and beyond.

Then in 2014, a whole bunch of people came to Adelaide from all over the place and talked about nothing but bikes. The always modest Dutch were there but so were many others. There was even someone from a Canadian city very similar to Adelaide to talk about what they were doing and how, in the process, they were bringing a suspicious public along for the ride.

There was tons of information to take from the conference but an overwhelming message was No More Baby Steps:

At the end of the conference, the transport Minister, Stephen Mullighan, announced that his government would by 2018 double the number of school children taught to ride safely. Baby steps indeed.

All of that was soon forgotten and so recently the Government wanted more ideas and so instead of calling in the experts, it dragged 37 random people off the street and asked them. That became the Citizens' Jury - complete with its own hashtag.

The question they were asked to deal with was:

Motorists and cyclists will always be using our roads. What things could we trial to ensure they share the roads safely?

Members of the public and organisations were invited to send in their own submissions (with a strict 2 page limit, which the Amy Gillett Foundation shamelessly exceeded by 23 pages). My point was simple - you're asking the wrong question. Sharing the road is the problem. I said we had been asking people to share the road nicely for years; neither motorists nor cyclists deliberately tried to hurt each other but far too often, cyclists and motorists were put in positions of conflict where a simple error could be fatal - and so often was.

The Jury met about three times. They had a lot of topics to deal with which meant they had about 15 seconds to deal with each. They also had the assistance of some speakers (yours truly wasn't invited) and there was a Twitter chat too.

When the jury released its recommendations, everyone who had contributed in some way was invited so I got to go to Parliament House for an hour.

The recommendations were generally sensible but not earth shattering. A strong recommendation was for improved infrastructure (including connecting existing bike lanes), greenways and safer intersections (which meant bike boxes). That last one was a tad disappointing. Bike boxes are really not all they're cracked up to be.

It's only sometimes that you actually have a bike lane leading up to them:

Even then, accessibility can be an issue:

Another recommendation was allowing cycling on the footpath "when there is no safer alternative". Riding on the footpath is something that has been permitted in Japan for some time (as I understand it) but allowing it here I think is an admission of failure. It's an acceptance that the road is crap. And in any event, who decides when there is no safer alternative? Is my subjective opinion sufficient?

The Government thought long and hard about the jury's suggestions and then just the other day, during the TDU, came up with its answer:

The Government loved the recommendations and agreed with all but two. They will be investigated.

So it means more bike boxes, more education and campaigns, a one metre passing rule, pavement cycling and other things.

There was a bit of a do in the South Parklands to release the response. The Premier spoke as did the CEO of the Amy Gillett Foundation and the head of the Motor Accident Commission. There was a fair bit of mutual congratulation and, dare I say it, a smattering of hyperbole - South Australia is leading the way.

I suppose all of this is a good thing because the Government is at least thinking about it. If some of the adopted recommendations are indeed carried through, it will mean some improvement. At the same time though, the things that are suggested are, to use the phrase from Velo-City, baby steps, while we continue to sit in traffic that is slowly getting worse and wonder why.

Perhaps it's time to stop complaining and run for city council.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

A Useful Illustration

So I was in Melbourne again recently with the family. They do a lot of things right there. The CBD is humming, there is plenty to do and there is that great public transport system of theirs (depending on where you want to go). It makes you wonder what could be achieved if just some of the money that was earmarked for the ridiculous East-West Link was spent on improving tram and train services.

We also used the bikeshare system - complete with goofy helmets:

Most of the time it was necessary for at least a couple of us to ride like criminals without the plastic hat. They were so often not available. Quite often the reason for their lack of availability would ride past you:

(To be fair, I am sure that young lady bought her bikeshare helmet for $5 from a 7-Eleven and quite rightly kept it given that she had paid for it).

While there, we caught up with friends; two families who have moved from Adelaide to Melbourne in the last year. Both families are very similar - two children; both at school and similar ages; one boy and one girl; do different activities at different times.

As you would expect, both were two-car families when they lived in Adelaide. Unless you make a really concerted effort, it is quite difficult for a family like that to function normally in Adelaide without two cars. It can be done but as I say, it requires real effort.

In the short time they have been living in Melbourne (less than twelve months), both have got rid of one car.

Getting into the city is much cheaper, quicker and easier by tram. That means some children's activities can be reached that way. It also means the children (some of the time) can get there by themselves. Once of the dads has even got himself a year's subscription to bikeshare.

Melbourne is far from a world leader in public transport and biking infrastructure. Public transport is excellent by Australian standards but could still improve and biking as transport has massive scope for improvement. Despite that, Melbourne still offers sufficient transport choice for families like that not to have to fund two cars. Add up all of the families in that position and then work out the money they are saving and what it can be spent on. Then the wider benefits start to materialise.

Further improvements would merely improve mobility and independence, particularly for the children in each family.

I think once a city can boast that sort of choice, you know it is getting somewhere. And once we get to the point where people genuinely have the choice not to own a car, only then will be able to rest on our laurels - and then only for a short time.

Fitzroy Street, St Kilda