Friday, 28 October 2011

The silent majority

On my ride to work this morning, I saw a couple of women waiting at the bus stop. I never try and guess people's ages because I generally offend. If I were to hazard a guess though, and I mean this with the utmost respect, I'd say they were in their sixties. After 9 o'clock in the morning, you see lots of women (and men) that age at bus stops and on the bus.

You never see them on bikes.

In the mornings, I also see plenty of children going to the local primary school. Many are on foot, a few are on scooters and a few are on bicycles wobbling down the pavement while peering under the rim of their helmets. The children are squashed with their parents on narrow pavements while cars sail past on the road with other children strapped into their back seats. The cars are often slowed though because there are so many of them. Long lines of cars are parked on both sides of the road and there is generally a queue of cars near the front gate of the school.

Every time the children on foot need to cross the road, they have to stop and wait for a line of cars. The only exception is the one crossing that is staffed by Year 7s with stop signs and fluoro jackets. The only pity is that the crossing is close to useless. It is right opposite only one of the school gates and by that point most children are on the side of the road they need to be.

I mention this, as I have done in the past, because it is the women at the bus stop and the children exposed to the danger of motor vehicles outside their schools who should be considered first and foremost in urban planning decisions.

There have been a few articles recently about how few children walk or cycle to school in Australia. One was on The Conversation and another in the Sydney Morning Herald. The answer to the question is quite simple and is summed up in one of the comments in the SMH article:

Give us safer and less polluted roads, and we will be able to send the kids to school on their bikes. Until then, I am not going to risk my kids because of a useless government.

A little hearsh perhaps but completely rational and completely correct. We can criticise the parents driving the lines of cars outside schools each morning but who is going to be the first to change?

In the same way that the tax system can be used to encourage or discourage certain behaviour, I think you can encourage certain behaviour by designing the built environment in a certain way.

In residential suburbs in Australia, we could start with two very easy steps. The first is to install pedestrian crossings at each intersection, especially those close to schools. It's not enough to have one token crossing that motorists are not even required to stop at unless stop signs are being held up. What is required are crossings on each side of an intersection (3 on a t-junction and 4 on a normal crossing) that require motorists to stop if a person is waiting to cross.

The second step is to block streets to though traffic. War on the Motorist made the (very good) point recently that there is a difference between roads, streets and lanes:

Roads are for travelling between places; streets and lanes are places, and to be driven on only for property access and loading.

In other words, our residential streets are places where people live, meet and go to school. Once that is recognised, it is obvious that they should be blocked to through traffic. They are not thoroughfares.

Those two things, while very simple, would make a huge difference. They would only of course be a start. After that, you start working in earnest on "roads". What is the purpose of the road? What sort of traffic should be on it? Should that include heavy trucks? What is the appropriate speed? How do we define the space for people walking, those using bicycles and those using cars?

Absolutely vital is to consider the women at the bus stop and children. That is the mistake we make at the moment. Adelaide City Council is to be congratulated on its plans for cycling over the next two years epecially the fact that its plans are "being treated as an interim guide while a major cycling infrastructure plan for the next three years is completed". Note though, they say "The council will set up a reference group to oversee the works and liaise with cyclists and the State Government to ensure community needs are met."

Please don't just liaise with cyclists. Liaise with the women at the bus stop and the majority of the population who might well use a bicycle more if it were made easy.

On a lighter note, the brilliant photographer, film-maker and general all-round groovy person Marc from Amsterdamize has put together another great video. This time to the music of Jack Johnson. Watch and enjoy:

We're Only Human from Amsterdamize on Vimeo.


  1. An excellent post. One way to get people out of cars is to have a mandatory no drop off zone within say 500m of a school. At my local school the school drop off zone is a disgrace at school opening and closing times. Everyone seems to think this is "normal." A perfect "tragedy of the commons" example.

  2. Thank you for the comment. Totally agree with you. There is no need for cars to be anywhere near that close to a school.

  3. Nice thoughtful post, and the film from Marc was a wee gem. I think our cycling and urban travel problems in Australia are beautifully summed up in a line from the accompanying sound track
    "we're clever but we're clueless....
    we're only human....."

  4. Great post Edward. I agree that you rarely see older people commuting on bicycles these days, which is a real shame. My dear 92 year old grandfather has only just given up cycling each morning - a routine that would end in him swinging past the local deli to buy his paper. He still rides for some fitness, but he uses an exercise bike because he's a little unstable these days.