Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Small towns

I took a trip to Port Pirie not long ago for work. It's a two and a half hour drive north of Adelaide. It has a population of about 14,000. Its biggest employer is Nyrstar which operates the lead smelter there.

It has a few things of interest to visit such as the museum that used to be the railway station. It faces the road because trains used to run down the main street:

I find Australian country towns generally have a great deal of civic pride which is often refected in their parks and war memorials. Port Pirie is no exception:

Like almost all Australian towns though, Port Pirie seems to be built for the motor car. All of its streets are wide with free car parks on both sides:

If there are not enough car parks on the road, there are plenty behind the shops:

A little less thought is given to pedestrians. This is the side of the Woolworths supermarket in the centre of town. It's not exactly inspiring:

If you're interested in riding a bike around, you might have to be prepared for a bit of a walk. This is the bike shop:

Nobody rides a bike there (other than the odd teenager on his bmx) which is a surprise really. A number of people who work in Port Pirie would come from smaller towns such as Laura to the east but the bulk live in Port Pirie itself. This is the town map:

It's about 4km across and 5½km north to south at its longest - distances that are easy on a bike. Yet everybody drives everywhere. I wasn't there at school opening and closing time but I have no doubt there is a long line of cars in the morning and afternoon.

How can that be? Why would people spend money on petrol and wear and tear when they could get most places free of charge? Imagine the boost to the local economy if all of the money tied up running cars was freed up to spend on local shops, businesses and restaurants.

You can see from the photos that the town suffers from the same problem as other Australian towns and suburbs. If you try to bike or walk anywhere, it is only a short distance before you hit a huge, wide, fast-moving road. There is no safe place to cross and riding a bike along it is unpleasant and dangerous. Not only that but driving is made so easy by the bountiful supply of free car-parking.

On top of that, you cannot just get on a comfortable bike (often because they're difficult to get hold of and expensive) and go on a brief errand. You are forced to sweat under one of those plastic hats - another disincentive.

So how could it all be changed? Well to quote a favourite website:

  • You ensure that riding a bike is a pleasure;
  • Ensure motor vehicles are somewhere else;
  • Design streets so that conflict with motor vehicles is rare;
  • Make bike routes shorter than car routes;
  • Make it so you can skip past traffic lights;
  • etc.

Small towns like Port Pirie which are quite self-contained and far from the next town prove that excuses such as population density and length of journey are myths. People respond to their built environment and that is precisely what they have done in Port Pirie.

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