Sunday, 28 July 2013

Keeping the enemy at bay

Margaret Thatcher died not long ago. Love her or hate her, what cannot be denied is that she left her mark. I grew up in the UK in the 1970s and 80s and have a strong memory of her. Primarily it is through the eyes of 'The Young Ones' with Rick shouting things like "Thatcher's ruddy Britain!" the whole time.

What strikes me is how much she looked like Meryl Streep:

A bit like Lindy Chamberlain used to:

Lady Thatcher is credited with saying a few things including the mythical, "A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure." One thing she definitely did say though is, "In my lifetime all our problems have come from mainland Europe and all the solutions have come from the English-speaking nations across the world."

Really? All our problems?

When I lived in the UK, there was the ever present threat of the problem of a reliable and functioning train service intruding from mainland Europe. Mrs Thatcher successfully kept that at bay. One of their best secret weapons was the "we've had a centimetre of snow and the points have frozen" excuse. It was hugely successful. Even though she is long gone, her legacy seems to remain in England. The British have the dubious honour of the most expensive train tickets in Europe.

Another dreadful threat from mainland Europe was a functioning and high quality health service. I thought we were in big trouble with the National Health Service. However, plucky Mrs Thatcher stuck to her guns (as did Tony Blair after her) with a slow and deliberate strategy of internal markets and sub-contracting. They're slowly making headway.

To their credit, the whole way through my childhood, the Government showed steely resolve in steadily eliminating the European threat of providing all citizens with the freedom of getting around at low cost and under their own steam. In the late 1970s, kids my age were probably the last of misguided generation who thought that it was somehow appropriate to ride a Raleigh Chopper around the neighbourhood. That sort of ridiculous behaviour has rightly all but been eliminated.

Australia (another English-speaking nation full of solutions) did the same but just to make sure, it carpet-bombed the problem with an all ages mandatory helmet law. Genius. And that is one of the reasons why you never see this type of crazy foreign mainland-European threat:

(Borrowed from here)

Children on bikes? Pfft. Look at them. They're clearly on drugs.

I do not know why but it seems to be mainly English-speaking countries that have the problem with this.

I have never understood why. Without too much effort, it is possible to think of a number reasons why it is beneficial to develop a transport and planning system that does not have the car at its heart for every single journey no matter how short and no matter how many other people may be going in exactly the same direction at exactly the same time. They include:

  • it is cheaper;
  • it is safer;
  • it is more democratic;
  • it is healthier in so many ways;
  • it is better for business - both through exposure and to the fact that there is more disposable income available;
  • and so on.

How a transport system with the private car as its primary focus was allowed to develope is clear. Back then, it seemed like it would work. Nobody seems to have predicted that the system would eventually suffocate under its own weight. We now know better and slowly but surely the public opinion seems to be turning. Despite that and true to form, we still have two recent announcements for huge pointless road projects - one in Melbourne ($8 bn) and one in Queensland ($6.7 bn). To put it in perspective, that total is more than the entire Gonski reform. They have 'barely raised an eyebrow'. On top of that, the Australian Automobile Association is demanding better roads (in other words, more money). The claim is that it is for "all Australians" but have a look at the sample petition letter to your local MP and you see it is for the minority of the population with access to a car - "As a motorist, ..."

Why do we persist with a system that excludes well over half the population? One that not just encourages the least efficient way of getting around but actively discourages others? There is no reason other than the type of thinking that led to that ridiculous and embarrassing comment for which Margaret Thatcher will always be famous.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Sudden realisation

Adelaide is weird.

We have just finished the school holidays. If you did not read in the paper all of the tips for keeping children entertained during the holidays, you probably wouldn't have noticed. Actually that is wrong. You know it is the school holidays because the number of cars drops by a third in the morning rush hour. Regardless, whether it is the school holidays or not, whether the sun is shining or not, you almost never see children in the street. That is, hanging out and playing and being normal.

It dawned on me the other day that while you may see adults walking around, the vast bulk of them are doing it not to get anywhere but solely to keep fit. That is not a criticism of course - merely an observation.

People who walk places in Australia are just like people who ride bicycles.

You get a tiny minority who make a conscious choice to walk places, perhaps holding a calico bag or shopping basket on the way. On the other hand, some do not make the choice. It is left to them because they do not have access to the dominant and almost exclusive form of transport. They are the utility walkers and are seldom seen.

For a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon on a weekday, you'll see people walking to work too. Often they are in their work gear but with sneakers on. Others will be in their fitness gear. They are the commuter walkers.

But far and away the biggest group are the fitness walkers. It struck me the other day when I was in Golden Grove. That is a 1980s housing development that is totally car-centric. Great wide arterial roads and car parks are everywhere. It was the evening and there seemed to be a good number of people just walking the streets. You could tell they weren't going anywhere. They were just walking for the sake of it. All were dressed in tight pants (lycra - what else?), sports tops with reflective stripes and specialised walking sneakers - with little reflective swooshes on them. And they were walking with purpose. And breathing heavily.

A pair of "walkers" as found in Australia

As with people on bikes, the biggest group of walkers consists of the people who come out at the weekend specially dressed to go nowhere in particular but to go up lots of hills in the process.

We are weird.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

In the news

Since the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix moved to Australia all those years ago, outside of the country very few people have actually heard of Adelaide. Sydney and Melbourne are generally well known but not so much the other cities, especially ours.

Occasionally though, we do make the news. Now that news spreads quickly through the Twittosphere, that can happen quite quickly and the news can spread fast. Regrettably, it is often for the wrong reasons. We all remember those 'lose your licence and you're screwed' adverts from the MAC and the reaction to them. It was not a good look.

Now it is the turn of the town of Clare and its newspaper, the Northern Argus. This has been retweeted more times than I could remember. The article is all about a crossing outside of the Clare Medical Centre. The problem has been rectified, you will be pleased to read, and "near misses should be a thing of the past".

Here's a picture of the crossing thanks to Google Streetview:

The "problem" is that elderly people are leaving the medical centre and crossing the road "in front of cars". They mistakenly think they have right of way.

So what do we do about it?

The road itself runs parallel to the main highway running through the centre of town. You can see it runs between Wright Place and Lennon Street - a distance of about 450m. The medical centre is helpfully pointed out:

You might think a pedestrian crossing could work there. You would be wrong of course. Even though one was installed on Pirie Street in the city recently, we are told it was "the first in South Australia" (not true) and "South Australian drivers aren’t used to zebra crossings".

Luckily, "the council has implemented a plan to avoid future accidents." The solution? Give way signs for pedestrians.

I kid you not.

In addition to the obligation to give way on a narrow and short road, pedestrians have other obligations too. "High visibility vests, tabards, arm bands or clothing will highlight your presence for a significant distance."

And my favourite to finish the article:

Clare neighbourhood watch are giving away high visibility vests for people who walk in early hours or at night, free of charge, thanks to the support of Clare Auto Centre.

Vests can be obtained from the Clare Police Station.

Now what's that saying about the inside of the lunatic asylum appearing normal to the inmates?