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Our city must serve people who don't drive cars


Opposition to separated bike lanes in Adelaide is based on an unscientific and exclusionary mindset, argues former Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood ahead of a council debate tonight on the proposed east/west bikeway.

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This whole “bike versus car” thing needs to stop.

If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we need to work together as a tolerant and collaborative community to solve problems and make life easier for everyone. Offering opinions that suit ourselves, at the expense of others with justifiable needs, will only undermine the liveability and productivity of our city and keep Adelaide rooted in yesterday rather than create a “better normal” that works for everyone.

The anger and angst generated by a single east/west separated bicycle lane, a bog-standard piece of infrastructure not unlike an airport, train line or bus stop, is creating a tiered value system of citizens’ rights and that’s a frightening thought. Just as your colour, religion or sexuality does not define your place on society’s pecking order, riding a bike does not make you a second-class citizen.

This evening Adelaide City Council will determine the fate of a bike lane about which it has been dragging its heels for years, despite the lure of millions of dollars of State Government money. To turn down funding for no-brainer infrastructure when the piggy bank is empty would be a tragedy. To suggest these millions of dollars should be handed back to the Government because it “needs more consultation” would be even more heartbreaking. Yes, community input is important, however, this essential infrastructure is years overdue and will not only create jobs, but also deliver a much-needed missing piece to the city’s integrated transport system. That’s why the funding was offered in the first place.

No sane person will deny that car drivers have important needs and that is why there are 26 east/west car lanes and more than 45,000 parking spaces in the city. That is more than any capital city in Australia and, using a “car parks per capita” ratio, it ranks near the very top of the 500 cities in the world with populations of more than one million people.

We have done an awesome job of creating a gold-plated car city, so the new bike lane is nothing to complain about unless you subscribe to institutionalised segregation where only car drivers have any rights.

If you want to drive, that’s fine, but building infrastructure and running a city is not all about you.

The good news is pedestrians get a fair go too, with 26 east/west footpaths. There are several trendy car-free laneways in Adelaide and a popular pedestrian mall as well, because people like to spend time in car-free places. That’s not really surprising – a city built just for cars is not a place where more people are likely to want to spend more time and money. If anything, this conversation about the best way to move citizens often feels like we prioritise cars ahead of people.

Sadly, however, even with higher rates of bike ownership than car ownership in Adelaide, there is not one single separated east/west bike lane that encourages people to ride – particularly those who are not comfortable with sharing space with cars, buses and trucks.  There are potentially thousands of additional people who could use bikes in the city, thereby reducing peak hour car congestion, improving their health, saving money and freeing up car parking spaces for those that really need them. Incidentally, both car congestion and obesity cost Australia billions each year, so there are compelling economic reasons for encouraging cycling for the everyday citizen (rather than just the enthusiast), in a fair and proportional way.

Instead, we see a media-fuelled fear campaign over the loss of just 200 car parking spaces in a downtown urban environment awash with car parks and including a retail environment where people generally walk to their destination.  We are, after all, not a country town any more; creating a narrative that people expect to drive right to the front door of an establishment in a big city is just silly.

But it’s more than just silly – the debate displays a quite confronting pseudo-scientific mindset. Encouraging hundreds, if not thousands. of additional daily cyclists over time would most likely free up more car parking spaces than it loses. Regardless, if we can’t reallocate just 0.005 per cent of Adelaide’s extreme levels of car parking to create just two super safe bike lanes for around 5 per cent of city users, how is that not consciously making cycling an inferior transport choice?

Having seen and studied the cities of the world, I can only conclude this cold hard truth: we are holding ourselves back from creating the most efficient way of moving hundreds of thousands of people via an integrated, choice-oriented and equitable transport system, for which all modern, intelligent cities strive.

We do not always ask permission of the community to expand airports, repave roads, plant trees, electrify rail or put in bus lanes. Leaders just do it because it needs to be done, despite popular opinion because the majority want to drive. Everyone knows consultation on a separated bike lane will only result in anger versus admiration, yet what we can all agree on is that, right now, people just want stuff done for the “common good”.  Hopefully, that means we can rise above our own needs and share our city spaces with respect and dignity to ensure all citizens get access to basic, safe infrastructure.

If you want to drive, that’s fine, but building infrastructure and running a city is not all about you.

The city is awash with university and high school students, low paid workers, healthy citizens and those who cannot afford or choose not to own a first or second car. None of these people are second class citizens; they deserve infrastructure just like car owners do.

The 2020 catch phase we’ll all remember is “stay safe” –  and this is an excellent opportunity to deliver on that principle and see in a new year with better choices for everyone.

Stephen Yarwood was Adelaide’s Lord Mayor from 2010 to 2014. He works as a consultant on urban governance, strategy and policy.

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