The car addiction we just can’t seem to shake

The Hobart City Council baulks at giving priority to cycling in an important Hobart thoroughfare. [11 September 2012 | Peter Boyer]

Sandy Bay Road: the proposed cycleway will begin its route along the eastern side of the road at Marieville Esplanade (left).

Here’s a little word association exercise. When you think of roads and streets, what other words spring to mind?

For nine out of ten readers, I think I’m safe in assuming that the list will be dominated by words around motor vehicles, like car, truck, driving, road-signs, speeding, accidents, parking.

Roads and streets have been with us for a very long time; the words themselves have their origins in the Roman era. Motor vehicles, on the other hand, didn’t exist before the 1880s, and weren’t seen in numbers on roads and streets until the 1930s. Make that the 1990s or later for developing countries.

Someone doing this exercise 100 years ago would have ranked cars very low in the scheme of things, if at all. They’d have thought about people, horses, carts, dust and mud (many streets and most roads were unpaved) and maybe bicycles, which for decades had been used in large numbers.

Then, roads were for walking or (if you were lucky) for using animal-powered transport, to get to where you wanted to go. On the way you met people, which was another of their uses.

Moving about was just one of many functions of urban streets. In these places people emerged from houses, shops, offices and factories to meet one another and exchange greetings or insults, embrace, play, squabble, do business, stand on a box and shout to passers-by. Streets were public spaces for all manner of uses — the heart and soul of all cities.

How times have changed. Now, with more than a billion cars clogging the world’s roads and streets, every other possible use for these once-valued public spaces has been shoved aside and forgotten. Official permission is needed to use the street for partying or protesting — for anything but motoring.

There are places to walk and run, talk and play, but most surely the middle of the street isn’t one of them. What was once a place to linger has become a place to avoid. Streets are full of objects that can, and sometimes do, hit and crush human bodies with lethal force.

Another victim of motor transport is the bicycle, more venerable and infinitely more energy-efficient than the car. Slowly, cyclists have begun to claw their way back into the traffic, but they do so at some risk to life and limb. Sharing with cars is never an easy street.

Despite the hazards, more and more Tasmanians are realising the value of cycling — to their budget and to both personal and planetary health. By one reckoning, cycle use in Hobart rose by 25 per cent between 2001 and 2006. The take-up rate could only have further increased since then.

In 2008 the Hobart City Council adopted a “bicycle network plan” which identified major cycling corridors for the city. The council’s 2009 five-year “sustainable transport strategy” aimed among other things to provide high-quality infrastructure for walkers, cyclists and public transport.

One of those principal corridors was Sandy Bay Road, which was to have dedicated cycling and pedestrian lanes. In 2010 the council engaged Sinclair-Knight-Merz to determine how Sandy Bay Road could be made safer for multiple users.

SKM’s report found that because of the distance commuting cyclists travel along the corridor, and because the council wanted to encourage more of this, cyclists should generally get priority treatment. It proposed banning car parking next to the shared path and cycleway, to ensure a clear outbound traffic lane and to reduce the risk of cyclists being injured by opening car doors.

Out of all this, cyclists and pedestrians would get world-class facilities, protected from motor traffic, along the eastern (river) side of Sandy Bay Road, to the long-term benefit of all.

But some waterfront residents didn’t agree. They didn’t like the parking restrictions, and said so to Alderman John Freeman. He took it up with council officers, and late in the council meeting a fortnight ago the officers tabled a “win-win” solution that allowed continued car parking.

In the process (though this wasn’t obvious at the time of the vote), the revised scheme took away precious elbow room from the cycleway and increased the risk of car-door injuries to cyclists.

So having engaged SKM to investigate cycle corridors and the renowned Danish town planner Jan Gehl to look at the city centre, both of whom advised that priority be given to non-motorised traffic, the council has found ways around this advice. The motor car has won again.

Why is this not surprising? For one simple reason: the people making the decisions remain locked in the headspace of a motorist. Too few decision-makers in Tasmania have been able to get their heads around the idea of streets in which motor transport is one of many uses.

It’s true that in having more bikes on the road isn’t going to make much of a dent in greenhouse gas emissions, compared to, say, doing something about how we generate and use electricity, but that’s beside the point. What’s important here is the mind-set that refuses to put cars in second place.

John Freeman, join this revolution. Help us reclaim our streets!

• IT’S FIVE YEARS TODAY since the Mercury began publishing my writing about climate, energy and sustainability. My observations have appeared virtually every week over those five years.

Some people see my purview as limited and wonder how I manage to fill the column every week, but in reality there’s always more than enough to write about. Everything we do — locally, nationally, globally — is connected in some way with how we use our planet’s natural resources.

I count myself fortunate. I’ve found this experience fulfilling and rewarding, and am grateful to my readers, whatever their take on these things, for continuing to show interest in the future of our planet’s life systems, including our own.

I also thank the Mercury. While the popularity of these issues has waxed and waned over the years, the Mercury continues to give space for discussion of the biggest challenge of our age. Among Australia’s media that’s a notable achievement.

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