Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Democracy is a wonderful thing

Whether it is because of the upcoming Olympics or because the message is finally getting through, London appears to be taking concrete steps to protect people who get around by bicycle. There are some horrendous junctions in London such as Elephant and Castle and Blackfriars Bridge that have been the subject of justified criticism lately.

The London Cycling Campaign has a design for Parliament Square that involves raised "Danish" style bicycle lanes leading to advanced stop lines at junctions (not everybody, including me, is a fan of advanced stop lines). The response to the plans has been cautiously positive but it has nevertheless attracted some criticism. One particular constructive bit of criticism (especially as it also provides a better alternative) was written by Paul James. His plan adds proper provision for people on bicycles across the junctions:

That in turn led to some interesting discussion including by the person who designed the original scheme. One comment that struck me was this one:

LCC is a broad church, and there are a lot of objectors to Go Dutch. My intention is to ensure that schemes like this demonstrably allow everyone to have the choice of using dedicated infrastructure or the carriageway,  by visually reinforcing the right to use the carriageway.

The LCC has a campaign called "Go Dutch". Hence the reference. It seems that not everyone likes it so to be democratic the LCC tries to accommodate both supporters and detractors.

Democracy is a wonderful thing. Theoretically, everyone's voice is heard. If for example, out House of Representatives in Canberra was indeed representative, each policitical party would be represented as a propotion of their national vote. The ALP might win 40%, the Libs 45% and the Greens 15%. They would be allotted the number of seats in proportion to their vote. We do not have that type of voting system but have a system of preferences. In the main most people are heard even if it is their third choice.

Local councils are slightly different because we do not have compulsory voting and there is a low voter turnout. What many progressive councils do is hear the voice of the people by having a "consultation". The problem with that of course is that only the voices of those who speak are heard and so often it is the loudest.

That was illustrated to me recently when our local council consulted on a traffic management plan. It was brilliant. In one part of the council area bordered by four main roads, the plan was to introduce traffic calming in the form of blocked roads and road narrowing. It would have gone a long way to stop people from different areas from using residential streets as thoroughfares. I of course supported it and said so.

But oh my goodness you should have heard the complaining. In the end, it was the complaining that won out and the scheme was all but abandoned except for a couple of speed bumps and a do not turn right sign. The argument, in so far as I could understand it, was that the traffic calming would harm local businesses. Not being able to drive in a direct line to the shops meant that people would be marooned in their houses and the businesses would die. There was a petition to that effect on the counter at the local booze shop. When I say "local" I mean only that it was close by. It was (and is) in fact a BWS outlet - part of the nationwide Woolworths chain (one of two supermarkets that pretty much run the grocery market). I couldn't help noticing that a lot of the people who signed the petition didn't even live in the affected area. Funny that.

The plan was shelved.

In the end, the loudest were heard which I suppose is fine but it was on the basis of what was an untested assertion. Why would the BWS fail just because people were asked to drive around the block instead of in a straight line? Show me where that has happened before? Once upon a time, our local streets used to have independent delis, butchers and corner shops. With the advent of big supermarkets surrounded by even bigger car parks, they slowly died. What was bad for business again?

Nobody seemed to balance the complaining with the benefits of the plan. Nobody asked whether it might lead to somewhere safe for the local children to ride their longboards. Nobody seemed to accept that it might be a good thing for the incessant burnouts and loud exhausts to end. Nobody seemed to think that lower traffic levels might mean a safer walk for our children to school instead of the obstacle course they currently enjoy. Nobody asked the obvious question - will it really destroy those businesses?

No. The need to drive in a direct line to the booze shop trumped everything else and a big middle digit was aimed at peace, quiet and children's safety.

It happened well over a year ago and it still bothers me. I really should learn to lighten up.


  1. Edward,

    How you're feeling regarding vehicular traffic in your neighbourhood is quite normal and I don't think you need to lighten up. Noisy driving and dangerous driving are by far the two largest complaints about social disorder in Australia. See the Crikey article and the ABS survey results at the links below.

    The issue of elected officials siding with the loudest, and usually the most well-funded, voices, instead of the majority, is the antithesis of democracy. Democracy is defined as one person, one vote. What we commonly get instead is one dollar, one vote.

    What local traders such as the BWS don't realise is that once people get in their cars they are more likely to drive further afield to a larger shop that probably has a wider variety and more loss-leading discounted specials, so they're actually losing customers by being car-centric instead of cultivating more walking and cycling trips to their shops. Car-dominated locations also discourage walking and cycling trips which then further reduces their customer base.


  2. Thanks for the reply. I'm glad I'm not the only one :)