Saturday, 28 February 2015


A few years back I was involved in a project about the delivery of mental health services. It required meeting a few experts to get an understanding of the system. One day, a colleague and I were sent to Sydney to meet a fellow by the name of Dr Gavin Andrews who at that point was Professor of Psychiatry at the University of New South Wales. He was one of those supremely intelligent people you occasionally meet - he had an excellent way with words and, as you would expect, had an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject. He did not come across as arrogant but if he had, he would have had every right to be.

He had written a book called 'Tolkien II : a needs-based, costed, stepped-care model for mental health services : recommendations, executive summaries, clinical pathways, treatment flowcharts, costing structures'. As he explained in an interview with the ABC, in summary the book is about how State and Federal Governments should allocate their mental health budgets.

I could have listened for hours when we met. You could not argue with what he said. However, what really struck me was when he said, in a very matter of fact way, the reason the book was called 'Tolkien 2' was because it was fantasy - it would never happen.

In many areas of government policy, there are things on which reasonable minds will differ but this made so much sense. It was obvious that money was not being spent wisely and Dr Andrews and his team had done the painstaking research.

I suppose it is because most policy areas are not really on people's radars sufficiently for them to research, learn, lobby or just discuss. You might be an aviation expert and could point to a small number of fairly easy changes that could be made that would noticeably improve commercial flights. Because I don't understand the aviation industry, the best you could probably expect from me is "yes, they should do that."

That leads me to my particular interest. Transport and urban planning is an area that affects everybody. As soon as we walk out of our front door, our decisions about how we get around are shaped by policies made at local, State and Federal Government levels. A change at even one of those levels is usually not quite as easy as pushing a button on a keyboard or telling a group of public servants to "do that". People are affected by decisions and, right or wrong, they have opinions. The people making the decisions also have elections and/or jobs to worry about. Any change takes time and is inevitably a compromise.

I don't claim to know everything in the area (far from it) but there are certain things that we have come to know based on experience all around the world; things such as:
  • induced demand and related to that, Braess Paradox which shows that building more roads can paradoxically slow traffic down;

  • the negative correlation between neighbourhood interactions and the amount and speed of traffic on the road;

  • the positive effects on local retail business when bike lanes are installed or traffic calming is introduced;

  • and what we now know about the relationship between our built environment and how healthy we are.These things are not secrets. It is making them the basis of new policies that is the difficulty. Australia is not alone in occasionally finding it difficult to adopt new ways of doing things. Even though they are not optimal, we become comfortable with the way things are done. Sudden and large changes upset people and make them feel uncomfortable. We see this when our workplaces are restructured or reformed.

With land used and planning, I have noticed that our car-based culture permeates everything. An example: just recently I watched a workshop at Prospect Council Chambers about the new Braund Road Bicycle Boulevard. As far as these things go, the proposed changes are about as conservative as can be. One change is to stop right hand turns from Braund Road on to Fitzroy Terrace:

One of the main reasons for the change is not so much about reducing or slowing traffic. Rather, right turns are a small percentage of traffic movements there, they are disproportionately represented among the crash statistics. Despite that, the feedback was that there should be some consultation with those motorists affected because they might feel "disenfranchised". That is no criticism. The councillor was right to raise it but it says something about our entrenched thinking when a no-right-turn sign is said to lead to disenfranchisement.

Anyway, over many years, ideas slowly catch on and things slowly change. Look at how many years (and how many lost lives) it has taken to achieve the N-S and E-W superhighway plans in London. They fall some way short of best practice but they are, for England, revolutionary. London has never seen anything like them before. Boris Johnson did not suddenly wake up one day with that idea. They are the result of years and years of patient campaigning. That is assuming they go ahead.

Back in Australia, government policy (at least on paper) according to the Australian National Cycling Strategy 2011-2016 is "to double the number of people cycling in Australia by 2016." It devotes 4 pages (in small print) to the various benefits of such a policy. However, in the latest update, the results of the 2013 National Cycling Participation survey say that:

While bicycle ownership has remained steady in comparison to the 2011 Cycling Participation Survey, there has been a small but statistically significant decrease in the level of cycling participation in Australia between 2011 and 2013.

Something's not working. And it might be time to try a different strategy. It's timely too. Yet again, the Clipsal 500 street race has caught everyone by surprise this year and there are reports of "traffic chaos" in the news each day. Unsuprisingly, during the week when some roads are closed, it was found that driving to work was marginally slower than walking and riding took a quarter of the time:

(This picture belongs to AdelaideNow)

This is not going to get any better. If there was a choice provided so that everyone, if they chose, could benefit from the 10 minute journey rather than the 41 minute one, I am sure the uptake would be good - even with all of the barriers in the way such as the very hilly Adelaide plains and our unforgiving temperate Mediterranean climate.

There are ways this could easily work even in car-centric Adelaide and without even having that much of an effect on car-parking if that's really what you want. Anyone who has come out of Sydney's airport and got into a taxi or hire car will have noticed that the driving lanes there seem to be narrower than in Adelaide. It's unnerving for the first five minutes but you get used to it because they're like it everywhere, even in the Harbour Tunnel. So step one is to make a decision to narrow our road lanes. All of a sudden, drivers are more careful without even realising and you suddenly have a whole bunch of additional space at no cost.

Step 2 is to start using that newly freed-up space. And you achieve that using the current maintenance budget. Each time a road is scheduled to be resurfaced, instead of simply repeating what is there, change it while you have the chance. It works on almost any road:

(Not perfect but easily emulated - via between yellow and blue)

And Anne Moran likes them:

In other words, in 15 years (the life of a road) - at no additional cost - you could have the makings of a complete network, useable by most people and guaranteed to make a huge difference.

Easier said than done of course. Building raised kerbs is easy. It's taking down walls in our heads that is difficult. As Dr Andrews said - total fantasy.

Mathematically justified. Thanks to Copenhagenize

Saturday, 14 February 2015

So are helmet laws sexist or what?

Back in May 2014 when our friends from overseas were visiting for the Velo-City conference, there were a few times when it made the news. One time was when a couple of streets were blocked for the breakfast ride. Another was when Mikael Colville-Andersen said 'suck it up buttercup' :-) And then there was the time when the always awesome Sue Abbott made it to the front page of the Advertiser for ... gasp ... riding a bike. It just so happened that she also committed the cardinal sin of not wearing a helmet.

It is not hard to understand the point Sue was making. There is no doubt that the introduction of helment laws in Australia and New Zealand coincided with a fairly sizeable drop in the number of people using bikes. It is also fairly clear that the drop in numbers was disproportionate among women. We know and see every day that men on bikes easily outnumber women five to one. On top of that, other demographics have never recovered from that initial drop. How often do you see teenage girls getting themselves to school on a bike? Compare that to their Dutch sisters:

This is borrowed from this post by aseasyasridingabike. Hope that's ok.

A completely different picture altogether. Now admittedly there are other reasons for this sorry state of affairs but I don't think what Sue Abbott says can be ignored.

I came across a short video the other day called 'Der Fahrrad-Doktor' (the Bicycle Doctor) on NDR television. It's about a business owner who runs a mobile bike workshop in Garbsen, which is a little way north east of Hannover. The full length film (30 mins) can be seen here. It's actually worth a look. If nothing else, it shows a pretty good business idea for anyone looking to capitalise on an increase in bicycle use in the near future.

At one point in the film, the owner, Herr Schwetje, is seen selling an e-bike to a woman who is described later as a pensioner - the sort of woman you would rarely if ever see riding a bike in Australia. I have edited out the two scenes involving her:

At the beginning, Herr Schwetje introduces her to the white e-bike. With introductions out of the way, the conversation about helmets begins (at 0:55):

Do you have a helmet?
So you generally ride without a helmet?
I ride without.
Ok, you want to continue to doing that?
I'll continue doing that.
Ok, I can't change that but would you like to be convinced otherwise because it would be much safer? These bikes have a tendency to go much faster than the others.
I don't want to ride so quickly. I don't want help. And I want to ride far. I am really not in a hurry any more.

The good lady goes for a ride - beyond the horizon.

When she returns (2:28), she's impressed. It's windy and she's not puffed out. Being the consumate salesman, Herr Schwetje offers to leave the bike with her for the weekend so she can properly try it out. Sounds like a plan she says. But at 3:14 he has one more try. A condition is that she takes the helmet. Then he can say he has at least given her one even if she doesn't wear it.

Off she goes.

He's back the following Wednesday and is pleased to make the sale.

He begins again (4:25):

You know what I've got for you? A helmet that matches your glasses - black.
Whatever. I'm *sooo* pleased.
Promise me that when you're out in the dark alone you'll wear it.
I don't drive in the dark - not in the car, not on the bike.
But please try it out. It's for your safety and my conscious.

Seconds later, she's off again - but helmet on the wrist :-)

Now here's the thing. If the State Government of Lower Saxony were to introduce a helmet law, what might that good lady do? Maybe she'd wear one. But maybe not. Would she still be riding at her age if Lower Saxony had had helmet laws for the past 23 years? I don't know for sure but I reckon the answer is probably no. She'd either be riding the bus everywhere or driving her Volkswagen Polo.

Herr Schwetje likes to encourage people to don their helmets. There's a scene in the full length version of the video where he tells his mountain bike team off because only 5 out of 12 of them had one on. And that's fine. By all means "encourage" but it's when you mandate that the problems begin.

In Australia, we like to encourage people to share the road and to be nice to each other. But actually taking steps to protect people through engineering or safe systems? Much slower on the uptake. At the same time, we don't encourage helmet use but instead like to use the blunt instrument of the law to force it on anyone and everyone. We might have our priorities a little mixed up there.

We've seen it in Australia and New Zealand. Numbers drop. If they recover, the demographic is different. Women? A few. Women above 50? You'll be lucky. Children? Maybe but only with parents walking close by. Teenagers? Even fewer. Teenage girls? Zero. Sporty men on mountain bikes and racing bikes? Tons.

And that is what is meant when Sue Abbott says helmet laws are sexist.