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


  1. Don't comment much but I read all your posts and love your work. Thanks!

  2. 2016 is approaching fast and the miraculous idea that cycling participation in Australia would double without actually doing anything different is not coming to fruition.

    1. If nothing else, we'll be able to write blogposts about it. I wonder what the next Strategy will say.