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Sophisticated Side

19 March 2002

By David Rubie

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Alternatives to the car...

Are you fed up with peak hour traffic? Do the endless queues and traffic jams depress or anger you? Our greener-than-though friends that have a long and tortuous history of deriding the car lovers of the world - perhaps they have a point. Let us examine some of the alternatives available to the urban car user.

I'm not a big fan of public transport, so I won't dwell on it. I'm going to detail the good stuff first: you can read a book on the train or bus. That's it for me. You've got bugger-all else to do, sitting around waiting for peak hour to move, or for the train or bus to stop at forty stations. Standing room redefined as standing on someone else's feet. Suffocating in the awful side effects of a corrupting and pervasive western diet.

The inflexible timetables and inconvenient placing of your average bus stop or train station are another hurdle. It's obviously impractical to run train tracks past every house, and the bus can only stop so often or it doesn't get anywhere. Worse than that, you can't accessorise the train or bus with wooden beaded seat covers, plastic spoilers and blow-off valves. You know somebody is going to steal that stuff while you're not sitting on it, or the nincompoops at train central will send you a different carriage every day. Even those talented artists with spray cans and pocket knives that dwell amongst us, artfully inscribing their own initials or stylised pictures of genitalia, realise that they're unlikely to see their work again.

If you love cars for their personal statement, the soulless, soul destroying nature of public transport is no place for you.

More seriously, I can't work out why public transport is so heavily pushed by successive governments here in Australia, where the majority of public transport is state-owned. They have serious problems running the infrastructure they've already installed, yet seek to create more of it in the vain hope that some break-even point of profitability and utility is reached. It's an impossible dream.

Train services that are truly useful for a wide community are rarely going to be profitable. Late night services, used by tiny numbers of the community, are useful but eat heavily into the profitability of peak hour services. The pointless creation of bus-only and transit lanes on main roads only succeeds in creating more traffic snarl without actually helping the travel time of bus commuters (who get stuck at the same traffic lights that everybody else does). Yet, we appear to be immovably in a post-Sixties hippy dream that public transport is always good, and private cars are always bad.

It isn't so, never was and won't be despite continued investment in money burning tracked transport.

This includes train tracks that are built decades too late to make any difference to the communities they were meant to service. I'm particularly amused (actually, disgusted) by a recent proposal that seeks to link an area near where I live with a train station by 2010, only 30 years after the majority of houses were constructed. The hundreds of millions of dollars would be better spent having a better crack at decentralising our crowded central business districts and providing cheap, secured car parking. They might even have some money left to build the long promised ring-roads through Sydney that threaten to make driving a pleasure again.

But what did people do before the car arrived?

They rode horses!

Most current urban dwellers have never actually seen a horse close up so I'll try my best to describe the experience. Horses are big, strong, smelly and not terribly smart. Horses urinate exactly where they please and defecate soon afterwards. You can't tell a horse "No horsey, not there!"; he doesn't know what you're talking about and couldn't care less.

Horses come in a range of temperaments, but "surly" is the most common and least pleasant. Horses will tolerate somebody climbing on their back, but you have to realise that you're there at their pleasure. A horse will happily remove you from its back using a handy tree limb or an artful stumble. Horses aren't averse to kicking you in the head, very hard.

They're good at it too.

Horses drink gallons of water and graze astounding amounts of grasses. There's so little useful energy in their food that they have to eat enormous volumes. Multiply that by several thousand and you'll see why the horse is impractical as mass transit. On the plus side, you can customise your horse accessories in endless ways, although there's no source of twelve volts to plug your monster stereo in. Nowhere to mount speakers either. Horses really do need some sort of blow off valve to harness some of the side effects of being a horse, but I doubt an effective one is available.

Bicycles are popular transport in many parts of the developing world; how about one of those? A pleasant ride of two or three kilometres to work - with birds chirping and the sun shining - sounds infinitely more pleasant than being stuck in traffic, doesn't it?

Well, sort of.

Have you ever stood next to a bicycle courier in a lift? At their worst, the stench approaches horse-like levels of olfactory offensiveness. Unfortunately, most of us don't live two or three kilometres from work - more like thirty. In that thirty kilometres, you're going to have to negotiate dog attacks (lots of fun), careless motorist attacks, roads designed to never see a bicycle (no shoulders, no crossings), thirst, hunger and rainstorms.

If you're approaching moderate levels of fitness, you can easily attain thirty kilometres an hour on a mountain bike, or something equally comfortable. The only problem is that you're exerting yourself the entire time, sweating up a storm and turning you're nicely ironed work shirt into a dishrag.

OK, so you plan to take some work clothes in a backpack. Now you've got to find somewhere to shower and change. You'd better secure that bike too, because they have a tendency to go walking with strangers. Next? Thanks to the modern miracle of modern productivity (where we all work forty plus hours a week and get paid like we still worked thirty five), you rarely leave the office in daylight...and bicycle headlights suck.

We could all do with a little more fitness, but you might notice that as soon as our bicycle-mad cousins in developing countries can scratch two coins together, they put a down payment on a motorcycle. Dogs can't catch motorcycles. Of all the unrealistic and poorly executed acts of urban protest over traffic, the idiots at "Critical Mass" time and again show us how impractical their dream of turning our cities into bicycle havens is.

We don't all have the luxury of living four hundred metres from our lecture hall. Some of us care about personal hygiene. Some of us even relish the freedom that car ownership gives: my place of dwelling is not dictated by where I work, just by how much traffic I am willing to endure.

And yes, I have a bicycle and use it regularly - but not for commuting.

Did you watch with incredulity the hype surrounding "Ginger", a two wheeled, gyroscopically-controlled contraption that's slower and less useful than walking, magically combined with an operating range that suggested it was being powered by a pair of AA cells? Somebody out there thinks we are seriously stupid. Who would "rethink a city" around a device that struggles to negotiate a cracked footpath and has minimal to no luggage carrying capability?

Then consider the many thousands of dollars to purchase this thing. I can't believe it wasn't a giant hoax, but apparently they are being evaluated by postal authorities in the US. Maybe there isn't anybody left who'll work as a postman who isn't grossly overweight in America, hence the need to supply them with what is effectively a stand-up wheelchair. There are golf buggies with more range than Ginger, and you can take somebody else along for the ride.

Faster.

Why do we need all this mechanical stuff when we've got two perfectly serviceable legs? You can run! Run free! Hair streaming back in the breeze, strong legs and tensed sinew. Perhaps with a laptop on your back, a change of clothes (again), some lunch. Dinner too, because that 60km round trip will probably take all day, if you can manage it. A marathon is forty-two kilometres, something that endurance athletes train for three months to complete and would never contemplate doing every day.

If you thought riding a bike made you stink, try running.

Let's face it, the problem isn't cars at all, it's the pointless and unnecessary centralisation of work places in modern cities. Back when horses and feet were used for transport, it made sense to be 100 yards from your supplier, broker or competitor, but now he is probably half way around the world. Funnelling us all into a single place every day makes no sense, is impractical and adds immensely to the drudgery that is modern existence.

Let's keep the car and rebuild the city instead.

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