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From the Editor

21st May 2002

by Julian Edgar

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I have seen one version of the future, and it's an approach that I don't like.

I lived in South Australia for many years; some of the time I lived outside of the capital city of Adelaide in country towns, but for more than 30 years I was a resident of the state's largest city. It's a small place - only a million people - and it's one that prides itself on its quality of living. In relative terms, house prices are low, the Mediterranean climate is pleasant, and a line of white sandy beaches that stretches for more than 30km along the coast is wonderful.

The main road network is unusual - there are effectively almost no intra-city freeways; instead arterial roads sprinkled with traffic lights are the main transport routes. However, until recently, it was the boast of Adelaidians to say that there's was a '20 minute' city, for most journeys would take that time or less.

To drive from the CBD to the beach - 20 minutes. To cross the small business district, from one side to the other - 20 minutes. Even a longer commute - perhaps from the northern suburbs to those to the south - took little time.

So when way back in the Sixties a US consultant was engaged to examine potential long-term traffic problems, the people of Adelaide were not much interested. In fact the consultants' plan - the MATS scheme - was comprehensibly rejected. That proposal was for a network of freeways around and through the suburban areas, including a major north-south road that would link both ends of the linear city.

And, even 20 years later in the Eighties, people were publicly thankful that the ghastly vista of endless freeways had been avoided.

To a major extent, I agreed with them. Traffic was light - the city's population growth rate is almost static - and distances mostly short. The sequencing of the numerous traffic lights was quite successful - on a main road you could get a run of five sets of green traffic lights, especially if you were in the middle of a 'sausage' of cars. The speed limit on the main arterials was 60 km/h in city limits and 80 or 100 km/h once immediate suburbia was passed. And since that translated to actual on-road speeds of 70, 90 and 110, movement around the city and its outer suburbs was relatively painless.

But that was then. Now - oh boy, now! - it's a whole different story.

After 18 months away, I recently spent a week in the pretty place. It is an appalling mess.

Traffic crawls along nose to tail right through the morning and afternoon commuting peak hours. Travelling times have blown out by 20, 30 and even 50 per cent. A trip that 10 years ago used to take an hour now takes up to 90 minutes. It feels for all the world like the number of cars using the roads has exploded... yet the population has been around one million for as long as I can remember.

So what the hell has gone wrong?

Perhaps the answer to that can be better grounded by a sentence or two of history. In the late Eighties, the State Government had a disastrous financial involvement in a bank, where an enormous amount of money was lost. In conjunction with a lack of new industries setting up in the state, the reliance on secondary industry largely in decline, and the low population growth, South Australia has been feeling the financial pinch for years.

One avenue that the government has taken to raise revenue is to place numerous speed cameras on the roads. These devices - hidden in unmarked parked vehicles - photograph cars exceeding the speed limit, with a fine subsequently issued. The South Australian government uses dozens of these devices: they are literally everywhere. It's not at all unusual to pass three or four while driving a matter of only ten or fifteen kilometres.

There are more speed cameras on the roads than I have ever seen in any other city.

As a result, the driving population is terrified of exceeding the posted speed limit. In 60 km/h zones - where once the traffic flowed at 70 km/h - the normal diving speed is now about 55 km/h. In 80 km/h sections, everyone trundles along at about 75. On 100 km/h roads, about 95 is the maximum.

So, in real terms, the speed on nearly all of the main roads within the Adelaide suburban area has dropped by over 20 per cent over the last decade. No bloody wonder the amount of traffic appears to have skyrocketed!

And instead of revising the speed limits so that actual travelling speeds remain reasonable, the government appears to have made no changes at all to the signs. The bizarre situation then arises where some six lane roads, complete with wide grassed median strips with turning lanes, are negotiated by endless streams of traffic travelling nose to tail at 55 km/h!

Literally, a bicycle can move faster than that!

There are well-illuminated, four-lane, divided main highways with no side roads, no housing and no apparent dangers that are limited to 80 km/h for kilometre after kilometre. That's at least 20 per cent slower than any (other government) logic would have them - and again that limit is strictly enforced. Not only are there speed cameras everywhere, but there are also unmarked police cars with the sole apparent purpose of catching people doing a little over the absurd posted limit - even in the middle of the night when there are literally no other cars within sight on the same road.

What was once a liveable city has now become a frustrating place, where car travel is simply incredibly slow. Remember, there are no alternative routes - it's not at all like (say) the much larger Australian cities of Melbourne or Sydney where the peak hour main road traffic snarls can be avoided by taking a freeway. In Adelaide, if you wish to travel from the northern suburbs to the southern suburbs, you can only take roads that crawl at 55 km/h...

The costs - both to business and that so oft boasted about lifestyle - must be enormous. I was late to nearly every one of my AutoSpeed business appointments - I simply couldn't believe that it would take so long to travel a matter of 10 or 20 kilometres on what are quite decent roads. The costs of transporting goods, the cost of conducting business, the frustration and angst to commuters....

You simply can't have a road network fundamentally based on the design of a large country town, slow down actual on-road speeds by up to 20 per cent, and expect it all to keep functioning fine.

It's a disaster...

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