A Car-Free year in Adelaide

I’ve never been good at going to the Gym but I realised I needed to make time for regular exercise. A few years ago I bought a decent road bike  – I loved the riding but I just don’t look good in Lycra. I was sick of my car and sick of driving in traffic.At about the same time I was thinking about simplifying my life, de-cluttering and sustainability. I’d learned how to travel internationally with “Hand-Luggage only”. The simplification train of thought was somewhat influenced by my reading on Positive Psychology. The Danes were the happiest people in the Western World. It wasn’t quite clear why. One suggestion was that they had lower expectations. I knew that they were great “utility” cyclists and I wondered whether this had something to do with it.
I knew people who rode their bikes to work and as practical transport. They were lycra free and it seemed to work for them. I was also impressed with the League of American Bicyclists figures on why bikes should be better served in the world’s metropolises:

• 40% of all trips are within two miles of the home

• 50% of the working population commutes five miles or less to work

• more than 82% of trips five miles or less are made by personal motor vehicle

• American households devote 18% of every dollar spent on mobility

• 98% is for the purchase, operation, and maintenance of automobiles

• American families spend more on driving than health care, education or food

• more than one-third of the poorest families income goes to transportation

Whilst these stats are for the US I suspected that they pretty much held true for Australia.(they do).
But to honest it still seemed slightly weird. Still seemed a bit schoolboy like.
However I was interested enough to explore it further.
In 2010 I travelled to Berlin and Amsterdam.In Berlin I did a City Bike tour. 4.5 Hours around Berlin for EU 24   (AUD $30.70 ).Wow. What great fun. What a great way to see the city (now my favourite on the planet).Our tour guide was an uber cool 30 something failed movie star. If urban bike riding was cool enough for her then it was cool enough for me too.I also learned that cycling had grown tremendously in Berlin .According to Berlin’s 2010 Mobility Report, Berliners made approximately 1.4 million trips by bicycle every day in 2008, amounting to 13 percent of all trips citywide (and 14 percent of commute trips). This figure has more than doubled since 1990, yet it is likely already outdated, given rising gas prices ($8/gallon in Berlin) and an aggressive city initiative to raise cycling mode share to 15 percent by 2015.Read more about Berlin’s Striking Cycle Renaissance .

In Amsterdam I hired a bike for a few days and just ambled around. It just seemed such a natural, easy thing to do. I could park right out the front of major tourist attractions and cover a lot of ground quickly and easily. Everyone was doing it. Old, young, male, female. No lycra, just whatever you were wearing. Any old sort of bike. The occasional separated bikeway was amazing but generally there were so many bikes on the road and the cars were used to them, so I never felt unsafe – and that was helmet free.There were so many bikes around the railway stations in Holland it was amazing. It seemed to me that rather than one expensive bike, many of them adopted a “two crap bike” strategy for the “last kilometre” either end of their train or bus journey. One crap bike from home to bus-stop. Another crap bike from bus-stop to work. Makes sense. A crap bike is fine for a leisurely one kilometre. They rode in the rain or in the sun. Winter or Summer. Riding was treated more like more efficient walking.

In Hamburg I observed with interest (but didn’t use) their Bike-Share system StadtRAD.

For more about Bike-Share schemes see The Bike-sharing Blog or Wikepedia Bicycle Sharing System.

I was inspired. It now felt like the right thing to do.I needed a bike. An urban bike with flat handle bars and no toe clips. Something that I could put a carrier on. Maybe even a front basket.I settled on an Apollo for about $550 but jagged one on ebay for $275. Perfect.

So I rode to work a few times. But then excuses emerged. It might rain. It was raining. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. I haven’t got the right clothes. I have to visit a client on the other side of town. I have to take the kids to school. I have to pick the kids up after school.I have too much gear to carry.
I still felt that it was the right way to go and I remained interested in those positive Danes.
in 2011 I spent 3 days in Copenhagen. I hired a bike for 3 days and explored and learnt.Many impressions. The bike is an accepted serious mode of transport. Used by all. Many cargo bikes with several kids in them – mums and dads in equal numbers. The mummies were yummy. The cycling infrastructure is generally good but surprisingly in some places there is not much separation between the cycle lanes and the cars. Perhaps my major impression was just how much more “liveable” a city with a greater proportion of cyclists is. It’s quieter. It feels less stressful. It seems friendlier – everyone is more “open” – you are not surrounded (isolated) by tonnes of metal.It feels healthier. It just seems so much more human focused, rather than machine focused. It is practical, bike infrastructure is cheaper to build and maintain. It takes up less space. Less visual car clutter – parked or moving.
In my quest to get some insight into the “happiness’ of the Danes I started to feel that cycling was part of the mix. Firstly it must be a contributor to their physical health. Many studies have shown that even small amounts of daily regular exercise are beneficial.Personally I believe that exercise is more about “flicking metabolic switches” rather than “burning calories” and cycling fits the bill for that. Physically the people of Copenhagen seem healthy with almost no noticeable obesity. The other impression I got was about ego and ‘Affluenza”. It is hard for the ego to get out of control if your main transport is a bike. It justs seems to fit with a more mindful, less self-centred existence.
I went to Nørrebrogade, the highest traffic cycling street in Copenhagen. Exact numbers are disputed but at least 10,000 people cycle up and down this road every day. It was amazing.To properly soak it up I found a cafe around evening peak hour, ordered a beer and just sat and watched for nearly an hour. This was serious transport. Quiet, friendly, fashionable.No lycra, no stress, just a bunch of people moving around. Men, women, young and old. Briefcases and bags. Shopping and kids. Simple practical solutions.
I was done. This was the way that I wanted to live.I mentioned this to my friends – well of course it works in Europe, their cities are more densely populated. They travel smaller distances.Well yes – but – the greater majority of our car journeys are less than 5 kilometres, an eminently cyclable distance. It is mainly cultural. We have grown up driving everywhere and that is our cultural default. There are several factors at play.
Let me illustrate.In her great book – Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) – Lenore Skenazy provides the following amazing information about the transport of kids to school.
In the 1970’s in USA, Canada, Uk , Australia roughly 60% of kids found their own way to school by public transport, walking or cycling.
Now it is about 30%. The numbers for Western Europe ? No change.
A simple thing but to me, an important lead indicator.Why – it seems to be about safety and the rapid adoption of a second car. Culturally  – the default position has now switched to drive.
This is all nonsense. There is a good argument that kids are now safer than ever. Mobile phones and the increased “stranger awareness”.Ironically – where are kids most at risk now ? – the bloody, buggery school drop off zone.
What has this cost families in terms of car costs and time ? What has it cost the kids in terms of obesity and loss of independence ? What has it cost the community in terms of extra cars on the road / congestion etc ?
I’d suggest that the cumulative costs to families, kids and the community are enormous.I’d further suggest that there is a big loss of psychological well being.
So – for me – a lead indicator of a well-functioning society would be the % of kids who make their own way to school and that beyond 60% should be the target.When in Copenhagen I passed a Primary School at morning drop-off zone. So much friendlier, so much quieter. Just more human.To see just how crazy it is in the US read this Why Johnny Can’t Ride.“According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2009 only 13 percent of all children walked or rode to school, whereas in 1969 nearly half (48 percent) did. The remoteness of the new schools is not the only cause: Among students who lived within one mile of school 43 years ago, 88 percent walked or bicycled, while today only 38 percent do. Experts blame broad, gradual cultural changes for the decline, as well. “We’ve gotten so used to ferrying kids around in cars,” laments Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists (LAB).”

Upon my return to Australia I decided that I had to make cycling my default daily transport. I had to find solutions to my previous “excuses”.
I started in December 2011 and I write this in January 2013.In short it has been easier and more beneficial than I ever expected.

My key learnings have been :

  • It is fun (recapturing the fun I had as a kid on my bike). It is a “flow” activity.
  • Cycling to work is a good way to wake-up. I feel fresher when I get to work than if I had driven.
  • You are engaged with the environment. You feel the sun, you feel the wind, you hear the sounds, you smell the smells.
  • You can travel quickly. You travel door to door. FREE parks are everywhere, right outside your destination. You do not get held up in traffic jams as you are on a different route or can cycle past.I regularly beat friends travelling in cars – remember the parking time penalty both ends.
  • It is lower stress. I use my car once a week on my school drop-off day. I now hate the traffic – honestly you will not realise how stressful it is until you have not experienced it for a few weeks. I miss the 360 degree vision and being able to hear traffic. Cycling is a joy by comparison.
  • You can go where cars cannot, saving you time and providing you with many alternative routes. e.g. On Beulah Road I can cross straight over Osmond Tce, whereas cars must go around. Similarly in a few spots on The Parade cars crossing The Parade must turn left, I can go straight across. In Unley there are many streets closed off to cars, bikes can go straight through.
  • There were many great bike routes that I did not even know existed. Through a combination of back streets, laneways and cycle pathways I have been absolutely surprised at the great “secret” ways that I have found to move around Adelaide without travelling on main roads.
  • It can be safe. I avoid main roads. In the city where I may be close to cars, the car speed is quite low. I have a high viz vest which I wear when dark. BUT you do need to keep your wits about you, which I don’t mind as it keeps you engaged. What I am most scared of is car doors. A bike lane right alongside a car, whereby the car door can intrude with no notice right across the bike lane is a joke. That is not a bike lane – it is a dangerous delusion.
  • Adelaide’s dedicated bikeways are great. The parklands, The Turtur Bikeway alongside the Tram, the path alongside the Torrens are all fantastic. As I mentioned above I have found (created) my own bikeways through back streets. Roads like Beulah and William Street in Norwood (because they are not “through” for cars unlike bikes) work really well. The stations in the middle of a road enabling you to cross half way and then safely pause are critical to safety and comfort. Busy roads without stations are stressful. However there are many opportunities for improvement (at modest cost) that we should take as part of an integrated bike infrastructure development. You will not get high numbers of cyclists until you would be happy for your mum or your 10 year old kid to use it. And they must be able to wear “every-day” clothes and NO HELMET.
  • The number of cyclists is increasing. It is not surprising to be with 2 or 3 other cyclists waiting for the lights to change. At the top end of the bikeway alongside the tram (Turtur Bikeway) I recently saw 8 cyclists waiting to cross Greenhill Road. For an instant I almost thought that I was back in Copenhagen. Lots of girls in particular are cycling – Uni Students and twenty somethings. Last week there were 7 cyclists waiting for the light to change at the bottom of Rundle Street. And it has been with great joy that I have seen several Dutch Cargo bikes carting kids around in Maylands and in the City. Delightful.
  • It is cheap. My capex was about $350 and for the year my maintenance costs were about $20. I did my own maintenance.The savings on parking are significant. (in one week of a city based course I saved $125 compared to my driving colleagues.) AND I have saved probably $2,000 over the year by not using my car.
  • It is easy. I reduced the size and weight of my business bag, switching from laptop to ipad and going paperless.
  • It is functional. I have a sizeable back basket which can carry two armfuls of shopping (or a case of beer). I find that this amount of shopping to be much more efficient and lower stress. Park at the door of the supermarket and buy what you can carry. I’d rather make 2 trips in this style than one big car shop.
  • I have surprised myself with how much ground I could cover. One trip to Norton Summit. A few trips where I used train + bike. Just needs a tiny bit more planning and time but only a tiny bit.
  • Even riding right through winter I only got seriously wet 3 times and even then I had dried out within 30 minutes. On many “rainy days” in reality the rain was intermittent and I rode “rain free” even though the skies were grey. The cloud’s bark was worse than their bite.
  • It is harder for my kids to resist cycling when I am doing it every day.
  • Adelaide has the potential to be one of the great cycling cities. I applaud Mayor Stephen Yarwood and his initiatives. With bikeways it really is “build it and they will come”. Interestingly in Copenhagen they are still working hard and continuing to improve. There is no reason why Adelaide couldn’t be mentioned in the same group as Portland, Copenhagen, Berlin, Amsterdam in terms of cycling friendly. It is very doable and would be a great thing. It fits with Adelaide become “the most liveable and most learning” city of <1.5 M people on the planet.

Interestingly this whole exercise gave me great insight into how I learn and what I need to effect significant change in my life. I was attracted to cycling every day. I intellectually knew that it made sense. BUT to actually make the change I had to experience it and immerse myself in it. I had to get a clearer vision of future me.I experienced it in Berlin and Amsterdam, but I only immersed myself in it and got a vision of future me in Copenhagen. After that it was easy. I was determined to ride through winter and summer. Now it is hard-wired, it is my default and it feels exactly right.

It was interesting to read that Steve Job’s vision for his son Reed “ riding his bike to work as a doctor at Stanford”. I want my kids to ride to work too. It would be a great thing.
AND if you and your kids also rode to work we’d all be better off. The world would be a better place and maybe, just maybe, we’d better understand those “happy’ Danes.

Books I Liked

On Bicycles: 50 Ways the new bike culture can change your life – Amy Walker

It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness On Two Wheels – Robert Penn

Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) – Lenore Skenazy

Magazines I Read

Treadlie – Australian cycling lifestyle.

Bicycle Times – US cycling, emphasis on urban and touring.

Links

http://www.copenhagenize.com – urban bike porn

http://www.streetfilms.org/category/bicycles/ – amazing videos of street cycling.

My Pinterest Board : Bikes and Bike people

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2 Responses to A Car-Free year in Adelaide

  1. Belinda Dawson February 5, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    What a great read. This will surely inspire others!

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  1. Great “unknown” bike cities | leunig.net.au - April 17, 2013

    […] I have yet to visit Portland but have visited A,B & C as I described in my previous post – A Car Free year in Adelaide. […]

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