Letter from Australia

Nothing is stranger than arriving in Australia after 20 hours in an aeroplane. It was already dark, a whole day of my life gone without ever seeing the sunlight except through the window of a plane and, ever so briefly, through the glass at Singapore airport. And the glow of the sun is in the wrong place, in the north west, somewhere where the sun never shines in the UK.
And the country, too, is strange. Sydney is undoubtedly a lovely city when viewed from the harbour, with its famous structures, the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, but driving round its suburbs soon after arrival, it seemed like a bit of rundown suburban America with low rise shops and endless bungalows of various styles and no style. The road signs are American, too, with lots of instructions in English, although the one for a pedestrian crossing is definitely home-grown: a pair of disembodied male legs. The message is presumably that people don’t cross here, but legs do!
This is a very car oriented country. The off licence next to the Vietnamese restaurant where we ate was, according to Julian who met me at the airport, a drive-through bottle shop. All the main highways through the town are those wide 4 lane boulevards favoured by the Americans, which cut communities in two and show the world where the town planners’ priorities lie.
As for the cycling facilities, they are mostly non-existent and those which are provided are basic. There is no doubt that New South Wales, whose government has invited me to give a series of lectures on how to boost cycling, is some 20 years behind the UK in both provision and thinking about cycling. Over one busy road, just past the Anzac Bridge, for example, there is a ramp which connects one of the few main cycle routes from the Western suburbs with the bridge. It takes a good minute to get over, adding time to people’s commute and burning up considerable energy. When I suggested to my cycling companion, an active lobbyist for cycling, that there should be the equivalent of a Pelican crossing, he said the road was far too busy for that. They have not quite got it yet!
One enlightened local council has put in quite good cycle lanes and even painted them green at intersections but, strangely, not elsewhere. Why not? A continuous green cycle lane would be far more effective, but somehow, for the moment, Sydney is stuck where London was in the 1980s, having built a bit of infrastructure but oh so timidly. At the conference I told the story how, then, I was embarrassed to turn up to work meetings carrying my bicycle helmet but now I plonk it on the table aggressively pointing out my environmental credentials. Hopefully it will change here, too, given the huge support there is now for action on climate change, in a country which was led by that old climate change sceptic John Howard for a dozen years until the election earlier this year. Things can change but I suspect it will take a long long time unless some really powerful champions for cycling emerge.

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