Time flies at Velo-city, and it goes even faster when we have to dash off for a tour of long neglected friends and relatives around Australia and New Zealand.
So before I am swamped by the hustle and bustle of Melbourne and Sydney here are my final visitor’s reflections on Adelaide.* The most common description of Adelaide I hear from Australians is that Adelaide is “just a big country town” which is something of a put down from its big brash neighbours. But as a country boy myself that isn’t a put down, it’s a commendation.
There is undoubtedly a grain of truth in the description. At its heart Adelaide remains a very accessible and relatively relaxed city. Its design helps, the 19th century utopian layout with green spaces and a circular park around the compact central district create a nice atmosphere. That’s the impression I really remember from when I first went there in the 1980s, work trips that sometimes involved a weekend break in the city. The city is working incredibly hard to keep, or maybe recreate that feeling, as a modern liveable city with improvements to the city open spaces, pedestrian streets and eating quarters where people want to spend time. I liked it then and I liked it this time.
There are also still quite a lot of those 19th and early 20th century buildings that we can call “colonial” style, from government buildings to churches, pubs and shops. They are unmistakeably Australian and a vital part of the city character.
However these are somewhat swamped by the modern buildings that are allowed to dominate the skyline and create the impression of much narrower streets, especially on the gloomier days.
Biggest shock of all was to see the Adelaide Oval dominating the banks of the River Torrens to the North. I recall a traditional green painted cricket ground that nestled into the parkland and was an attractive companion to the nearby cathedral. Now it is a monster, but one that attracts up to 70,000 footie fans (Australian Rules Football) every weekend and is a major contributor to the city economy. As a fan I like these great cathedrals of sport, however I have to say that it just seemed a bit intrusive compared to what I remember.
The cycling environment reflected the city.
There is a huge amount of space for cycling and it would be so easy to grab a lane in most streets but at the moment that is not a political reality. The city Mayor and the state government of South Australia both understand the need to do something about the impact of cars on the city and to deliver the liveable city they want. But with big wide streets and low traffic levels compared to many other cities the imperative for change in travel behaviour isn’t there yet. The one segregated cycle lane in the centre lane has yet to be completed due to the anti-cycling pressure, but there are at least other facilities which can act as the forerunners for change.
I found it quite easy to ride most of the time and I think the traffic really wasn’t especially aggressive compared to many other cities I have ridden in. And the traffic levels really were very light, except for a brief burst in rush hour and the hours after the footie on a Saturday night.
However the huge roads with multiple lanes did make it almost impossible to work out how to turn right and I spent frustrating amounts of time stuck at traffic lights which made progress painfully slow. Some of our colleagues from countries that have superb infrastructure found it intimidating and it certainly isn’t conducive to nervous cyclists because of the difficult junctions.
Confirming that impression the cycling levels were apparently low and completely dominated by sporty looking cyclists. You can see from my photos that I hardly ever had a cyclist as a backdrop. It was autumnal and rainy on some days – but none? At the weekend along the Torrens there were lots of families but even in the city the number of riders in day clothes was almost non-existent. The mass ride for Velo-city was called the Bike Brekkie Ride and was meant to attract the city cycling community. If the turnout was typical it showed that the city really doesn’t have an underlying daily cycling culture.
The Mayor and the Adelaide City CEO almost stood out in their day clothes. I was riding along in my shirt and jacket and felt like I had completely met the brief “to stand out in the crowd”, I even attracted comments to that effect.
And the cycle helmets really, really do not help. It is almost impossible in my mind to remove the “warrior” impression portrayed by almost cyclist I saw just because they were forced to wear a plastic lid. Normalised cycling remains a bit of leap of faith at the moment, it is going to take a lot more efforts to get to that point. However the sport and leisure base is strong so that should give confidence that there is an underlying demand waiting to be tapped.
On balance I would say that Adelaide is meeting the challenge of modernity and liveability in a way that I can really identify with. For those that know their British cities it reminds me of Cardiff – with many of the amenities and lifestyle options of a capital city but in a manageable package. I lived happily in Cardiff for 10 years so I could certainly do the same in Adelaide and it was a great place for a visit.
If the on line chatter after Velo-city is anything to go by so did our many other visitors.
*There are numerous reflections and commentaries on the Velo-city conference itself on other sources. I have linked to a number of them from my Twitter account @maynekevin and our ECF web site has a daily summary on our news pages here