Putting down the walking class revolution

Sydney Morning Herald

Thursday 26 April 2001

Yes, the roads of Sydney are clogged, writes Miranda Devine - with anti-car protesters.

So you think you're just being a good mother when you race around after school driving your children to soccer practice and swimming lessons and ballet and piano and occupational therapy.

But what you really are doing is causing off-peak gridlock from Pymble to Penrith. Needlessly! Selfishly! What's wrong with your legs?

Mothers who insist on ferrying kids around the suburbs are to blame for an "alarming" increase in the past decade of kilometres travelled by cars in off-peak periods, say Macquarie University researchers who have been investigating the driving habits of Sydneysiders.

The research, to be published in June, is sure to be seized on by anti-car zealots increasingly intent on forcing motorists to give up their wheels, and who almost certainly are not to be found on Pennant Hills Road at 4.30pm racing between after-school care and the soccer pitch.

Not for them the 8.30am panic of a working parent who has to drop one child at school and another at child care in the next suburb before even contemplating getting herself into the office. Try doing that by public transport.

Dr Anna Gollner, co-author of the Macquarie study on gender, parenting and travel behaviour, says people are walking less than ever, with the number of trips by foot declining by 3 per cent between 1991 and 1997. Where once children used to walk or cycle to school, they are now being chauffeured by protective parents. "It's very frustrating in terms of transport planning," Gollner said yesterday. "Policy needs to be targeted ... to manage that congestion in terms of trying to reduce vehicle kilometres of total travel - a State Government target.''

Gollner, who sheepishly admits to driving to work herself, warns of major public transport implications from the findings. So stay tuned for more crackpot schemes from the anti-car brigade. Already, the earnest head of the Pedestrian Council of Australia, Harold Scruby, has launched a Walk to School Day which he claims was so successful earlier this month he's going to expand it to the nation.

Such gimmicks are all very well if there is such a thing as a school within walking distance that hasn't been shut by a State Government intent on creating US-style super-campuses in faraway suburbs.

The fact is that the convenience of virtuous, busy parents is the last consideration of those who believe the car is evil. Led by the not-so-aptly named Premier Bob Carr, who bushwalks and doesn't drive, the anti-car brigade has managed to infiltrate government transport agencies, universities, motorists' organisations and local councils, devising policy to make driving so difficult we'll give it up.

Councils keep jamming up local streets with speed humps and chicanes and kerb blisters and roundabouts, turning a simple trip to the shops into a frustrating obstacle course. Roads infrastructure is neglected while charges on motorists increase.

Footpaths are widened for more latte sipping, while roads are narrowed and whole lanes devoted to the exclusive use of buses which drive around empty half the time.

Gollner suggests increased parking restrictions to force people out of their cars. But motorists are already gouged to the tune of $58 million a year in parking fines. One in seven of the State's 3.5 million registered vehicle owners copped at least one parking ticket during 1997-98.

Even the Roads and Traffic Authority, whose name might lead you to believe it helps traffic move on the roads, is a captive of car-unfriendly thinking. The mission statement on the RTA Web site declares "the road is there to share" and promises "delivery of the best transport outcomes ... will balance the needs of public transport passengers, cyclists, pedestrians ..."

Motorists come last on this list of worthy road-sharers, despite the fact they more than pay the costs of the roads system, not to mention their heavy subsidising of public transport.

The RTA comes clean on its ultimate objective to stamp out motor vehicle use in its 1999-2000 budget estimates, "encouraging people to use alternative forms of transport to the motor car".

Enemies of the car abound, and they're not just benign environmental do-gooders. You need only look at the Web site of Reclaim the Streets (RTS), a global protest organisation, to realise that antagonism to motor vehicles has become a violent jihad.

The Sydney chapter is responsible for regularly closing King Street, Newtown, and blockading the Eastern Distributor. Equating cars and capitalism, the RTS manifesto says: "Ridding society of the car would allow us to ... return streets to the people ... and perhaps to rediscover a sense of 'social solidarity'." Dream on.

One RTS manifesto threatened to smash motorists' windscreens, pull drivers out of their cars and set the vehicles alight. "By petrol it was brought to life and by petrol it shall die. So don't say you have not been warned," it says.

There's even a Society for Cutting Up Motorists.

In Sydney on the last Friday of each month, such peak-hour thoroughfares as the Harbour Bridge are taken over by cyclists from another motorist-bashing group, Critical Mass. But NSW motorists are so used to being treated with contempt you hardly hear anyone complain. The anti-car ideologues, after all, have powerful friends. In an article last year, Carr stated his desire to "reverse car-friendly development".

But what's the alternative? Even if public transport were improved people would still want to drive. Research for the Australian Automobile Association found 69 per cent of motorists are "not likely at all" to use public transport. Nothing but their own cars can provide today's uber-parents with the flexibility, security, reliability and comfort they need to manage their increasingly complex lives.

The only solution to is to give up having children altogether. Wiping out the human race is a sure-fire way of eliminating the need for cars.

Miranda Devine's column will appear in Opinion every Thursday.