OPINION - Walk in fright

Sydney Morning Herald - Monday 8 May 2000

Pedestrians were here first, but in Sydney's CBD, as they dodge bicycle couriers and peer around opaque street furniture, they have become just second-class citizens, writes Harold Scruby.
Too frequently, pedestrians are treated like trespassers in their own cities and suburbs. Sydney is one such city; a pedestrian nightmare.

While the Lord Mayor, Councillor Frank Sartor, must be congratulated for widening and improving the city's footpaths, his introduction of street furniture where it puts pedestrians in peril will almost certainly cause death and serious injury.

The City of Sydney has permitted JC Decaux to position its large and opaque street furniture all over the CBD - on kerbs, at pedestrian crossings and bus stops - where the visibility of pedestrians and motorists alike is obstructed.

How these locations were approved mystifies most road-safety experts. The council, which has been promising to review the problem since last November, should now relocate these obstructions immediately, before it faces substantial punitive damages actions.

Much of the street furniture can cause serious difficulties for people with mobility and sight problems. Little, if any, consideration has been given to those other than the young and able-bodied. In its 1995 publication, Road Environment Safety - A Practitioner's Reference Guide to Safer Roads, the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) states: "Landscaping and other street furniture must not obstruct visibility between vehicle drivers and pedestrians.

Walking around our CBD is also made dangerous by a higher-than-necessary speed limit. RTA trials prove that vehicles travelling through the CBD would not reach their destinations any later if he limit was 40 km/h - of course, most motorists do not even reach 40 km/h in the CBD.

(Another cause of serious accidents is when motorists accelerate to try to beat the next set of lights.)

Bar coasters distributed by the RTA and City of Sydney about five years ago carried this message: "Around cafes, shops and schools and other areas where there are lots of pedestrians, 60 km/h is far too fast. When struck at 60 km/h, about nine in 10 pedestrians die, compared with five in 10 at 50 km/h and one in 10 at 40 km/h."

Many modem Western cities have lowered their CBD speed limits to 40 km/h, yet the City of Sydney has only just reluctantly approved a 50 km/h limit.

Further, recent studies now suggest that slower speeds can actually improve traffic flow in cities.

Our planners show little consistency. The speed limit has been 40 km/h in The Rocks for years, and was recently reduced to 40 km/h around Darling Harbour.

Sartor refuses to consider the enormous benefits of a 40-km/h limit, though it would make Sydney a far safer and pleasant place to shop and work, with less noise pollution and cleaner air.

Sartor refuses to consider the enormous benefits of a 40-km/h limit, though it would make Sydney a far safer and pleasant place to shop and work.

The Olympics will bring an unprecedented tourist boom, and more than half of our international visitors will be used to crossing the road while looking the other way. The danger is that tourists could easily step off the footpath into the path of an oncoming bus or car, travelling at a legal speed of 50 km/h. Even Winston Churchill was hit by a car in New York while looking the wrong way, and many Australians have found themselves looking the wrong way when travelling in countries where motorists drive on the right.

Apart from the nightmare of simply crossing the road in the CBD, we are all threatened by kamikaze bicycle couriers who flout our laws. They treat pedestrians with utter contempt while the authorities fail to act.

The new Australian Road Rules, introduced last December, make it an offence for anyone over 12 to ride a bicycle on the footpath.

There have already been deaths and serious injuries caused by some of these CBD cowboys. Many run red lights with impunity and clearly believe that one-way means the direction in which they happen to be travelling at the time.

The bicycle police refuse to chase the couriers, rightfully fearing for their own safety and the safety of others. The offenders are rarely caught, yet they each average six driving offences a year, behaviour which would guarantee the loss of licence for a motorist. Many couriers are tourists earning a tax-free buck. Fewer than a third of their paltry fines ($45 for riding on a footpath) are actually collected, according to the NSW Parliamentary Staysafe Committee.

More than three years ago, representatives of this committee, the Retail Traders Association, Bicycle NSW, the City of Sydney and the Pedestrian Council called on the Government to adopt urgently the wide-ranging Stay-safe recommendations.

Because of the difficulty of recognising couriers in their helmets and sunglasses, the committee recommended they have licence plates and wear identification. It also recommended they pay a substantial bond against any fines.

The four-year-old Staysafe report continues to gather dust while thousands of Sydney's pedestrians are daily threatened with injury. Many elderly people feel scared in a hostile environment, while the normally no-nonsense, safety-conscious Roads and Transport Minister, Carl Scully, keeps an eternal "watching brief."

Paradoxically, one of the main users of bicycle couriers in the city is the State Government. If Scully is not prepared to adopt and legislate the recommendations of the Staysafe Committee, he should instruct the courier companies to regulate from within and to devise a code of conduct, based on Staysafe's recommendations.

Any courier company failing to enforce the code would be denied government contracts. Responsible corporations would surely follow the government example, thus forcing the bicycle couriers to obey our laws.

Another major difficulty for pedestrians is that taxi drivers pick up and drop off passengers in pedestrian crossings and no stopping zones as though they were designated taxi ranks.

Parking patrol officers (recently dubbed by a NSW Auditor-General report as the most inefficient and ineffective in Australia) turn their backs and focus on the easy job of checking parking meters.

Sydney City Council has also failed to take advantage of an Australian Road Rule under which council can create "shared zones" in which pedestrians have absolute right of way. They are used widely in Europe and North America, coupled with 10km/h to 30 km/h. speed limits. These zones can be proclaimed by councils at their discretion.

There are literally dozens of locations throughout the city where these zones could be created, producing an improved pedestrian environment, while allowing limited access to vehicles.

Enforcement responsibilities need to be transferred to the council, which could use its rangers to deal with parking control and bicycle couriers' behaviour. This would free up police to concentrate on more serious crime.

Pedestrians must also accept their responsibilities. Fines for jay walking should be increased substantially. Council rangers should be given the responsibility to manage this function.

Pedestrians were here first, but they are second-class citizens in Sydney, where commerce and the motor vehicle dominate. One of life's most basic rights is to be able to walk with safety. Walking in one of the world's most beautiful cities should be a delight, not a nightmare.
Harold Scruby is chairman and chief executive of the Pedestrian Council of Australia Ltd.