On a recent holiday in Europe, I found myself having the same thought over and over again: "this would not be allowed to happen in Australia".
Enter the Nanny State, a term of British origin that conveys the view that a government or its policies are overprotective or interfering unduly with personal choice. The term "nanny state" likens government to the role that a nanny has in child rearing (Wikipedia).
The more I think about it the more it bothers me. Helmet laws, footpath width regulations, liquor laws, handrail requirements, alfresco dining permits, rubbish collection, house design, lighting etc. etc. etc! The level to which we Australians over regulate things is quite frankly astounding, and it is holding our cities back.
I have always felt a little hemmed in by Australian law and cultural norms but recently visiting France and Italy acted as a stark reminder that so much of what the world loves about Europe (it's worth noting that France is the world's most popular tourist destination) is actually illegal in Australia. Even though lots of us (planning and design circles particularly) want to, we simply can't replicate key facets of the vibrant and exciting places found in great European cities because of our overly restrictive laws.
Here are some examples that come to mind:
One of my favourite aspects of the trip was exploring Paris and London using the city bicycle hire systems. The Velib in Paris and Barclays Bikes in London have been around for a while now but I have never had a chance to try them before. Put simply, AMAZING! The system is brilliant. It is cheap (especially when compared to the tube in London), fast, reliable, and in Paris in-particular it felt very safe to cycle on the road. Importantly, the gender gap for cyclists was minimal and accordingly lots of women were out and about mixing it with the traffic (something that is pretty rare in Australia). In fact, the hire bikes are seemingly used by everyone from young kids to old timers and every homme and femme in between. It is very much a widely patronised and viable system of public transport and it's fun!
It was so enjoyable being able to cruise down to the café, drop the bike off at a nearby station (they are everywhere!), then, at your convenience grab a new bike to roll down the road to the local bar. The bikes require no helmets, offer simple quick trips, are cheap and reliable, and are used en masse for all trip types by all people! Seriously people, this is a major part of the solution for urban transport (especially in congested urban environments known as pretty much every large city) and it's sitting right in front of us yet it will probably take another ten years plus for us to start thinking about it! Isn't that weird?
Even then we will probably make it too expensive and require users to wear helmets. Melbourne tried that, how's it going Melbourne? FAILURE, that’s how. And before anyone starts with the whole 'we don't have the infrastructure' argument, DON'T. That's not a valid argument because although London and Paris have some great cycling paths and lanes, the main thing that enables wide spread cycling is the culture of acceptance (Paris is ahead in leaps and bounds on this one but London seems to be catching up pretty fast).
In Paris especially, vehicles of all shapes and sizes give you plenty of room, don't honk, don’t flip the bird, and are just generally understanding and courteous. Even when I cycled down the Champs Elysees (aptly described in the song 'Parlez vous francais' as 'a busy street'), I was given plenty of room by vehicles (of which there were many) leaving me free to enjoy my re-enactment of Cadel Evans' 2011 Tour De France victory.
Additionally, if infrastructure is perceived as the problem then just build some more! Cycling infrastructure is BY FAR the cheapest and easiest infrastructure you could ever hope to imagine (in many cases it consists of a picture of a bike painted on the road!). Furthermore, according to a 2012 RAC report on cycling in WA, every $1 spent on cycling infrastructure attracts a return of $5.4 which is a great return by anyone's standards. So no excuses there!
The point is, whilst cycling infrastructure is excellent and should be built, we already have it almost everywhere - it's called the road! Roads are for all road users and that message needs some serious spreading (my pal even suggested the brilliant idea that all able bodied learner drivers should be required to clock up a few hours cycling on the road to gain some much needed perspective). Furthermore, the less restrictions and requirements placed on cyclists, i.e. helmets, bells, reflectors etc., the more people will cycle, and the safer the environment for cycling on roads will become, thus encouraging ever more cyclists! OMG!
Quirky streets, lanes, paths, tracks and trails, you name it - Europe has them all! They are all interesting and great, and yet here in good ol' Australia we legislate against it almost all of the time. Engineering standards particularly, stand in the way of creating these diverse and practical urban throughways and in most cases it's due to CWD or Car-Worship-Disorder as it's known (just ask your GP, it’s not too late!).
Sufferers of CWD require all streets to be designed and built for cars to be able to park, turn, drive, pull over, everywhere, all the time! Legislation that prioritises cars in this way is in no way conducive anything except, well, freeways essentially! Freeways make great freeways, but they don't make great café strips or local streets. Get it in to your head traffic engineers and associated law makers! Life is not all about making everything a freeway! Slow down and enjoy the oft cited 'rich tapestry of life'. And planners! Street setbacks! We don’t always need them!
Sippin' on gin and juice
Guess what Australia! If you sacrificed your setbacks and associated dead lawn area/parking space for your family's fleet of aging/souped up commodore's/falcon's, and instead, added a splash of density, then you could have the occasional piazza! Great, community oriented meeting places where young and old come to gather at meal times and enjoy a beverage and some face to face social interaction.
We sometimes try to engineer them in to our developments in Australia but most often we don't follow up with the density end of the agreement, and the spaces themselves are often subject to a zillion and one of our finest regulations. Noise, street vendors, music, happiness and laughter, all seemingly BANNED! What is particularly great about these piazzas is that in Europe (generally speaking) you can drink alcohol on the street! Thus, you simply pick up a beer or wine from a café, bar or supermarket, and off you go. It's a very nice touch and it's empowering because it tells me, the drinker, that society trusts me enough to not spontaneously glass someone with my beer bottle just because they accidentally brushed pass me in a crowded space.
Don't get me wrong, I'm the first person who will stand up for the idea of government, and the highly necessary regulatory role it plays in our society. But sometimes government over-reach can get in the way of truly worthwhile/bigger picture outcomes.
Consider that as a country, whilst we happily allow people the freedom to get fat, unhealthy and unhappy through our abundant provision of fast-food, cars and sprawling suburbs, we actively stifle the success healthy, emission free, congestion busting and fun cycling, through inadequate road design infrastructure, policy and public education. All because we fear the odd head injury or 15 second delay on drive way to work. You don’t need to be a genius to realise the problem.
As a final illustration of this point, I leave you with Federal treasurer Joe Hockey's recollection, as quoted by the Fairfax media, of a recent 'attempted' alfresco dining experience with family and friends in the nation's capital:
"I took my kids to a little park up the road and there's a pizza shop there and we met up with another family ... [there were] two tables outside [with] three chairs on one table, four on the other," Mr Hockey said in Canberra.
"I went to put the two tables together and the owner of the pizza shop came out and said 'I'm sorry Mr Hockey, you're not allowed to do that, the council regulation prevents you putting the two tables together'."
"There were eight of us, so I went inside to get another chair and they said, 'Sorry Mr Hockey, they've said you can only have seven chairs [outside], not eight'."Mr Hockey said that's when he "exploded."
Just reading that made me want to explode as well! For crying out loud! Loosen up Australia! A few additional freedoms here and there would go a long way in aiding the pursuit of urban greatness!