Slings and Arrows: Is city council being driven to distraction?

Late last year a city councillor complained about city traffic congestion and called for ideas for the “long-term improvement in the traffic flow in the city”. He wasn’t alone — tens of thousands of city drivers are at their wits’ end about it, but nobody seems to be ‘responsible’.

Council advisors said the problem was largely out of its control, citing the tram installation works, O-Bahn city access works, Festival Plaza redevelopment (government works) as well as commercial high-rise tower building works at West Franklin, GPO building, Uniting Communities, the Health Innovation Building, Boehm, The Adelaidean and Holiday Inn. True enough: city streets are clogged with ‘merge lane’ signs, stop signs and 25kph limits, leading to long queues of idling cars and infuriated drivers.

But not much was said in that response about council’s habit of allowing various haphazard, without-warning lunchtime marches and ceremonial parades along King William Street, which randomly freeze business-hour traffic flow without notice, or some of the north-south (smaller) street construction blockages that the council is coordinating on behalf of the state.

These are resulting in the worst outcome of all — permanent road closures for traffic in certain directions (north, south, etc, such as Bank and Pitt Streets and myriad others) or complete closures, such as Leigh Street.

Look to the river

The idea of fiddling with the conditions for and traffic direction of some of Adelaide’s smaller north-south streets came from the state government when it decided a few years ago that the city ought to focus on the Riverbank Precinct, due north.

The only problem, of course, was that Adelaide, when designed by Colonel William Light, was focused east-west, with wide east-west boulevards, but deliberately narrow north-south streets to avoid climate downsides such as fiercely hot north winds in Adelaide’s notorious summers. These have, to a limited extent, kept the city from suffering the effects of multiple, northern wind tunnels.

But today’s city planners trying to please political dills in suits, commonly described as ministers and their advisors, have forgotten all that, and come up with a $14.6m Market to Riverbank plan, sending half the invoice to council.

In recent years, a purge of the usefulness of these little streets to traffic has seen several blocked, partially or fully to traffic, subject to beautification schemes, further narrowing their widths. The effect has been pleasing to pedestrians, but with negative consequences for traders (at the site and nearby) and consequential traffic problems have been quietly glossed over and ignored. City tourism brochures show hipsters sipping coffee under newly-planted trees. There is never imagery of drivers in long-stuck queues, grinding their teeth.

Bentham Street

The city council on November 28, 2017 voted to restrict traffic flow at Bentham Street to ‘south-bound only’ (that is, towards the Central Market). This means that traffic wanting to drive from Franklin Street to Waymouth Street, towards the council-owned Topham Mall car park and shops precinct will be blocked, permanently.

A report highlighted reasons why this was a very silly idea. Knock-on effect for the Mall shops — a revenue loss of about $635,000. Mall shop capacity, currently at 93 per cent, would slump and so would rates revenue. Council car park revenues also would drop. Blocking well-used roads would have a knock-on effect on demand to use other streets. Result: “…increased delays and queues along Waymouth Street in the morning and afternoon peak times.” Clever.

Close it and be damned

The council has been closing bits of streets for years to suit commercial constructors’ profitable land acquisitions. Gradually the CBD’s north–south road links have been blocked or made one–way. Traffic engineers argue that most traffic moves east–west anyway. This doesn’t actually make sense to taxi or delivery drivers, or car drivers simply wanting to drive north–south (or south–north).

Further, drivers wanting to avoid recent east–west city gridlock traffic jams would once have been able to use these little streets to escape. They are not ‘rat-runs’; they are simply an alternative option to slip out of queuing on the main east-west routes to find a better route home.

Bentham Street’s closure is a symbol of ‘Yes Minister’ government, confirmed by the council summary. “If the change of road operations [Bentham] is not achieved, the Market to Riverbank project objectives will be compromised. The vision is for Bentham Street to transform into ‘a people-friendly small street providing a seamless walking trail with hidden green urban space and activity’.” The job will cost $600,000.

Ash asks — what i f those thousands of drivers to be denied two-way access had a gift of priority legislation that mandated councils to commission an independent poll among thousands of drivers likely to enter the city anytime soon?

It would be a far more comprehensive procedure than the one the council ran under the Local Government Act. Its small poll captured mainly CBD views. Only 22 people responded.

Ash suspects that, were this broader poll focus in place, the administrators might be a lot more cautious about being seduced by governments bearing gifts of ‘hidden green urban space’ concepts.

And in rejecting some state plans on the grounds of money-saving common sense, the council could not only avoid driver frustration uproar but also spend serious dough on something really practical, like Adelaide’s homeless.

Ash Whitefly is Executive Director of the Adelaide Whitefly Institute of Diplomatic Studies.

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