Transported to distraction

What we talk about when we talk about driving cars in Adelaide (and what we could talk about instead)

To get anywhere from my home in a central neighbourhood of Mexico City, I take the metro about 60 per cent of the time. Otherwise I walk, bike, or take a cab or an Uber. This is uncontroversial in a city of 22 million people that already chokes with traffic and pollution; where car ownership is financially out of reach for many, if not simply unnecessary. Within this, public transport options – trains, buses, railcars, collective trucks and vans – are relatively plentiful.

Growing up in Adelaide, I never got my driver’s licence. I first moved to Mexico City in 2016 after 12 years in Sydney, where I’d had similar transport routines.

Cut to my recent stint of around 12 months in Adelaide between 2017 and 2018, where I moved back to be with my family and especially my father as he passed away. My parents lived far south of the city, further south than where my siblings and I grew up in Noarlunga.

I moved in, taking myself and my freelance writing, research and tutoring business from an old servant’s quarters on a rooftop in Mexico City to a bushland granny flat in Willunga. There is one bus route that services the area and connects to the extended train network at Seaford that, on a weekday, will take you into the city in an hour if you get the timing right. I rented a desk in a co-working space on Flinders Street for easier access for
interviewees for journalism work and students for tutoring work (and laternight bar opening hours for after-work work). As the disease that was taking over Dad’s body made its presence further known I stayed home in Willunga more. My siblings were coming nearly every day too so that, with our mother, we could share his care; five hurting nurses measuring morphine doses and time. I’d walk to the farmer’s market on the weekends, a couple of times I biked ‘the shiraz trail’ to McLaren Vale. I took a cab one night from Willunga to Seaford to meet up with some girlfriends from school. When I moved to an AirBnB in Mitcham I did it one night via Uber, gathering all my belongings and checking over the flat as it waited in the dark driveway.

I was unprepared for the loneliness and awkwardness of transit in Adelaide. Buses and trains were populated by the elderly and the adolescent – those who could no longer drive and those who could not yet. Before I had even agreed to attending a family event I could feel the pre-emptive anxiety among my relatives of how I would get there and who could give me a lift. Old friends were nothing short of incredulous that I still did not have a driver’s licence. I’d meet new people and they’d invite me to something and I’d ask about public transport and they’d look at me dumbfounded. One morning I was kicked off of a Willunga bus by a furious older male driver because I was carrying a takeaway coffee, hoping it would wake me up on the long journey to my psychology appointment in Unley. One night I got on the wrong bus from Noarlunga Centre, the one that was going to Aldinga not the one that went to Willunga. When I realised this I told the bus driver and he radioed a cab for me. I sat for 40 minutes in the pale light of a bus shelter, remembering being 15 and waiting to be picked up from a party.

Obviously for me this time spent moving around Adelaide without a car was already charged with something that no town planning could fix. And a dense suburban infrastructure, let alone a culture, of public transit is generally considered impossible in a spreadout, medium-size city like Adelaide. But I will say that I learned in those 12 months that the belief in the car in Adelaide is strong, often strong enough to be unable to imagine other ways of getting around, of being connected.

Adelaideans can afford to buy and run cars, and if they can’t, they have to do it anyway. I remember looking for jobs after I’d left school in the late 90s, and how many had possession of a driver’s licence, if not your own car, as an essential criterion. My brothers and many of our friends worked at Mitsi’s and Schefenacker; the loss of car plants was an ongoing employment crisis when we were growing up, one that only just seemed to be reaching its transition point 20 years later when I was back in town and attending HybridWorld at Tonsley.

It’s as though, at some point in the merging of people, industry, and private transport in Adelaide, car use and ownership became a matter of social morality. In 2018 I’d tell people that I’d catch the bus or train to get somewhere in Adelaide and wait for them to freak out. Not driving when I could (have learned to) drive and using public transport instead often seemed to be considered somewhere between severe immaturity (i.e. a failure to grow up, to have checked off a rite of passage) and a weird form of self-harm (i.e. an active preference for inferior modes of being). And, anyway, it was downright impractical.

I probably will learn to drive. While in Adelaide my brother and my bestie both cottoned on to the impact of a long-held family joke that I was too ‘in my head’ and too un-coordinated to drive a car; that it was safer for everyone on the road if I didn’t get behind the wheel. It’s not a question of ability, they said, shaking their heads – if you want to add that skill to the list, we’ll teach you and you’ll learn. You just have to think about it in a different way.

Maybe this is something the city is ready to do now, too.

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