Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Belshaw's World - inner city dwellers put the choke on car ownership

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 10 November 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010

The city of Sydney describes itself as a city of villages. I would argue that Sydney as a whole is better described as a city of tribes.

Saturday we drove to Galston, an hour’s drive north from where we live, for an engagement party for one of Helen’s school friends.

It was raining as we battled our way through the traffic, finally reaching the far Northern suburbs.

This is mixed country on the urban fringe. Huge houses on tiny blocks sit cheek by jowl with the semi-rural.

Sydney has been wet, very wet. The party was held at an old nursery; its established old gardens were very green and really quite beautiful in the drifting rain.

The engagement itself was a mixed one, crossing two of Sydney’s most deeply entrenched tribal barriers.

The groom to be comes from Galston , the bride to be comes from the Eastern Suburbs, a geographically bound area that looks to the sea and the shops.

Galston and the surrounding areas are very different. Here people have been attracted by somewhat cheaper housing and the chance to enjoy a more rural life style.

I drifted between the two groups, listening to the differing conversations: the importance of the sea and good coffee (Eastern Suburbs); getting eggs from a neighbour (Galston); school stories from both, but again very different in terms of location and topic.

Today, Sydney dominates the NSW population. This was not true in the past.

Sydney once had less than half of the state population. The population of Northern NSW alone was once larger than that of Sydney. As a consequence, a remarkable number of Sydney families actually have a country connection.

The grandfather of the bride to be grew up in the dairying areas of the North Coast where his father managed butter factories. The other side came from the central west. Again, there were differences between the two tribes.

The Eastern Suburbs’ country connection is more remote.

When we first moved there, I was struck by the number of people who were second, third or even fourth generation Eastern Suburbs, whose partners were also Eastern Suburbs. You just don’t get the population turnover that you find in, say, Armidale. This makes for a certain parochialism.

The Galston country connection is more recent. Some of those I talked to still had working farms. Unexpectedly, I found myself rolling a cigarette (I can still do this, just) and chatting about shooting, feral pests, water buy-backs, the ending of the drought and current grain prices.

The contrast couldn’t have been greater.

One of the things that fascinates me as a social analyst is the way that Sydney’s tribes reinforce themselves. Take the Inner West as an example.

Those coming here are attracted by the inner-urban life style. They are likely to be less interested in the sea, more by certain ways of living. They are also likely to come from certain occupations such as the public service and the caring professions and have certain common attitudes. In turn, this attracts more people of like minds.

After each census, the Australian Bureau of Statistics publishes a social atlas for Sydney. This looks at a whole series of statistical indicators. You can actually map the tribes of Sydney from those indicators.

Sydney’s tribalisation is interesting, but it also creates problems for those who live elsewhere in ways we don’t always see.

Take a simple thing like car ownership.

Cars are important to those in the country. Statistically, the proportion of the population with driving licenses and cars is very high.

By contrast, in the inner city with its better public transport, the proportion of the population owning cars is lower and declining. This affects public policy.

Inner city attitudes to the car are very different from those holding elsewhere. They seek to control and limit motor vehicles, they support restrictions intended to reduce death rates, they are pro-pedestrian.

The things they argue for are not necessarily bad. It’s just that their needs and attitudes are different from those who depend on the car.

Objectively, they can see the importance of motor vehicles to people who do not have access to public transport. Subjectively, they downplay this in their own minds.

Inner city people are articulate and, on average, better educated than the population as a whole. They also have better access to the levers of influence, including the public servants who live among them. Increasingly, they set the agenda in this area.

While one can debate the costs and benefits of each measure, the practical effect is to make it more difficult and expensive to get and hold a license, more expensive to buy and run a car. This disadvantages those most dependant on the car and especially those on lower incomes.

No comments: