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March 1, 2018

Swapping trams for Holdens and back again

Are we seriously going back to the future?

  • Words: Josh Fanning

Have you ever stood in a car park and just marvelled at it? What a beautiful business.

The car park with its two swinging boom arms – part bouncer, part concierge – is a veritable herald of automation. Indeed the building itself looks like something a robot might build: pure function with zero architectural form, constructed from the cheapest materials possible and – importantly for a business in the 21st Century – employs zero staff.

This is the report card of a high-functioning business in the digital age, except for one thing: the digital age.

Standing in the car park on Union, off Rundle Street East at about 11AM on a weekday, I’m struck by how completely full and completely quiet it is.

There must be more than $4Million worth of automobiles (200 cars at a quick maths of $20K per car) racked, packed and stacked in the facility. Just thinking about the cumulative hours we spend working so we can afford a car is astounding. But thinking about the purchase price of the vehicle, its registration, insurance and fuel, I had to laugh when I realised we also pay for the privilege of not using it for eight hours.

It’s bizarre to think how society has taken the unbridled horsepower of our individual hulking metal time machines, the roaring, rapid and repeated explosions of their engines, the self-contained power that propels us through space and time and shrinks journeys from days into minutes and weeks into hours – how we’ve taken that beautiful thing and put it in a cage.

All that power and potential in a machine and we go and drive it to an ugly arse car park.

You’ve got to assume we’ll look back at car parks from the very near future and laugh. Or cry.

I write this because it’s not hard to imagine a very near future where having an ‘automatic’ car means you needn’t watch the road, let alone change the car’s gears.

It’s not hard to imagine a future where your car drops you at work before going out to earn a few bucks transporting other citizens around the city.

It’s not hard to imagine a near future where you get on a tram to go to work.

Wait, what?

This week I was slightly set off balance by the great number of plans revealed by the Government to put trams back into Adelaide’s future.

These tram-related announcements created tremendous cut through on my social media feed. I read, as much as I could bear, discussions about the merits of separated lanes for trams and traffic, the sacrilege of carving up medium strips in Norwood and just whose route, if elected, would be the most preferred.

What disappointed me was none of the discussion was around the fact that it’s exactly 60 years since we destroyed one of the most extensive metropolitan light rail networks in the world. From Mitcham to Rostrevor; from Henley Beach to Campbelltown – Adelaide ran a tram network to rival Melbourne.

And that’s history’s place I suppose – disappointing. History is cursed to be remembered while the future gets excitedly envisioned.

It’s a chore to remember something when compared with the blue-skies and unbridled creativity encouraged when conjuring and dreaming and envisioning the future.

No one wants a government that drones on about the past. We want a bold vision for real change.

But, lest we forget.

In 1958, the same year South Australia ripped up our tram network, General Motors Holden achieved market dominance in Australia with sales of its FC model car handing the Australian-American company a more than 50 per cent market share.

Lest we forget in 1958 we were told trams were rickety old things and relics of the past. The future for Adelaide was all rubber and steel and petrol.

Lest we forget in 1958 when we ripped up the rails – the state excitedly announced construction of a brand new oil refinery at Port Stanvac.

Lest we forget it was considered old hat to run public transport on fixed rails between points A and B when, with the wonder of petrol-powered and rubber-wheeled automobiles, we could go anywhere.

If only we could have envisioned in 1958 that 60 years into the future we’d live in a different world – a world where the mighty Holden has fallen ­and the new Port Stanvac oil refinery is long since closed.

Imagine a future date of 2018, where cars grind to a halt on North Terrace as workers replace the tram tracks your government threw out.

Speaking as someone in the present – I hope one of our political parties can envision a future that might also, one day, be old.

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