Melbourne’s Wheel Didn’t Turn Long

For the past few days I’ve been in Melbourne, Australia’s proud and immigrant enriched second city. It’s a city of four million and right on a bay, St. Kilda is the local seashore. The last time I was here in 2008, I saw a gigantic steel wheel on the horizon, it looked like the London Eye. It turned out to be a complete and utter bust–it was built at a cost of $300 million, it ran for two months, then the glass began cracking in the pods that people rode in, and soon it was shuttered. It was part of the city’s attempt to create a London-style attraction down by the water called the Docklands.

Unlike in London, and although there are tall glass fronted buildings and a glittering array of yachts, there are few people who come down to this part of the city and so far the experiment is a work in progress with lousy results.

But on yesterday’s circumnavigation of the city by bike, we got a look at a robust and thriving metropolis where state capital workers lounged on lush green laws, uni students on holiday sunned in their quad, and underneath that quad an innovative scheme captured every drop of rainwater using giant funnels that prop up the car park.

Many smart initiatives have resulted from the decade-long drought here, and watersaving innovations continued, even though the rains came back. You see signs explaining that the watering is using recycled water, you see cisterns every where, and in this hotel, called the Alto, the main bragging point is that they’re 100% wind-powered and the average guest uses just 35 gallons a day versus 240 in a conventional hotel.

They give free parking to anyone in a hybrid, offer Prius transportation to the airport and have little recycling separators in each room. The best thing about this hotel: the wi-fi is free!

That’s another topic that goes round and round here–the state of the internet and how much people have to pay for bandwidth. Again and again I was told that people want better connections, and that they pay so much for just 6 gigabytes of downloads. When I shared details of my unlimited bandwidth AT&T plan their mouths dropped.

There is a $37 billion big idea being considered to fix this, and get high speed internet to all of the citizens, but that’s still a bunch of meetings and votes away. For now, people want it and slow internet is a curse that everyone wished would go away but no one thinks it will. There are not enough people in the country to come close to paying for it.
One man I met had to live in Lavers Hill, 22 km from his guest house, because the connection wasn’t fast enough for them to do any business on.

All around the city center you spot stations with a row of bright blue bicycles that people can use. It’s like the system in Paris, where the Velibes have been a big hit. But here, the Nanny state gets in the way of a fully successful program. There is a strictly enforced bike helmet law, and so the idea of popping open one of these bikes from their racks and using it instead of a taxi is not practical. Who walks the city streets with a bike helmet in their hands? Too, the way it’s designed has the fingerprints of government all over it. There’s a daily ‘access rate’ of $2.50 and it’s free for the first 30 minutes. But if you keep the bike all day it would cost a whopping $85! In France, advertising pays the way and nobody worries about helmets. Here, though, a little too much government keeps a good idea from really taking off.