OUR ROVING REPORTER, BOB MILLICHAP, A FORMER VIRGIN ATLANTIC PILOT, HAS BEEN DOWN UNDER. HE HAS COME TO THE CONCLUSION THAT BESIDES SURF AND SUN THE SUBURBAN TRANSPORT INFRASTRUCTURE IS ALSO SOMETHING TO WISH FOR IN THE UK.
By combining the advantages of American-like open spaces with lifestyle characteristics akin to many of those found in Britain, Australia could well be said to be a place where west meets west.
With attributes such as ample and convenient free parking, frequent spells of California-type weather, the assurance of police that look like British bobbies and pub-like watering holes that serve English-style fare (albeit with cold US type beer!), the country exudes an unusual blend of character that embraces the best of the English speaking cultures on both sides of the Atlantic.
This mix is evident right down to the smallest of towns. Here British-style parades of shops protected by sun awnings typical of the USA can be found in streets displaying garish motel signs near churches that could have been plucked from the English countryside.
American visitors will find themselves immediately at home with dollars and cents, out of town shopping malls and David Letterman on prime time TV. Britons, on the other hand, will enjoy similar familiarity with fish and chips, public libraries housed in Victorian buildings, and buckets and spades seaside resorts with names like Brighton. Indeed to complete the mix Americans will find the Aussie's driving on the right side of the road which is, of course, the left!
But there is one aspect of everyday life that stands head and shoulders above that available in either Britain or America - city centre public transportation. Here the Aussies are literally streets ahead, with innovative transport modes that contrast starkly with the quagmire and confusion of much of Britain's public transport system and the almost total reliance that visitors have on taxies for city travel in the States.
The most important common threads that mark out Australian urban transport are low cost, flexibility and high frequency of operation. In Sydney, all day passes cost just over £5 and offer unlimited travel on all the city's buses, the entire suburban train system to points way out in the suburbs and every one of the 13 harbour ferry routes. As a bonus, the latter not only provide convenient transportation to points of interest throughout the Sydney area, with times between departures usually less than an hour, but they are superb low-cost alternatives to harbour tours. Some of the longer journeys - such as the run to the coastal resort of Manly - take up to an hour and provide unparalleled value for money.
However, it is the innovative way that transport infrastructure has been developed that really underscores Australia's success in moving people around en-masse.
In Brisbane, for instance, a regular high-speed catamaran service frequently hops from bank to bank down the city's river right into the heart of the business district. In the mornings and evenings it is packed with commuters but with 100 plus seats, few passengers are left behind to wait for the following service.
Elsewhere, Melbourne boasts a superb eco-friendly tram system that criss-crosses the city on a comprehensive network of lines that stretch way into the suburbs. Established 117 years ago, its single deckers run prominently through the city centre on all the main thoroughfares and have become such a hallmark that they are a 'must see and try' tourist attraction in their own right.
In Adelaide, a German designed O-Bahn system provides an unusual but very fast service that looks like a conventional bus but which, when just out of the city centre, transfers to a specially dedicated concrete track that runs through the suburbs. In this mode, it takes on train-like characteristics with a route-way that is completed segregated from all other road traffic and which features rail-style passenger stations.
Not to be outdone, Sydney also offers an uncommon but nevertheless totally viable transit system with a monorail that loops above the streets of Darling Harbour, Chinatown and part of the business district. Operating every few minutes, it is practical rather than scenic as most of the route is through narrow streets with close, high rise buildings that restrict the view - an 'overground' rather than an 'underground'!!
All this is supported by operating policies that are clearly geared to the needs of the traveller. These include totally free bus or tram services that are offered in some city centres as a public service and passenger friendly innovations such as Adelaide's 'go zones' where bus routes are clearly marked with a guaranteed maximum number of minutes between successive services.
Backing this up are clear timetables and maps that are readily available at a multitude of outlets and which ensure that strangers are quickly familiar with all available modes of transport.
There is one downside for the British taxpayer though. With Australia being firmly established on the world's exotic destination list and offering so many lessons in urban transportation, it probably won't be too long before a major fact finding mission of MPs decides to face the hardship of looking at things first hand. Up goes the cost of running Westminster.