New Bouncer at Aussie Bars: Rubber Mats
YATALA, Queensland—Australia's hard-partying pub culture is beginning to show its softer side.
Spurred by the unwanted and rowdy side effects that sometimes accompany a night on the town, drinking establishments have turned to a novel approach to save overindulging revelers from broken bones and bruised egos: rubber sidewalks.
The installation of the matting made from recycled rubber tires started as an effort to cut down on clanking keg noise but has experienced a major bounce here recently as scores of bars have replaced their concrete walkways with the spongy surface.
More Australian pub owners are cushioning the fall for tipsy and brawling patrons as rubber sidewalks hit the streets. WSJ's Geoff Rogow reports from Sydney.
"They're even putting it inside clubs now, especially around dance floors," said Steve Thomas, head of sales and marketing for A1 Rubber, one of the Australia's largest developers of the sidewalks.
In a country desperate for solutions to curb rising alcohol-related crimes and injuries, the matting has come to be seen as a legitimate attempt to soften impacts from scuffles and stumbles. Sydney's bar bouncers are among the surface's fans.
"Anything to do with safety, and this certainly qualifies, should seriously be looked at across the board," said Peter Mercouris, a principal at Australian Investigation & Security Management, which provides security at several Sydney pubs. "But we need to remember the person that is consuming the alcohol must be responsible for themselves."
Australian authorities and medical experts say alcohol has fueled a startling increase in assaults and related injuries in recent years, even as other crimes have dropped. Since 1996, the rate of assault per 100,000 Australians has risen on average by 2% each year. In 2009, in the latest government statistics available, violent assaults in Australia were at a record high of 175,277 incidents, up 30% over the past decade.
"The violence these days is quite significant," said Peter Remfrey, secretary of the police association of New South Wales, Australia's most populous state. "The victims of these alcohol-related crimes have a right to come home healthy."
Barry O'Farrell, the newly elected premier of New South Wales, put it more succinctly: "People are sick of having drunks ruin their nights out."
Nobody sees the rubber sidewalks as a cure-all for Australia's drinking woes, but it has still become something of a booming niche industry surrounding the pubs.
A1 Rubber, located in the small industrial town of Yatala in Queensland state, has seen 35% annual sales growth since 2005 and is opening new warehouses in Sydney and South Australia in the coming year to meet demand, said Mr. Thomas, the marketing and sales chief. The 50 companies in Australia that make or install the matting generate about $100 million in revenue a year, up from about $70 million in 2005.
The impact on the pubs has been more tangible.
"It's only a small mat just at the front door we put in to cut down on noise," said bartender Tim Davis, whose Sydney bar has installed a form of the spongy surface. "But every time there's an incident out front, people seem to find a miraculous way to land on it, and the bouncers inevitably wind up singing its praises."
The surfacing business took off in Australia about 20 years ago when the country's Greens party threw its support behind the industry because of its use of recycled materials, and became a popular surface on playgrounds, in front of people's homes and even around trees in city centers in the early 1990s. Bars in Australia were slower to catch on and began installing the surface in limited spots a little more than five years ago as a way to cut down on noise and help keep kegs free from dings and dents, industry experts say, but installation expanded as safety benefits became apparent.
Mark Weber, one of the industry's pioneers in Australia, says his business alone has installed rubberized surfaces at more than 100 pubs in South Australia. In cities like New York, San Francisco and London, rubber industries are also expanding but the installation is still concentrated mostly in playgrounds instead of pubs, civic leaders say.
Pub owners are often reluctant to discuss the rubber sidewalks for fears of gaining a reputation for a violent clientele, but bar patrons are more forthcoming.
Michael Stanley, a 22-year-old municipal worker living in the beach enclave of Cronulla, south of Sydney, enjoying an early start to a recent weekend at the Tea Gardens Hotel in Bondi Junction, says the rubber sidewalks outside the popular pub were a much better option than "cracking my head on the curb."
OCTOBER 15, 2011
By GEOFFREY ROGOW