“Australia needs to make ‘a complete shift’ in the way it plans cities” outgoing Infrastructure Australia chief executive Philip Davies told the Australian Finance Review Weekend recently.

Davies recommended asking people what infrastructure they want rather than forcing road and rail projects on them and engaging with communities to identify problems rather than leading with an infrastructure solution.

He’s right. Change starts with listening and understanding other people’s beliefs and values.

Whether it’s reducing congestion, minimising waste, cycling, recycling, promoting public transport, increasing car parking charges, road safety campaigns, safer routes to school initiatives, supporting local businesses, consuming less or banning single-use plastic bags, change starts with beliefs and values.

We can provide roads, tunnels, new rail lines, busways and bikeways. We can spend money buying new trains and buses. We can post information brochures into every resident’s letterbox. But, if we don’t listen to and understand people’s beliefs and values, our cities won’t change.

Our beliefs are the sense the something is real or true. The opinions or thinking we use to make assumptions about how things work. Our beliefs are what we assume to be true.

What do people in our cities believe?

  • Do people believe the car is the most convenient mode of travel?
  • Do people believe that it’s too dangerous to ride a bicycle to work?

For example, two people traveling on the same bus, along the same route may have a very different perception of the trip because they are each taking external information and laying it on top of their own beliefs. Our beliefs are often not supported by facts and data and may be irrational at times. Many of our beliefs are developed in early childhood without any knowledge and stay with us throughout our lives.

What do people value?

Our values are the importance, worth and usefulness we place on things. We use our own rules or standards to evaluate things we encounter. Our values inform us about how the world should be.

  • What do ratepayers value the most?
  • What matters least to community groups?
  • What rules do men use to evaluate the usefulness of open spaces and parks?
  • What standards do women use to evaluate public transport?
  • If residents had to make a list of the three things they value the most in their city, what would be top of their list? Do you know?

Getting answers to these questions are critical in order to build products and services that people want to use.

With this in mind, what could or should we do?

We should undertake a public attitudes survey. Ask direct, but not leading, questions. Ask everyone, not just a random sample. Use questions, developed by professional longitudinal survey specialists, to understand how people develop trust in different products and services. Listen intently to what infrastructure or services rate payers want to change. Produce an Awareness report. Repeat the survey every year and use the data to track changes in opinions and attitudes.

Philip Davies is right. We need a complete shift in the way we plans cities and change starts with listening and understanding other people’s beliefs and values.