In the 2011 Brisbane floods, my friends Sarah and Tim lost almost everything: photos, documents, certificates and family treasures. Their friends, trying to be helpful, were too interested in saving the $100 IKEA sofa and random charity shop furniture rather than what was really important.
The same happens in transport. People are so busy trying to finish their tasks and make a profit to understand the problem they’re trying to solve in the first place. Or, they’re too eager to see their plan published on the net to listen to what the community really wants or needs. Or, they’re so eager to move onto a 'bigger and shinier' project that they don't actually take the time to figure out transport priorities.
Last month, while recovering from a hospital operation, I started reading Paul Dolan's book Happiness by Design - Finding pleasure and purpose in everyday life. I'd seen Dolan interviewed as part of the Sydney Writers Festival and I liked what he had to say. He says we need to train our attention to the positives (not whinging on internet forums), we should be grateful for what we have (Brisbane, for example, has some outstanding active transport infrastructure) and to make positive changes (how about we all car pool to work or ride our bikes once a month?)
So I'm asking, what are the priorities, purpose and pleasure of our transport?
If we really want to cut traffic congestion, increase public transport patronage and get more people walking and cycling, surely we need to work out the priorities, purpose and pleasure.
Safety must be the priority in everything we design and do. Let's design bikeways that take the safest, not the cheapest, route. Let's put bus stops in the safest place, not the place with spare space. Let's speak up when things aren't safe. Would you challenge a colleague, client or cabbie who's driving while using a mobile phone? Would you confront a designer who's made an intersection safe for cars but not considered the children walking home from school? Would you question the contradictions - the bicycle advocate who complains about design standards but posts photos of himself cycling through floodwaters in torrential rain?
At the launch of his book Project Success Through Leadership, David Jenkins said for a project to be successful we have to get out of the technical detail and talk to people. He's right. I interviewed more than 200 people before writing my first book.
As project officer for the UK Further Education Funding Council, I was made aware of “real” transport issues affecting the lives of people in remote rural areas: social exclusion, very limited transport availability, isolation from shops and employment opportunities, and the huge cost of owning and running a private car. My fondest memories are of a local blind society eager to help me improve bus routes; of Kate, a college student, travelling daily across the county border by taxi and then two different bus services; and of Gerald, a quadriplegic, whose attendance at college – despite all the travel difficulties – was the highlight of his life. For these people, transport had purpose and they told me exactly what that was.
People have to enjoy using the transport our leaders chose to fund and provide. My friend Mike refuses to use the Brisbane ferries. He says they're a 'bus on water' and for him the bus is dirty, overpriced and gets stuck in traffic. Let's follow trailblazers like Greenway House in the UK.
On the banks of the Dart Estuary, in 30 acres of gardens, is the National Trust’s beautiful Greenway House, once owned by Agatha Christie. In response to a planning application restricting car parking, Greenway managers produced a sustainable transport strategy with the aim of increasing visitor numbers and dramatically reducing visits by private car. Almost a decade on, and thanks to “Green Ways to Greenway,” the property is more popular than ever, with more than two-thirds of visitors arriving by boat, bicycle, train, river ferry, vintage bus, canoe or on foot. Installing inexpensive infrastructure such as cycle parking at the house has widened travel choice and attracted a brand new audience of public transport loving patrons.
If we really want our transport to be better, to cut traffic congestion and for our cities to be liveable, we need our transport to have priorities, purpose and pleasure. Let's make safety everyone's priority, let's understand peoples’ actual needs and let's make it a joy, not a chore, to use. If we can do all that then the people in our cities will be positive, grateful and probably make some modal change.