Andrew Wisdom, Catalyst, Keynote, Project, Team, Individual

BENDIGO IS A CITY
THAT IS THINKING ABOUT ITS FUTURE

Bendigo is right in the middle of working up an integrated transport and land use strategy. Now is a great time to ask what should future Bendigo look like?

As part of Bendigo’s engagement program for the development of their integrated transport and land use strategy, I was invited to give a keynote speech about communities and transport. The speech was provocative and got people thinking differently about their city and how they use it.

Planning Bendigo’s future

Bendigo is right in the middle of working up an Integrated Transport and Land Use Strategy. Community involvement is front and centre of the process and as part of the engagement programme I was invited, along with Paul Tranter to address a community day. Both Paul and I were invited to talk about communities and transport, but to do it in a provocative way intended to get people thinking slightly differently about their city and how they use it. We were only given 20 minutes each, so, faced with the choice of talking extremely quickly or just skating over the surface of the things I wanted to say, I chose the latter and have posted here what I would have said if I had been given, ooh, an hour or so to talk. I have added some links to enrich the experience as well. Finally, I have added below the presentation I gave, so you can see the images I refer to in my text.

What is Bendigo’s Transport System for?

I am going to explore with you some fundamental ideas about your transport system and invite you to think about it in ways you may not have thought about it before. I am going to ask a few questions and then talk a little bit about the opportunity you have as part of the current process to grasp the nettle and drive some change.

What’s the Public Realm for?

If you want your transport system to be effective, you have to know who relies on it and what it’s for.

So what is Bendigo’s transport system used for?
– Streets provide connectivity.
– Streets provide access.
– Streets provide open space.

Of course, the way people use their streets has changed over time.

Back in the day, just about all public exchanges happened in the streets. They weren’t just a means of getting from one place to another or a means of accessing particular buildings, they were also where all sorts of transactions took place. If you look at the streets that still exist in ancient places, you still get this feeling. There is plenty of on-street action, whether it is manufacturing happening before your eyes, washing being hung out to dry, shopping, kids playing or people simply catching up.

From the middle of the 19th Century to the middle of the 20th Century, there was a change in the way streets were used. Grand boulevards were built in cities such as Paris (and Bendigo and Mel-bourne), and footpaths were introduced to protect people from the wagons that thundered up and down. Wider thoroughfares were introduced everywhere. Cities like Ballarat, Bendigo, Melbourne and Adelaide were built using a recognisable template. With the advent of cars, people on foot had even more reason to get out of the way. Transactions moved indoors.

In the second half of the 20th Century, the activity that had moved indoors was enticed into the pseudo-public space provided by shopping malls. I call this pseudo-public space, because you should be in no doubt about your status in a shopping mall – you are a visitor, there at the discretion of the owner. The on-going battles that the Mall Walkers of America have with mall owners over their use of prime parking spaces and ‘free’ use of toilet facilities is an interesting illustration of this issue.

So, from the middle of the 20th Century our streets took on a more narrowly purposed existence – mainly focused on connection and access. This, of course, was the time when private cars were becoming king. Gradually our growing affluence allowed us to contemplate a time when everyone had a car. But as Lewis Mumford famously warned: “Access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle, is actually the right to destroy the city.” ‘The Highway and the City’, New American Library, 1964, p. 23

Why do we need a License to access a Street?

As cars became more dominant, the space between the kerb lines was progressively abandoned by anyone not in a car. Pedestrians are now corralled on footpaths, except at specially designated places for crossing the road and even then only at approved times. You can be fined for crossing a road in a non-approved way. Now, this is for the safety of pedestrians, of course, but it means it feels like you are intruding when you walk on a road other than across a pedestrian crossing at the approved time. Try walking down the middle of a road (preferably when there are no cars around) and see how it feels. But there are different ways we can deal with this; I will return to this later.

So now you need a licence to be on a road – either a formal licence or a temporary permit if you are crossing it on foot.

The simple next step that we collectively took about 50 years ago was to then treat the group of people with licences and the vehicles they drive as the most important and certainly the most domi-nant of road users. Until not so long ago – and still in some parts of the world – you could do what-ever you liked with the public realm provided you didn’t adversely impact the interests of car drivers. As you can imagine, this led to a progressive erosion of the interests of anyone not in a car, which is strange given most of us spend most of our time not in cars.

So, pedestrians are marginalised. Another group is public transport users. Leaving aside trains, which don’t tend to travel on roads, public transport vehicles (trams and buses) generally move with the rest of the vehicle fleet, so buses get stuck in traffic despite the space efficient means of travel they provide.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this – it’s just that as car drivers we are now used to having the run of the road and as pedestrians we are used to staying out of car drivers’ way. Here’s an exam-ple from London – it’s Oxford Circus. Oxford Street is a busy traffic street, Oxford Street and Re-gent Street are busy shopping band tourist streets and there is a busy tube station right under the intersection. As things got more and more congested, pedestrians were marginalised more and more with barriers and so on. A couple of years ago, Transport for London said enough is enough and redesigned the intersection so that pedestrians got at least a bit of a fair go. The bottom photo shows where people actually walk now – diagonally across the intersection, something that in the past would have booked you a one way trip to hospital. Have a look at this inspiring video showing the changes over the last 10 years in the way streets have been designed in New York. While you watch, reflect on the changes in community attitudes that have caused this to happen and agency aspirations and processes that have allowed this to happen.
Those examples are actually pretty modest – they are simply about applying existing rules on how we use road space in slightly different ways.

A more interesting movement is taking hold in Europe, where intersection traffic controls are being removed altogether, with very positive results. Instead of just accepting you have right of way based on the colour of the traffic light, at these intersections you need to be careful and negotiate your way through. The results have been pretty good – quite safe, quicker, and a nicer environ-ment.

Listen to this BBC Thinking Streets for a discus-sion of this exciting area.

Are Bike Helmets a bad thing?

Finally, there is a group that sits in a bit of a no-man’s-land between car drivers and pedestrians in our travelling culture – cyclists.

Our cycling culture is unusual in world terms. In Europe and in Asia, bikes are a dominant, or at least numerically important, means of transport. Everyone rides a bike and it’s simply no big deal.

In Australia, there is a particular and different culture. You’re either a bike rider or you aren’t. It’s a specialist sport, demanding specialist clothing and bike gear. This is attractive to those who want to take cycling on as their passion – we have Middle Aged Men in Lycra and, heaven forbid, Very Old Men In Tights – but cycling’s positioning as a specialist sport in Australia serves to discourage casu-al riders.

And in Australia, bike helmet wearing is compulsory. Victoria was the first state in Australia to intro-duce compulsory bike helmet wearing, which it did in 1990. At the time it was regarded as very ad-vanced and progressive, but since then the evidence about their value at a community level is mixed.

Clearly helmets act to reduce the severity of head injuries for people wearing them by softening any blows the rider might suffer. But there is no clear evidence they reduce the number of head injuries amongst cyclists. (We might be seeing an example of a rebound effect – whereby people take more risks because they feel safer. A good example of this was found in the Munich Taxi-Cab experiment – the driving behaviour of drivers of cabs with ABS fitted was compared with the be-haviour of drivers of cabs without ABS. The drivers of ABS-fitted cabs were found to drive more recklessly than the drivers of the other cabs.)

And it looks like the requirement that all cyclists wear bike helmets acts to deter some people who would otherwise cycle from doing so. This graph shows the proportion of people cycling to work by state. With the stark exception of the ACT, the numbers dropped uniformly from the time bike hel-met laws were enacted. I’m not sure why bike riding rates in the ACT differ from elsewhere – may-be it is because of the way Canberra was designed, with plenty of non-motorised routes available in the older suburbs; maybe it is a demographic thing.

We know that bike riding is strongly correlated with positive health outcomes, so at a community level the negative effects of deterring people from riding bikes needs to be offset against the posi-tive individual effects for people in accidents.

Is Parking good for Shops?

Let’s talk about parking.

It is virtually axiomatic in people’s minds that successful shops need adequate parking. If people can’t park their cars then they can’t get to the shop. So, the logic goes, we need to provide as much parking as possible.

Unfortunately it’s not as simple as that.

Donald Shoup, an American academic, wrote a really interesting piece, The High Cost of Free Parking about this a few years back. He didn’t argue against planning regulations for parking but against the inappropriate systems we have in place to ensure that there is what is seen to be enough parking.

His argument is that planning schemes have enshrined the need to provide a minimum amount of parking with each development and that the amount of parking provided is based on dodgy (mainly American) data in an environment in which people drive everywhere and expect to be able to park out the front of every place they visit. The requirements that are embedded in our planning schemes are based on a driving culture and an urban environment that are completely foreign to us and, frankly, isn’t all that attractive; yet here we go doing our best to recreate the American midwest.

The trouble with this approach is that it sucks the life out of a city, for a few reasons. Firstly it means vast areas are given over to parking; and the way the planning schemes have historically been implemented means that those parking areas are generally mostly empty. Secondly, it results in an urban form that means you have to drive to live your life. If you lived in that Texan town it would take you five minutes to drive from one place to another and walking would just not be an option – see if you can find a footpath. That means you are never in the street and never bumping into people. And bumping into people and forming the community linkages that result is a key ingredient of a resilient and flourishing city. This means that the currently default approach to the transport task makes it harder to create a city that flourishes.

Our city planners have generally moved on from the idea of separating uses and putting them in a sea of parking. They understand that mixing uses up and getting people to spend time in the public realm is a better thing for a city than encouraging them to drive from one place to another, parking out the front and dashing in, then driving off. And in my view encouraging a shopping culture that involves people simply driving to a shop, shopping and driving home wastes so many opportunities to enrich the life of the city and make it a better place to live. There is a reason that people come to the Melbourne CBD from all round Australia and I can tell you it is not because of the parking.

Yet our approach to providing parking is rooted in a different era. It doesn’t have to be like this and it is in your power to make sure it isn’t.

Recapturing the Public Realm

And so to recovering the public realm.

I want to just share a few examples with you.

Melbourne has done great job in reclaiming its public realm. Its laneways are justly celebrated. Even the scungy ones are celebrated. Of course, it wasn’t always like that. The lanes used to be pretty forbidding, especially in a CBD that was empty of people. But the story of how the City of Melbourne transformed its CBD from the normal mid 20th Century office zone empty of life at night and only visited during the day by harried office workers or desperate shoppers (and them in declining numbers) into what it is today is an interesting and complex story. But at its core is a concerted and coordinated programme of getting people walking and being in the city.

The City Council encouraged developers to turn empty B-grade office accommodation into residential space, so that people would be in the CBD around the clock. This in turn generated demand for a broader range of shopping than simply the tired department stores; it encouraged bars and restaurants to open up. They helped this along with relaxed licensing requirements. They redesigned the streets and public spaces. And so on and so on. Now it has a life of its own. In 2013 the City of Melbourne ran an exhibition called Postcode 3000 that reviewed the changes.

If you want to see what Melbourne used to be like at night, go to Sydney. You could shoot a rocket down some of their main streets after hours.

I am not saying Bendigo should try to become another Melbourne – I know many of you wouldn’t want that and why would you try? But I am inviting you to think about the assets you have and how you might put them to different or better use.

This can happen at any scale.

Like any city, you have a number of events. Farmers markets are a popular way of getting people out and building community. You have street fairs. They are fine as far as they go, but they are one-off or at least not everyday, routine events. The question is how you might create the kind of city that encourages people to be in the public realm as a matter of routine.

Here’s Chancery Lane, a very modest, incredibly narrow lane in central Bendigo. You have turned it into a destination simply by getting some businesses in there that generate foot traffic and I think it is great. Small-scale and fine grain is just terrific.

This has happened on a bigger scale in Newcastle, through a community movement called Renew Newcastle, an approach that is being replicated around Australia now. This involves thinking of empty shops as a resource rather than a blight and finding a way to make use of them. The Renew movement tackles this by making it possible for people to lease the otherwise empty shops on a short term basis. This has transformed the way people think about and use the centre of Newcastle. All sorts of creative and interesting things have sprung up in shops that would otherwise be empty.

I was there recently and the queue to buy coffee at the start of the day at one of the specialty coffee shops was a long one. There were about 50 people just hanging around the coffee shop, chatting at the start of a working day in a street that for the last twenty years has been regarded as blighted.

In residential areas, you need to start using your streets as the open space and community resources they are. Help your kids recapture the street; start up a community garden, or even engage in a bit of guerrilla gardening. And you also need to make it easy to do this. Make sure there are footpaths, provide summer shade. Paul is going to talk about that some more.

Connecting Greater Bendigo

It seems to me that what Bendigo’s Integrated Transport and Land Use Strategy is fundamentally about is building community. What you do with the transport system, how you invest in it and how you manage it, should be all about helping build community and helping to make Bendigo a great place to live into the future.

As a way of achieving this, I am attracted to the idea of a 20 minute city – or in Bendigo’s case, a 10 minute city – as a focus for building community. The idea behind this is that you should be able to reach all the things you need in your day-to-day life within 20 (or 10) minutes. Where you achieve this, then people are able to live and flourish locally. This is not to say that people don’t ever travel from one side of the city to the other or from an outer area into the centre of the city; just that they don’t have to do so every day if they don’t choose to.

This idea was adopted recently in Melbourne, and was immediately poo-pooed as unrealistic by the sort of people who would say that. The people who poo-pooed it didn’t, I think, take the time to understand what it meant.

The idea of a 20 minute city originated in Portland, Oregon – a city of about 600,000 people – in the form of a Complete Neighborhood Portland. Lisa Camner has written about it in Lisa Camner Atlantic Portland Complete Neighborhood. This idea has spread along the west coast of America and even to New York, where it underpins the aim of everyone being within 10 minutes’ walk of a park. This points up the critical issue that what you aim for should reflect what’s important in your city: Everyone in New York lives within 5 minutes walk of a shop, so that’s not a particularly useful thing to measure there, but access to parks is more problematic and because we know that access to parks is a strong indicator of various health and wellbeing outcomes, something that is worth measuring and targeting.

The key thing about Portland’s approach is that they have framed this idea as something that is measurable. Their measures reflect the kind of city they have and the direction they want to take it, so they look at walkability, bike and public transport infrastructure, access to parks and schools, access to healthy food stores, access to local employment.

This moves the concept of a complete neighbourhood beyond a simple aspiration and makes it something that can be worked on at a local level. By making the aspiration measurable they have been able to score the various neighbourhoods in their city and then have been able to work out which neighbourhoods to tackle first. This is clearly a useful thing to do from an implementation point of view.

So what might the elements of a complete neighbourhood be in Bendigo’s context? The community has been very clear on walkability and bikeability. I just think it is fundamental that you should have a food shop within walking distance of where you live. We used to have milk bars; what is the 21st Century equivalent? A 7-11? A servo? As a community you need to work out what else goes into the mix. Then you can measure how you’re going and identify what you need to do to make things better.

Once you have a programme underway to support and develop your local neighbourhoods in a physical sense, then you can reinforce your efforts to build the local social and community connections that are so important to a flourishing and resilient city.

In planning a city, you always need to think about people who might be disadvantaged. Planners who develop transport strategies always need to think of people who don’t have access to a car. How do people get from one part of the city to the other? Walking is fine for local trips; bikes are fine for slightly longer trips and, for some people, even for long trips. But effective public transport is a key part of a well-functioning city. Of course, being able to live a fruitful life locally makes things easier.

The challenge in providing public transport is to find a way to provide enough of it so that it acts as an effective alternative to the private car in a way that you can afford as a community. If public transport runs too infrequently or not to where people want to go, then it doesn’t get used and it is seen as a waste of money. And you need to balance stopping exactly where people want to get on and off with the need to move reasonable distances quickly. It would be great to have a bus that stopped outside your house, but if the bus stopped outside everyone’s house then it would take forever to get anywhere.

So what should Bendigo’s public transport look like? At the end of the day, it’s for you to decide as a community how much you want to pay. People in Bendigo have fond memories of its trams and I saw recently that the idea of reviving the commercial tram network was raised in the press.

The problem with trams is that they are neither one thing nor the other. Public transport planners typically distinguish between ‘line haul’ services, which travel between major transport nodes quickly, and feeder services, which travel from those nodes to a variety of local destinations. As I said, trams are neither one nor the other and they tend not to do either very well. They trundle along slowly on fixed tracks. A tram network is also pretty expensive to build and a tram fleet expensive to maintain.

Still, you might choose to re-institute your commercial tram network – it would just be expensive and probably wouldn’t create the best outcome.

Luckily you have an alternative in place, and you have already identified it.

You have the bones of a line haul network already, in the form of your heavy rail network. This is not currently used as a metropolitan Bendigo rail network, but it could be. You could focus on developing around the existing stations and running services between them on a regular basis. This would have the advantage of making use of existing infrastructure, which is always a big plus.

Imagine one-car or two-car train sets running every 30 minutes between Eaglehawk and Kangaroo Flat via the CBD, with significant mixed-use development at each of the stations and with a fine-grained network of feeder bus services around each station. That sounds pretty good to me and I think it is pretty exciting that you have identified this as something worth exploring as the long term bones of your public transport system.

Summary

Today I have talked about transport not as an end in itself but in service of creating a Bendigo that flourishes into the future. People think and talk a lot about transport and parking issues, but they tend to think about them as an extension of what they are used to. I think it is important for you to do more than that and instead think afresh about how you can harness the great infrastructure legacy you have been left to create a great city of the future.

My presentation can be found here.