No Need for the Jury to Retire

papers

The above demonstrates the most infinitesimally small sample of some articles written on urban planning, design, transport or/and neoliberalism. They are from highly respected academics, researchers and/or practitioners, specialising in their chosen field. The publications in which these are found are likewise of an aspirational calibre. They are not mere editorial or opinion pieces. Rather, they are findings from rigorous research, tirelessly collated data and, in some instances, seemingly endless interviews. Whilst the focus of these studies may not correlate, there is one commonality: they all point to the fact that our built environment is not working and we need to change it.

I can’t help but wonder how many studies (which in some instances, perhaps ironically, are government funded) need to be done before a government or a policy maker or just anyone with any clout at all takes note and demands change.

Here in Australia, we invest heavily in research for physical health, pouring millions into the discipline, and I’m in no way decrying that. The difference is that when that research makes its way into The Lancet or somesuch, people (ie politicians, policy makers) take note and change happens. I am not naive enough to state that all medical research ends up with clinical trials and cures for cancer are only a day away, however how we – as a society, even it could be argued, globally – view physical medical research is very different to the findings of urban planning research and the topics that align itself with them. 

It could almost be said that there is no need for further research, until we start using the massive amount we’ve already got as we have quite a backlog of the stuff. If medical research was at the same stage, without any implementation of the findings gained through that research, I surmise we would have just been out of the bubonic plague era. It could be said that the car is the urban planners bubonic plague.

This divide and this tension between endless research and a lack of implementation really needs to change. No court of law would require this much evidence before conviction, and it certainly wouldn’t want any more.

And the jury most certainly would not need to retire. 

 

 

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Trains of Thought

invite to opening of railway

Well, this is how it used to be.

The above is a – admittedly fuzzy – photo of an invitation to the opening of the first electric railway in England, addressed to the Prince of Wales which I snapped at a recent trip to the excellent Transport Museum in London. So much is demonstrated in this little invitation, from the late 20th Century.

We used to celebrate public transport and its advances, and impacts. Something such as this was not merely a publicity exercise for the press to report on the following day. It was a moment for genuine, national pride. A moment to reflect on the glories of modern technology with a view to making the world better for as many people as possible (albeit within an acknowledged class system – both in English society and on trains). But they were noble, they were brave, they were genuine leaders. And this was before the Planning profession had really been ‘invented’ and a Royal Commission into the plight of the poor was imminent in London, due the stark living conditions of its population. Amidst all of this, they still invested in public transport.

Fast forward 125 years to modern day Melbourne, Australia. The current debate over the building of the East West Link (let’s just call it a huge freeway, because that’s what it is) steadily rages with no sign of abating. It is estimated that it will cost anywhere between 4 and 15 BILLION DOLLARS to build. It’s a tunnel that few want, with most believing that the money could be better spent elsewhere, namely on public transport. Needless to say, I agree.

But where did our pride go in building infrastructure for people rather than profit? Did it really disappear with Thatcher when Neoliberalism gripped Britain and then the world? And if so, why did Australia follow suit so swiftly? Were we really that self conscious that we just had to do anything that came from the UK? Did miners strikes, economic downturns and  a subsequent recession really seem that appealing to us, Down Under dwellers?

I can’t help but wonder about those men (and let’s face it, they were) who instigated the building of England’s first electric railway. They were brave men, proud men, nation building in every sense of the expression. What would they say if they knew that same railway service had been sliced, diced and left for dead by the Government that funded it and handed what was left of its near mortal remains to a private company?

We need that pride again. We need that vision. We need that collective idea of the world we want. We need to cut our ties of ways that have not proven to be a success. Build a road and see it filled in an average of 3 months. Build public transport infrastructure and you have, well, over a century of contented commuters. Is this train of thought really so hard?

Horny Drivers

(I don’t have a graphic for this post, so the title had to draw you in)

Riding home on this chilly Melbourne night, I had a car behind me that I could just feel wanted me out of the way. I was on one of the back streets of Richmond which has diligently placed bike lanes on certain roads. Yes, on the roads. In the middle of the road there is a bike sign painted, with those curious arrow type signs which basically means you can ride there.

Now, I get it. The City of Yarra (where Richmond is) is trying to find a safe way for cyclists from the city to get a safe passage, but the problem is that car drivers don’t realise this until they are behind a cyclist and possibly getting annoyed that they are a) taking the whole lane b) so much slower than they are c) existing. 

But then I thought ‘Hang on a minute. I have no proof that the person driving the car behind me is thinking those things. That’s just my own prejudiced notions. What if they are actually a bike rider themselves? What if they secretly harbour convictions of green politics or just think the world could be a a tad better? Or, perhaps most dramatically, what if they don’t want me to feel under pressure?’

And then I started thinking about how that driver might let me know this. The only ability a driver has to inform the world of anything is by honking their horn which generally means “Your wrong”, “Your too slow”, ‘Your not paying attention”, “Go” etc. But what if there was another horn (or ability for a car to make a noise at any rate) that signified “It’s cool – take your time”, “You go first”, “I see you, and will wait for you to pass” or somesuch. How less frantic, how much more cordial, how bloody lovely.

And how much a pipe dream.

Treating Pedestrians as Plebs

photo-47

During a recent stroll through Highgate in London, this curious little image was seen on the tarmac of a car park. In an area that is only big enough for five cars, someone, somewhere thought that a pedestrian may need some sort of notice as to how to gain access to the front door of this building and subsequently painted a pathway to guide confused walkers. With nothing but endless space I can see how an innocent ambler may become confused by the vast nothingness before them and lose track of where they are with curious, if not disastrous, consequences.

Honestly, was this really necessary?

 

8 jackets: tested and rated

8 riding jackets, tested. Nice.

Ride On

From a light drizzle to a full-blown deluge, there’s a rain jacket perfect for any wet-weather riding, explains Iain Treloar

rainjacketshero

Jackets are a tricky item of clothing to get right. Compared to the low expectations we have of jerseys, knicks or baselayers, jackets need to perform well when the weather is at its worst, but still need to be comfortable in better conditions. It can be a complicated balancing act for manufacturers to find the correct often-contradictory combination of water-resistance, wind-resistance, breathability and compact dimensions, and in the end, a jacket purchase almost always ends up being a compromise in one area or another.

There are a vast amount of different fabrics out there and it’s easy to get lost in the marketing technobabble when researching your next jacket purchase. So here’s my advice: when comparing jackets with waterproofing as a primary goal, check for things like sealed or…

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I Might Just Sit This One Out

purse

Everyone likes a bit of a sit down, don’t they? The above captures a lass doing that in the busy Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne as she lolls about on a piece of public art.

A moment of reflection, a brief pause, a small comma in an otherwise lengthy sentence (okay, you get the drift). The point is, we like seats, and we like public seats. I’m not going to dwell on the whole ‘we like looking at people and being with people and that is why we go to public parks and sit aside from just to find respite’ thing here, suffice to say that that is true – albeit long winded.

What I do want to focus on however is planners and designers who decide where seats will go, and why. In my own wonderings around and about, I have witnessed all manner of seating in frankly obscure places, leading me to believe that seats can be as pointless as carrying an extra tube but not knowing how to fix a flat. In short, it’s just for show.

A seat in a pointless place says ‘We, as a Council, care and we offer comfort and respite and look here – a seat for you to spend some time on’. That’s what this seat looks like:

pb 1

If you were sitting on the seat, you would have the lovely Yarra river behind you, a smooth, easy bike and pedestrian path, er, behind you, and some really lovely old bluestone brickwork, um, behind you. And what would your view be?

pb 2

This: six lanes of traffic. Ahhh, the serenity.

Further along the Yarra river bike path (which I really can’t fault), is this utterly odd arrangement of seating:

yarra 1

It is honestly as though it was arranged for bickering siblings or bored couples. What’s such a pity is that the view from both seats is splendid:

yarra 2

 

I can’t help but wonder if the people who installed it merely read their directions incorrectly and they are meant to in a ‘V’ shape, but both looking out to the river, and indeed, each other.

Here’s a lovely nighttime snap of a lonely bench with 6 lanes of traffic in front of it. What is more perverse is that this is on the edge of one of Melbourne’s most splendid parks – the Fitzroy Gardens. Would you rather face traffic or people and trees?

night bench

I know I am saving the best for last here, but this is too delicious. In the university ‘courtyard’ (and I use the term advisedly), near to where I live, there is this inviting, wonderful public bench amidst this hallowed seat of learning:

uni bench

Seriously, would anyone want to sit here? Would anyone want to even walk through here?

The world is not a perfect place, I know, but truly, could we not spend a little more time thinking about the placement of these public seats? Is it really so difficult to think about what you, as a person, would like to look at in the real world rather than what looks good on a plan?

Amongst all this bafflement, it was nice to notice the ducks on the way home and remember that when I ride my bike, I’m always sitting comfortably and the scenery is a moveable feast.

ducks

Dear Cyclist, you’re wrong. Again.

Glen

New bike lanes in my local area are now in. My inital response to the news of their arrival was joyous, then muted but now – having seen the lanes – it’s verging on negative.

‘Why?’, I hear you ask. Why would I, a committed cyclist, a keen advocate for cycling and a massive supporter of push bikes everywhere not be celebrating such an initiative? Well, these bike lanes are a little different.

As usual, the lanes are a strip of green next to parked cars (so that cyclists can protect parked cars, as Jan Gehl so famously notes). However, the green treatment only covers half the width of the bike lane, leaving the other half (the half closest to the car) completely untreated. There’s then the ubiquitous yellow line to seperate (well, ‘to indicate a supposed seperation of’) the cyclist from cars and trams. But beyond that are white ‘gashes’ (chevrons, they are actually called) and that’s where things get interesting.

I spoke to one of the men working on the new paths (including the white gashes) and asked him what the white bits were meant to indicate. He explained that it was to highlight to the cyclist to stay as far right as possible, when in the bike lane, to avoid dooring. I asked him if he thought it would work and he said “Er, no, to be honest”.

I then asked a driver – a random person getting out of a van – if he thought the new look bike lanes would work. I asked in particular about what he thought the white ‘bits’ meant. He said “Um, I don’t know, really. I suppose maybe it just means to be aware of cyclists or something? No, I don’t know”.

This is a problem. If I don’t know what the signs on the road mean, as a cyclist, and neither does someone as a driver and the person putting the signs on the road don’t think they will have any success, why are we doing this? At the very least, we need some education for road users as to what the signs actually indicate. Not everyone who uses these lanes (whether they be a driver, pedestrian or cyclist) is a traffic engineer.

The lanes were a response to the tragic death of James Cross who died as he dodged a car door being opened and fell under the wheels of a vehicle behind him. It doesn’t seem that there is anything here that will stop this from happening again.

Furthermore, the onus is on the cyclist to be careful, to stick to the right, to notice doors being flung open and so on. Where is the responsiblitiy of the driver in all of these markings? I can see a situation occuring where a cyclist is doored and then being accused of not being far enough over to the right and therefore bringing it on themselves. There is the potential here for the cyclist to always be found to be wrong. I don’t want this blog to be renamed The Whining Cyclist, but I do think we need to be brave and call something tokenistic when it appears as such.

The lanes are currently a trial project and this innocent bikestander will be watching how effective they are with interest. And if they are found out to be a success, I will be the first to order a whole lotta humble pie.

Fingers crossed I’ll have to.

 

 

 

Face to the Fjord: A look at Oslo on the release of their new PSPL

A great blog here by the good folk at Gehl Architects. Do they ever do anything terrible?! Enjoy.

Cities for People

Oslo_feature Gehl Architects’ Public Space Public Life study of Oslo was made public today, March 24, 2014.
This ‘special feature #1′ aims to incite dialogue around the challenges and opportunities facing the public realm in Oslo and other cities.

ga8404

By Bonnie Fortune, freelance journalist
Facts and findings are based on Gehl Architects’ report
‘Bylivsundersøkelse Oslo sentrum’

Bonnie_Fortune8

“Oslo is a small city where everyone knows one another,” says landscape architect and project leader for Levende Oslo (Lively Oslo), Yngvar Hegrenes. Norway’s capital city on the Olso fjord recently commissioned a Public Space-Public Life (PSPL) survey that took over two years to complete, despite the city’s compact size. Hegrenes is responsible for commissioning the survey, stating that Oslo was interested in taking a fresh look at their city center with input from knowledgeable outside sources. Hegrenes worked closely with the Oslo municipality, community business owners and organizations, and Gehl Architects to complete the…

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