Politics

Discovering the G Spot

Riding a bike - it should be as simple as, riding a bike.

Riding a bike – it should be as simple as, riding a bike.

No, I haven’t gone completely mad and started writing editorial pieces that focus on female sexuality. But I do want to speak about a sweet spot, so it’s kind of the same. And it does with the letter G. And hey, the title got you in, didn’t it?

Sure, I’ve written about a similar topic before here, but this time I’m taking a different tact. To not do so would be, well, boring.

Over a year ago, I started my Masters in Urban Planning, with a pretty simple goal – I wanted to design and plan spaces for people so that they could ride a bike. I wanted to eradicate (or at the very least mitigate) the nagging insistence of obesity and, perhaps more alarmingly, childhood obesity. I spent 6 months signing on to workshops, forums, short courses, conferences and took time off of work to speak to everyone I could in the profession of planning to see if it was what I wanted to do. I read the various prospectuses, I pored over numerous websites and I gobbled up their promises of planning utopias. A sample of their assertions as to what a Planning course would entail are below:

RMIT: This program combines studies in urban planning with the social, economic and political environment and creates efficient, interesting, practical, healthy and sustainable places for people to exist.

Melbourne Uni: Urban Planning promotes the establishment of economically viable, socially just, environmentally sustainable, and safe and healthy human settlements. It has never been more timely than now, as we adapt to global changes that impact our cities.

And Deakin Uni: Deakin’s Bachelor of Planning (Honours) is a distinctive course that brings together the disciplines of planning, design, urban studies and society in a single degree program.

I applied. Needless to say, I was accepted. And needless to say I was excited.

My first year has produced good results – HD’s for everything, except Economics (but I was only 2% off a HD so, you know, let’s be gentle). Throughout the year, many conversations were had, many thoughts formed and numerous opinions argued. All so far so good. But…there’s a little irritation nagging away at me. A little annoyance, a little inconvenience that won’t shift. It’s to do with governance. I have done a little searching for the best definition of this and it is, perhaps alarmingly, from good ol’ Wikipedia. It claims: Governance refers to “all processes of governing, whether undertaken by a government, market or network, whether over a family, tribe, formal or informal organization or territory and whether through laws, norms, power or language.”

Largely then, governance is the how rather than the who.

In terms of Planning as a discipline, a student’s head can be filled with the most delightful notions of best practice, wonderful stories of success from afar and quotes from respected journal articles (that have all been judiciously peer reviewed, obviously). But then I want to ask: And then what? Do we go out into this world equipped with enviable evidence of how we should be planning our places but really have no capacity to implement it? If the laws (and norms) that govern the country are the same that govern planning, what capacity is there for change? In short, to encourage a lifestyle that is (at the very least) not beholden to the car? What is the point of this knowledge without good governance and a system that will utilize these learnings? Is it not, in fact, callous to dangle delights in front of a prospective student and say “Look at all the things you will learn” but leave out the bit that says “you will never have a chance to employ them”. Planning is perhaps the cruelest course in the university’s prospectus.

Conferences suffer a similar fate. The minds of the best planners, engineers, designers, health professionals and academics often meet throughout the year either through formal associations such as the Planning Institute of Australia or at conferences such as the Liveable Cities Conference, to be held later this year in Melbourne. Who are these people going to these events? Sure, there’s an element of networking and seeing old faces, and that’s lovely, but in my experience, and during all the conferences and forums that I attended as part of my research before committing to study, not once did anyone remain in the room who actually had the ability to change anything. In other words, the Mayor or otherwise appropriately elected official would ‘open’ the conference, say a few words and then they would leave. All that was left was a bunch of people who would be receiving information about how to do their job better but have no ability to put this knowledge into practice. If I was 15 I would be saying “Hashtag frustrating”, round about now.

Finally, the cost to attend these conferences is prohibitive for most people. If we take the Liveable Cities Conference as an example, it costs $1,055 for the two days to attend. Who else is going to go to that aside from people who are getting paid to go by their place of employment, even though their place of employment is simply feeding into that complicit world of not challenging the governance structures that prohibit change. If liveable cities are for everyone, shouldn’t anyone be able to attend? I’m beginning to feel like it’s some sort of conspiracy and that the prices are such that the average person’s attendance is precluded. If people could attend and see the broken system that is currently plaguing planning decisions in Melbourne, they would undoubtedly demand better. They would at the very least expect the Mayor to stay until the first coffee break had commenced.

But I’ll persist. I will get my Masters. I will maintain my grade average and I hope with it my motivation. I just want people to be able to ride a bike and to live in a city that supports that. Hopefully somewhere I will discover the sweet spot of governance that allows me to do that.

If all this fails, I’ll become the Mayor.

IMG_1673

What everyone should be able to do, safely.

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I Just Want a Route

The next few – hundred – posts will undoubtedly be about issues related to the Bike Futures Conference that I attended last week, as there was a phenomenal amount of knowledge and insight that came from it.

My main impetus for going in the first instance was to see Paul Steely White talk (the CEO of Transportation Alternatives), as he featured so heavily in The Human Scale – the doco that made me want to get into planning in the first instance and really showed the connection between happiness and the built environment. He was an absolute delight. Charming, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, I couldn’t help but wonder what he made of the hosts that are Bicycle Network. They don’t really have that passion and the political will to do what TA have done in NYC, which is frustrating as I believe they could. Their focus tends to be greatly on organised bike rides, and riding ‘events’ where you pay a great deal of money, rather than advocating on behalf of everyday, commuter cyclists. If this is not the case, then why is it that this is my opinion? What is missing from their advertising or their marketing that leads me to believe this?

Transportation Alternatives logo

Transportation Alternatives logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not surprisingly, there was a significant number of representatives from local Councils, and a couple of people from my own. Also unsurprisingly, I sallied up to them and chatted to them about biking in the area as the night before the conference began, I was perusing the bike map for the area and I realised that there is not a single stretch of road that is genuinely safe for cyclists to ride into the city on. As I live in the East of Melbourne’s CBD, it would make sense that most people would need a route that goes from East to West in this area. There is a treacherous stretch of road that I use daily to get to work – Burwood Road. It is, I learnt from a council member, the busiest arterial road in the council.

I suggested that they implement a similar system as is on Nicholson street currently, whereby they could close one of the lanes of traffic and make that a bike path, and then, with the remaining three lanes of traffic, alternate the direction of these lanes with lights overhead indicating the changes. So, in the morning, you could have two lanes for traffic going into the city and then the reverse for when the rush hour means two lanes are needed for vehicles leaving the city. I could told that this would cost about 3 million dollars to do this, and that there are all sorts of problems because it is a VicRoads road, not a road owned by council.

My argument is this – what sort of money is going to be needed to be spent on health by this council if people just sit in their SUV’s and cars and don’t become more physically fit? And, even if they are getting enough exercise, I don’t understand why we can’t just have one road – just one! – that is a safe passage for people riding into the city. There is so much evidence that supports people using bikes as a legitimate form of transport, if the infrastructure is built that allows them to do this. My councillor informed that a vast sum of money had been spent on the Gardiner’s bike trail. That’s great, brilliant, wonderful and all, but I don’t live within close proximity of the trail so I’m not going to use it. Why should I be shunted in the gutter of Burwood Road, just because I don’t live near the river which is where the path has been upgraded? I just one road. Just one safe, alternative to get to work each day.

You could say, I just want a route.