urban environment

Big Red Cars Breed Car Addicted Kids

The Wiggles' Big Red Car, but imagine if it was a Big Red Bike instead.

The Wiggles’ Big Red Car, but imagine if it was a Big Red Bike instead.

Ah, The Wiggles. Bless them, with their Big Red Car. I don’t know a great deal about them, aside from their colour identifying polo necks and the fact that they travel about in a Big Red Car, as I am more from a generation of Fraggle Rock, The Amazing Adventures of MorphThe Wombles and Sesame Street, but the latter seems to be ubiquitous no matter what your generation. Anyway, regarding The Wiggles, let’s focus on the car, people, let’s focus on the car.

The above photo is of the The Wiggles’ Big Red Car as it sits outside my local supermarket, hungry for a tired parent to feed it coins, begging for a small behind to settle down onto its plastic seat, pleading for the grip of a tiny hand on its steering wheel, so that it might commence its thirty second jiggle and sway as it entertains an altogether unsuspecting, small passenger; the same little soul that is ‘driving’ this red beast, although not in a legal capacity for some years yet. Driving The Big Red Car for them is, quite literally, their first ‘joy’ ride.

And with it comes what? The idea that this is the goal. This is fun. This is something to aim toward. And, perhaps most terrifying, this is utterly normal. Professor Carolyn Whitzman from The University of Melbourne penned a fantastic chapter in Transforming Urban Transport: The Ethics, Politics and Practices of Sustainable Mobility (edited by Nicholas Low) called ‘Harnessing the Energy of Free Range Children’, noting the connection between transport patterns of children and transport patterns later in life. In short, if you drive your kids to school, the chances are pretty spectacular that your kids are going to drive as soon as they can, they will look at PT options than those not driven to school and are highly unlikely to investigate active transport (namely cycling and walking) as viable transportation options. I would suggest that with The Wiggles showing grown men driving about in The Big Red Car and then having rides where you, as a child, can ‘drive’ around in The Big Red Car, we are perpetuating this lifelong habit.

This is further reinforced by the nursery rhymes that we sing to our children. A very cursory search for transport nursery rhymes  provides a treasure chest of songs about transport and, while I grant you, most are about public transport (there seems to be a virtual obsession with trains, perhaps indicating the time period from which they were written and gained in popularity), not one can be found on riding a bike. That’s a huge oversight, in my book, but also a great opportunity. Along with these missing rhymes, where are the oversized, novelty bikes for children to sit on top of and maybe experience pedalling a stationary bike? Where is the innovation, the alternative?

It would be terrific if we could all live in Copenhagen and have our 8 year olds get their ‘license’ to ride a bike. It would be fantastic to have our children have that same sense of pride and aspiration at being a proficient, confident bike rider. As it stands we are miles away from such a possibility, here in Australia. But if it’s true that we should start as we wish to go on, shouldn’t we be providing our children with a better start (and a better idea of normality) than ‘driving’ a novelty sized car and hearing songs such as Driving in my Car and I Love my Red Car (frighteningly, there is a ‘road version’ of this little ditty on YouTube)?

I know this is utopian in aspiration. Australia’s car industry has fuelled (ha ha! Get it?) perceptions of what mode of transport should reign supreme and I am not naive enough to entirely exclude the role that oil and big business plays in this discussion along with the status quo, the dominant paradigm and all the other stuff I riled against when I was in my 20s (and largely still do, I might add).

I guess I’m always amazed at how ingrained travel by car truly is but when looking at the facts above, it would be curious if it was any other way.

 

Allowing Planning to be Praised Pupil, not Dejected Dullard

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A recent article in The Guardian beseeches us to make town planning as cool as architecture, for the sake of our cities.

The author, Tom Campbell, makes a compelling argument, pointing to the desperate need for better planning given the current state of affairs. Whilst he focuses on England, the same arguments for the need for this paradigm shift could be applied to many, many countries and certainly here in Melbourne, Australia where barely a day passes without editorial content spilling out of local papers on urban planning and how badly we’re currently tracking.

But this is an interesting point, and brings me to mine. Aside from the fact that everyone seems to have an idea of what Melbourne (or indeed, other cities) should be doing, planners themselves are forbidden from doing what they do best: namely, plan. If the same professional disregard was afforded to medical practitioners, our health would be even more woeful than what our bursting bellies and belts already tell us it is. Similarly, if we neglected the advice from scientists regarding climate change…oh wait, I live in Australia. Bad example. Move on. The point here is that – for the most part – we respect people in positions that we know nothing about, even when we claim we do, and let them get on with their job, safe in the knowledge that they have studied and worked in a field for longer than us and therefore are infinitely better equipped to solve problem X, or at least better placed to discuss it.

Not so with planning. Planning has become the most forlorn child in the career classroom. Always relegated to the back of class, it sits there dressed in forever beige, bruised and bereft, despondent and desperate, eyeing it’s more fashionable friends of design and architecture, vying for teachers attention. But what is so desperate about this pitiful image is that planning could be incredible if it was allowed to be. Brimming with brilliance and bright ideas planning it has been beaten into submission but that does not mean its ideas are any less fantastic, any less valid.

What seems to happen in planning is that people enter the profession and find themselves not only not being brave, but not allowing to be. A friend of mine recently joined a large planning firm where he had to find fault with a perfectly good submission for a medium rise development. I asked him if he had sold out. His embarrassed, awkward smile spoke louder than any words that followed. Sadly, he has become that child at the back of the class.

It’s not up to us, as planners, to make planning ‘cool’ again as the article implores us to. It’s up to politicians and better forms of governance to allow us to do our job. Planning is already cool. Planning has the ability to get you to work on time, or not. It enables you to ride a bike to school, or not. It ensures you have green space near you, or not. It provides security, safety, better amenity. Or not. But what planning has become is a diluted, impoverished version of itself. People, you’re not seeing what its potential actually is.

I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like in if planners were actually encouraged and allowed to do their job. It would save people from having to tweak the edges and muck about with quick fixes. A recent post on Planetizen entitled ‘How to Crowdfund a Bike Lane’, is an excellent example of this. Heralded as a positive outcome, I can’t help but ask ‘What have we become that we virtually have to hand around the hat and take donations for built infrastructure to make our cities safe and the sort of places we want them to be? Why have we failed so much and ignored solid advice about how to plan place and space?’ I’m all for participatory planning and a keen advocate for it, but planning like this is just, well, sad.

Again, tirelessly, I say: if things were working and everything was awesome and the environment and our physical health was optimal I’d say ‘As you were – keep prohibiting us from proper planning’. Sadly, we’re not in such an enviable position. But we could be if you just let us get on with our job.

Still in doubt? Then ask yourself this: why would planners want to make the world worse? After all, we live here too.