Sunday, April 26, 2009

On transit

Jarrett Walker has just launched Human Transit, a blog on public transit systems.

Why am I writing about this here?


Having lived and worked on 3 continents over the last decade, sometimes with, sometimes without a car, I've become very sensitive to the deficiencies in public transport in Sydney, my home city. Hopping on and off buses, trams,  trains and ferries with Bondi in over thirty countries makes me question why so many simple things are hard to achieve back home.

I see a good transport system as a cornerstone in building good community, and if we value good community then the values that direct our public transport have to be weighed over technical issues.

Transport is not just about building railway lines, and funding sufficient buses. It's about how the elements of a city come together for work and play. It affects our streetscapes and public spaces, now mostly given over to road traffic.

Berlin Edinburgh 

How are all these things connected? Is our transport network built to serve commuters or delivery vehicles? Will it allow me to get around the city, attend public events, do my shopping, take my dog to the vet or an offleash park - all without a car? In cities like London, Paris or Berlin it would seem that I can do all these things with relative ease compared to Sydney.

I look at my local shopping centre which is almost disconnected from the public transport system and has to maintain a very large rooftop parking area. For those people in the area without vehicles, the only way to get shopping home is to pinch a shopping trolley and push it for a kilometre, then abandoning it in a park or side alley. Even if buses connected with the centre, Sydney's buses have such narrow aisles that they cannot handle prams, shopping carts, pets, wheelchairs or bicycles. Ditto for the buses. When I travelled on buses in Europe or North America, it was not that unusual too see multiple instances of these things on a single bus: pram, wheelchair and dog easily shuffled around. Think how much access could be improved by having a subsidised loop bus around the neighbourhood that could accommodate shopping carts!

A well integrated public transport network allows people to not only achieve necessary tasks, but to explore their city. Bondi and I roved around many cities without a car, encouraged by non-restrictive transport policies, accessible vehicles and electronic ticketing systems that not only simplified transferring from one vehicle to another, but hopping off and on a single route to explore a neighbourhood.

 London Underground

A few weeks ago I attended a town hall forum on transport planning for the City of Sydney, one of the elements of the plan for Sustainable Sydney 2030. The meeting was very well attended but unfortunately the unmoderated question time was subverted by a few people with political questions unrelated to the topic, and a lady who wanted to ramble on about New York snow and air-conditioning of buildings in Killara. Those of us lined up behind her at the microphone, with real transport questions, were grinding teeth as time ebbed away and question time cut short. While the City of Sydney has a feedback website it isn't set up to allow online forums to drill down on issues, and there's not even any certainty that your feedback has been received. I hope Jarrett's blog may serve an attractor for such discussions.



  1. Great discussion, and it's cool that you take the time to go to meetings and speak for so many who don't, or can't.

    I'm a former public transport professional, and I can relate personally to all the issues you mentioned.

    I wasn't aware that dogs are permitted on the Paris system, however. Is that the case? Is it a recent development?

  2. Dogs are allowed on the Paris RER, but not on the Metro (although I understand that dogs small enough to be carried are usually ignored).

  3. Thanks for the plug, Mike!


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