Friday, March 30, 2012

Professor Newman Inspires at well attended meeting; NZ in Tranzit remains critical nonetheless!

Last night I attended the public lecture by Dr Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University in Western Australia. He was brought to Christchurch by the Canterbury Branch of the New Zealand Geographical Society - a big thanks to them. It was an impressive speech and an impressive turn-out for a rare meeting on concepts of public transport. My guess would be be close to 200 present.

For years when asked about my interests or "how do you spend your time?" I have said  "public transport is probably my main interest". Silence. Large silence..... followed by a spoken or unspoken "Umm, yes, well...". I see people struggling to respond with an intelligent comment other than "Oh yes, I caught a bus once" (though some try something fairly similar). In that silence hangs the statement "How on earth can anyone be interested in a subject so simple, mundane, colourless."

On February 2nd 1970 emigrating to the South Island and Christchurch as a 19 year old I bought a copy of "Time" magazine on the Lyttelton ferry and read a story about an ecologist called Barry Commoner predicting global warming being caused primarily by coal fired power stations and vehicle exhausts. He forsaw devastating consequences - one of the first such stories to go front cover on climate change. It was my epiphany, I thought (and have never changed) "There's got to be a better way, we can't destroy the world for something as meaningless as the convenience of a car". 

I started an organisation called SAPT - Society for the Abolition of Private Transport" made a poster and spent hours wording a manifesto.  And didn't know a soul in Christchurch.  In the time I started making friends, mostly on the political left, but of course one comes into the world of social acceptance on other people terms...even greenies were more interested in cycling than public transport. My secret fanatacism had to take a back seat ( in a bus of course).  But it has remained an abiding interest, including 14 years city and city sight-seeing bus driving and two transport history books. Public transport has been a life-long theme, a quasi-regious commitment and mostly unpaid vocation, a mushroom spore popping up in the right conditions, as in recent years the under-world of bloggery.

I say all this because it has essentially taken forty two years to actually see another living being "in person", an intelligent, well studied and practically grounded  in the industry person, stand in Christchurch and speak on public transport in a well informed conceptual way. It is the rarest of moments to see the sort of concepts,  raised or at least hinted at by Barry Commoner in "Time" as what the world needed to do, finally landing in Christchurch. Newman's speech resonated with the depth of his knowledge and glowed with his broader vision and knowledge. We have caught up at last with the future.

The speech last night was the end of a personal phase to me - discussion of public transport at conceptual levels much deeper than some politicians viewpoint (inevitably poorly informed or a fantasist given the minimal depth of study or status given the subject even by Labour and the Greens) has at last entered the public realm in Christchurch. Concepts of land development and shaping cities and creating alternatives not only to car usage but to car ownership were discussed as norms, not impossible dreams. It is putting public transport (and active modes) centre-most in planning, world changing, that I find so attractive in Newman's vision and practises. That it could be possible, that it should be possible. 

I think the silence and bewildered stare that so long greeted my comment "I'm interested in public transport" may be about to go. End of a phase for me - prophet in the wilderness stuff. But  Dr Newman's visit is merely the start of a long curve I believe Christchurch must travel. 

Not that I didn't feel quite a few critical thoughts during the Professor's speech. There were three major areas where Professor Newton failed to impress me - his "busism"; his dubious generalisations about light rail statistics and his sloppiness of not clearly descriminating in many comments between rail and light rail and, in this sloppiness, a seeming advocacy of light rail as a goer right now for Christchurch, all rather at odds with his own record and strategic stance for Perth.

Newman certainly did not dismisss buses out of hand, or get into that either/or dichotomy to any extreme degree, but his speech was marred by a certain level of "busism" devaluing buses or placing them on a lower level than rail options. Busism (with parallels to sexism and racism) basically grossly underfunds or exploits bus systems, keeping their infrastructure at very low quality levels, gives them much of the crap work, and then says "oh but buses can't do/don't attract etc etc". 

As is usual with comments that denigrate buses,  such "no clear routes-not like rail lines"; or as Newton commented at one point (i.e. words to the effect) "you don't get buses going under over" crossing other traffic (implied as you do rail); or trams being quieter than buses - these comments actually reflect not on buses in themselves (as a concept)  but on the appallingly low level of investment in buses in most cities for the last sixty years.  This was made clear by a first question from the floor when a speaker correctly identified that Newman was largely "comparing apples with oranges" (I presume he meant comparing systems built for tens of millions per kilometre with $10 million-plus light rail dollar vehicles with conventional bus systems that often have nothing spent on their carriage way, road surface. curb separation, off street routing or priority of right of way over other traffic,  and in which buses are typically bought bottom dollar at $400,00 per vehicle). Professor Newman's comments about buses bunching up reflect systems operating without centralised controls - trains don't bunch because they have movements mediated by signals from a central control, as also operate in some of the more sophisticated bus systems in South America. (more discussion on some of the concepts at play, here). Trams don't queue?? Yeah right.
Again Professor Newman's  air of dismissal about Bogota, Curitba etc busways as "funded by the world bank" was trivial - light rail is funded by gold, coal, iron, oil, gas and steel mining and production in most parts of the world. Countries, states or cities that lack these big earners aren't exactly leading the rush to build light rail, a form of public transport that is incredibly expensive.  The simple reason is many countries, cities, regional administrations just don't have that much dosh to spare in their budgets to go plonking huge sums of money into one single tiny strip of a city's public transport system! This is particularly when the over all budgets must also cover hospitals, education etc. Or, they must borrow the money for needed infrastructure, doubling the costs and deeepening the debt trap - a huge difference in total real costs per kilometre from the generous grants shovelled out by Governments in Western Australia or Alberta, for example. In these circumstances busways carrying hundreds of thousands a day seem to me to represent a wise investment of limited money to help access and support the infrastructure of industry capable of lifting the economy. Istanbul, Jakarta, Capetown, Johannesburg, Lagos, many Chinese cities are aming those leading the way in bus and busway evolution. Busways of course also work better in some areas than rail options, especially lower density cities where multiple routes can directly feed onto one fast corridor into the city - much faster than feeder routes and transfers to a rail system.

Wealth-wise New Zealand sits somewhere in between developed Europe, Australia etc and much poorer developing countries (aggravated by our low population and taxation base) and it can not for one moment afford to be so dismissive of bus options and busway options. These might benefit so many more people across a wide spectrum of a city and cost so much less than singular light rail corridors.

In similar vein Newman's  extensive statistics did not offer any evaluation of journey times across whole cities and how these are effected or reduced by different modes. When light rail lines typically only cover 15-40km, as in many cities (or in Melbourne less than a third of the city)  one has to ask how long is it taking everyone else, who doesn't live close to light rail, to get to work. Christchurch has at least 250 km of bus routes (90% plus of the population within 500 metres of a route) and neither a few strips of light rail nor feeder buses travelling, mostlyway out of their way would offer city wide public transport system of equal quality and equal rapid access.

As for saying there are 100 cities in the USA doing light rail - even the extreme light rail advocates (who include every little movement or proposal by some opposition council member in their light rail lists) would be pushed to find fifty. Very few cities under a million attempt light rail unless supported by a large metropolitan tax base or large provincial funding base (like Ontario's substantial fuel tax dedicated to public transport).  The old light rail advocate trick of fluffin' the facts, describing cities with their large metropolitan areas by the population figures of their hub as "small cities" also arose.  To describe Strasbourg - the centre of a region slightly bigger than Ashburton district with a population of 1.7 million - as a small city is slightly misleading, the more so given the high Government and regional funding of public transport in most more densely populated European provincial areas (in Germany, for example, the city itself only meets 10% of the cost of light rail projects!).

But the thing that made me most smile (I didn't get chosen amongst the hands raised for questions) was how Professor Newman almost seemed to be advocating light rail as suitable for Christchurch at this stage - he certainly talked more about light rail than conventional rail.** This is curious indeed when he himself is very clear in his writings that the correct strategy for Perth (four times bigger than Christchurch) was to build up its convention commuter rail system first, before it considered light rail. To quote from the Professor's own impressive saga of the struggle to reintroduce trains  -

  "The Perth Rail Transformation; some political lessons learnt"

"The opportunity to build light rail has always been an intriguing and tantalising thought for myself and others in Perth. I have done several plans for how light rail could work in Freemantle, my home-town, and other potential routes across the suburbs. But in reality light rail would not have worked in the long corridors of Perth until a substantial, fast, heavy rail system was in place down each corridor. Bus linkages were another important part of that transformative process"

Dr Newman was certainly a bit of an evangelist, albeit a good humoured and relaxed preacher,  keen that we too should all see the light - light rail that is. But to be fair he did not exclude or dismiss other mode options, had a broader view, and it was, after all,  a public speech, not an academic lecture. One expects any speech introducing large concepts to be a bit broad, expressionist, generalised  in its advocacy, Such speeches  are not the time and place for an exact accounting and it is inevitable in their main thrust they tend to downplay or push aside contradictory details.

The more important aspect is that sort of inspiration and leadership is very much what the city needs if it is to find a place for public transport far far greater than has been the case for many decades.  The Canterbury Branch of the NZ Geographic Society and Professor Newman have both done Christchurch a great service.

** Notwithstanding his excellent choice in the  sample of a potential rail map for Christchurch!! 

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