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Let's make public transport appealing

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World-renowned urban designer Jan Gehl famously once said: “Cities have departments for railways and roads, but never departments for people.”

We have plans for many things – a robust 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide, an even more ambitious Integrated Transport and Land Use Plan and, as of last week, a new package of proposed reforms for the planning system.

What is perhaps lacking a clear focus is how we plan for people – variously described as the “end users”, patrons, train passengers or customers.

Adelaide has among the lowest public transport usage in Australia, at around 8 per cent.  Why is that? And how could we develop the state’s plans to have a better focus on the customer? Do our strategic planning tools actually plan, design and deliver for people?

Typically, transport projects are delivered with “project objectives” based on vehicles, travel time savings, improvements to freight movement efficiency, electrification of the rail system and so on.

These objectives are fundamentally aimed at more efficient freight movement, by providing a greater focus on infrastructure (rail and road). The argument is that more efficient freight movement is better for our economy, which encourages the use of local construction firms, creating jobs for local people.

I would like to see these project objectives expanded to include designing to encourage people to want to use public transport.

If we reimagine our working day slightly differently, and we plan our city’s transport through a different lens (that of the users, patrons, train passengers and customers), we might change the way we invest in Adelaide’s transport centres.

Meet Gary – in the year 2014

Gary is 35 and lives in a large house in Clapham. Gary works in the city. Gary isn’t sure about public transport, and until recently drove into the city to take advantage of the early-bird parking every day.  But Gary loves his smart phone, so he misses two hours a day of quality app time.

He’s discovered the Metrocard, and has caught buses before, but doesn’t like the bumpy ride.  So he decides to give the train a turn.  Gary walks the 600m uphill to Lynton Station, where he waits for his train on a rainy day. The platform is nice and flat, but the rain and sun protection is very limited; it is also often over-crowded for the three trains he can catch between 7.45am and 8.30am.  He gets wet getting onto the two-carriage train, which is annoying, as he is in his suit.  But he swipes his card and journeys to the city. He can’t get a seat, so he stands.

Hungry, he walks from the train to the tram to get to the office to eat his breakfast, but forgets and gets on with his day. He buys his lunch early, interrupting a meeting he had planned. “Can’t stand my stomach making all that growling noise”, he thinks. Not knowing the train times, he leaves a little earlier, which annoys his boss, and rushes to the station to catch a train home. It is still raining, so he gets wet walking to his house.  He thinks twice about it next time and gets back into his car.

Meet Kylie – in the year 2035 

Kylie lives in a smaller townhouse in Clapham, which has become comfortably denser around Lynton Station.

Kylie has a 150m walk to the station, on a pleasant and wide footpath underneath a connected canopy of trees. On the way is a small coffee cart in a protected plaza around the recently upgraded station, which caters to the mammoth increase in patronage on the inner Belair line.  The coffee cart is profitable, and is paying rent to the Government.  It has also created a couple of part-time jobs for locals.

Kylie drops her eldest child at the new child-care facility across the road from the train station, enjoys her coffee and pastry, and then strolls onto the platform. Trains run at 10-minute intervals during the peak hours of 7-10am; her smartwatch chimes that the next four-carriage train is arriving in two minutes.

Kylie’s flexible working arrangements allow her to work early and leave early from her job in the city.  It starts to rain but she isn’t bothered – she knows the wide footpaths allow for a quick and easy walk home, and there is ample room at the station to wait, under cover, until there is a gap between the showers.  In the afternoon, she knows there is a train every 10 minutes, so doesn’t have to worry about being late picking up her son from child-care.  In fact, she is able to quickly dash into the new supermarket at Adelaide’s central station to buy some milk, fruit and bread.

The short trip allows her to pay some bills, and the seamless wifi enables her to continue doing so on the train. Her son always loves watching the trains arrive, as he can see his mum walking through the wide, well-designed plaza.  Kylie is Gary’s daughter.

A ‘people first’ approach to transport

Our bus stops, tram stops, train stations and transport interchanges need to be recognised as places.  They are places where people live, congregate, arrive, depart and change modes (walking/cycling/driving to public transport) – and they are places which can grow.

Our transport hubs need to create a feeling of community, commerce and activity.  They are places that need love and attention.

If we focused our planning on what transport (and potential) customers need, and provided these incentives, then we may start to see cultural and behavioral change.  It takes time to change travel behaviors, and people need to see change and be part of it, and ultimately make a decision to change.

The hip pocket is one thing to target, as is the quality of the daily journey.  The decisions people make need to be second nature and easy.

There would be wider benefits of a “people first” approach, including streets with more trees, seating, activity and nice pavements.

Happier and healthier people, more productive workplaces, reduced absenteeism and increased economic activity are some of the benefits of a truly integrated transport and city planning approach.

The benefits of transport projects far outweigh the investment.  Sydney’s light rail, for example, will return $2.60 for every $1 of government investment in the project and reduce the estimated $5.1 billion that congestion costs Sydney’s economy every year in lost productivity. The belching buses will also be gone from George Street, the city’s future civic street, through a clever re-articulation of the city’s bus network. And it’s all designed for people.

Adelaide has similar opportunities right now, including a planned city tram loop and the City Access Project – the extension of the successful O-bahn into Grenfell Street. Adelaide City Council’s Smart Move Strategy aims to reduce car dependence, while at the same time making it easier to access the city via other modes of transport.  Investment in our public spaces will also provide more reason to walk and cycle through the city.

Driving our cars remains the primary transport for many of us, but in 20 years we may have congestion costing billions of dollars to our economy – just like Sydney’s does now.

If we don’t start planning for the integrated, seamless, enjoyable and efficient public transport we deserve, we won’t have the city we deserve.

– Daniel Bennett is a registered landscape architect and City Design and Transport Strategy Manager at Adelaide City Council.

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