Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Sydney Alliance Transport Assembly

A couple of posts back, I offered up some reflections on the Founding Assembly of the Sydney Alliance, a coalition of unions, community organisations and faith groups working together to "advance the common good and achieve a fair, just and sustainable Sydney". A short couple of months after that event, I was involved in launching the Sydney Alliance's campaign on transport at the Transport Assembly in Penrith, one of the outer-western suburbs of Sydney.

The Transport Assembly was the culmination of six months of action-research by the Alliance's Transport Research Action Team. In May of this year, when the Alliance decided that Transport would be one of the three key issues on which it would work, the Research Action Team was formed. It's a loose, diverse group, comprised of people from across the member organisations of the Alliance who were prepared to commit to working on transport. There's been quite a bit of learning-as-we-go here. One of the first issues to confront the group was that it was difficult to find a time and place to meet that would work for everyone across the city -- especially given some of the very transport issues that the group is trying to address! To get around this, we ended up with two groups, one that has been meeting in the Central Business District and the other that has been meeting in Penrith.

Since May, Transport Team participants have been busy talking to people across the member organisations of the Alliance about their transport issues, as well as reading up on the latest research on transport and meeting with a range of transport experts based in Sydney and beyond. Personally, I've found this really interesting. I've never conducted research on transport before, so compared to some of the other participants in the group, I've had a lot of catching up to do. Those involved in the team include transport workers and advocates in community organisations like the Western Sydney Community Forum and the Cancer Council, folks from various unions and community groups who've had a long involvement in transport campaigns dating back as far as the anti-freeway green bans in the 1970s (and sometimes further!), bus drivers and railway staff who have intimate knowledge of how public transport works and how it might run better, and people like me who are new to transport but fired up to make a change, among many others.

Sydney Alliance Transport Assembly, Q Theatre, Penrith, November 2011

The event started with small groups of people making their way to Penrith on public transport from various parts of the city. These groups conducted some research on the trip, surveying commuters about their experiences of public transport and telling them about the Sydney Alliance. They also chaperoned some members of NSW Parliament who were attending the Assembly. On arrival at Penrith Station, there were bagpipes playing (seriously!!!), and a march to the Q Theatre in Penrith. After the surveys were handed in and some food was consumed, the formalities began...

One of the main purposes of the night was to launch and explain the Sydney Alliance's formula for public transport in Sydney:

400:15:1 SCA2.

This formula addresses the different dimensions of accessibility to public transport which have emerged as Alliance priorities through the initial phase of action research.

The 400 is for 400 metres -- meaning that everyone in Sydney should have some form of public transport within 400 metres of where they're at and where they want to go.

The 15 is for 15 minutes -- meaning that public transport services should come at least every fifteen minutes all day, across the entire network

The 1 is for 1 ticket -- meaning that if your trip requires you to change modes of transport, you should not need to buy separate tickets, as is currently the case. 1 ticket should buy you access to the network, not just a single line.

The S is for Safe. The C is for Clean. The first A is for Accessible. And the second A is for Affordable.

Adding all of this up, the formula addresses the different 'accessibility gaps' that characterise the existing public transport system (see Corinne Mulley and Rhonda Daniel's work on accessibility gaps in public transport). The Alliance formula also recognises that Sydney-siders' travel needs are complicated -- we don't simply travel from the suburbs to the city centre for work, although the system tends to be planned with that kind of trip in mind. Rather, in our day-to-day lives we travel to lots of places, for lots of different reasons, at all times of the day and night (only about 16% of trips in Sydney are commuting to work, which constitutes about 28% of the distance we travel -- a large chunk of our travel is much shorter trips for other purposes like shopping, recreation, and services like health and education. See the most recent stats on transport in Sydney here). As such, for public transport to facilitate universal access to a range of activities and services which are central to our lives, it has to provide a network which enables us to access the whole metropolitan area.

Here, our thinking broadly fits with some of the work done by folks like Gustav Nielsen, Jarrett Walker and Paul Mees on the so-called 'network effect' in public transport. As Paul Mees puts it, you want the public transport network to be similar to the road network. The road network is not planned to enable all possible car trips to be taken on a single road. Rather, the roads form a network which provides a kind of mesh that enable car drivers to get anywhere they want to go. The same should be true of the public transport network. But in Sydney, public transport tends to be planned and provided as a series of distinct routes feeding into the CBD rather than as an integrated network which enables trips across the entire city.

To illustrate the '400' and '15' parts of the formula, a group of us produced a series of maps of public transport accessibility and frequency in Sydney. First, we mapped every train station and bus routes across the Metropolitan Area, to come up with an approximate representation of which parts of the city had access to public transport within 400 metres. Then we calculated the average frequency of each bus and train route between 5am and midnight on an average weekday. (Lots of member organisations in the Alliance represent shift workers, so looking at frequencies across the whole day was vital to adequately address their transport needs.) The result was the maps below, which show the extent of public transport coverage at different average frequencies.
In this map, those who live within the yellow shaded areas have some form of public transport within 400m

In this map, those who live within the yellow shaded areas have some form of public transport within 400m that comes at least every 30 minutes during the day

In this map, those who live within the yellow shaded areas have some form of public transport within 400m that comes at least every 15 minutes during the day

As you can see, while Sydney is relatively well-covered by public transport routes, not many of those routes have adequate frequencies to provide decent public transport for people across the city.

There are no doubt those who would suggest that lower density residential suburbs in the north, south and west of the city can't sustain frequent, comprehensive public transport and that densification is the answer. But like Paul Mees, we're not convinced of this. As the Public Transport Users Association in Melbourne puts it
Any city with sufficient population density to cause traffic congestion has sufficient population to support a first-rate public transport alternative.

Of course, the point of the Alliance is not just to raise a series of issues and toss around ideas for solutions, it is to build power and take effective political action. To that end, at the conclusion of the Assembly participants were provided with maps of their region of Sydney, and reps from the Sydney Alliance regional groups were on hand outside the theatre to sign people up who were ready to start taking action to address the gaps in the network.

Reflecting back on the Assembly and the work of the Transport Research Action Team so far, I think we've got at least two big challenges as we continue to develop the campaign... (beyond public transport being, like, a big issue!!)

First, I've found it really interesting that the issues of safety and cleanliness have emerged as very significant issues both to members of the Alliance and to members of the public who we surveyed. When we first presented the idea of a formula for transport at the Founding Assembly in September, it was '400:15:1'. But when we went back to member organisations across the Alliance with this formula, many told us that it didn't effectively capture all of their major concerns. This shouldn't have surprised me, given it has also emerged from previous research on transport accessibility. But I do think it's going to be a real challenge for the Alliance to find ways to address issues like safety and cleanliness that don't resort to the typical punitive 'law-and-order' responses. This is going to be especially important given that one of the other issues on which the Alliance is working is social inclusion. Indeed, the harassment of young people by police and security guards in public spaces and on public transport has emerged as one of the key issues for the Social Inclusion Research Action Team. I'm really excited about the potential for the Alliance to come up with something progressive rather than exclusionary on this issue...

Second, finding ways to build power and take action on public transport presents a particular set of geographical challenges for the Alliance in Sydney. To build an effective campaign on public transport, it's essential that people can connect with the issue and take action 'locally', in their neighbourhoods and workplaces. And yet, we've got to ensure that local actions add up to more than the sum of their parts. After all, a big part of the problem with public transport in Sydney is the fact that local services are not effectively co-ordinated into a network that provides integrated and comprehensive access to the entire metropolitan area. Inevitably, confronting network-wide issues like route structures, ticketing and safety will push us all beyond our localities. For instance, a 'local' safety campaign to get train stations staffed at night would have budgetary implications, and change to local bus routes and timetables would mean changes to procurement contracts between the State Government and public and private bus operators. So, we absolutely need to go local and build genuine citizen participation in transport planning -- that's a crucial ingredient that's been missing from all the expert-driven plans for improving the system which are now sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust, never to be implemented. And yet, we also have to make sure that local action is itself co-ordinated across the city -- you could say our organising challenge is to build a campaign that is as integrated and comprehensive as the transport network we want to create...

I'll be presenting a paper reflecting on the Sydney Alliance transport research-action process at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers later this month in New York, at a session on 'Placing Justice and Struggle in Transport Studies'. It's going to be crazy cold I'm sure ... but I'm not complaining!! I just hope that the transport heads go easy on me...

Meanwhile, if you're in Sydney and you'd like to know more or get involved, further details about the on-going activities of the Transport Research Action Team can be found here.

[Note: the ideas above are the product of collective research-action by lots of people involved in the Transport Research Action Team, but it's my write-up, so blame me for any mistakes or misinterpretations!] 

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