Sharing is caring and more on the road

I wrote this for my local paper – but I guess it wasn’t interesting enough, so instead you lucky people get to read it. Enjoy!

Rule 72 in the NSW road rules states that drivers turning a corner at an intersection must give way to pedestrians that are crossing the road they are entering. There is a bit more to it, but that’s the main gist. The gist that one hopes is common knowledge amongst all the road users in this city, especially as a mum who walks all over Newcastle with her two small children. 

However, the reason I know the number of the road rule isn’t for this post. It’s because I literally have to recite it to angry car drivers who look at me like I’m an obnoxious pedestrian, out to illegally stop their momentum at all costs. And last week in the car with my parents, as my mum whizzed around the corner I pointed out the pedestrian she should have given way to. My mum and dad are not rule-breaking kinds of people, but their reaction demonstrated they had been breaking this rule for years, oblivious to its existence.

I often find myself letting cars go before I cross, perhaps for the sake of the safety of my children or to avoid confrontation, and other times it’s just to be nice (like the drivers who gesture for me to cross the road when they have right of way). But each time I do, I wonder if I’m helping cement false understandings of the road and the rules that go with it. I know my parents are not alone in being unaware of this rule and not everyone has their pestering adult daughter in the backseat pointing out these things. Who looks up the road rules to have a refresher or check they haven’t changed? Don’t the norms on the road appear to tell the story that matters anyway?

I also regularly ride a bicycle, so I’ve become aware of several other rules that are being broken (perhaps also because they aren’t common knowledge) that jeopardise the safety of non-motorists. It terrifies me more when I see that it’s people who have barely had time to forget the score they got for their L’s test. It’s not uncommon to see the left blinker come on as a P plater overtakes me just before a corner, I slow to avoid the collision as it crosses my path and they drive off none the wiser.  

It’s not just the rules that matter to the safety and comfort of active transport users. The road environment is more than just following rules – it’s about staying humane, whether you jump into a car, hop on a bike, or stay on foot or in your wheelchair. You can think of the road environment as a bunch of different bodies moving around in a shared space – one of the most dangerous spaces on earth. These bodies vary in size, shape, weight, speed, hardness and have a person at their helm (with the exception of automated vehicles). While there are rules and infrastructure that make it seem ordered (including rules that not everyone knows), there is still a lot of understandable confusion on the road as we weigh up risks, responsibilities, competency and compassion. That’s where thoughtfulness, conversations and experience come into play. But perhaps, as a population, we haven’t been taught these other road skills well and it’s hurting our chances of reaching vision zero or getting more people to feel comfortable riding and walking through Newcastle.

What if we changed this with a school lesson that really got kids ready for the road? I didn’t know anyone who rode a bicycle in Newcastle when I got my licence and if I had to pass a cyclist, I would almost shut my eyes, hold my breath and hope. A scary thought for anyone who was cycling in the year 2000. I can’t help wishing I had known more about sharing the road and the complexity that is part of it. Instead all I knew was blind hope. 

I have started developing a lesson plan for Year 10 students to get this conversation flowing and give the students an opportunity to express their concerns and build their competencies and compassion. Whether they are excited about driving or remain devout active transport users, it’s important that we afford our young road users with the opportunity to use the road space wisely and feel confident and stay humane while on the road. I would love to collaborate with interested parents, children, teachers and other community members to make this an effective project for our community. In the meantime, make eye contact, smile, be kind and keep rule 72 in mind.

Should panniers play a bigger role in cycling promotion?

I learnt to ride a bicycle as an adult. To start with I carried nothing but a whole lot of nerves. Then I started carrying a little shoulder bag with essentials that would twist its way around and end up dangling in front of me. Soon I was carrying a backpack and it made life a little bit more comfortable but I still felt a bit loaded. However, when I started doing my shopping with my bicycle, I soon found that this didn’t suffice and I was doing that dreaded thing of balancing shopping bags on my handle bars… and then there was the time half my shopping fell all over the road. And finally I discovered PANNIERS! And now all I want to do is rave about them and stop people in the street who are straining their back and attempting weird balancing acts, to tell them they need to get some of these miraculous bags.

I wish someone had stopped me in the street (before my shopping burst onto the road) and told me about panniers and gave me a test ride of some. However, without having done any formal study, from my observation I still feel like the backpack is ruling the streets in my city and I suspect it’s similar in others. Panniers are something you seem to learn about through word of mouth or perhaps by starting to observe others. It’s not something that I hear about during cycling conferences, in cycling strategies or in conversations with other cycling advocates. But perhaps there is huge potential for panniers to encourage people to ride and improve those initial important steps to making cycling part of your life. And perhaps panniers could even be improved to play an even more important part of the solution if there was more discussions within cycling circles about what panniers can and could offer.

The need to carry things is given as a reason not to be able to ride a bicycle. A good example of this is school teachers. They may be carrying notes, resources, marking and more. It may seem difficult to carry this on a bicycle. However, what if the schools promoted the use of panniers for the teachers, perhaps even subsidised them to help teachers avoid clogging up nearby parking and provide a good role model for students? Could we see panniers as an option in the school uniform shops (or if you know of anywhere this is already happening let me know)?

For the average worker in Australia, particularly in summer, the sweaty back that comes along with wearing a backpack on a bike (not to mention the discomfort and potential sore back) is not something you look forward to at the start or end of your day. Could the humble pannier be the reason why someone chooses to keep riding instead of giving up after a bit of sweat and back pain? And if so, shouldn’t every workplace with any policy to increase active transport be pushing the pannier? I would love to see workplaces giving out free panniers (and why not include the company’s logo- an idea I’m working on) to help workers have the best, most ergonomic ride to work they can, with plenty of carrying capacity to do the shopping on the way home. And don’t quote me on this, but I have a theory that if panniers are full enough they may also provide some cushioning from cars (an untested theory) :).

Going for a walk with public transport

Have you ever had to deal with a car shuffle? The frustration and logistics, the waiting and then more logistics. You set out to do a through (one way) hike and find yourself waiting around at the start and the end as cars are litterly shuffled around. And of course you need two cars (or a car and bicycle sometimes) and enough drivers and people to look after children who are going crazy waiting to walk. Yep, it’s the not fun bread with the meaty bushwalking in the middle.

However, there is a way to keep the kids happy and the cars at home. If you can somehow get public transport to work for you instead of relying on cars, you are in for a much easier ride. While intrepid adventures are often in corners of the world were public transport doesn’t dare to go, smaller and simpler walks can be accessible by bus, train, tram or ferry. These are the walks I like to take my kids on and they enjoy getting there as much as the walk itself.

Since having children, and basically giving up hope of going on multi-day hikes or muddy cycling tours, I’ve had to seek ways to enjoy nature closer to home. I have to admit, I thought this was going to be really hard – that I would need a car to get close to nature with a kid. However, with my son in a backpack I set off to see where the pubic transport network of Newcastle could meet short bush walks and I was pleasantly surprised, and I continue to be. So surprised, that I started putting together a carfree tourism guide for Newcastle which you can access here.

I have discovered many little walks, some with a playground at the end. And I’ve managed to link up different walks (with some ideas from friends) to make day walks through Newcastle. Last Friday, I set off to explore the Belmont Wetlands as part of a walk from Jewells along the coast back to Newcastle, and discovered amazing Sand dunes and creeks. I was shocked and almost embarrassed to realise I had never been here before and it was amazing. It’s on one of the major bus routes (the number 14) which makes it easy to get to. The ranger explained that a local elderly couple John and Carol had cared for this walk and the vegetation around it. Carol has passed away but John still visits daily.

And as I was walking along, I realised how amazing the diversity of my day would be. After running up and down sand dunes and walking along the beach, I walked through the the bush to a creek filled with paperbark trees and ducks.

Ducks at the end of Owen’s walk

Then along Owen’s walk, and couldn’t help thinking I would love to know the history of this walk too. This is an accessible walk going through forest, coastal scrub and sand dunes. And yes, there is a playground at the end! But my children weren’t with me, so I continued on to the Awabakal track, which shines with textures of green, the colours of native flowers and the glimpses of headlands and the sea.

Flannel flowers on the Awabakal Walk

After a short stint through the streets of Dudley, I was back in the bush down the Bombala track with it’s tall trees and sea breeze and then I hit the beach. And stayed in that space where the forest meets the sea until I came across the Merewether Baths. Normally from Dudley beach I head into Glenrock, but the tide was low and so I explored the rocks below the headland which were kind of amazing. Rock hopping is a special kind of meditation as you intuitively contemplate how you will land and leap from each rock as you choose between all the paths around you. A very different transport from anything I’ve talked about previously and I started to wonder how we could incorporate more rock hopping into our everyday.

Rocks between Dudley and Burwood Beach

The trickiest past of rock hopping in summer is working out when to take your shoes on and off and I’m quite sure my feet got a bit burnt in the process. So I was really looking forward to walking in the shallow water along Burwood beach. When I came across this beautiful piece of coal on the beach, I wondered what I could make of it. Between the history of my city, and of earth and what it had come to represent, all I could do was take a pretty picture of it and continue walking.

And as I arrived at Merewether I remembered we needed milk, so I caught the bus to the shops and then another one up the hill to home. It felt like a pretty special adventure, made possible by public transport. However, I still struggle with some walks to find good ways to make them work with buses and trains. I think there is still potential to improve the way our public transport offers ways for locals and tourists to enjoy the nature of the surrounds of Newcastle. Perhaps this isn’t the primary purpose of public transport, but for me it’s an important one – the one I missed most when we stopped using public transport during the lockdown. I’m always looking for more ideas, and keen to hear how you use public transport to access your adventures, so please get in touch or leave a comment.

Chapter 3: It’s time we talked about your behaviour! Your travel behaviour…

In the half a year since I wrote my last summary of a thesis chapter (Chapter 2), the world has flipped on its head and disconcertingly continued to spin in a bad way. It seems appropriate to talk about human behaviour over ten years after I first delved into it – a decade where we have seen behaviour take centre stage as computers churn up every part of our being and spit out advertisements, games, new products, election scams and other behaviour altering, world changing, gimmicks.

My exploration of human behaviour felt much more benign at the time. I really just wanted to understand how I could help people get out of their cars. I read psychological theories relevant to travel behaviour and became slightly fascinated, but mostly wary, of the world of nudging and behavioural economics. They still felt like they were reducing human experiences and potential behaviour change strategies to games we play on our fellow humans. I learnt about the different theories of behaviour change and main determinants of behaviour and these became the main focus of the chapter. The determinants of behaviour I focused and some interesting insights I gained were:

Attitude – Travel behaviour is attitudinally complex (lots of relevant and potentially competing attitudes); attitudes have different strengths (intensity and connection to self-identity) and salience; attitudes have affective, cognitive and behavioural components; attitudes have different functions related to satisfying needs, protection from harsh realities, giving structure to one’s universe and expressing values; behaviour doesn’t always follow on from an attitude.

Values and Norms – Unlike attitudes, norms and values are not situation specific. Values are principles which guide us with an understanding of desirable ways to behaving or desirable end-states. They can be formed through conditioning and learning experiences. Norms are embedded with values and provide certainty and stability through some consistency of ways of being of individuals in a social system. Norms and Values can be social or personal; social relying on social sanction to reinforce them while personal are maintained through internal support of individual and can be formed by internalising social norms and through embracing the relevant values. Injunctive social norms are based on systems of belief around what is morally approved or disapproved, whereas descriptive social norms are based on the perception of prevalent behaviour (and don’t necessarily align with moral judgements).

Perceived and actual efficacy– Self-efficacy is the ability to successfully undertake the behaviour and outcome efficacy is whether the completion of the behaviour leads to desired outcomes. Perceptions of these efficacies can affect what behaviour is attempted or maintained. Both internal and external factors need to be addressed to improve perceived and actual self-efficacy and outcome efficacy. Perceived and actual self-efficacy improved after successfully completing the behaviour and therefore provides a virtuous cycle.

Habit – Refers to the way behavioural choices are made and not the regularity of the behaviour. It is related to past and repetitive behaviour and reduction in need for deliberation. It is like having a script that you automatically follow in a given situation. How easy these scripts are to retrieve indicates the strength of the habit. Strong habitual behaviour can inhibit information acquisition and acceptance (configuring it to align with habits). When habits are broken naturally, through changes in people’s situation, these people might be more receptive to different considerations.

Emotions – comprising of psychological and expressive reactions along with subjective feelings, emotions are an interesting determinant of behaviour as well as antecedent to other determinants of behaviour. Emotions can act with or without our awareness; emotions are shared with others through expression and emotional stories; and this sharing may help regulate social relations; emotions have been shown to help in decision making by “rearranging new priorities and setting a hierarchy of goals”.

So various theories have put these determinants of behaviour to work, to show how they can explain our behaviour. While the theory of planned behaviour is widely used, Triandis’ theory of interpersonal behaviour includes emotional and habit concepts, and a broader consideration of social factors and facilitating conditions. The belief-value-norm theorem, social learning theory and the health belief model area also widely used. However, it felt phoney trying to apply any particular theory to urban travel behaviour. I felt like I needed to teeter around the edge a bit longer – just thinking more broadly about the psychological determinants of behaviour in the context of modal choice. I finally came up with a number of quirks of urban travel behaviour that we should keep in mind when exploring behaviour and behaviour change:

Many attributes and issues – There is a complex array of issues involved in urban travel as described in my summary of Chapter 2. These issues have associated feelings and thoughts and there are a variety of emotions, attitudes and values that play a role in determining behaviour. 

An everyday occurrence – Urban travel is a routine part of most people’s day. Whether one works, studies, accesses essential services or participates in the commerce and culture of a city, they travel to get places. Current behaviour trends and the lack of change in travel behaviour are often attributed to the formation of habit amongst members of the travelling population associated with the frequency at which people travel.

An activity people prepare for – A choice to take one mode of transport over another cannot usually take place spontaneously. People may require resources, prior knowledge and planning in order to take a mode of transport. The preparation to take one mode of transport may create a barrier through a reduction in self- efficacy. However, once this preparation has taken place, a lock-in effect may be developed, because the person has reduced the effort required for one mode of transport but not for others. This is due to the long-term decisions about where people live and work as well as the purchase of vehicles and the acquisition of licences and skills.

Involves co-operation throughout society – Many of the negative impacts of travel, such as climate change, are diffused throughout society and are caused by the travel behaviour of many individuals. In order to make an impact on these problems associated with travel, a co-operative effort throughout society is needed. Increasing people’s sense of outcome efficacy could prove to be difficult under these circumstances. People with values that are socially orientated are more willing to co-operate, so promoting and priming such values may lead to a better uptake of public transport and active transport use.

Takes place in public – When people travel in cities they move through public places where their travel behaviour is on display to other members of the public. People who are conscious of this may want to show that they abide by social norms in order to gain social sanction. It becomes apparent as to what modes of transport people are taking by just being in the street of a city. Through observing this street scene, descriptive social norms may be evoked by seeing the prevalent modes of transport being used. This will reinforce current patterns of travel behaviour, particularly when this behaviour is more public than other travel. For example, the public cannot as readily see how well patronised trains are because they take up less public space than individuals driving cars.

Involves a complex mix of skills, protocols and navigation – To use a mode of transport, a variety of skills may be required such as driving a car, riding a bicycle, understanding a ticketing system, or entering and exiting vehicles. These skills may require learning and practice to stay confident and increase one’s self efficacy. The more one uses a particular mode of transport, the more confident they will be in the skills needed to use it. Similarly, one needs to know the appropriate protocols and navigation in order to negotiate the transport system successfully. These depend on how legible the transport system is. One gains confidence in one’s ability to undertake these protocols and navigation through experience.

Pervasive presence – Transport infrastructure is a dominating element of cities. Exposure to roads, parking, footpaths, bus stops and railways is a part of everyday life. Consequently, they reinforce descriptive social norms around travel behaviour, because they provide evidence of the use of the various modes of transport. Large car parks and roads do not need to be filled with cars for people to see that they cater for a substantial population of cars. Evidence of public transport, cycling and walking, such as bike paths and bus shelters, could evoke social norms around the use of these forms of transport.

Confronted by a number of situations while travelling – While travelling, people are confronted by a number of different environments and sensations. This is part of the evolving nature of urban transport and the diversity of environments within the city. This may lead to a range of emotions being experienced. It may also put people in situations where they feel they have less control, such as driving on a congested road or waiting for a train that is late. This may decrease people’s perceived self-efficacy.

So these are just a few things to think about that might be part of the equation when we are using one or mode of transport or another. However, for the equation to make sense, we need to understand what affects these determinants of behaviour and to do this we will explore our world (and the messages it contains and how we interact with them) a little more in the next chapter….

How to make the most of a ‘no fly zone’ year or two

As restrictions start to lighten and we get excited about our new freedoms, there is one that will be in place for quite some time – we won’t be freely flying to all the wondrous corners of the world for a while. However, it looks like we will still be able to travel to New Zealand and I’ve heard it’s full of adventures (I have never been). This might hit some of us quite hard, there are those of us with loved ones abroad and there are those of that feel like we are contorting quite uncomfortably in a box by being stuck on one of the largest islands in the world.

This reminds me of the time when I decided I wasn’t going to fly. Well, at the time I was living in Paris, about 17000 kilometres from my home. If my boyfriend had decided to stay with me, perhaps I wouldn’t have jumped on a plane to fly home, maybe we would have even cycled, but it didn’t end up that way. So I took, what I thought would be my last, flight with blurry eyes, feeling like I was a passenger of my body. My original reasons for not flying were a mix. I was learning about climate change and petroleum consumption. I had also visited developing countries where I met people I could relate to really well, but the idea of flying to another country was completely off their radar. It seemed like such an inequitable thing to do.

I found myself in Sydney, finding ways to keep studying – perhaps because I thought I hadn’t learnt enough to contribute anything substantial to society (although I still feel like that) ….  During my studies I would try and get a grasp of the latest research on the impact of aviation of climate change. This knowledge could fuel my responses to people’s questioning of my decision not to fly. But as I time went on, I realised it wasn’t about the equivalent tons of CO2 or the fuel being burnt, although they are important. It was about a loss of romance with space, distance, journeys and adventure. I wanted to respect all the space between take off and landing by not taking off.

I could see that some plane travel was necessary (like getting me home from my studies in Paris). However, the mundane, or even habitual, use of planes was undermining how amazing it was that, when needed, we could actually arrive in another part of the world without being out on the high seas for months at risk of getting scurvy. It was sad to see that the sheer amount of energy and ingenuity required to get us up in the air was being wasted on the pathetic arrogance of business meetings and the manufactured whims for a desire to spend a week here or there to unwind.  I was in my twenties, so it was my job to feel disgusted with the world.

However, I couldn’t help but feel like I had created a limitation on myself that was not only going to potentially affect my happiness but also my ability to succeed as a researcher. After all, as part of our scholarship we were being offered money to travel to conferences. I did make it to a few local conferences, as well as one in Brisbane and another in Melbourne – reaching the limits of the country link train service or in the case of my trip to Brisbane, testing the limits of my legs as I rode up the coast of NSW. However, my choice not to fly, limited not only my ability to network (which is questionable even when I am in the right location), it also limited my choice of thesis. After living in France, I wanted to gain glimpses of how different aspects of transport systems affected how the local people lived and related to transport – that wasn’t going to happen without flying. So, my work ended up being much more theoretical and as you will see later, it led to my eventual decision to break my commitment… I guess working under these constraints also gave me some direction and it also made me feel less hypercritical about being someone working towards reducing our negative environmental impact.

So, there was also the fear of feeling unhappy, trapped or lost without aeroplanes being able to take me to adventurous locations. However, the time I had spent away from Australia had made me realise how precious this land was and I was going to have plenty of time to explore it. I bought a bike, made some bike buddies and searched for adventures at the end of train lines. I did some silly things, like finding ridiculous and unnecessary hills to climb or taking an extra 50 km to avoid 10 km of a main road only to find myself riding 30 km down the same road a bit further along. These were the days without smartphones, where maps, printouts and memory were the foundation of wayfinding.


Most of my cycle tourism were weekend camping trips. So humble, that tourism seemed a bit of an excessive term to describe it.  However, the nature and the experience took my breath away.  My friend would casually mention how the countryside we were riding through reminded him of Pakistan…. It made me realise that I don’t need to fly to feel faraway. It was just a matter of visiting different places close to home and seeing them in beautiful ways. So with this in mind, I had some great adventures over six years where my feet nearly never went further than a ten metres off the ground. I did actually fly once, on my way home from Alice Springs after arriving with the combination of a rental relocation to Adelaide and a day on the Ghan train.

In someways I felt frustrated as I sometimes struggled not to buy a relatively cheap flight to visit friends or do an amazing overseas cycling adventure. I would witness others (that identified as environmentalist more than I did) so flippantly flying around for one reason or another.  However, I do appreciate the time I spent without flying and I continue to want to limit my flying. I believe adventure can literally be just around the corner and you would be embarrassed to realise you spent thousands to travel the world and missed some of the most amazing spots just a $5 train away combined with a bike or bush walk.

So, after I finally finished my studies, I had a dream to make a documentary. I wanted to convey the human side of transport through words and moving images. To make it about humanity, I decided it had to capture a diverse range of cities and the cultures within them. So I found myself packing my bag, putting my flightless commitment on hold and booking flights. I thought long and hard about it, and tried to find ways to travel across land when it was feasible. This was going to be the trip of a lifetime, and I was going to work hard, not visiting the nature that I was normally drawn to, but instead be in the cities, with the people, completely out of my comfort zone. I did have one fear though. It was that I would fall in love with someone from another country and then create a driver for more air travel once I returned.

But love doesn’t really care about your morals, or maybe my morals are just weak. However, my Spanish husband has always maintained that he is happy to limit our travels. So far, we are doing ok with just a few major hiccups when I decided I wanted to learn Spanish and meet his family and another time I was “tricked” into going over to the Iberian Peninsula for a very very small film festival to show my film. Well, not quite tricked and I did have some good feedback about the film, but I did do that flight with a 1 and a 3 year old by myself.

So, over the next year or two, let’s make the most of this country and its neighbour. Being a tourist in Australia isn’t so bad and our tourism industry is going to need all the help it can get. If you feel like contributing to other countries that you would have visited, use the money you saved from the plane tickets to find ways to give something whether it’s through charities or buying something remotely. My heart goes out to those with loved ones overseas, but just imagine how big the hugs will be when you finally get to see them.


The year humans became as dangerous as cars

This year I feel slightly like my saddle has been pulled out from me.  I’m left wondering what to think about the current situation and whether I should have an opinion about it in relation to transport. I’ve barely caught a bus for a month and there are some days I don’t even step out of my house. Meanwhile, cycling is booming, with many replacing gym memberships with two wheels and sunshine. Transport has changed a lot for most people, and it might also be a moment where we change how we frame transport. I’m going to give some scattered ideas that I see at the intersection of COVID 19 and transport. However, I feel like there is much to be learned from the public so I invite you to answer a few questions that I hope to use as I start to put together a short documentary on this time in transit.

St Petersburg Metro

Risking lives and livelihoods

We learn that cars are dangerous from a very young age. My 2 year old son knows not to cross the road without his mum. I have seen his shocked little face when a car has come a bit close to the footpath. A car can kill you and when you drive a car, you increase your chance of killing someone. Not only directly through a crash, but also through the fumes that your cars produce, and more indirectly through a myriad of ways. These include wars that are fought over oil, the destruction required to feed a very resource intensive transport system and a reduction in physical activity and inclusivity of the city. And yet people get into their cars without feeling like they are being irresponsible and without feeling the pressure that “we are all in this together” and hence should be doing their bit to stop the carnage – and drive less.

This feels in direct contrast to how we are managing the risks associated with COVID-19. And while I appreciate the urgency to deal with the coronavirus, which won’t just cause suffering and death but compromise our health system which isn’t prepared for such a load, I don’t feel it is that different to the car-related feedback loops that actually put stress and potentially threaten to collapse many of our institutions and eco-systems that help prop up civilisation. It’s really just a matter of timing…

Privilege of those with private spaces

Isolation is mainly about isolation from places that other people use i.e. where there is public access. It therefore privileges those with private spaces and motors. For those of us living in apartments, we cannot continue to enjoy the lifestyle we rely on for our well-being and joy. If you don’t own a private swimming pool, children cannot swim, if you don’t have a private playground, children cannot swing and if you don’t have a private motor (and you feel uncomfortable about catching public transport as I do with my children) you cannot visit the places past walking and cycling distance. For us, this meant foregoing our little bush walks that we normally catch the bus to.

Luckily, we live in a great area, with parks and beaches, and we are still allowed to access these places. Compared to the apartment dwellers in Italy and Spain who have been locked in their 40 m2 except to buy groceries, we are lucky. However, it is sad to see that some of our choices to make our lives more sustainable, by sharing public spaces and vehicles rather than acquiring private spaces and vehicles for ourselves, leads to greater impacts on our lifestyle and livelihood during these times. But it’s not so bad when you can ride a bicycle I guess….

A time for going forward or backward?

And this leads to my last point of discussion. As we see more people riding bicycles and walking for exercise and to get around their city, but less people using motorised transport, both private and public, we are left wondering what will happen next. With many countries taking measures to make cycling and walking safer (both for social distancing and reducing risks posed by motor vehicles), there is a sense of hope that this can be a moment of change. Fear that people won’t be wanting to use public transport to its full potential for a while, brings one back down but perhaps a balance will be found with active and public transport both playing important and supporting roles for each other.

However, last night when I watched car advertisements which glorified being big, aggressive, and untamed, along with a TV show targeted at my 4 year old showing a lady hooning around on a quad bike, all my hope was crushed. I started to think about a career change. I know there are many people having mini- mid-life crises, there are many marketing departments brainstorming how to make the most of this and they won’t be worried about any of the other problems afflicting our society and planet. They will be looking at how to get people jumping back into cars when this is all over – perhaps using it as the symbol of freedom from the lockdown, the symbol of control over your environment and who you are in contact with, or the symbol of sexual prowess for all those who have have been sexually repressed during these times.

The only thing that can stop the commercial interests winning, is a huge amount of creative will to free up people’s minds to reflect on, to experiment with and to envision their life and their world in new (less consumeristic) ways. I don’t have all the answers, but there is some great work happening in the space of tactical urbanism, in creative and caring communities and I urge you to support these initiatives and find your way in these confusing time. Here is what I can offer…

If you want to contribute to the big drawcard please start drawing

If would want to discuss your transport experiences please answer these few questions

If you want to help with any other projects I am working on, check out this page and get in touch

If you want to spend an hour meditating on movement in our city, watch my film


Caring across generations

So it seems trivial to say that the last few months have been a bit of a rollercoaster ride. We have been shaken up with grief and confusion, and had life turned on its head, with a constant fear of what might be coming up, for us personally, the people we love and more broadly for society and the earth (which hopefully we also love). It’s hard not to read about it, talk about it, dream about it and feel like it is suffocating us even when we haven’t got it.

It’s no wonder some people (particularly young people) want to dismiss or deny it (well at least denying the extent of the tragedy and continuing threat). And yes there has been parallels made with climate change. The economic impact of actions to stop the coronavirus or climate change are hard to deny. But also the moral impact (along with the economic, psychological and social impacts) of letting the destructive force slide out of control is beyond our comprehension as we have seen with bushfires ravaging the world in the last year and health systems falling apart in the last months.

After the biggest year of climate change activism in a long time, I actually see this moment, in the midst of the COVID 19 outbreak, as the best chance in a long time for young people to do some activism for our future. Because, in some ways it seems like the tables have turned from when school strikers were calling for older people to care about them and future generations. While young people have less risk of getting severely or critically ill from the virus, their action affects those around them, including people in their grandparent’s generation.

Now is the chance to show people from every walk of life that young people are caring and willing to make changes (even sacrifices*) for their compassionate love of humankind. If every young person who skipped school or just showed support for climate action last year started making posters, and other things that the cools kids do these days, that showed how important it was to stop the spread of the virus, a groundswell of support for staying at home could sweep across the empty school playgrounds and university grounds.

And if you could do this – I am not sure if I still count as young – but I’m going to say it anyway … if we could do this, surely we would be showing people from every other age bracket that we do care. We’d be setting an example for what has to come next for our planet, which is a caring that crosses generations and cultures.  It is looking someone in the eye, or at least an image of them, and realising that you honestly care about them and you feel sadness for their suffering.  And it is using your imagination to realise you care about all the people you can’t see as well, including those from the generation of your great great grandchildren.

So young people – show that intergenerational caring that you’ve been searching for- show them how it’s done! And hopefully the older generations will learn and feel inspired by you. So, let’s tackle this immediate threat wholeheartedly and then move on to tackling climate change and other eco-system collapse with renewed tenacity and inspiration.

*my sacrifice includes not taking my children to play with other children or to playgrounds which means I am starting to lose the plot. Hence my cliche driven and dramatic writing should be excused this once, but hopefully you still get the gist.



How do we look at transport?

I wrote a thesis many years ago, and had a stubborn arrogance that it was one piece of work, and so it should be read in its entirety. As a result I didn’t publish papers and I didn’t keep going in Academia, and almost no one has read my thesis. So… I thought, why not at least put some of the work I did out there in a more accessible form. I’m going to start with Chapter 2, which explores the different contexts or lenses through which urban transport systems are examined.

So what type of system is urban transport and how do you see it and all the problems and opportunities related to it? Perhaps this depends on your profession, your interests or just what is going on around you? If you are a public health practitioner, it might be seen as a problem of safety and health. If you are interested in the environment, it might be a problem of consumption of materials including fossil fuels and emissions of solid waste and air pollution. If you live in part of the city which has problems with traffic noise and feeling cut off from your neighbours by big roads, perhaps it is an urban planning problem.

If we want to solve transport problems and explore opportunities for transport to play a positive role, we have to examine transport from the perspective of all these people and more.  I set out six different contexts (or lenses) to look at urban transport systems. They are not independent on one another but they help give us different ways of focusing our attention and ensuring various elements of transport problems are being considered.

Diagram of contexts
Source: Hicks (2013)


They are even more interrelated than this graphic shows, but I wanted to keep it from getting messy.  An outline of the contexts are as follows (there are a lot more details in my thesis):

  • The political/cultural context – modes of transport have broad impacts on the culture and political ideologies of the society, and conversely, transport development is also influenced by culture
  • The material and energy context – modes of transport use consumes resources, and produces waste and emissions
  • The urban planning context – modes of transport impact the landscape and function of a city
  • The economic and industrial context – modes of transport require financing and their operation impacts on the wider economy
  • The psycho-social context – modes of transport impact their user psychologically and socially through the experiential, symbolic and utilitarian values that transport use offers them
  • The public health context – modes of transport impact the health of people who use the transport as well as other people in the community

The table below gives some of the findings that came from examining the transport in Sydney from the different contexts.

Contexts related to urban transport

Source: Hicks (2013)

This basically gave me a good base to start any examination of transport within my PhD, and has continued to help me when contemplating new innovations or approaches within urban transport, or reflecting on long standing issues. For access to my thesis please visit the UNSW library UNSWorks webpage and search for The social context of urban travel behaviour



Spotto – a sustainable transport initiative?

Yesterday, to pass time on the bus, I started playing a game with my children. As I looked across the intersection of Tudor and Parry Street in Newcastle West, encircled with car dealerships, I was trying to spot something nice. There was a man walking along with a dark pink shirt. So I said who can spot the man walking with a pink shirt. This game soon evolved to spotting cyclists, pedestrians, bonus for prams, motor bikes, people waiting at bus stops and buses. We had a point system that we didn’t keep count with (but it was there), and Dante kept declaring he won because a bus was worth sixty hundred thousand points.


But this game got me thinking…. about two things. When we were little we would never let a yellow car, a beetle or a mini go by without noticing it and someone else getting a punch or a pinch. OK, maybe we just were looking for an excuse for small acts of violence, but the key thing was that they became a salient part of our experience on the road. In juxtaposition to this, the advertisement with the bear behind the basketball players is all about not being able to spot something because you aren’t looking for it. This is backed up by research by Herslund & Jorgensen (2003) finding many crashes were caused by drivers looking but failing to see cyclists.  So combining these these two lines of thought, surely this must mean we just need to have a game to get people spotting cyclists in order to start looking out for them more on the road and therefore creating a safer cycling environment (but I’m still undecided as to whether there should be small acts of violence involved).


Another logic behind this game, would be the importance of observing various signals in our environment that evoke the descriptive norms of a behaviour. Put simply, if you take the time to notice the people who ride (or walk or take the bus), then you are more likely to appreciate that riding (or walking or taking the bus) is a normal thing to do. And this can be a  powerful tool in determining our behaviour as researched by Cialdini (2007). So perhaps this game could not only make cycling and walking safer, but also people might start giving it a go more often. And then this game will get a whole lot more crazy and we might have to limit it to yellow bikes or cyclists and pedestrians dressed in yellow!


Now comes the fun part – what would be the rules of the game? How could it evolve from something I play with my kids, to something the world wants to play? Our scoring system went like this:

Person riding bicycle : 10 points

Pedestrian : 2 points

with Pram : extra 2 points

People waiting at bus stop : 6 points

Motor bikes : 3 points

Bus : 60 00 000 points

My first thought was an app, and it could have different bonus point systems that change weekly (like extra points for pedestrians in pink). However, I realised that for the drivers out there this wasn’t going to work – unless it could be all done by microphone and if it was in driver mode and the phone sensed it was being picked up, it would stop working… Or maybe it just has to continue being a game that families and whoever else wants to play… I have no idea how to popularise it (maybe through schools) and I can’t imagine any level of government willing to promote the idea as a sustainable transport initiative, but I can’t help but feel that it might be a good idea. What do you think? Would you play? What would be your rules?



Who’s driving who anyway?

When contemplating a career in transport these days (or just contemplating transport), it seems important to have your head around autonomous vehicles, electric and shared vehicles, and to have some opinion on them. Meanwhile it feels like people in the field of autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles or any technological development in transport don’t have to have their head around public transport, active transport or urban planning, but that’s another matter (or maybe it isn’t).  I have been trying to work out what I think about autonomous vehicles, shared vehicles, electric vehicles and what they might mean to a transport planner, a parent and a car-free person.

Ten years ago I organised a debate ‘Sustainable transport means seriously fewer cars’ and the idea was to get those that saw our urban transport woes being solved purely by technological changes with continued car ownership vs those that saw the need (and possibility) to change the way we do things and own things. I couldn’t find enough people for the negative team so the debate turned into a forum of the good things about shifting away from car ownership and use. So I was still left pondering where the world sat with this question – what was the potential for a mass shift away from privately owned cars?

Since then, the next generation of electric cars with the help of lithium batteries has rapidly developed, along with autonomous vehicles and then there are the shared vehicle and ride services. In someways each of these developments has kind of excited me and freaked me out at the same time. I love the idea of sharing a car or a ride. When I need a car, I borrow one, knowing it would just be sitting there otherwise.  And I was a big believer in hitchhiking – when dropping someone at the airport, I had once collected the three people waiting at the bus stop and dropped them off at various places on my way home. My passengers were surprised but I can’t stand the inefficiency and lack of community that our individualised untrusting world creates (which is epitomised by private car ownership and use). About thirteen years ago, I had learnt about some smart features of cars related to pedestrian safety, including detection, autonomous braking and airbags on the bonnet, and I was excited about this but not so much about completely autonomous vehicles which my professor at the time was predicting well ahead of the pack.  So I see some advantages to some of these technologies if used well, but I fear that the monetising and marketing of these technologies isn’t inline with what the world needs.

Do we need or want vehicle’s picking us up and dropping us where we need to go from door to door? I believe it obliterates some fundamentally important aspects of sustainable transport systems. These include exercise, efficiency of movement and interaction.

Firstly, there is a good chance that such a model of transport will obliterate our own movement, with people not walking or cycling to public transport stops or from door to door, or not even having to walk from a carpark to the door, autonomous shared vehicles could make incidental exercise non-existent. While people can exercise at other times of the day, having it structured into your life and moving at some stage of your movement through your city just makes a lot of sense. There is the possibility that having autonomous vehicles as a service might encourage occasional use, but I imagine it will be a subscription type model separate from public transport so it will have minimal marginal costs, in a similar way to current car use.

Secondly, while autonomous shared vehicles overcome some issues with car use, such as, how much material and space idle vehicles take up, it doesn’t deal with the fundamental inefficiencies of the movement of cars as a way to carry people from one place to another which I see most clearly when describing our transport system with an entropic-type variable.  Just picture relatively big, heavy, fast vehicles moving in all sorts of direction and compare it to other modes of transport which either go along set routes or tracks and carry many people (in the case of buses and trains) or are lighter and slower (in the case of bike and pedestrians) and you see the main basis of my argument.  There would still be a gluttonous need for infrastructure, space and management tools to satisfy all these autonomous vehicles fulfilling the whims of their passengers.  There is potential for induced demand as we take away some of the costs associated with car use, which could add another spanner in the works.

Thirdly, cities are a place of exchange, and incidental social interactions are an important element of a vibrant functioning city with caring citizens. Already, people driving cars have much less contact with others than those using other modes of transport. My fear is that autonomous vehicles will reduce our exchanges, because there will be no need for drivers to make eye contact with pedestrians and cyclists and exchange informal signals. This might seem trivial, but needing to watch out for your fellow human beings could be more important than we realise. Perhaps, autonomous vehicles users will spend more time looking out at the street but I feel like the technophilic world that thrives on attention and advertising, won’t be interested in creating outward looking citizens.

I understand that there can be benefits from these technologies, but I would just love a more systematic approach by the people pushing technologies and a critical examination of the social issues around them. I’m sure there are people working in this space, but we need to be careful with what we wish for at this time where we should be using our resources and research effort wisely. I’d love to hear your perspectives on these technologies and services.