A book to stop children repeating the biggest mistake of my youth

Today I’ll let you know a secret that I kept all through my childhood and into my twenties. I never learnt to ride a bike as a child. I didn’t have a deprived childhood by any stretch of the imagination, but a mixture of my local topography, my limited exposure to bikes and my attitude (a mix of fear and getting embarrassed by failure) ended up with me avoiding almost anything to do with cycling until my early twenties. And so, I found myself clutching the handlebars as tight as I could, riding down a hill as a 22-year-old waiting for this moment of uncanny balance to somehow end. I was on the southern tip of Africa with family friends who I had been staying with at the start of my “gap year” trip around the world. 

My stomach churned on the car ride to Cape of Good Hope as I contemplated the moment I would have to get on a bicycle or own up to never learning to ride. I landed somewhere in between, letting them know I wasn’t very confident on a bike (the biggest understatement of my life) and they chose a gentle slope for me to shakily make my way down, as they followed behind. I sometimes wonder what the conversation was like in the car as they watched this girl, supposedly in the prime of her life, struggling to find a pace that allowed her to stay balanced but didn’t feel out of control. It was a beautiful setting (see picture below) and I do remember catching myself enjoying the moment for brief milliseconds. And I landed on my two feet at the end of it all – for the thrill I got from it, I could have been jumping off a cliff, but I got a lot more than an increased pulse rate and a good dose of Adrenaline.

Street view image of the road I first rode down

While I have strong memories of the feeling of that bike ride and how much courage and concentration it involved, I have also never forgotten how grateful I was for that moment that tipped me over into the world of riding bicycles. Something beautiful began that day and it would take many months, and some other stressful moments (many on the Boulevards and famous roundabouts of Paris) before I felt confident on two wheels. And as my confidence grew, so did my appreciation of the very many benefits that cycling gives me. As I reflect on these benefits, I start to wish I had learnt earlier. I sometimes wonder the difference it would have made through the years I struggled as an extremely shy teenager. I wonder how the joy, adventure, independence, and confidence I now experience as part of my everyday life would have opened my mind and my world to new possibilities and challenges when I was feeling bored, confused, or trapped in my teen years.

So, years later after getting all excited about transport (and cycling) – studying, filming, researching, working, and dreaming about transport projects, I wrote a book that reminds me of this moment. I brought together personal experiences with imaginations around my missed opportunities to write a children’s book about the benefits of cycling. It is a bright colourful book with beautiful illustrations by Lori Dean called Jill’s Joyful ride and you can buy it here

I wrote this book after finishing my documentary “A way we go” and having two children. While struggling to find work after becoming a mum, I had dreamt up and worked on a number of projects, and writing books is one such pursuit. This book is meant to be part of a series of children’s books that explores different transport experiences (I’m good at setting myself impossibly big projects). Perhaps, this one came out first because it came from the heart and because I met Lori. 

During the first lockdown in Australia, I became increasingly worried about how students would get to school once they were back in the classroom (if they kept using buses, they could create a COVID risk or scare away other patrons, but if they moved into cars that also led to problems). For me, switching from public transport to active transport was the best way out of this bad situation and so when I joined “Space for Health” I connected with Lori, who was also interested in active school travel and had been involved in some great initiatives at her son’s school in Brisbane.

Lori riding her cargo bike

We instantly had a lot to talk about, and after a few conversations and email exchanges, I noticed below her name it said “Illustrator”, so I asked her if she was interested in illustrating a book. She works as a graphic designer and urban planner and in her spare time she found moments to work on the illustrations. It takes a bit of courage to give your project over to someone else’s interpretation, but as with the music composition for my film, the results can be quite special. As Lori illustrated, we participated in several conferences exploring the role that a children’s book might have within cycling advocacy and transport policy. 

Then finally, earlier this year, I started working out how to make this book happen, looking at local printing options and other logistics. And as Delta started to sweep through Sydney, I rode over to the printer to check the proof of the book. And then a week later, I was borrowing my brother’s car and filling it with boxes of books.

Between lockdown with home schooling and trying to work myself, the books have mainly been sitting in boxes for the last four months. However, we have finally started selling them. And like all good creative projects, we are doing this for the love of it, and the hope that it might inspire some young (or older) people to start riding or discover a new way that cycling can bring joy to their life. We are also interested in using the book as fundraisers for schools – particularly for them to use the funds to help facilitate and encourage active travel to their school (so please get in touch if you are interested in your school using it as a fundraiser next year).

And so far, the reviews are looking good and to Lori’s credit everyone loves the bright design and pictures. Some of my favourite feedback has been hearing about children who have claimed it as their favourite book. One parent told me how he could relate to Jill in how she gained confidence through movement but for him it was through surfing. Others have told me about it coming at an opportune moment when their child was needing that extra reassurance and inspiration to learn to ride. As a parent, one of the best compliments is finding out that they don’t mind reading it over and over again (I know it can be a struggle to enjoy a book the 88th time you’ve read it). 

My 3-year-old son’s favourite word in the book is transformation and perhaps that’s my favourite word too – as learning to ride a bike has most definitely been a transformative experience for me. Transformations that affect not only the way we do things, but also how we understand ourself and our world, are not easy or simple, but they are a crucial part of enabling a brighter future. All the best of your future reading and cycling adventures.

Buy Jill’s joyful ride here

Keeping an iPhone 4 a little longer

Our relationship started off a bit awkwardly. I was sitting at the edge the foreshore at Glebe in Sydney one evening with a friend. When out of the blue he popped the question. He asked me if I wanted an iPhone? I had been pretty cynical of smart phones. I had only just come to terms with having a mobile phone at all. I had resisted until I was 25. But my phone-less searches for a home in Sydney were proving fruitless. So after losing some of my freedoms, and gaining some convenience only a few years earlier, I wasn’t sure if I was really in need of a device that incorporated so much stuff that you took everywhere with you.

He explained that his brother got a job overseas and left him with a phone with half the contract plan paid off, but he needed someone to take his phone and pay off the rest of his contract. So I thought about it. My cheap Nokia had made phone calls sound like conversation in long tunnels or underwater. And then there was the time I was cycling a “shortcut” through a bushland, and found myself completely lost at dusk. I called my sister and with her map on her phone she helped me find civilisation. It all seemed to be adding up towards taking the phone. So I considered the rare earth metals, and the poor people who had suffered in its making, and promised to myself that I would keep for as long as I could.

So here I am 10 years later, with the same iPhone 4 my friend gave to me except now it’s a phone with history. It has been on some solo cycle tours with me, including the time I camped alone near the road to tooms lake. I freaked out when the wind started to howl, then I heard gun shots, a car drove past and stopped 50 metres away, I heard a gate open up and they spent the next few hours sporadically shooting. I really struggled to convince my shaking knees that they were just roos shooters. And yes, I got my good old phone out, and being in a reception dead zone, I recorded myself at my most scared and tired. And no, I have no idea where this footage is and may well have been deleted when I became myself again.

I also took my phone around the world with me, on my solo trip to make my documentary. In Bern, Switzerland, I didn’t have credit for the phone, but I had already put in my friends address, and the phone showed me on a grey grid, where a map would normally be (if I had credit) where I was and my destination. I followed the bike paths that led me in the direction of the red dot, and I eventually found my way as the blue dot edged closer to the red one – much more fun that being given exact directions.

And yes, I have wasted time on my phone. I succumbed to scrolling and such mindless searches for meaningful contact in an image oriented attention deficit world. However, it has been useful as well. While I had the opal app, I loved having transport info at my fingertips. And it has also been great for sending messages to people overseas, when I had WhatsApp. But I can no longer use these.

As the years have gone on, I have been told not to update my phone as it will crash the system. And in the meantime, my phone has lost functionality as apps start to ask for requirements that are beyond my phone. And then people tell me that I should get a new phone, rather than people questioning the fact a phone that could potentially function fine, cannot because of software requirements of app developers. That the expectation is that no one will have such an old phone is so strong they stop to care about us.

This doesn’t seem sustainable to me! Whether we call it planned obselence or just runaway technological changes, we need to sometimes stop and ask ourselves what does this mean for the future. Do we plan on keeping phones for only a few years at a time? Do we even develop relationships with the things we own anymore? Do we have histories together that make us attached or is everything just recorded in clouds and only the images and memes matter?

Everything seemed to be flipped on its head when I was watching “Fight for planet A” and Craig Reucassel picked up an iPhone 4 and referred to it as a museum piece. It felt like the environmental movement has just stabbed itself in the guts, and while it was spewing out recycling and improved shower heads, it had forgotten to explore the real ethics of consumption and waste. I was made to feel strange for holding onto a phone for more than 5 years. Strange because I didn’t want to recycle it, and get something new.

So next week I’m getting a new phone as part of a new job. I literally can’t book a seat in my office or authenticate my login without a new phone. I feel a little bit sad that my old phone can’t do the job. I also feel sad for the environmental destruction, and the human rights abuses that occur around the making of phones. I also feel sad that it is something we’ve accepted as the price of “progress”. That we have no attachment to objects as they pass through the hands of the population like pictures in a newsfeed, giving us some fleeting moments of fulfilment, and then forgotten….

For so many years, I’d tried to be anti-materialistic, but I’ve come to realise that there was something worse than materialism and that’s when we consume energy and materials without holding any value in them, only the services they bring use (is that material abuse?), which make them easier to replace and throw in the recycling bin.

P.S. If anyone still has charger cables for iPhone 4s (for the skinny long one socket), I’m in need of some extras 🙂

I wish Ginny rode a bicycle

I accidentally started watching the series “Ginny and Georgia” after my three-year-old woke up in the middle of the night and I turned the TV on while I soothed him to sleep. I was too tired to search for anything, so I watched the first thing that popped up. I thought it was a movie and started watching between bouts of unsettled toddler screams.  I feel embarrassed that I didn’t realise it was a series until it finished. And then I got hooked and finished the whole series in a week. It felt uncomfortable that I wanted to watch something that was so popular and formulaic, and that I became invested in who a 16-year-old becomes romantically involved in. But there I was, remembering my teen years where I refused to watch Dawson’s Creek and was more of an outcast than Ginny at her first school.

(Warning – mild spoiler alert)

And as I watched the series, I became invested in a raft of issues that were explicitly brought up in the show, from child abuse and trauma, to teen pregnancy, racism, self-harm, bullying, grief, anorexia, divorce and the pressures of teen years and friendships, relationships and sexuality during these times.  Caring for the planet even got a mention. Then there was the diversity including: a family with a member who was deaf, another with a family member who was severely debilitated, there was single parenting and mixed-race families. Yeah, it was a real medley of issues and diverse families. After watching this show, all I could think about was, of course, transport. OK, well I also thought about the lack of a Marcus in my teen years, at a time where I didn’t have any friends and would have enjoyed a mind reading, artistic, quirky and caring guy in my life (although he came along 15 years later). But mainly I thought about transport.

So, there were a few references to transport, and now I will read way too much into them.  Marcus rode his skateboard and dreamed of motorbikes (which is a connection he has with Ginny). Both skateboards and motorbikes appear to be edgy in this rich white suburban New England town, but they are both liberating and fun. The ability to play with your city can help you escape from the social norms and be more real and honest. Which I think comes out as an important connection between Marcus and Ginny, with her first kiss coming after the energy and confidence she gains through her ride on Marcus’s motorbike. However, Ginny is also wrapped up in being integrated in the social world of her new school, because it is something she has never had before, and she gets excited by the idea of living a dream of hers. Meanwhile, Hunter drives a big Porsche, and this is seen as a good thing by Georgia who wants Ginny to have a stable and successful life.  Georgia has also inherited a convertible that she holds on to as a symbol of her success and sex appeal. 

Apart from Max waiting for an uber driver and some mention of electric scooters invading bicycle lanes, other transport is left in the background. So much so, that I’m not really sure how the teen characters got to school or to the main part of town. One would have to assume that they could walk, or they were taking the bus, with many of the characters not being able to drive and Ginny being embarrassed when Georgia does pick her up from her school one day. Of course, I hope that there are a bunch of bicycles just off camera that they all get around on, with the bike racks at school being pretty full. However, sadly I doubt this. But even if they walked or got the bus to school, Marcus and Ginny would have had lots of opportunities to talk then, instead of just meeting in school hallways and bedrooms. So, I’m going to assume that teleportation was definitely a thing at Wellsbury. 

But of course, I would have loved to see Ginny ride a bicycle. And I believe riding a bicycle can help free your mind from some of the explosive feelings that you have as a teenager. I loved that being on the motorbike gave Ginny so much joy and I can’t help feeling that if she had just got herself a set of two wheels with pedals, she would have been able to stay cooler under all the pressures she had to deal with (so maybe it would have led to less drama). It would have also been an amazing advertisement for cycling for teenagers. Perhaps it would have been one more glaringly obvious socially conscious inclusion, but who’s counting? When a show is this popular, and is gaining this much attention, why not use it to get across the messages we need?

So just a note for Season 2 for the creators of this show. Please include bicycles! I really want to see how the kids get to school and all the fun and shenanigans that can happen along the way. Although, I suspect that next season might be a bit different.

And another thought, which is just a bit related to transport, is that somewhere somehow Ginny has to bring up the fact that there really was a band called Wednesday that had that one song, which was a cover of Last Kiss https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRiAMe1zsQ0. With Wednesday being a Canadian band and the show being filmed in Canada, I don’t think it was a slip up. I was waiting for this to be subtly inserted into the series… but sadly I didn’t hear it. Although it’s such a sad song, perhaps they are waiting for the second season and (my prediction) a teen dying/being severely injured in a car crash…

And to think that I saw it in 2021

I own a copy of “And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street” and I don’t plan on throwing it away after the recent discussion about it being racist. While it does show a stereotype of a Chinese man, stereotypes of different nationalities are in so many cartoons from the Asterix and Obelisk to the Simpson, but we aren’t deleting them all – I hope! While I appreciate that there is other work of Dr Seuss’s that was quite racist, I don’t think Mulberry Street should fit in this basket, but please correct me if I’m wrong.

Of all Dr Seuss’s books, I’m really sad that this was has been blacklisted. And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street is a fun little story that promotes active travel to school better than anything else I’ve come across. My poor husband has to cope with me putting an urban transport twist on everything, but I think this one is pretty clear. To start with, the little boy Marco walks to school. Hurray for a sweet protagonist that normalises one of the most normal things in the world! And there are two special features of walking that are highlighted in this book: that it’s an opportunity to look around and notice things, and that, in the case of Marco, while you walk your imagination can go wild. I know I’ve had some of my most creative thoughts while walking or riding, so it’s nice to see that Marco also experiences this during his walk home from school. I love that his Dad wants him to look up at the world and to hear the stories of the things Marco’s seen.

I spent years of my life trying to understand how elements of our culture influence how we choose to travel. When it came to making recommendation about the car soaked culture that we live in today, I struggled to put forth ideas around banning published works, particularly from different periods of time when we didn’t appreciate all the problems of car use. Instead, I tried to be constructive and creative in how we could avoid perpetuating car promotion in our media. I considered how we could educate and collaborate with future producers of various media, to reduce the potential for excessive car use to be promoted through future media productions. Of course, my phD never went much further than my marker’s desk and I’m not sure anyone in the media has every taken any notice of anything I have ever said.

Having said that, I had a small win today or perhaps I participated in banning culture too…. you tell me. I have been trying to get Catie’s Amazing Machines off ABC Kids for the last year, and managed to get one episode removed. Catie’s amazing machines is basically Top Gear for toddlers, if you replace Jeremy with an excessively smiley girl in her 20s. My attempts to get it removed were based on ideas from my thesis around it promoting car use. I looked at the language used, the imagery and the structure of the program which includes three year olds talking about their favourite part of Catie’s driving experiences and how these elements could be influencing relevant determinants of behaviour. None of this mattered to the ABC, but they were interested when I brought up the fact her quad bike didn’t have rollover bars. Sadly, safety features seem more important than genuinely promoting a safe culture for our future.

So, getting back to the book, I would argue that this book’s positive promotion of active transport should be factored in when decisions are made to stop publishing it. Does this book cause people to behave inappropriately, and does it threaten the future of the world? If someone can give me an example of how this book has contributed to hurtful thoughts or behaviour, I would love to know. However, if this book stops being read, we will lose one little potential spark that might stir the imagination of a child or a parent who starts their journey towards reaping the rewards of walking or riding to school.

And as this book gets pulled off shelves, I sit their contemplating a series of books that I have been working on. And while I can’t claim to have Dr Seuss’s wit, imagination or characteristic drawings, I can assure you I share his passion for active travel and for empowering children. Look out for “Jill’s Joyful ride” in the coming months and if all goes well, I have a beautiful one about a bus ride, another about a train trip and there will have to be a walking one now that a gap has opened in the market…

Ride to school day is on 19th March this year in Australia, and I urge you to get out and ride, scoot, skate or walk to school with your children, or wherever you need to go. But don’t stop there, also remember to look up and let your imagination flow.

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…

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