Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fast track Sydney transport with web enhanced planning

A Leichardt Council Transport Forum was held at the Leichardt Town Hall, 22 November 2008. This proposed a fast planning process for public transport in Leichardt and Sydney's inner west using experts and the community. I suggest that the Internet could be used to gain wider public and expert input into the process. Also the political realities of NSW suggest that upgrading the bus system should be included as a sub-optimal but politically feasable option.

The Meeting

Speakers were: Dr Gary Glazebrook from UTS, Dr. Michelle Zeibots, Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS and Councillor Jamie Parker, Mayor of Leichardt Council. As well as the listed speakers, there were people from EcoTransit Sydney present.

The forum discussed issues including the Lilyfield to Dulwich Hill Light Rail extension and the Iron Cove Bridge Duplication (also known as the Victoria Road upgrade). However, rather than proposing to deal with transport projects piecemeal, the planning experts proposed that the local councils get together with the community and planners to produce an overall plan. Such a plan could include public transport options which the NSW state Road and Traffic Authority (RTA) is unwilling to consider.

Proceedings were delayed for 20 minutes while we waited for the Mayor to arrive. Given that the expert transport speakers were present, this was an unnecessary waste of the time for the forty or so people present. The Mayor is obviously a busy person and I suggest he issue instructions that events not be held up waiting for him to arrive.

The Mayor opened the event by mentioning what was discussed at the local government summit recently in Canberra. He noted that NSW local government people were concerned about the lack of public transport planning in NSW. He claimed to have raised this with the PM and others at the event. He then expressed concern at the proposed and then cancelled Sydney metro and the new proposal a few weeks later. There was also a proposal for a $250m coordinated bike route in NSW.

Unfortunately this was all presented very rapidly by the Mayor, like a political campaign speech. There were no details provided to back up the claims made, nor any written text provided. While the Mayor sounded sincere, given the poor history of transport planning in NSW, much more is needed for a credible presentation. Leichardt Council needs to cite evidence when presenting proposals, for those proposals to have credibility.

Inquiry by design

Dr. Zeibots provided an excellent "Big picture" overview of transport planning for Sydney. Dr. Glazebrook went into more detail on light rail proposals for the inner west. Both were able to back up their proposals with credible evidence.

Dr. Zeibots advocated better planning using a process called "Inquiry by design". With this the usual years of planning and public consultations are compressed into about five days. The planners, experts and community representatives meet at the site to be planned, talk to locals and draw up options.

Some notes on the talk:
  • The County of Cumberland scheme 1951 planned radial motorways for Sydney. This has been largely followed with Sydney's tollways. Unfortunately Sydney's 21 century transport is being planned using a 50 year old last century plan. Due to the cancellation of the Johnston creek extension to the motorways, Marrickiville and iron cove motorway tunnels are being considered by the RTA internally without adequate public consultation.
  • Analysis of the traffic of the M4 shows that it did not greatly reduce the traffic on the existing great western highway and the total traffic of the two combined was much higher.
Enhance with the Internet and Political Realism

The meeting was useful and the inquiry by design process appears feasable. However, I suggest that the planners could usefully incorporate the Internet in their process and also inject some political realism.

Use the Internt for public and expert input to planning

The planners propose a process over a few days where the experts and community come together. However, not everyone concerned is able or willing to give up five days of their time. Only about forty of the many thousands of residents gave up a few hours for this meeting.

Therefore I suggested after the meeting to Dr. Zeibots that Internet and web tools could be used to enhance the meeting process. Experts and residents could be provided with the materials which were to be provided at the meetings and invited to provide input. As the process progressed, what the meeting came up with could be put online and the community invited to have input. This would allow wider input with minimal extra effort.

Between 1996 and 1998 I provided some web pages about planning for the Dickson p precinct of Canberra. Normally the Draft Master Plan would be displayed at the local library and perhaps an item about it placed in the local newspaper. By placing a copy online many more people could see it.

As part of the Federal Government's 2020 Summitt process I orgnaised a day long local summitt on open source with Senator Lundy. This made use of the Austrlaian developed Moodle free open source Learning Management System. Moodle was used to prepare the program for the day, solicit input and to report on the day. UTS has the Moodle system installed. This could be used to provide an online forum for a planning process. I have also used Moodle live in a classroom and it could be simiarly used to organise and present materials to people at a live forum as well as online.

Take account of political realities

The planners seemed to be curiously naive of the political process. A transport plan for Sydney may increase the chances of better public transport, it would seem more likely to be adopted if it took into account political realities.

The NSW state government has produced a number of transport proposals, such as the North West Metro, which make little sense in planning terms. These are only understandable in political terms as a way to attract votes. After the cancellation of the North West Metro and the quick creation of another metro proposal, there can be few who believe such proposals are being created through any rational planning process. Clearly these proposals are being up up in order to meet short term political aims, not the long term public interest.

Therefore any proposal put up by others needs to take into account the political issues and meet short term political needs of the government. As an example, projects which can be started quickly at low cost and employ people in NSW are more likely to receive political support, than those taking decades and using imported equipment. An example of such a project would be expanding the MetroBus recently introduced in the Inner West. The buses can be made in NSW, the bus lanes they need to run on can be built by NSW workers. The NSW government can apply for federal funding to create hybrid, large, fuel efficient buses.

Buses are not as good a long term transport option as trams and metros. However, buses which are actually purchased are a better option than trams which may not be approved and metros which are never built.

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