Who's Who

Amy Child: urban planning, actively

Amy Child and cycling infrastructure. Image courtesy of iMOVE CRC
Amy Child and cycling infrastructure. Image courtesy of iMOVE CRC

Amy Child was, until recently, a Transport and Urban Planner at Arup, specialising in urban environments. In the interim she is about to shift into a similar role at AECOM. That move aside, Amy has been making moves in transport planning for over 16 years, firstly in the UK, and now in Australia.

What path did you take to get into the smart mobility space?

I guess it was my interest in transport as it relates to people, and how transport shapes people’s lives. And we’ve started to see this change in the way we talked about transport, that it was more about the technology side of things, and the technology was driving the outcomes. And probably maybe lacking that human element. For me it’s about bringing the two things together.

Where did that start? Pre- or post-academia?

I would say post. Probably in the last two years, really, I guess with smart mobility. It’s actually quite a new term, I feel.

I’m still a little up in the air about what the new term for all this will be.

[laughs] Yes. I come from a transport planning background, and we talked about technology but not so much that we talk about it now in terms of autonomous vehicles, mobility as a service, smart motorways, and things like that.

And what was your undergraduate degree?

Urban planning. Urban and environmental planning.

Right, so you were kind of there. You just specialised a little bit along the way.

Yes.

And where did you study?

I studied at South Bank University in London, an Urban and Environmental Planning degree. And then I did a Masters in Transport Planning and Management at the University of Westminster.

And from university you moved into …?

I did all my study part-time, while I was working for a company called Peter Brett Associates, an engineering firm. A medium-sized engineering firm in the UK.

And how long have you been in Australia now?

Eight years.

And how would you mark Australia in terms of how it’s tackling the area of active transport?

Compared to when you look at the UK, the UK’s gone ahead in leaps and bounds in terms of urban active transport network, but that’s probably been as a result of the population growth that places like London have been through, in my experience.

In Australia, the cities here are now getting to that point where we’re getting to that critical crunch in terms of population growth and needing to think differently in terms of our transport systems. That it’s not all about private cars, that active transport, predominantly walking and cycling, have a very important role to play in the liveability of our cities. Not to mention the economics of our cities, to keep them going.

So you think we’re in a pre- smart mobility stage in Australia, in terms of active transport?

Look, I think we could always do better. Any city could always do better in terms of … well, not every city, obviously some cities in Europe are already doing this quite well.

But in Australia we’re having the right discussions and there’s passionate people in the industry and in government that want to make a change. And I think now we’re starting to see with the crunch in terms of congestion that active transport has an important role to play. And we’re starting to see that narrative coming through.

What parts of the world would you say are leading the development in this area?

That’s a tricky one. We could always point to places like Copenhagen, and Holland for their cycling, et cetera. But I guess they’ve had some great leadership to allow that.

But some of the North American cities like Vancouver and Toronto, they’re really pushing the way forward in terms of active transport.

But also right here, Perth is actually doing very, very well in terms of plans and strategies to increase particularly cycling. Having lived in Perth, I used to cycle to work and I used to work for the city of Perth. There was a real commitment to improving access for cyclists and pedestrians.

There’s a problem in Australia with aggression between drivers and cyclists, and it can be aggression on both sides, really. Cycling on roads causes drivers to go mental and some cyclists do some crazy things. How do we fix this inherent imbalance and aggression in Australia as regards cycling on roads?

Well, I think the aggression is a symptom of poor cycle planning. I’ve talked about this before. We traditionally have built very poor cycling infrastructure that’s not safe for everyone to use. And I’ve done work in low-stress cycling and I’ve looked at cycling infrastructure, and it basically says, “What percentage of the population can use that infrastructure?” And a lot of the infrastructure we see out on the roads today is aimed at 15 percent of the population we call “strong and fearless”, because they’re all the cyclists in lycra.

So we’ve made the beast ourselves through pitching cyclists against vehicles. So as a result, we end up with this level of aggression. Whereas if the cycling infrastructure had been put in properly to start with and was accessible to all, you would see a broader range of the population using the infrastructure. And also there wouldn’t be such conflicts between the two cyclists and motorists.

What is good planning? I recall back in Sydney they closed down lanes on Lane Cove Road and made a cycling lane, and the papers for weeks afterwards counted how many cyclists would use it and said, “What an enormous waste of money.”

The best type of cycling infrastructure is completely separated, or segregated, or some level of barrier between private vehicles and cyclists, depending on the environment. But Copenhagen’s style of bike lanes are the type that you see in London coming through as part of the Cycle Superhighways. Yeah. And what they did in Sydney was, yes, counterproductive.

Because?

You say just… I don’t know. You build it and they will come. There might have been a reason why cyclists weren’t using it. They might not have been able to get there but you’ve got to start somewhere.

I heard someone say recently that more people would like to cycle, but the fear stops them. So they probably would use this thing if they felt more comfortable.

Yes. The key thing with cycling, is to do with those comfort levels and feeling safe. And a lot of the infrastructure out there is not safe to use. Actually, that’s not the right term. People don’t perceive it to be safe, and it’s the weakest link in the chain, is if you’ve got some great biking infrastructure but you can’t get to it safely, people won’t use it.

That’s the whole idea of low-stress cycling, is that it’s cycling infrastructure that people that are interested, but concerned, would feel safe to use.

At a vulnerable road user workshop, and it was mentioned there that people get injured, people get killed, but the thing that doesn’t get counted is the level of stress.

Yes, exactly. If people experience stress on their cycle route, they might try it once and not do it again. But if you can cycle your bike and feel safe and get to your journey feeling as though you didn’t put your life in your own hands, it’d be much better for everyone. And I think that would just help the whole aggression thing. Definitely.

A few months ago a plan was floated that Melbourne should close its CBD to vehicles and just be all pedestrian, all cycling, and so forth. Is that an idea we should look at more seriously?

I think we should look definitely more seriously at restricting access to vehicles. Doesn’t necessarily all need to be pedestrianised, in my view. Private vehicles can have a role in street design in terms of activation. There’s a famous urbanist, Jeff Speck, who talks about on-street parking actually being a great thing to be there, because it provides a barrier between the footway and the road.

And also on-street parking and having some vehicles within a city can provide that sort of activation and eyes on the street. But I think Melbourne definitely needs to be looking to restrict access where possible, and putting pedestrians and cyclists first.

Not necessarily saying you get rid of private vehicles altogether, but at least trying to limit their flow through the city.

Sydney did this with Pitt Street Mall, limiting the flow of delivery vans to certain times of the day.

Yes. You’d still need private vehicle access for things like loading and unloading, and for people that need to use a vehicle, that are disabled, et cetera. But yes, it’s about trying to think differently about how you have the access.

If you look at Melbourne at the moment, Flinders Street Station’s a great example. We’ve got four lanes of traffic going past Flinders Street on all corners. And then we worry about hostile vehicle attacks. But we just have so many vehicles going past one of our major hubs into the city, and where in the world do you come out of a station and walk straight out onto a four-lane arterial?

This question is inspired by my working in the Melbourne CBD recently, and seeing how busy the footpaths and bike lanes are there. In a world where you’ve got walking, cycling, e-bikes, scooters, e-scooters, skateboards, powered skateboards, Segways, all of that and more going on, how do we best have all of those modes co-exist? Safely?

That’s where good planning and strategy comes on board. You need to look at the whole network of roads and streets and laneways within the city and have an understanding of how people move through that space. And I don’t think we can allow every street to do everything.

The reality is, there’s just not enough space to accommodate every single user. We need to begin to think more holistically about those users. With cycling for example, some people want to cycle through the city relatively fast because it’s more of a commuter route, whereas some people are coming to the city as a destination.

Same thing with pedestrians. You’ve got people that meander through the city and those that are moving through the city quickly.

It’s asking questions about the different roles streets play. What are their movement functions?

And how much segregation do you think will be needed for all of those vehicles I mentioned?

[laughs] I don’t know. And that’s the other thing, segregation isn’t always the answer, I guess.

Right.

Sharing is another answer.

Right. So back to you. This is big picture time. Here you are with an unlimited budget and a problem you want to fix and there’s no time limit other than people would like to get it done. What would you like to do?

It would be Melbourne-based, and probably around Flinders Street, around Federation Square and the Princes Bridge. Starting to think, how do you improve that whole environment and public realm and make it much more pedestrian-friendly? And improving that user experience for people that arrive into the hub of our city.

We’ve recently lost our Most Liveable City in the World status, so perhaps with a project like this it would go some way to reclaiming that title. How do we really start to make all of these arrival points into the city places that make people think, ‘Wow! I feel welcomed.’

Alright, so this time, same question but your budget this time is limited. What small project would you like to get up quickly and cheaply, that would make an impact?

I’m really a big fan … I heard a landscape architect say that 2017 is the year of the pop-up. I really like the idea of these pop-up spaces and using tactile urbanism to show people how things can be. I know the city of Melbourne has done something like this recently, on Elizabeth Street, shutting down some of the vehicle lanes and putting in a parklet.

I love those types of things that are here to show people that is what you could have. I think people are inherently risk-averse, or don’t like the idea of change, and feel that they’re having something taken away from them if you, say, were to take away a parking space, which can be such a hard thing to do.

But actually it’s then giving them the narrative in terms of telling the story. ‘Well, we take this away but you’ll get this instead which is actually even better.’ I love the idea of pop-up events and pop-up street closures and giving people these alternative experiences.

Finally, in your career to date, what have you been most proud of work-wise?

I think Perth Stadium was a great project to work on. I was Transport Discipline Lead for Multiplex on that. Just to work on a major sport stadium in Australia, where everyone loves sport. So as soon as you say to somebody, ‘Oh, I worked on Perth Stadium’, they exactly know where you’re talking about.

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