Can I start off by asking you between the hours of, oh say 08:00 and 06:00, Monday to Friday, what is it you do with yourself?
I work for Roads and Maritime Services, which is now Transport for New South Wales, as a Senior Road Network Planner, and I look after the NSW state road network. I look at different types of modes on the network.
I look at data, at strategies and policies, future development plans, best practices from around the world, and new trends emerging to assess the needs of different people and places on the state road network.
I’m also an active transport subject matter expert in the organisation and get to look at the data that supports where cyclists are currently riding, and where their desire lines are. And how that fits into the state road networking. That’s me in a nutshell.
If you were doing an elevator pitch, what would you say that active transport is?
Active transport is getting people to ride their bicycles, or walk, scooter, etc. to do what they need. We look at using the Movement and Place framework as well, which is a buzzword right now, in this state anyway. The Movement and Place framework looks to marry the idea of understanding place and people’s desires to have liveable spaces, and how they move about to get to perform their daily tasks.
It’s a bit of a challenge in the organisation because it’s a different way of thinking, about how to build cities, and not just building infrastructure for the sake of relieving private vehicle congestion.
I’ve noticed that movement and place is featured in the state’s 2056 transport strategy.
That’s right. The Transport for New South Wales Future Transport 2056 strategy really does put an emphasis on looking at people, customers, and places. Where people work, and where they live.
I did earlier ask you about what you do Monday through Friday. When you close the door of your office at Transport for NSW, what else do you do in regard to active transport?
I organise a night cycling ride every week. I’ve been doing that for the past three or four years now. I help people navigate through the city and enjoy the space, the roads, which they are rightly allowed to use, to explore Sydney.
I map out lots of different rides to try to find interesting places to see the street life, go for drinks, or even just enjoy being out in the open. So I do a lot of mapping, a lot of research on what’s happening in Sydney right now and organise that ride on Tuesdays. Sometimes on the weekends as well, when we go to Sydney’s outer suburbs.
And you blog quite a bit about these rides, don’t you?
That’s right. Actually I have a few websites. My main one, which I started a few years ago, when I was transitioning out of the software industry, and needed a platform to share new passion for cycling.
I fell in love with cycling a few years back and just wanted to share the different rides and spaces that people can explore. I also have a website about cycling infrastructure in Sydney.
You mentioned that you’d had another career done previously to transport, in software engineering. How did you come to working in transport?
The transition was about seven years ago. I was living in Montpellier, in France, in a break from my career as a software engineer, and took a teaching job at a high school, teaching English there. Do you know Montpellier is a car-free city?
I just fell in love with it. I was living in an apartment and fell in love with living in apartment spaces, not having to look after gardens, or big spaces like that, and riding everywhere. Everyone rides in everywhere in Montpellier.
My time in France started me thinking about cities and designing cities, and sparked me into studying, doing a Masters of International Urban and Environmental Management.
After I finished studying it was really difficult transitioning actually, trying to get a job in urban planning. Over time I made some good contacts through the bike industry, and eventually I landed myself at Transport for NSW in the active transport team.
Well done! And where was it you did that study?
That was at RMIT in Melbourne. I studied remotely, so I was able to study and work while living in Sydney and also while living in Korea for a year. So yes, it was a great little intro to urban planning.
And is there much connection between what you did in software engineering and what you’re doing now?
It’s crazy, the agile development buzzword is so big right now in transport, and I think a lot of other government agencies. There’s lots of talk about co-design, collaboration, agile development and design, which is what my previous industry was all about. I came from developing software, product development, understanding users and customers and their needs, and this is currently what’s happening in my field of transport planning.
We’re really looking at trying to understand journeys and understand what people’s needs are. So yes, there is I think a refocus on what people want to achieve, and how do you measure that properly to measure your success as a transport agency. So yes, I do see a parallel now, coming into the transport industry from software.
Now let’s get away from the real and into the hypothetical. Just imagine that someone, somewhere has contacted you and said, ‘I’ve got this extremely large bucket of money for you to do a project, or do some work. There’s no budget or time limit.” What would you like to do with that situation?
Being a mad bike rider I would love to see more separated bike paths in our cities, particularly paths in to our city centres. That would be my dream come true. To have a separated bike lane that people of all ages would feel safe to use. To get to their schools, their workplaces, visit friends, shopping. Yes, safe, and for all ages. That is key!
And how would you roll that out? How would you start?
I’d tackle the big cities first. Taking the car-free city movement, start with a car-free day once a week and allow people to experience the space of a road without a car. Let them experience how the space can be used in other ways to provide transport needs.
Then we could start with temporary pop-up bike lanes that are separated from motor vehicles. This wouldn’t require extensive time and money to construct. We could then have a lot of the share bike companies contribute bicycles that people can borrow, because that’s definitely a challenge as well, getting appropriate tools for people to use and experience.
I think car-free cities would be a good start to start introducing people to the active lifestyle.
The actual design and construction of bike lanes is quite tricky, considering the number of utilities below the surface and the unknown state of these utilities. We still don’t have a 3D map of all our utilities that’s easily accessible. Every project is dig and investigate, which is time consuming and costly!
Just to dig a little deeper there, could you talk a little more about the problems associated with utilities.
Oh, perhaps a water main that runs along a road space, if you’re trying to build a bike lane, that might involve cutting into a curb or a road space, or digging up a road space to put in some more detection loops or whatnot. It’s still a tedious process of having to investigate what really lies below the surface.
Tree roots as well. Investigating how much impact you might have on tree roots, because that’s also an essential part of our liveable cities. Ideally you retain as much tree canopy as possible, but you do still need to do the investigation on how those root systems will impact the bike path.
It’s complicated when people say, ‘Build a bike lane!’ It’s not that simple right now in a city. And I think that’s one of the big challenges.
When I read articles about cyclists and interactions with cars, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more divisive collection of comments from readers. How would you sell this idea of yours to the haters, on both sides of the argument?
To the haters? It’s about providing a safer place to live for everyone. A safer and cleaner place to live. So that people can have the ability to move about in different ways. and I guess we’re just conditioned to think that driving is the fastest and safest mode to get somewhere.
For example, dropping children to school. Everyone thinks it’s the safest to drop someone off at school by car, and it’s because they’re scared of other cars in the area. It’s just a vicious cycle that’s perpetuated, but if we can impose maybe a no-drop-off zone, or the bike bus, or walking bus notions to school, that would have a really great impact.
Do you think you could change minds or would you have to force a change of minds?
You would have to force it. [laughs]
Force it by demonstration, I guess. But that demonstration needs to have a lot of support. So yes, force, I think.
Okay and part two of the hypothetical … this time you’ve got quite a limited budget, you’ve been tasked to do something that will have quite a big impact, and the timeframe also is small. What would you do in this instance?
A limited budget? I want to start with traffic signal reconfiguration. I’m sure it’s a lot of people’s pet peeve, but signal times, the cycle phases are quite short for people who need to walk across roads.
There are huge debates about how you manage the green signals for pedestrians, and the theory is the left-hand turn drivers should wait when the lights are blinking for a pedestrian. But practically, that doesn’t really happen in Sydney. And I think that would be a very quick win if we could prioritise our signals for pedestrians, especially around schools and high pedestrian areas.
So you’re saying not just the CBD, but taking it more expansively across the city?
Yes, exactly. Particularly in areas with vulnerable road users, such as older people, and young children. In those areas I’d like to see walking to be encouraged so that walking is considered a safety priority, and it is important to our society too, in terms of health.
When people are walking and they don’t feel that they are prioritised and important, it’s discouraging.
OK, out of hypothetical and back to the real. What work or project have you done so far that you’re most proud of?
I mentioned that I ride, and I organise a riding group. I was thinking about it and I was thinking about all the work things I do, but to be honest my riding group makes me the happiest. Knowing that I have about 2,000 people on this Facebook group that I created a few years back.
I’ve met hundreds of people who have come to Sydney to participate, or locals that have just been slightly not confident enough to ride. But after coming on a few rides, they’re so much more confident to explore the city and really happy to keep riding their bikes. It’s so nice to be able to share that joy with people.
On average, how many people are coming along?
I’ve got between 10 to 30 each ride, depending on the weather conditions. It’s small compared to what hear happening overseas, when you’ve got critical masses that happen every month. In London, I participated in one, and there was honestly over a thousand people riding. It was just so great to see.
So while my group is smaller it’s the micro impacts that make me happy. And honestly, I think my little group will eventually snowball in numbers! [laughs]
Do you find that this ‘extracurricular’ activity informs your day job?
Yes, I do. I get to see and meet people, hear their brickbats, their bouquets, and it’s helped me every week to really remember what I’m doing, what my passion is in my contributions to transport planning.
I do a bit of data analysis as well. Since Strava data was made available a few years back, it has been a helpful tool. Yes, I know that data is in a subset and people think it’s not right to use it, but in the absence of good, clean data it’s something to start with. I use Strava and I know that there are people using it that aren’t just recreational cyclists. I think these data sets can inform the work I do in active transport.
Some (decent) data is better than no data, right?
You mentioned before that you found it difficult to move from what you were doing before working in transport, but having said that, and you’re in there now working, are there areas that you haven’t touched yet that you’d like to?
As I said earlier, government seems to be latching on to the whole software industry’s collective development methodologies and delivery, and another space is design thinking which is the process of problem solving rooted in establishing an understanding of users and their journeys.
I haven’t done too much in that space of customer segmentation, or persona identification, but I think it would be an interesting space to work in. I live in an “active transport” bubble and often find it challenging to understand why more people don’t ride a bicycle to work or school. Through design thinking you develop empathy through the process of drawing out the users’ needs, values and the challenges they face.
Any particular places or spaces you’d like to attack?
Western Sydney. It’s quite interesting to see that there is good cycling infrastructure out there, but it’s not really connected to other places, which is a shame. It’s very recreational, and you do see a lot of bike riders enjoying a weekend ride along the river or around the park.
It’d be great to see how we could shift that to be more accessible to the families which are growing out there, the young families, to encourage people to go to school and work by active transport.
And last question for you. What in the next three or five years are you most excited about? Be it a technology or a movement. What do you see that excites you most?
E-bikes! It’s not new, it’s not fancy, but e-bikes are growing and not just for people to commute, but in the supply chain. I have a few friends who are studying the last mile freight delivery innovation space, in which they’re trying to identify better ways of moving smaller goods, a lot of online purchases, and personalised delivery services.
I think e-bikes, perhaps even cargo bikes, have the potential to lessen the reliance on freight delivery light vehicles in the city. I’m excited that it will be more accessible to people in both in the logistics and commuting spaces (particular in the hillier sections of Sydney).
So that has the potential to change the transport landscape in Sydney, as does something I mentioned before, open data. If we can get better data and open that up more to the public, it may start to be more informed about what’s happening. For one thing, just knowing more about emissions. Climate change is such a big topic that people can tend to zone out when you talk about it.
But maybe if you can localise and personalise information about emission rates and the garbage land-use rates that are within your street or your commute, maybe that information might get people more engaged and encourage people to want to change behaviour a bit more. Maybe.
I’m right there with you, Jullietta. Open data, hallelujah, bring it on!
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