Technology

Leigh Abernethy: putting the transport in Port

Leigh-Abernethy-and-Port-Phillip-street-scene
Leigh Abernethy

Can you tell us a little bit about where you work, and what you do?

I work for the City of Port Phillip, which is a major inner city council in Melbourne. It’s the most densely populated council in the whole of Victoria, in terms of people per square meter. And that’s one of the biggest challenges that we have.

My role here is Integrated Transport Strategy Program Coordinator. My first-up challenge was to develop the city’s Integrated Transport Strategy. We’ve just completed that, in fact it was endorsed on 20 September 2018. And now, I’m running the delivery program for the strategy, particularly because it talks to quite a lot of internal process change for our organisation.

If you were to top sheet the changes that City of Port Phillip residents and businesses might see, what would they be?

For one, parking. Our strategy talks about changes to the entire parking system, which has not been done in nearly 20 years in this part of Melbourne. It’s about policy change, as well as how to implement that change, supported by technology. People will see pay-by-phone technology, and easy access to information. That’s part of the dual approach that we’re aiming for.

The other big tranche of change is to push for boosting bike riding. When we did the analysis of what areas that local government could have the highest impact on pedestrian and bike infrastructure deliver the highest benefits.

Public transport infrastructure, is the role of State government but local government can advocate and support the delivery of improvement for our community. Despite the fact a lot of people feel that bike riding’s not open for everyone, as opposed to walking, it’s actually the area of the transport options that we have that has been under-invested in Melbourne, for quite some time. Particularly from an infrastructure perspective.

The Strategy includes a focus on delivering new cycling corridors, over the next 10 years. The aspiration is to achieve separated corridors and make them as connected and complete as possible. The tricky thing will be separating bike riders from both traffic and pedestrians, so that people from eight to 80 can feel safe and secure on those routes. The aim is also to deliver a consistent experience along a route and reduce directing cyclists back onto an open road environment before they return to a cycle corridor.

That brings with it an enormous amount of change in what kind of impact it has on the local residences within the area that we’re delivering the work.

Speaking of bikes, how did the arrival of dockless shared bikes affect the council?

The oBike was the company that came out first, and was a real disruptor in the transport and streetscape space. It was interesting to observe how the broader community responded to a service delivered completely outside of government regulation (initially) – like Uber – and if this would be successful.

As it turned out, it was both unable to meet to make its financial model work. You can see that “Fail fast, fail early” business model, that you can take a lot of learnings from. It also offered a lot of insight into what our general community really values. They do value being able to have access to bikes whenever they want, but they also have a very strong relationship to the aesthetic, the quality of their environment and cleanliness and …

Etiquette?

Yes. How Australians, culturally, really do feel that there are rules that we need to abide by, and some they can break! But also proffering the question of who are these rules for and what are they protecting?

That’s good a point to jump and an expand my earlier question. Scooters are about to hit, because they launched in New Zealand a few days ago, and they’re earmarked for here too. How are you prepped for that? Have you talked to any companies yet? Are they just going to land like aliens again?

I can only assume that other providers will take the oBike experience in Australia as a learning and not as a deterrent. There are some challenges with the use of scooters but it appears that both Brisbane and New Zealand are trialling the Lime scooters.

All right. Back to you. So, here you are, now in a role at the City of Port Phillip. Career-wise what were you doing before?

Immediately before my current role I worked at the Sunshine Coast Council, in Queensland. It’s the third or fourth largest council in Australia.

I worked largely in the place making area, on the transport planning side of things. Similar to the Gold Coast, an investigation was being done on building a light rail system, and also priority bus routes. Although it was a combination of responding to a new train line going through there, but you know, as with all regional areas, the delivery of this kind of structure is dependent on the politics of the time.

Transport’s important everywhere of course, but with the Sunshine Coast we’re talking about somewhere that could take you a couple of hours to drive from west to east, and at least an hour and a half or more to go from north to south.

Driving a car there is essential, whereas, the kind of work I do here in Melbourne is a bit more about moving people out of cars, and onto healthier and less space consuming transport.

So, it’s the uniqueness of the context, and that’s one of the things I like to bring to transport planning, is that context-sensitive response, to … it’s not just the one answer to everything.

You’ve thrown in a term there I’m not too familiar with, place making. Could you just give a quick explanation of what that is?

It means different things to different people, to some degree, but essentially, it’s drawn from a community-based relationship, and defining the scope of what you’re going to be doing. From a transport perspective, I like to see it as being context-sensitive, being able to match a unique response to the unique conditions of the site that you’re working with.

Before that council role in Maroochydore, what were you doing in transport?

I was working as an urban designer, at Architectus. We worked on the streetscape and public realm design for Maroochydore Town Centre, and quite a lot of other urban design frameworks. So in that role it was a bit more about responding to urban growth, rather than transport.

My background has been more from an urban design perspective, but the more I did that kind of work, the more I realised that, there’s a lot of triggers around this … or a lot of the barriers are created by how we actually embed or respond to transport options and opportunities.

And it’s not just commercial development, or residential development, but the actual infrastructure that we create is another way of triggering change.

Which nicely segues into my next question. I gather it wasn’t a calling. You, at some point, you made a decision to move into transport. Was it during study? Was it pre-study? How did you come to be interested in having a career in transport?

I’d place it at when I started working at VicRoads, in the design area, the technical design area, or the urban design team, I think, as it’s now called, back in about 2003. It is, I think, an answer to another of your other questions, in relation to one of my favourite projects. Which would be the Arcadia rest area, that I worked on with BKK Architects, out of Shepparton.

Part of what I really enjoyed about it was working in, again, a rural environment with complex opportunities and issues … issues of history, and heritage. It was the oldest corridor of indigenous planting in Australia, planted in response to World War II deaths of the sons of the people of the farms, that were adjacent to the site. But then, subsequently how a lot of the local kids were now dying, driving their cars into those trees. And it just got me really fascinated about that relationship between the landscape, in which we live, and the way that our transport infrastructure comes up against that.

There’s sort of a paradox around that, from a lot of the freeway analysis work that I’d already done as a consultant to VicRoads. Pretty much the landscape architect’s role. It was all about mitigating the impact that humans were having on an environment that would be perfectly okay without us.

And so, I started getting a little bit frustrated with this concept of, “Is my role just about, trying to clean up the impact of engineered outcomes? And make some aesthetic statement?” Or, “Is it about, actually trying to, being able to create more of a lead role in this space, where we can have more of a collaborative design approach, that is proactive about how it can actually give back to these environments, both in the habitats, as well as the human environments that we’re creating around them?”

Whereas, we’ve always sort of excluded them, and made territories that can operate adjacent to each other, but don’t interact in a really positive way.

Is it perhaps easier to address that in regional areas, as opposed doing so in urban areas?

Sometimes, because of the amount of space that we have, which is more … I mean, obviously, it’s larger in a rural context, than we do in an urban context. That’s one of the problems, is that it all becomes quite layered, vertically, in an urban environment, rather than horizontal, which you can adapt as an approach more in a rural and regional environments.

Now, to part one of the hypothetical round of questions. Someone has come to you with a big bucket of money, and not unreasonable time frame, and said, “You can fix something that’s a big problem, in a big way. What would you like to do?” This could be within Port Phillip, or wherever you like.

Being in Port Phillip, I would want to see Metro 2 and the tram lines into Fishermans Bend, be delivered sooner than later. So, getting public transport into the Fishermans Bend area is a priority. For me, at the moment, there’s no other real ways for a lot of the workers to get there, other than by car, and that’s putting a lot of pressure on all the complex activities.

There’s always a lag with transport infrastructure, but there’s a lot of people moving into the CBD areas, and if we don’t have that infrastructure in first, then we’re not going to create those behaviours and those habits that we really need to embed.

I don’t want to jump on your dream, but I’m going to make you refine the answer further. You mentioned rail to Metro II. Does there have to be rail? What about things like trackless trams, trackless trains, whatever you want to call them?

That is something that has come through, as for discussion, these trackless trams, in Fishermans Bend. Without having seen a bit more detail, I guess I’m committing to what I understand as being one of the solutions. But I could probably package it more roundly, and say, better public transport in Fishermans Bend.

Okay, and as you know, there’s a part two to these hypotheticals. This time, not quite the bucket of money, a small budget, but one in which you could use it to make a big impact in quite a, not a short time frame, but a, quite a quick time frame. What would you like to do? Big or small? Port Phillip, anywhere …

For me, as both a user of all different types of transport, having a single app, which is kind of a Mobility as a Service sort of model … but, having one go to place, that has accurate information, real-time information, and not having to bounce around between five different apps, and then, find out the information’s not correct, anyway. That would be my dream, is to be able to get something like that happening, really soon.

The best app that we have at the moment is the Tram Tracker app, and if we were able to get a similar sort of usability, a similar customer interface, across all the different modes … and including, knowing where you can park your car, so it’s not just exclusively to sustainable transport modes. I get very frustrated from that experience myself. Everyone’s time-poor, and we want to be able to make that decision, before we walk out the door, of how we were going to get there in the fastest way we possibly can.

And having that level of maturity around, to be able to move around. Because the industry is doing a lot more work in customer experience interface models, Asking questions around what do our customers really want, and really need? And that disruptive model, with that kind of … what’s bubbling out of that experience, is that the community wants, has a higher expectation, than some of our imaginations are able to actually meet.

I would like all those really amazing app designers out there, to come to, or get in touch with, Melbourne, and make it happen.

As a person new to Melbourne, hallelujah, I hear you! Do it! So, last question for you. We live in exciting times. There’s a lot of change happening. In the next, say, three to five years, what are you must excited about, in terms of transport technology?Q

We touched on that with the trackless trams, is that, I think there’s solutions that are coming out constantly. Well, I mean, we’re also looking at being able to test some of the autonomous vehicles, as more of a public transport model. That’s something that we want to pursue, as well, in terms of the City of Port Phillip.

I think there’s a lot of misdirection around some of the technology, and that there’s some people who are just quietly in the background, coming up with some amazing things that we just don’t know about yet. And that’s what I’m excited about. I mean, it may not necessarily be a, “Beam up, Scotty!” kind of a thing, but I feel confident that we’re in such a technological revolution, that in 20 years’ time, I don’t think I will be moving around in a way that I can imagine today.

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