It smells like bushfire across Brisbane. Because it is fire. Backburning or a “fuel reduction burn” is underway as Australia can ill-afford to lose another 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres) to bushfire this coming summer. From our beach-side Christmas holidays, we coughed through thick haze and surfed, swam and paddled through eucalyptus ashes. It could be us, we thought watching the evacuation of campers at Moruya under surreal red skies. The statistics were sobering: 34 people died in the fires and 417 indirectly due to smoke inhalation. ‘Conservative’ estimates show 1 billion mammals perished. In 2001, on the second CapAsia with Ball State, I wrote an earnest essay about how big is a million. Big numbers still boggle my mind.
We sighed with relief as summer ended (for us that’s March 1). The usually stingy Commonwealth government announced a $AU 2 billion relief package for fire affected communities and support wildlife recovery. We tuned into a bushfire relief concert on 16 February and a quite earnest celebrity cricket match. We considered the worst of 2020 to be behind us.
The Tyranny of Distance
By St Patrick’s Day we were “sheltering in place.” We converted to online learning and working. After bungling the arrival of a cruise ship with Covid-19 patients, the international borders were closed and expats were quarantined in hotels, at first paid by the state and now at their own cost. Normally footloose Aussies called off international travel, and we began to reflect that last year’s Europe trip might be our last for a while. Our state-based public health systems cancelled non-essential appointments and then states closed their borders to each other for the first time since the 1918 “Spanish flu.” It wasn’t enough to flatten the curve. Finally even sporting events were cancelled, and Sydney’s iconic beaches were closed. Without international or interstate travel, one of our two largest airlines collapsed into bankruptcy. The next set of Commonwealth announcements soared beyond the bushfire recovery funding, reaching $AU 289 billion.
From a dispassionate view, it was astounding to watch my colleagues convert to working from home. After nearly 20 years in transport planning and travel demand management, I have heard every excuse from line managers to CEOs that Working From Home (or WFH) just wouldn’t work for their business. The last days in the office, we were taking our laptops home every night to be prepared to Work From Home the next day. One morning we were told not to come in, and it has been 120 days since we’ve been in the office. We don’t expect to go back until after Christmas.
I set up a transport advisory business in 2016 to prepare transport plans for workplaces like hospitals, universities and business parks. Whilst a traffic impact assessment uses the old ‘predict and provide’ model for car parking and [car] trip generation, we use depersonalised staff residential data identify and promote existing, practical active and public transport modes. This also leads to a list of infrastructure “missing links” (eg new footpaths or end-of-trip facilities) or operational gaps (eg new services, increased span of service or increased frequency). This is an interesting proposition for businesses. Promoting existing modes is easy (low cost) but working with government partners to fix external site links or improve services is challenging – who pays for a new footpath (a capital cost) or bus service (an operational cost). In Australia, regional road and rail infrastructure and rail / bus services are the state and local footpaths are the local council responsibilities – if a business stands to save $AU 50,000 per car space (a capital cost) – who and what should they be directed (stick) or encouraged (carrot) to fund.
This led to a transport advisor role with the state New South Wales, the most populous state in Australia. The Department of Education and Training is the largest school district in the world with 2,200 schools. The new School Infrastructure NSW department is a stimulus distributing arm of the state government. During the 2007-8 Global Financial Crisis, the Commonwealth distributed funding to schools in the form of a hall, gym or library. Hundreds of town planners, engineers, architects and builders churned out this sturdy but uninspiring school infrastructure.
This program feels different. Our architects are working with manufacturers to use a design for manufacture and assembly approach to speed design and planning approval. This is either a volumetric (off-site assembly) or kit-of-parts assembled on-site. The construction methodology is informed by site access to crane in pre-assembled toilet blocks or to set up site compounds to build on-site. Land costs are high in NSW and, to paraphrase Mark Twain, we aren’t making any more. This approach is accelerating projects, reducing potential cost overruns for bespoke materials or irregular forms. This is essential at a time where the news cycle is short and reactionary. By removing demountables, schools with constrained sites return more play space for students.
The transport project is straightforward. Early in the master planning process, a transport planner reviews the depersonalised staff and student data and supportive transport options to the enrolment boundaries. Based on the transport analysis, the master planner prioritises pedestrian entries and footpaths to the local bus stops or all the way to the enrolment boundary – a fit-for-purpose approach rather than the Building the Education Revolutions’ hall for everyone. The master plan is provided to the cost estimators and ensures transport is in the Business Case to Treasury.
The required site infrastructure is provided to the architect to ensure the site has bus shelters, end-of-trip facilities, bicycle parking and ped scooter parking. Early steps are taken with the bus operators and local government to begin the collaborative steps to improve adjacent-to-site infrastructure and operations. During construction and post-construction, a travel coordinator runs programs to the school to promote walking and bike buddies – or bus services if the school relies on public transport. The early results are promising! Nearly 80 percent of students at one school are walking, riding or scooting to school.
This is rewarding! These projects tick more than a financial bottom line but a triple bottom line: with more climate-friendly transport to school and more independent, resilient students.