Who's Who

Neil Sipe: Trouble with the kerb

Neil Sipe
Neil Sipe

Until very recently, Neil Sipe was Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Queensland. While he’s not there now, he is still very much working in the field. We find out what he is up to now, and how he came to specialise in transport.

Could you tell us a little bit about where you’re working now and what is it you do, or in your case, what is it you recently did?

I’ve recently retired from my position as an academic. I was a Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Queensland, however I’ve not retired from my interest in doing research and consulting. That’s what I’ve been doing over the past nine to twelve months.

Anything interesting you’re involved with at the moment?

I’m finishing up a couple transport-related projects. One has to do with parking and looking at the need for parking and how much parking we have, and whether parking can be repurposed into other uses. This has been a three-year Australian Research Council Project that was co-funded by the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads. It is specifically looking at whether we could get rid of some parking and turn that into bicycle lanes.

We’ve expanded it beyond just the use for travel, in this case bicycles, into other uses. It’s thinking more about kerb management, in other words how we use the kerb. With a lot of online ordering and deliveries and Ubers and car sharing and all that action happening on and around the kerb there seems to be more need for thinking about how we use that space. That’s what this project is looking at.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, have you found this type of project now has had an accelerated interest?

Well, I would certainly think so because you can’t look at news from any place without cities deciding, ‘Gee, they’re going to turn this lane into bike lane because there are so many people using bicycles.’

Obviously, there’s more need for delivery services because a lot of people don’t want to go out shopping right now. If they can stay at home and get their groceries or meals delivered, that’s what they’re going to do.

I would think you’re right that there’s clearly more interest in this kind of research than there was a few months ago.

How was it you moved into your field in transport? What got you started?

I have a Master’s degree in urban planning, so I come to the transport area from a planning perspective. That’s trying to think about how we can align better our land use decisions with our transport decisions. I took a bit of a diversion because after I did my master’s degree, I ended up working as an economic and financial consultant, which then led me into investment banking.

I was an investment banker for a several years and focused on trying to get or raise funding for local government infrastructure projects, of which roads are one of those, but I was involved in looking at the full range of local government needs including water, sewer, drainage, and the like.

That went on for a number of years before I then decided to go back and get a PhD in planning. That led to an academic position here in Australia, and one of my responsibilities was teaching transport planning.

Where were your studies originally … your original degree and your PhD?

Until about 20 years ago, my life was in the USA, I did all my higher education studies in Florida. The University of Florida for Master’s degree, and my PhD at Florida State University.

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How long have you been here in Australia now?

Twenty years. I arrived here in 1998.

I came specifically to an academic position and one of my responsibilities was teaching transport planning. I had to get up to speed pretty quickly, but I certainly was doing transport-related stuff in the US, but this was trying to get across what the issues were here in Australia. I started doing that from the day I got here. I was doing other things related to planning, but certainly transport was one of those areas that I was most interested in.

Let’s delve into hypothetical land. In your field, or indeed in any area of transport, if you had a project you could undertake that had an unlimited budget and no time limits, what would you like to take on?

What I’m probably most interested in now is the way technology and then the ways of thinking about mobility have changed over the last number of years. With COVID-19 it’s throwing another variable in there, and I’m not sure where that may lead. Clearly things like autonomous vehicles, ride sharing, car sharing and more active travel. What really takes my interest is to see how that’s all going to play out.

Are we so entrenched in our love affair with the car that it doesn’t really matter what technology comes around or what other factors come into play, but the car is still going to remain the king? That’s what I’m interested in exploring. I don’t really have any answers at this point. I am a bit sceptical on whether or not the technological answers are going to solve our problems, but that’s just a gut feeling at this stage.

In order to get any or all of those things to happen, what do you think is the block you’d pull that would make them all fall into place? Is there something you’d attack first?

I would think is that we need commitment from the people that make the decisions. It’s our politicians and the top bureaucrats that can set the stage for these things to happen. Up to this point, I think there are a few shining lights around the world, but for the most part we still have politicians and decision makers that think that the answer to traffic congestion is to be building more roads.

For the last 20 to 30 years, that’s been proven time and time again, that it’s only a very short-term solution and it’s really a waste of money in the long term. We’re still doing that even in light of the fact that we have evidence that we shouldn’t be doing that. Maybe COVID-19 is the thing that’s going to change that.

Although it seems like if anything, that might take us in the opposite direction that more people are going to leave public transport and drive their cars. We may be headed in the wrong direction.
In summary, you think the best application of budget and time would be best spent schmoozing and educating politicians.

Well, to get them to be making … it seems like this is old school thinking, to make evidence-based decisions, which we don’t seem to do much anymore. Although, certainly if you look at the countries that have weathered the initial COVID-19, the ones that seem to have done the best are the ones where you have the politicians that are basically relying on scientific advice and advice from medical. It’s evidence-based advice that they’re working on.

The countries that are not doing that, and the three that seem to be at the top of the list are the US, Brazil and the UK, where it’s like, ‘Well, we don’t really care what the doctors and the medicals and the scientists say. We’re going to do it this way.’ There is maybe some glimmer of hope that maybe evidence-based decisions will become more prevalent than they have been in the recent decades or so.

Let’s hope so! Part two of the hypothetical question is, a limited budget, limited timeframe, something would make a quick appreciable impact. What would you like to implement there?

Well, the one thing that I think we haven’t really thought clearly about and a lot of cities haven’t, which is that management of the kerb. I think that rather than just having a few researchers looking at this, it needs to elevate its importance. I was interviewed about this, well, probably six months ago on the ABC and they didn’t even know what kerb management was and there was not a general awareness of what that even involved.

I think that we need to raise the level of discussion about what it is, and the fact that decision makers need to actually do something about it before we’re faced with reacting to a situation that’s not good.

If you were to attack a program like that, would you start small and use evidence to prove it works, or would you like to do it in one fell swoop across the CBD? How would you approach it?

I think that to some extent if we take a place like Brisbane, which is a fairly large local government area, which is a bit different than other capital cities in Australia, kerb management is something that probably there’s going to be greater demand for doing that in certain areas of the city. As opposed to … maybe at the suburban areas is not the place that it’s really the problem. It’s really in the urban core and that outside interurban core.

I think part of this is just raising awareness at this point. I don’t know that we need to do any research other than to just say, ‘Well, these are the things that are happening. We need to get in and have a plan for how we’re managing that kerb space.’ I think that’s the first step, is raising awareness. I think that can be done. You don’t need a million-dollar advertising budget to do that. You just need to be getting out and letting people know that this is an important issue.

No matter what you think about the future of cars and active travel and those things, the reality is that there is greater demand for this limited real estate. The only place that I know that has done anything about it up to this point is San Francisco, and in part was funded by Uber, because it was concerned it was getting squeezed out.

How hard would it be? Because obviously people who don’t agree with making these changes will go straight to the negative and say, ‘It’ll cost you money. It will cost you time. It’ll cost you space for your car.’ How would you counter such a negative approach? How do you make people learn it’s a good thing?

Well, I think you’ve hit on the reason why there hasn’t been a lot of enthusiasm for this. Although it’s a subtle thing. We’re not talking about parking management. We’re talking about kerb management. I know from here in Brisbane that they keep a tally of complaints, and parking is at the top of the list.

Noise and parking go hand in hand, or they’re one and two. They vary from year to year, but it’s always parking and noise.

The politicians are extremely reluctant to do anything that has to do with parking in terms of managing it because they don’t want to rock the boat. They tend to not look at it. I think that it is something that even if you put under the guise of kerb management, we need to start thinking about that. I think the change, particularly in the CBD areas, it’s not like there’s a lot of on-street parking that even exists anymore because it’s been taken up with bus stops primarily, and commercial loading zones and those things.

I think the future is that we’re going to have more of that, not less. It’s incumbent upon the decision makers to, even though it’s a prickly discussion, they need to start engaging with it. At least be aware what needs to be done or what should be done.

To its credit though, Brisbane, I know it’s running a project or two on parking with us, so it is looking at it and trying to address the issue.

I’m aware of that, but I can also tell you that we find some councils … because this project that we’re doing on parking we’re looking at three. At Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

Melbourne and Sydney have been forthcoming with their data and they’re happy to share, but Brisbane hasn’t. I think part of that has to do with the nature of the fact that Brisbane is a large local government area and it has suburban, rural, interurban and urban areas within its bounds, so it has the full spectrum.

Whereas, if you look at Melbourne it’s comprised of fairly small local government areas. Same with Sydney, and because of that, they focus on what those issues are, whereas Brisbane has to have a bit of broader focus. We’ve found that it’s a bit difficult to get it to share its thinking and or its data on this.

The sharing of data is a big issue. It’s something that everyone’s trying to get their head around and trying to move on, but entrenched ways are hard to overcome.

Yes. At this stage, we’re not taking an advocate position of one way or the other. One thing that we weren’t aware of when we started the project is how little information is available. It may be collected, but it’s certainly not generally available in terms of how many car parks there are, how many are on-street, off-street? Are they private? Are they public?

It took us about a year just to get that information even from the places that were willing to share it. It’s interesting that on a topic on which everybody has an opinion, our level of information about this is limited, I would say.

Many people I speak to in this series have a specialty or a group of specialties, but could I ask, is there an area you haven’t worked in yet that you would like to get into?

Probably not. My focus, after many decades of working on this, is that the real issue has to do more with how you make change happen and that change-making process. If anything, as planners, we thought about that generally. That’s an area that I think we need to explore. We’re good at doing plans.

Australia’s probably in terms of its planning efforts, whether it’s land use or transport planning, it does a great job. What we don’t do so good on is the implementation. That really should be the focus. We should have a strong focus on implementation and understanding why after we draw up great plans, we don’t get anything, or we have limited success in terms of the implementation side of things.

What is it in the next three to five years that you’re most excited about, and to follow in that last answer, actually think will happen?

I’m interested in the extent to which something like this, the pandemic, can change people’s behaviour as it relates to say transport. I’m interested to know will it have a long-lasting effect or is this going to be a short-term thing?

Now, my starting assumption for this is that it will probably have an impact in the short term. Whether it’s going to have a long-lasting impact that in a hundred years people will look back and go, ‘Well, the COVID-19 really changed how cities manage traffic and active travel and so forth.’ That we don’t know.

I’m a bit sceptical about whether we’re going to have long-lasting impact. I know that there’s a lot of people now saying, ‘Oh, it’s going to change things dramatically.’ I’m not sold yet.

Would you agree with me that perhaps the one shining light that we can see now and that might sustain is the shift to working from home?

That’s a good point and I have done research on that about understanding why. We’ve had the internet for what, 20 or 30 years? It’s been possible to work from home for the past 20 or 30 years.
The place that I know that has done the most research on trying to understand why that hasn’t been working, is the state of California. It has had a vested interest in this area because it didn’t until recently have much in the way of public transport. It was happy for people to work from home.

It went and tried to understand why people didn’t do that. As it turns out the main factor, and by somewhat a considerable margin, it was the matter of social interaction. It wasn’t that people were worried that they weren’t going to get promoted or job advancement or that the bosses were worried about people were goofing off at home. It really had to do with the fact that part of a job is the social aspect.

It’s not people’s job duties. It’s actually interacting with human beings. Humans are social individuals, and I think that once the initial scare of the pandemic reduces, people are going to flock back to their workplaces. That’s my thinking on that. I would hope that it makes a difference because there’s a lot of reasons why working from home makes sense – it helps with traffic congestion, pollution, and many other things.

We should be doing more of it, but the real impediment has not been internet speed or any of those other things. It’s really been the social aspect of being able to go talk to somebody and I don’t think that a pandemic is going to be enough in the longer term to really change that. It might get changed from companies realising that maybe they don’t need to lease expensive CBD space. That they can basically say, ‘Well, we’re only going to have a limited number of people show up at the headquarters!’

It has to do with whether it’s at the employee level or at the CEO level. At the CEO level I would think that maybe they’ll say, ‘We can be as productive with people working from home and that’s what we’re going to do.’ It depends on what the moving parts are. At this point I’m probably, again, a bit sceptical of the longer-term impacts. The short term, probably yes, more people work from home, but longer term, probably not.

The only evidence that I have for this is what happens in Brisbane. It has an annual show, the Ekka. Basically, there’s no parking there at the showgrounds, so everybody has to use the train or bus to get there. What they’ve found over the years is that there is a little bump from getting people riding public transport that never used it before, deciding, ‘Oh, this isn’t so bad. Maybe I won’t drive. I’ll just take the bus or the train.’

There is a little blip after the show’s over that people change their habits, but after a number of months, it goes to the way it was before they took the public transport. As I said earlier, I think that’s the evidence that would lead me to believe that we’ll see some short-term changes. Long-term, I’m a bit sceptical about at this point.

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