Thursday, 26 April 2012

Playing make believe: Light rail in Freo

I love light rail. Light rail was my first love back in my teenage days (it didn't mind pimples). It all started with the computer game Sim City. I had figured out the code for getting limitless amounts of money and wasn't subject to any budget realities whatsoever, so, in my role as pimply benevolent dictator, I ran up the bill putting light rail absolutely everywhere in my city.

My love affair with this humble form of public transport continued into my planning studies. From day one I was scribbling 'MS 4 Light Rail 4 Eva' in my notebook. I'd draw light rail doodles in lectures, and hang out with other light rail devotees to talk breathlessly about what Portland in America had done. One of our cooler, more hip lecturers even brought in a map of Perth's old tram network and showed us while we all 'took a knee' and huddled around him.

A couple of weeks ago I rocked up to the Building a Better Fremantle Forum. I heard a lot about light rail being one of the keys to a better Freo. Instead of leaving excited, I left a little disappointed. Don't get me wrong, light rail and I aren't headed to the divorce lawyers just yet. My problem is that we've heard a lot of talk about light rail over the last few years and I'm tired of playing make believe.

Freo isn't in the game

It pains me to say this, but there is no evidence to suggest that light rail will be coming to Freo anytime soon. Last year, the State Government released its draft Public Transport Strategy for the next twenty years. Light rail for Freo is not part of the plan.

I'm afraid that when Senator Ludlum casually claimed that the State Government was 'playing around with light rail in the northern suburbs' he was being a tad disingenous. Rather, the idea is to connect three major activity centres with the Perth CBD. The plan is to use light rail to connect the Perth CBD with Edith Cowan University, the University of Western Australia/Queen Elizabeth II Medical Centre and Curtin University.

Given that the state of Western Australia isn't run by a pimply teenager playing around on a computer game with a code for unlimited money, choices occasionally need to be made. And as much as I might not like it, I can see how the case for linking the above centres with the Perth CBD has merit compared to Freo's case. After all, we'll all be paying for light rail in some way and I personally want to see value for money.

Talking about the boring buses

With light rail in vogue, I empathise with our young up and coming local politicians. Who wants to build a platform on buses? However, it's not acceptable to raise false expectations and that's what I believe has been happening here. Freo has presented its case to the State Government and been knocked back. Is it possible that certain politicians weren't included in the memo, or are they choosing to talk about what's popular instead of what's possible?

In the spirit of thinking about what's actually possible in the next decade or so, here are some ideas:

1. More train carriages on the Freo line

These days, if you're one of the people catching the train during peak periods to and from Freo, you probably spend at least half an hour each day with your face crammed in to someone's whiffy armpit. The State Government has dropped the ball when it comes to planning for catering to increasing demand and I hear new rolling stock will not be available until 2015.

I'd like to see Freoites benefit from our local politicians and the City of Fremantle being able to communicate with influence so that more carriages are put onto the Freo line and catching the train in the morning can be a little more comfortable.

2. Introducing LATTE: reinvented, expanded CAT services for Freo

Buses will always be the ugly duckling to light rail. Late in my planning studies, during my rooftop garden phase, I was introduced to Curitiba in Brazil. Curitiba couldn't afford light rail and instead revolutionised the bus system, using different buses to fulfill different functions. I'm thinking we could do something similar in Freo.

I'd like to see an expansion of the CAT service. With the support of the State Government, Freo could take this model to the next level. I'm thinking reinventing it as the Local Area Total Transit Experience or LATTE (second only to light rail and rooftop gardens, planners also love acronyms).

The buses could be smaller, run more regularly and to a greater distance from the city centre. There could be different colours for different suburbs (for ease of use) and the buses could originate in local centres (near parking) and head into Freo, possibly with a few stops along the way. If sponsored, the buses could have wifi and people could sign up to a service that alerts them when a bus was within five minutes of arriving. Best of all, five trips could score you a free coffee.

3. Get in front of the queue

Last but not least, I'd like to see the City provide the results of the 2010 survey it undertook on light rail. I recall the survey being comprehensive and I'm disappointed that there is nothing on the City's website.

I'd like to see some kind of value gleaned from all that work and information. So how about the City getting serious and preparing a 20 year plan for getting ready for light rail? We are kidding ourselves if we think that Freo is the only other locality that wants light rail. To help put us at the front of the queue it would be handy to have this kind of document.


I put it to Senator Ludlum and Mayor Pettitt that if they're going to continue to wax lyrical about light rail coming to Freo, they may get more satisfaction from playing a round of Sim City (I'm happy to supply the cheat codes).

I think that it's time that they divided their time into thinking about a Plan B and Plan C.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

How Bubba's backyard got me thinking about Freo's city centre

My four year old nephew Bubba may just have the best, most interesting outdoor space this side of the milky way.

Welcome to Bubba's backyard
The other night, my wife and I surprised Bubba at his Mt Hawthorn home. He is going through a stage where he gets a thrill out of being scared. Unfortunately, our attempt at scaring him wasn't a success, with Bubba nonchantly greeting us as we jumped out at him. My wife's endearing ability to trample around like she is one of Hannibal's elephants must have given us away.

Bubba took my wife's hand and led her on a tour of his backyard while I went inside and chewed the fat with his mum. I returned to find them both engrossed in a game at Bubba's cafe. It was at that point that I had an epiphany about Freo's city centre.

The awesomeness of Bubba's backyard

I looked around Bubba's backyard and admired the way in which his mum had imaginatively and creatively used the space. There is a fishpond and waterfall complete with frogs and tadpoles.

Bubba gets to feed his fish
There is a secret Bridge-to-Teribithia-like pathway which wends its way through a small but dense forest in which lurks scary animals like tigers, so says Bubba.

Bubba's trampoline, his companion 'Nelly' and getting chased through his jungle
Lots of trees are scattered around which provide shade and points of interest, and there's grass to lounge about on or play chasey. A chicken coop houses their two beautiful chickens. Bubba is the chief egg collector.
Bubba is chief egg collector and in a game of hide and seek he pretends to be a chicken so well he fools his Uncle Swaney
A herb garden provides interesting flavours for Bubba's cafe. Bubba even has a small trampoline as well as a little cubby built into a small tree. At nighttime the solar lamps kick in and the garden undergoes yet another transformation.

All in all Bubba's backyard is a great place. Its possibilities extend beyond the purely visual and into the realm of the tactile; a sense that as adults we often fail to enjoy. You can enjoy it in all sorts of weather. And importantly, there's plenty of scope for the imagination.

Bubba HQ
I think placemakers like Jan Gehl, Fred Kent and Julian Dobson would be impressed. There are plenty of opportunities for Bubba to have different types of interactions depending on his mood. He can play by himself. He can search for that scary, but elusive tiger with my wife fulfilling her role as his loyal sherpa. He can hide. There is space for him to ride his tricycle. He can help his mum do the gardening. He can kick back and watch the goings on of his backyard. It is obvious to me that the different layers of his backyard add up to much more than simply the sum of their parts. Collectively, these layers come together and create a wonderful, unique place suitable for all sorts of moods.

I was standing around thinking all these things when I noticed that Bubba and my wife were still engrossed in their game. I took the opportunity to practice my Jason Bourne skills and proceeded to scare the living bejesus out of both of them. Ten minutes later, I was hiding in the herb garden, waiting for Bubba to 'scare' me. I had to let Bubba get his revenge as therapy for frightening him so badly that he ran off crying; I had jumped out in front of the backyard light so all he saw was a large, dark sillouette. Crouching in the garden and waiting for Bubba to find me, I became convinced that we really need to rethink our city centre (and consider hiring Bubba's mum as Freo's chief placemaker).

Bubba's mum

Why rethink Freo's city centre?

I get the feeling that, like Bubba's tiger, seeking out expanded retail as the solution to all our troubles may be an elusive and ultimately fruitless exercise.

I feel that this approach assumes that what has happened in the past will continue into the future. But times are changing. Internet shopping means that people can buy books from the comfort of their homes whenever they like (and at a cheaper price). It's been forecast that our mobile phones will become the most convenient option for buying groceries within a decade.
To me this has a couple of very important repercussions. The concept of planning for mono-functional city centres based solely around shopping as the primary activity is becoming redundant. People's expectations of their city centres will change along with their shopping habits.

Turning the negative into an opportunity

When Bubba was just a twinkle in his mother's eye, his future backyard wasn't impressive at all. It was dusty, dry and one-dimensional (a little like the dustbowl out the front of the Kidogo Gallery). Bubba's mum saw an opportunity and rethought the space. The end result is what Bubba enjoys today.

So what are some opportunities?

I recently watched a video by Julian Dobson (click here) and gleaned three key themes for rethinking Freo's city centre:

1. In an age of clone towns the ability to tell Freo's unique story will become its lifeline. Our point of difference must be sacrosanct and Freo's story must be told. What is Council doing to ensure that Freo does not become anywhereville? What is it about Freo that other places want?

2. Only offering up a shopping experience seems shortsighted when people's expectations and habits are changing. Is there value in Council's goal of increasing retail at the expense of so much else?

3. Social value is important. Along with creating quality places, social value will become the determining factor in deciding where people decide to spend their time. This means adding layer upon layer of activity and function to Freo's city centre. How is social value being added to our city centre, and how can we add more?


If revitalising Freo's city centre is like completing a puzzle and Scheme Amendment 49 and the Economic Development Strategy are the puzzle pieces, then where is the puzzle cover? What is our shared vision for the city centre?