Heaven Getting Better Transport

It seems my friends have taken to dying in winter. Two years ago I lost four people I knew in one month, none of whom were over 55. I was only ever close to one of them, but it was a pretty horrifying tally, made worse by the number of young children left behind. Fortunately it didn’t go up until roughly the same time last year, when I found myself back at Springvale Cemetery, a place I had never had to visit before 2011. 12 months later, and I was there again for the funeral of Deborah Cass, a woman who inspired many of my friends (and my father considered one of his star students), but someone I largely knew as the sister of my good friend Dan.

Two weeks later it’s another huge blow to all that is good about Melbourne with the death of Paul Mees announced today. It wasn’t a surprise. Last week he recorded a video to be played at the Trains Not Tolls rally held at Fitzroy Town Hall, and everyone who saw it would have been aware that prospects were not good. But Paul was nothing if not a champion of long shot causes – he had no intention of going quietly, or going at all if he had the chance.

Some people reading this will have known Paul better than I did, but for those stumbling on the page, he was a champion of public transport. He raged against the abominable mess that has been made of what was once one of the best transport systems in the world, revealing time and again how it could be done better, and indeed was being in many other places.

Paul was not only very good at research, he was also devastatingly witty and effective at delivering his message. Amongst many memorable speeches and interviews the stand out for me was at a rally against the creation of the Commonwealth Games village. He made the fairly obvious point that people wanted to live in the inner city largely because it made it so easy to get to so many things, but that the village’s location, while relatively close to many of the inner city highlights was too far for a quick walk. To avoid the traffic and parking problems people needed good public transport. He then set about a devastating critique of the state of public transport to the site, pointing out that the only thing available at reasonably close range was a bus that ran once an hour. He noted, however, that this was only on weekdays, and if any of us had caught the bus to get there we would be waiting 40 hours before it ran again. He then calculated, at the rate at which bus routes were being upgraded, how long it would be before the bus ran frequently enough to be much use. If I recall the answer was 2800, but in recognition of some vague promises to make the village a priority he suggested it might be bumped up the list to be a mere few decades away, although this of course would mean someone else would be left waiting even longer.*

In person he was just as good, regularly having me alternating between rocking with laughter and having my head in my hands at tales of what was being done to the city I love out of a mix of ideology, incompetence, empire building and sheer bloody mindedness. His capacity to bring the stupid to the surface was outstanding. One example amongst many was when he got some department of transport planner to say that Melbourne could never have as good public options as Toronto because of the difference in our climates – people were apparently happy to wait for a bus when temperatures were 20 below, but a little Melbourne drizzle would ensure they all wanted to drive cars.

Paul wasn’t perfect. He was stubborn to the point of reminding me of George Bernard Shaw’s great aphorism, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” This often led him into conflict even with his closest allies over tactics. By his own admission his attempts to dabble in electoral politics had a way of proving counter productive, and created more than a little personal grief for me in the early naughties.

Yet none of this mattered compared to the role he played in exposing the stupidity of Melbourne’s planners obsession with freeways, and the vast untapped potential of the train and tram network if only they could be put in the care of people who actually wanted them to be used.

As mentioned, his last political stand was in a video to the Trains Not Tolls rally where he spelled it out very clearly indeed. The proposed extension of the Eastern Freeway, if built, will be the most expensive project in Victoria’s history. It will suck funds out of every other transport project you could imagine, ensuring that train lines to Doncaster, Rowville or new suburbs on Melbourne’s fringes remain unbuilt for a generation at least. Even on the modelling of the project’s supporters Victoria will only ever get back 50c for every dollar invested, even if the extra pollution it will spew into the inner city is not factored in (don’t even bother thing about climate change).

Paul died of cancer, and we will never know if this was a result of decades of breathing the inner city air fouled by the original versions of the Eastern Freeway – although we do know that cancer rates in his suburb are well above the Melbourne average.

The best way we can remember him. I’m sure the way he would want to be remembered, is if we can make a success of the campaign to ensure the extension is never built, and the money goes on new train lines and rolling stock instead.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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9 Responses to Heaven Getting Better Transport

  1. Anthony O'Donnell says:

    Thanks for that Stephen. I got to know Paul well when he and I overlapped as (Catholic) undergraduates, and even attended his wedding in the late 1980s. For the past 20 years it’s only been random encounters, with my last contact a message of support when he was being unseemingly heavied by the University of Melbourne for a certain – but totally predictable – critical stance he’d taken as regards Melbourne’s transport planning a few years ago. I now wish I’d maintained a closer friendship. For him dissent was effortless, fun and principled. BTW, on the very day Deb Cass died I was at the funeral of a very close friend who also succumbed to cancer aged 52. What is going on? I’m beginning to think that if I get through the next 4 years in rude good health I’m blessed.

  2. Yes it’s really shocking, and since most of these deaths are from cancer one can’t help wondering what environmental factors are in play, particularly for the non-smokers. I take a little comfort that those I am seeing die this year at least made it past 50, unlike most of the people I knew two years ago, but it is still appallingly young.

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  5. Vaughan Williams says:

    Thanks, Stephen. It’s reminded me how sorely I have missed working with Paul – stubbornness, technophobia, brilliance, speaking-of-truth and all.

  6. Well said Stephen. My favourite Paul story is from c.1983 when a group of us from Melb Uni decided to go on a canoeing trip down the Murray. Paul was convinced we could get ourselves and the canoes from Melbourne up to the river and back again on public transport. Using a variety of buses and trains, he nearly cracked it until stymied by Vic Rail, which categorised a canoe the same as an ocean going liner and wanted to charge us a small fortune to use a small corner of a goods wagon. We worked out it would have been cheaper to travel in taxis, buy canoes in Swan Hill and then set them free at the end of our trip. Paul graciously borrowed his dad’s car and a trailer. I think it was the only time I ever saw him drive.

    I hope to get over to Melbourne for the funeral, once we have details.

    Mark Parnell MLC, Parliamentary leader, Australian Greens (SA), Adelaide

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