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Vale Paul Mees, Australia’s leading transport & land use researcher

One of the great minds of Australian urban studies, and the most important transport and land use researcher of the last 20 years, has just passed away. Across the country today there are former students…

Mees' study of Toronto’s transit changed the way we look at density and public transport in Australia. bricoleurbanism/Flickr

One of the great minds of Australian urban studies, and the most important transport and land use researcher of the last 20 years, has just passed away.

Across the country today there are former students, colleagues, collaborators and friends all mourning the loss of Associate Professor Paul Mees. Most in Melbourne will remember him as a tireless and unstinting advocate for public transport improvement, which he certainly was. But I want to write about why his death brings such sadness in the transport research field. Paul really was a star in our firmament.

I believe I sat in Paul’s first ever formal lecture at the University of Melbourne. It was in the transport planning subject around 1993, the first year he was entrusted with young minds. A strange character with unkempt hair and a trademark long-sleeved striped t-shirt stood before the lecture theatre. Though he was new to the caper Paul’s lectures were much like his writing: careful interrogations undertaken with the zeal of a public prosecutor. Many of us were inspired. I went so far as to choose transport planning as a career.

Paul and I lived a block from each other in Canberra in 1997, when I joined the transport department. We both loved our work but hated the city, in part due to its woeful bus lines. He was writing his first book while on a post-doctoral fellowship under Patrick Troy at the Australian National University. The result of that labour was the widely acclaimed A Very Public Solution, which first brought Paul to an international audience.

The book made a significant contribution to the “great debate” of Australian urban studies. Paul’s research questioned the conventional wisdom that increasing Australia’s urban densities (getting Australians into medium and high-rise apartments) is a necessary pre-condition for sustainability. The common view throughout the 1990s and well into this millennium has been that unless Australia’s suburbs densify, they are too difficult to service with decent public transport, and destined to remain car-dominated.

Density’s importance had been highlighted by Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy in their 1989 study Cities and Automobile Dependence. It found urban densities at the metropolitan scale were associated with decreased car use in cities around the globe.

For his PhD thesis Paul went to the Canadian city of Toronto to examine whether density around rail stations was the key factor delivering higher public transport use there. He discovered density is usually helpful, but not essential. More critical was the way public transport was managed and run in the Canadian suburbs. And if public transport could work in suburban Toronto (or in Swiss mountain villages an hour out of Zurich as he later showed) then it could surely work in suburban Australia.

Paul drew out these ideas in A Very Public Solution, highlighting the importance of “the network effect”. He called for a radical re-design of public transport routes and timetables to create a system of connections and interchanges, timed and pulsed to reduce waiting times. Such systems allow people to forget their timetables and travel in all directions, rather than just into the central business district. And they work.

His concepts were taken up in key European guidance documents and have been influential in many cities. Alas, in his hometown of Melbourne little seemed to change over the years.

A series of papers on these themes followed, culminating in another book Transport for Suburbia. The first chapter is a great introduction to Paul’s style: it details the “unofficial” subject taught to the students of Monash University when they try to catch a bus to uni from Huntingdale rail station (a difficult feat). It sums up neatly how we can and should be doing so much better. The book shamed the operators into improving that specific bus stop, though the situation remains far from ideal.

Paul was a brave researcher - frank and fearless. He was not afraid to shine spotlights in dark corners or even to question what our community perceived as good policy and practice.

At the 2005 Australasian Transport Research Forum, our largest annual research conference, a good third of the papers were favourable submissions on Travelsmart, the Howard Government’s transport behaviour change programs. Paul’s paper could have been subtitled “Travelsmart is bull-dust”. He argued the program was political “greenwash”, the only sustainable transport initiative of a government that stopped funding urban public transport but widely funded freeways. (Howard also removed indexation of our fuel excise helping deliver cheaper petrol and the structural deficit now facing our national budget). Paul questioned the evaluations of the Travelsmart programs and their validity.

It was incendiary stuff and didn’t go down well with his friends. I’ve never seen a bunch of transport researchers react so heatedly. One well-respected West Australian researcher was cautioned and asked to calm down (I thought he might even throw a punch). Paul didn’t flinch, convinced of his arguments.

Paul was pivotal to the University of Melbourne winning one of the largest grants ever awarded to an Australian team in our field. The Volvo Educational and Research Foundations entrusted Paul and his colleagues with the Australasian Centre for the Governance and Management of Urban Transport (GAMUT) of which I became a peripheral partner. That Paul was subsequently disciplined by that university appeared to diminish the institution more than it did the scholar. GAMUT lost its most important researcher and voice when Paul was welcomed down the street at RMIT.

He went on to great success there, winning headline Australian Research Council (ARC) grants that were to further develop how Australian cities could best adapt and improve their public transport networks. This work will now be finished off by his very capable colleagues, but it will be much harder for them without him.

Paul was a mentor, supervisor and friend to many in our field. I can report that as an Associate Supervisor on my own thesis Paul gave me more meaningful assistance on the methodological issues confronting me in a couple of short meetings than I gained from three and a half years contact with various supervisors at the University of Queensland. His mastery of the material, of transport research methods and his near encyclopaedic knowledge of transport planning history was what put him at the top of the tree. It was no surprise he was offered lucrative positions at prestigious universities in Australia and abroad, but Paul always chose to remain in Melbourne.

The public reaction in Melbourne to Paul’s passing is understandable, given his relentless advocacy and status as one of that city’s best-known academics. But to us in the field of transport and land use this is an especially sad day. We know we’ve just lost one of the greats.