A “wonk” is a general and derogatory term for a nerd who takes meticulous interest in details of a particular field of knowledge. But it is usually reserved for people who are obsessively interested in the finer details of political policy. Lots of people in Canberra are “policy wonks”, for example. Although I have never been entrenched for long enough in a particular part of society to become fully wonkified, rest assured I am licensed to write about wonks because some of my best friends are wonks. And, let me tell you, although I love them to bits I wouldn’t invite all of my wonky friends to the same dinner party, nor would I design a panel discussion made entirely of real-deal wonks and wannabe wonks with a surrogate wonk as the moderator.
Last night I attended the City of Sydney’s City Conversations talk at Town Hall entitled “The Big Decision: How to fix Sydney’s Transport“, which was an incredibly important and energetic discussion designed in response to Infrastructure NSW’s completely ridiculous plan to “solve” the issue of traffic congestion with more roads. The discussion, while interesting was thoroughly hijacked by a panel of progressive wonks. But I will reflect upon the topic of the discussion first, before revealing precisely why the wonkish tone of the evening was a problem.
While in 2005 Seoul peeled back a highway to reveal the river buried beneath and that in 1995 Shanghai built a multi-billion dollar high speed metro system that by 2011 carried over 2 billion travellers annually, in 2012 InfrastructureNSW and the O’Farrell Government are planning a mid-twentieth century style concrete and carbon monoxide dreamworld of new motorways and bus tunnels. Firstly, the centrepiece of the State Government’s vision is “West Connex”. According to the PR video, West Connex “the highest priority project for NSW”. It is 33kms of motorway that allow motorists to avoid 50 sets of traffic lights. Tellingly, the video does not once claim that West Connex will ease congestion, but instead (and rather hilariously) they claim that it “will transform Sydney’s traffic congestion”. They remain unspecific as to what they mean by “transform”, thus there is the potential that the plan could be read as blue print for transforming congestion by creating new traffic jams on different roads. Secondly, there is the CBD Bus Tunnel, the “CBD BRT” will, according to their website, “provide an alternative to light rail along George Street: a Bus Rapid Transit (‘CBD BRT’) tunnel from the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the Town Hall area, modelled on the underground busway that already operates in Brisbane.” It should be mentioned that the “CBD BRT” involves the partial pedestrianisation of George Street as well. But, in contrast the City wants to pedestrianise George Street and extend light rail network. For the moment, the City’s plan seems to be on the shelf, and in the next couple of weeks the Government will be deciding whether to move their own large-scale and insanely expensive infrastructure projects beyond the planning stages and into action.
The City Conversation’s talk provided a place for a public discussion and a collective response to this proposal. The City’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, alerted people to the fact that decisions are about to be made on these big plans and motivated them to state their opinions now. So, spurred by the discussion last night, let me lay my cards out on the table. In case you haven’t yet realised, I am a cyclist. I have been for about seven years. I lived in the inner west most of this time, and have recently moved out to Earlwood, adding about 5kms to my daily commute. I now commute from Earlwood to the CBD or the Eastern suburbs on most days. This is between a 10 and 15km commute one-way on a combination of bike paths, quite streets and main roads. It is a great ride with the exception of my unavoidable encounters with main roads that do not support cyclists at all, like Unwin’s Bridge Road in Tempe, Anzac Parade in Kensington and Elizabeth Street in the CBD. I have previously recorded my opinion on cyclists’ place in the transport debate in New Matilda in a piece co-authored with Craig Johnson. Basically I believe more people should be cycling and I am very pleased that more people are cycling each year. The benefits of cycling are manifold from public health (cyclists tend to be fitter and healthier) and the environment (no gasoline necessary), to the budget (the latter itself is manifold because the health-benefits mean cyclists lighten the load on the health system and bikes do not require as much infrastructure and also do not cause as much damage to roads and paths so thus do not need to be maintained as much). But getting everyone to submit to my dream of a car-free, bicycle and razor scooter utopia is unfortunately not a viable solution in sprawling greater Sydney. Indeed, there is something unique and masochistic about cycling in a culture where everyone is coasting around in cars,* so I am a firm believer in a “transport mix” that is “heavy” on mass public transit and “light” on more roads. While building a bus tunnel may “free up local roads” for drivers and therefore ease congestion, mass-transit would have the same effect for the roads and be more environmentally sustainable long-term. This was also the main argument against the O’Farrell vision proposed by those on the panel at Town Hall last night, except they emphasised this as “economic” rather than “environmental” sustainability.
Although I agreed with panel’s economic argument against the State Government’s plan to “transform congestion”, the problem with the discussion last night was that it was almost 100% about economics and which proposed transport solution produced a healthier bottom line. Transport is more than just about getting from A to B; it is at the heart of how we conduct our daily lives and live in the world. For a progressive discussion on this issue to be entirely hijacked by economic modelling forgets what really matters. Which is unfortunately what often happens when progressive policy wonks allow a neo-liberal government to set the terms of the argument.** When pressed to comment on the bigger picture the panellists referenced trends away from cars and towards mass transit in other nations from the US and the UK to Asia and India, but gone was any discussion of the possibility of modes different of inhabiting and moving around the city, and lost was all discussion of the even bigger picture: climate. Although environmental sustainability is something that the City of Sydney clearly wants to address and although their proposal for a light rail system was both economically and environmentally sustainable, the environment was not mentioned last night. Instead questions like “How many hundred-thousand ‘wallets’ would ‘disappear’ underground if O’Farrell’s vision were to get the green light?”, “Wouldn’t it be better if those wallets were on the light-rail above ground” and “What impact would the construction of the bus tunnel have upon local retailers?”
I “live tweeted” at this event and called for the environment to at least be mentioned in the discussion. Nothing. It was like the recent presidential debates in the US, except no one was championing drilling for oil or gas, rather they were supporting public transit, walking and cycling. Despite the somewhat radical vision of the City, the rhetoric of the status quo reigned supreme. Part of me thought: “Maybe it is just too obvious an issue to rate mention”, but ultimately and tragically I think that the reason climate did not come up was far more cynical. When the host of the night, the ABC’s Quentin Dempster, introduced the evening by sarcastically stating he was going to set aside his cynicism, I should have realised what we were in for. The conversation was dominated by a bunch of relitavely progressive policy wonks, armed to the teeth with various statistics about the economic benefits of the City’s plan but they failed mention the elephant in the room! In other words, so successfully has the right come to dominate this transport debate in NSW that a progressive panel did not mention climate change. But climate should be at the centre of every debate about urban infrastructure as all decisions made without taking climate into account will be made redundant soon by the climate itself. Furthermore, trying argue for environmentally sustainable transport solutions whilst submitting to the terms of a neo-liberal Government’s policy framework is like trying to solve the problem of the melting ice-caps by building a giant freezer. It is the absolute wrong way to go about it.
Naomi Klein is the most articulate mainstream voice on the need for progressives to embrace a different kind of economic model. I agree with her argument that we need a new economic model to tackle climate change, because a more sustainable vision for future society needs industry regulation, collectivity and government intervention: all the things that neo-liberals loathe. Although Moore and her team at Town Hall also recognise the interconnections between the environment and the economy, those links were conspicuously absent from the discussion last night. The problem here as I see it is that if progressives erase climate change from big public discussions on issues as central to the environment as urban planning and transport infrastructure, what hope do we have? Indeed, progressive policy wonks need to unashamedly make climate change the centrepiece of their policy proposals at every opportunity and in the wonkiest of wonky ways. At the absolutely least a single voice from outside Wonka World should have been seated on the panel to keep climate and the environment alive as an issue when it comes to key discussions of massive infrastructure planning. Last night, with no non-wonky voice to remind them of the earth and climate and the ever-warming planet, these wonks were at the mercy of the O’Farrell governments neo-liberal facts and figures game, and they all seemed either too ashamed or too indoctrinated to think and talk about the issue of transport planning in anything other than economic terms. So, I am going to write to O’Farrell now and tell him that the State’s solution to Sydney’s transport problem is both environmentally and economically unsustainable.
*This is an idea to be explored at another time.
**N.B. Justin “Nightclub Baron” Hemmes was on the panel, I am not touting him as a progressive policy wonk, but he didn’t really contribute much to the discussion except to say that he thinks cars should be allowed back in after dark.
- Middle aged man, driving a bronze SUV, in sunglasses, windows up.
Cyclist wends her way down Wilson Street, Darlington. She’s thinking about the craziness of her life at the moment. Past. Present. Future. Thoughts can be represented with interpretive dance. Although it is 8am the traffic is light and she’s making good time. The sun in shining. The birds are singing. Life’s good. She’s wearing a bright red coat and a bright green helmet. She has second thoughts about her outfit: she thinks she probably looks like a Christmas tree. She comes to a roundabout and sees an SUV coming up the street to her left. She thinks unconsciously ‘no worries’; she’s got right of way two times over because he’s on her left and he’s not even at the roundabout yet. She enters the roundabout. She realises that the SUV is not stopping.
Cyclist: (loudly) Whoa, Whoa, Whoa.
She slows down so the impact is not dramatic. He hits her. Luckily he’d slowed to turn the corner too. Her bike scratches the front of his car, but she comes off the bike but does not fall over. There’s a short standoff. Cyclist looks directly at the driver desiring acknowledgement of his wrong and an apology. The driver gestures impatiently for the cyclist to move on.
Cyclist: (Loudly, gesticulating wildly) Aren’t you even going to apologise for almost running me over?
The driver, unresponsive, reverses a little in order to get around the cyclist and speeds off down the street. Cyclist looks around for recognition of this injustice, and the impertinence and gall of the man in the unnecessarily large car. Nobody is around. Cyclist rides off thinking how glad she was to not be hurt, how much she wanted to kick the car, but also glad that she is that she had restraint, because by not kicking the car she retains the moral high ground. The second wave of thoughts can also be represented with interpretive dance, but ideally dancers would have a costume change to signal that the mood of the thoughts had darkened somewhat since the incident.
Playwright’s statement: This is a follow up to Wednesday Morning, a representation of the possible harmony between Cyclists and Pedestrians in future. This drama perhaps represents the particularly toxic dimension of the current relationship between Cyclists and Drivers in Sydney from the Cyclist’s perspective.
There are too many festivals on in Sydney right now. Earlier in the year I wrote a piece for New Matilda* on the abundance of festivals in Australia nowadays. Although the article itself is a bit glib, I really do love the fact that there is such frequent and specialised cause for the concentrated presentation of art. However, in Sydney right now, there are just way too many expensive, large-scale, multi-platform events. The fact that the Biennale and the Sydney Film Festival happen to co-incide is not the source of this problem. And, although I am not opposed to new events, big ideas, cult celebrities, and bright lights, Vivid’s upstartish extravagance, to quote Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, really grates my cheese. Vivid makes Sydney feel weighed down by festivals.
Strangely, Vivid’s extravagance strikes me as entirely separate from the content of the festival itself. It is the concept of the festival and its branding that constitutes my gripe. The tell-tale sign is all the flags lining Sydney’s streets. Flags everywhere, flags that will soon be turned into green bags and given out at City of Sydney stalls at the next Mardi Gras Fair Day or Newtown Festival. Flags for Vivid have better positioned flagpoles than all the flagpoles used for the Film Festival and the Biennale combined. Vivid is all about this appearance of this glorious creative activity and energy, but the energy promoted by this concept and branding, does not really correlate with the content itself. In other words, the flag does not make the festival.
I don’t often complain about the way Arts funding works, its a dirty job and someone’s gotta do it, and I think often enough it is distributed quite well. But, to me, Vivid is a clear case where the funding should be spent elsewhere. Here’s an impractical but symbolic alternative way to use the money: give all the emerging artists in the City of Sydney jurisdiction a cut of Vivid’s flagpole advertising budget. This would be a cash sum totaled from the combined in-cash and in-kind spending Vivid sinks into flag-advertising. These artists could all go to Manhattan if they want, or sink the money into their current practice. It’s not a good alternative but the money should be channelled into funding existent arts practice in Sydney. Or, if we really want another festival, it should be one that grows out of, but is not exclusive to, practicing artists that live and working in the area already. Perhaps we could still pay Lou and Laurie, or whoever, to come over, but also perhaps to hang out and work with us in Sydney. I feel this rant could continue on and on, and I haven’t even addressed this issue in relation to the “Creative Sydney” component of Vivid, but I will note that featured local artists are not properly remunerated for their contributions, therein lies another rub (or another example of how else to spend that flag budget, perhaps?).
Anyway, I have more or less boycotted Vivid and not only because there is so much else to see at the other major festivals currently underway. The exception to this rule is Laurie Anderson’s light projections on the Opera House, which I saw incidentally. But, I must say that her light display is the most interesting I’ve seen projected onto the Opera House, which is sort of an achievement of sorts.
That’s it. Here I will rest my case against Vivid. And rather, return to what I initially intended, which was to write about what I did in fact do this weekend. So, in the post that follows i’ll offer some 200-word reviews from my weekend of non-Vivid activities.
*I should note that unfortunately New Matilda is soon to cease operation, this is a sad and surprising announcement. A reminder that we can’t take independent media for granted, it needs constant support.