Vale Paul Mees: courageous campaigner for transport

June 28, 2013
Paul Mees.

Paul Mees, well known to many Victorians, was an academic specialising in urban planning and public transport. He was an associate professor in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University. He died of cancer on June 19.

Mees was an indefatigable campaigner for sustainable public transport. One of his last public appearances was in a video shown at the launch of the Yarra City Council’s “Trains Not Toll Roads” campaign, just days before his death.

In that video, despite his obvious poor health, he criticised the Victorian Liberal/National Coalition government’s plan to build the East-West toll road and advocated instead for more public transport.

Mees inspired many of his students and fellow activists.

Nick Defteros, a public transport campaigner and member of the Manningham Steering committee for Rail to Doncaster, said: “We all feel a sense of loss and sadness, but Paul would want all of us to fight on for less freeways and better public transport. Our cause must go on united and not be lost with him.”

Defteros said Mees was courageous in standing up against the Victorian transport bureaucracy, which cost him his position at Melbourne University in 2008. Paul's passion for public transport was not just confined to the Victorian border. He wrote about Sydney and Perth's rail systems, and systems worldwide in Zurich and Vancouver in his 2010 book Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age.

Moreland councillor Sue Bolton said: "It's sad to hear of the passing of Paul Mees. While I don't know Paul personally, I admire his courage in standing up to both Liberal and Labor state governments and the road industry corporations. His courage cost him his job at the increasingly corporatist University of Melbourne. There aren't many academics these days who are prepared to risk their jobs with public criticism of governments and corporations."

Mees’ first book brought him international attention. The widely acclaimed A Very Public Solution questioned the then-conventional wisdom that raising Australia’s urban densities (getting Australians into medium and high-rise apartments) was a necessary pre-condition for sustainability.

The idea has been popular since the 1990s. Even now it is widely believed that unless Australia’s suburbs densify, it is too difficult to service them with adequate public transport, forcing them to remain car-dominated.

Mees went to the Canadian city of Toronto and discovered density is usually helpful, but not a chief factor. More fundamental was the way public transport was managed and run in the Canadian suburbs. He showed that if public transport could work in suburban Toronto (or in Swiss mountain villages an hour out of Zurich) then it could work in suburban Australia.

Mees advocated 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 travel in all directions, rather than just into the central business district.

A former student, Matthew Burke, wrote after Mees’ death: “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 the book Transport for Suburbia.”

He 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.”

He said Mees’ colleagues will now finish off the work he had been doing — further developing how Australian cities can best adapt and improve their public transport networks, but it will be much harder for them without him.

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