During Janette Sadik-Kahn’s visit to Auckland in 2014, she was keen on the phrase ‘tipping point’. For me, it’s a phrase that rolls off the tongue a little too easily. I think it is more likely to be a reference to the growing sense of anticipation amongst those advocating for change. The conversations are getting better, that’s for sure. But it’s going to take a while before we actually get to actually experience the cities that Sadik-Kahn describes. Every city needs an organisation like TransAlt, campaigning for that goal.
So what is the next step? How do we convert the growing awareness and enthusiasm for change, into real progress and improvements in our city? Most of the conversation to date are still taking place between advocates, enthusiasts and public servants. If we are serious about reaching a tipping point, the public at large are going to need to be convinced of the need for change.
Consultation is the process that is used to engage with the public when change is being considered. And in many respects, it’s a flawed process and in need of improvement. That’s because the change that is so desperately needed at a community level will rarely be accepted by individuals who feel they are being asked to make unreasonable personal sacrifice. So inevitably, the consultation process simply ‘goes through the motions’ and we are left with the status quo. In other words, NIMBYism wins every time.
I see the consultation process everyday, in all its ineffectiveness, in an education setting. Here’s the scenario. A school that is operating to ‘best practice’ seeks input/suggestions from its parents/community. Even if the received suggestions are well intentioned, it does not necessarily mean that they are sensible or practical to implement. That’s because the majority of parents are unlikely to be familiar with best teaching practice or the realities of day to day life in the classroom.
My local bike mechanic would never seek my advice on how to fix bikes or run his business. And he would be wise to be to take care in implementing my advice, if I did provide it. In this scenario, the person or people making the suggestion, need to be fully informed and be prepared to do a form of ‘due diligence’. That would obviously require a better understanding of the context within which the suggestion is required to be implemented.
The converse of the above scenario should also be applied when improvements need to be made in the way we run our city. For example, it is imperative that children should be able to walk or cycle to school. The benefits of this, to the individual and the community, have already been quantified and are known to far outweigh the interests of individual motorists who want to be able to, for example, drive at high speed past a school or have parking provision directly outside the school.
Allowing this altered form of consultation to take place does have an element of risk attached to it. Governments that are enthusiastic for motorways are masters at exploiting this risk. It is how they are able to fast-track motorway building programmes. “We know what’s best for you and we are so confident that you will love it/us/the new motorway, that we will start building it tomorrow. You can thank us later.” The risks of this happening at a local level can be safeguarded by initially undertaking smaller projects on a trial basis in order to build up community support.
The barriers to change within the effected community will be plentiful. The majority of the public will all have reasons to be resistant. There is a fear of the unknown. There will be a range of reasons presented to retain the status quo; stories of personal hardship, brought about by the proposed changes. But the consultation process will be impervious to all this. That’s because the sales job will be excellent; the economic and health benefits will be presented and it will have been done well in advance so all the effected parties will have time to grasp how important it is to make the requested changes.
If all the messaging is about healthier, wealthier and more sustainable streets in our communities and it is clearly articulated, change will come about more easily. It’s a job for artists and storytellers. Creating and maintaining behaviour change is the primary goal. The engineers will have their turn later on in the process.
‘Cycling’ is sport and recreation. ‘Riding a bicycle’ is everyday activity. No sweat. As easy as walking, but faster.
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