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Dr Paul Mees 1961 – 2013

It was with great sadness that we learned today that prominent Australian transport academic and public transport advocate Paul Mees has died following a 15 month battle with cancer.

Paul was an intelligent and passionate man, an accomplished academic, a remarkable public figure and a bloody good bloke.

Early in his career Dr Mees worked as a lawyer, specialising in industrial relations. Fighting alongside unions for the rights of workers is no doubt where Mees sharpened his wit and learned the craft of captivating and questioning an audience at the same time.

As president of the Victorian Public Transport Users Association for almost a decade he campaigned vigorously for investment in public transport services and greater mobility over inefficient roading programmes focused on congestion. He was also highly critical of the privatisation of public transport operations.

He subsequently entered academia, lecturing and conducting research at the University of Melbourne. His demand for evidence based transport planning and scientific rigour in planning research was consistent with his no bullshit approach to politics. Paul was not afraid to tell it like it is, or reap what he sowed. After being highly critical of the Victorian government of the day (describing  the authors of one government report of privatisation as “liars and frauds who should be in jail”), Dr Mees was unceremoniously demoted  in 2008 as the result of political pressure.

He chose to resign that post and took a position as Associate Professor at RMIT Melbourne instead. Personally I was very grateful for that once he ended up my new transport planning lecturer. He took the move in his stride, playfully referring to himself as a “political refugee from the other end of Swanson St”. His tenacity in politics was only matched by his wit and his resolve.

In the transport planning world he is probably best remembered by the maxim “density is not destiny”, tirelessly sloughing away old truisms about public transport in young new world cities. In his seminal work Transport for Suburbia Mees argued that the population density of Australasian suburbs is no constraint for a properly integrated public transport network. In fact Mees has even been cited as the creator of the ‘network effect’ in print (a claim he magnanimously denied, rightly pointing out that such a fundamental aspect of geometry has always existed).

He is also notable for his distaste for grandiose schemes and expensive technological solutions, preferring to focus on getting the nuts and bolts of service delivery right first.

Mees has written extensively on the topic of transport in Auckland and New Zealand, regulars here may remember him from the City of Cars video, an NZTA report on best practice for public transport in New Zealand, and his paper The American Heresy: Half a Century of Transport Planning in Auckland.

Dr Paul Mees

1961-2013

17 comments to Dr Paul Mees 1961 – 2013

  • Thanks for posting this Nick. I well remember his visit to Auckland as a guest of Stop The Eastern Motorway in 2004, captured in this article. He didn’t hold back. I’m posting the whole thing here because we should never forget that Auckland could so very easily turn into the place that Paul railed against.

    Mees Preaches Hellfire in Auckland

    Auckland’s transport planners are the most extreme motorway-lovers in the world and should lose their jobs, says Australian expert Dr Paul Mees.

    Planners are still trying to implement a 50-year-old, “hate-filled” plan against public transport and are incapable of changing old habits, the Melbourne University urban and transport planning senior lecturer said in Auckland yesterday.

    Dr Mees was in the city as a guest of the Stop the Eastern Motorway (Stem) lobby group to address a public meeting at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell last night.

    He said the region’s transport blueprint, the Regional Land Transport Strategy, was a continuation of a motorway agenda set in 1955 with dollops of political correctness for public transport.

    The latest strategy contained bureaucratic spin at the front but was full of roading projects at the back.

    Dr Mees said Aucklanders had been conditioned to think that the transport debate was between all motorways and no public transport or mainly motorways and a bit of public transport.

    Elsewhere the debate was between all public transport and no motorways and equal shares of motorways and public transport.

    Dr Mees told the meeting that Aucklanders needed to ask what kind of city they wanted – a car-dominated city such as Detroit or a public transport-dominated city such as Zurich.

    The $4 billion cost of the eastern highway was “truly spooky” and could build Auckland the best public transport system in the world.

    Perth was spending $1.4 billion to add 70km of new rail lines, a tunnel under the city centre, extend two existing rail lines and provide 24 new trains to increase annual patronage from 35 million to 60 million passengers by 2011, Dr Mees said.

    The meeting was organised by the Hobson Bay Residents Network, which has been needling local pro-highway councillors and community board members to stop the destruction of the bay.

    More than 11,000 leaflets with a computer-generated image of the proposed highway along Tamaki Drive were delivered in Parnell, Remuera, Meadowbank and Orakei to advertise the meeting, attended by about 750 people.

    Network co-ordinator Christine Caughey said it was time councillors were given a conscience vote on this “motorway madness”.

    The pro-highway Auckland Citizens & Ratepayers Now council ticket are due to block-vote today to approve $2.9 million towards a $6.17 million bill to plan the first stage of the project in the Glen Innes, Panmure and Pakuranga areas.

    This is on top of the $14 million already committed to the project by Auckland and Manukau councils and Transit New Zealand.

    One transport plan promoted last night was a proposal by the urban issues group of Auckland’s Institute of Architects. It advocated the completion of a western ring route to take traffic away from an upgraded Spaghetti Junction, fixing the Mt Wellington/Panmure bottleneck, developing a new link from the Southern Motorway to East Tamaki, improved east-west busways and fast, modern trains from Panmure and Glen Innes to the central city.

    Stem executive officer Richard Lewis said that plan was a truly integrated roading and public transport solution with no need for a four-lane motorway from Panmure to the city.

  • Christopher T

    This man changed the way we see, how we understand, how we move within our cities: he was radical, unabashedly confrontational, critical, passionate and absolutely right in his analysis. His perceptions make it possible for the sort of Auckland we dream about to emerge; his work will drive the creation of a better place. He should be remembered as a key maker of place.

  • Liam W

    Well said Nick, really sad news, got into his stuff through this blog and really shaped my views… I find myself still citing him fairly often in my own work! Brilliant man, wish I’d met him.

  • Very sad news, and well put Nick. I was lucky to a dinner with him when he was last here, and he was warm, funny, sharp, and extremely generous with his insight. His chapter on the sorry history of the destruction of Auckland public transport services in the 50s should be required reading for all students and professionals in the transport sector.

  • Poul Tvermoes

    Nick sorry to read that Paul passed away. His insights and commentary will be missed. He taught me when I was doing my masters at Melbourne uni. He was always a challenging and engaging tutor or lecturer.

  • Poul Tvermoes

    I might add as he was so fond of saying, so long comrade.

  • Marcus L (Svartmetall)

    Incredibly sad news. He was inspirational and really lit a fire underneath transport planners obsessed with building motorway networks and neglecting all other modes. I still remember him most for his part in the documentary “Auckland: City of Cars” – which I thought was excellent.

  • Very sorry to hear about that. I only met him once, but enjoyed his banter – in this current transport climate we do need a few more people who can call “bullshit” as required. I still play the “City of Cars” video to my 2nd-years to make them appreciate what has been happening under our noses in NZ – Paul’s comments in that get a good laugh at the ridiculousness of what he found.

  • Jon Reeves

    A very sad loss to pro-public transport advocates. I liked his ability not to be politically correct around politics and decisions made by town and transport planners.

  • A massive loss to public transport advocacy. He made an excellent presentation at the Smart Transport Conference in August 2011.

  • Kevin McQuillan

    Readers will be pleased to know that about 350 attended Paul’s funeral in Melbourne this week. Six speeches, including one which was a reading of his complete annihilation of the way in which the fools running our transport system should be treated and why. As a former Aucklander, I believe the words Melbourne in that speech could be substituted with Auckland and (as with so many others) I told Paul I was ashamed to be an Aucklander when I think about the destructive attitudes by Auckland City councillors who were bought, one way or the other, by the roading industry.

    As I write, Key is about to announce something vague about the CBD tunnel – my first thought was how would Paul regard this.

  • Scott M

    This is incredibly sad news. I came across Paul Mees while back at University and was really inspired by his work “A very public solution: public transport in the dispersed city.” He outlined concepts like the network effect, the importance of frequency over coverage of services and the plain fact that in any city not all residents have the option of driving (the young, the old, the poor and the disabled). I completed my university thesis based on his work, starting my own bus company and am now really pleased to see his type of thinking being rolled out on the PT network. What a great loss to transport planning.

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