Real de Guadalupe, San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico


Global Travels by a Transport Engineer


Ben Thomson





Global Travels by a Transport Engineer

As transport professionals, we shape the world that people move in. So, what better way to learn how diverse movement can be, than by taking 2022 off as a sabbatical with my wife on a global trip?

Global Travels by a Transport Engineer

Trip Overview

Throughout 2022, my wife and I spent the first half of the year in Latin America, with volunteering experiences lined up in Pacuare, Costa Rica and Cusco, Peru. The second half of the year would take us into North America, through Europe (including a stint of volunteering in Breukelen, the Netherlands), with a small step into North Africa before touching down in Asia ‒ a full revolution of the earth, as Google Maps, would later advise me.

This lengthy time away allowed me to immerse myself in the lived experience of city and rural life, across a vast range of cultures, particularly during our longer stopovers and volunteering.

From this experience, I would like to draw on a few key reflections relevant to my work at Ratio, which include:

  • Global Bicycle Culture
  • The X-Minute City
  • Integrated Transport, and
  • The Pedestrian Experience.

Let’s dive into how these concepts translate from abroad to here in the South Pacific.

Global Bicycle Culture

Wherever you go abroad, bicycles were there before you.

We often talked about the rise in bicycle use in Melbourne during the pandemic. But many cities across the world were already at this point and didn’t need the catalyst of lockdowns and 5-kilometre bubbles to encourage their citizens to take to two wheels en masse.

Bicycle prominent spaces I experienced included:

  • New York’s Streets for People roll-out and the City’s evolving network of active transport;
  • Bogotá, Columbia, where the Sunday Ciclovia cyclists and rollerbladers take over the city streets;
  • Albania’s northern cycling centre, Shkoder, where the inner city is a harmony of quiet streets and multi-modal transport options; and
  • Nicaragua’s border crossing bikes, where opportunistic cyclists would take their lives in their hands and test how loose a vehicle’s rooftop cargo was by swerving in front of drivers.

In many places, bicycles offered a cheap form of local transport. They are self-powered, can be inexpensive to buy, and upkeep is minimal. The bicycle also offers upward mobility for many, expanding the horizons of travel within someone’s life.

For these reasons, it was unsurprising to see the uptake of bikes.

But what was surprising was the lack of dedicated infrastructure in place to support cyclists, with bicycles and cars sharing the same space a common experience!

And whilst I can’t talk to road safety statistics, what was evident in many cases, is a much greater awareness and acceptance of cyclists by drivers (and also the reverse) than the Australian experience.

Cycling is occurring on roads lacking infrastructure, as the road is the only infrastructure available. Bearing this in mind, drivers in the above-mentioned locations are more aware of cyclists on the roads. This acceptance of bike travellers outweighs the car-dominant attitude that we hold dear in Australia.

In Melbourne, we have a more regimented driving culture with (and rightly so!) a very heavy focus on road safety.

In this context, our response to facilitating active transport and cycling in our streets is largely one of separation and segregation. However, reflecting on my experiences, this culture places drivers and cyclists into comfortable situations where they often don’t have to think about each other. People don’t interact with each other, because they don’t have to! This then leads to a potential conflict where the bicycle lane ends and road spaces are formally shared.

So, what is the right balance? That’s a bigger question than I can answer here. But it is a challenge that extends beyond just the better planning of our streets. Education, cultural change and new thinking will be necessary to make Melbourne a true cycling city.

I think it’s past time that we ask the question: is the current approach to cycling the right way to tackle cycling culture in Australia?

The X-Minute City

We know that urban centres offer greater opportunities for most people. This is why the United Nations’ projections are that 66% of the global population will reside in cities by 2050.

But not all cities pull their weight when it comes to supporting residents in living accessible, successful lives. This is the genesis of the X-minute city concept, which is taking centre stage in urban planning and transport discussions. Which essentially seeks to support communities to meet the majority of their daily needs, without having to travel more than 20 minutes from their homes (I note that some instances speak to 15-minute or even 5-minute cities, but for this discussion, I’ll reference 20-minute cities).

Travelling throughout Latin America, this concept was prominent in many of the spots we stopped for extended periods. Bakeries, pharmacies, fresh produce markets, food halls, bus stops for wider city access and centres of activity are all within a 20-minute trip. This made day-to-day life very easy, and we comfortably managed without the use of a car. Time management and planning were much simpler, and we could pick up new supplies, get a haircut and have clothes repaired all within easy walking distance. Even better, in some places services would come to your door, like food carts, kitchenware and utensils repairs and on-demand gas bottle refills. (I’m still impressed with the motorbike gas deliveries in Cusco at 10 pm).

The concept also felt well embedded in some Eastern European neighbourhoods, where active transport routes taken to move around and between the suburbs and the centre of town for buses/trains, were flanked by outlets providing typical needs for everyday use alongside employment opportunities. Cities across both continents offered the 20-minute city experience in different ways but they always felt very organic and there appeared to be a lot of flexibility in how this was achieved for both residents and commercial operators.

Coming back home to Melbourne, we have some great examples of the X-minute city concept in our inner city and some middle-ring activity centres. Melbourne’s pride in being the world’s most liveable place or hosting one of the top 30 coolest neighbourhoods (Fitzroy.) are chief examples. But, by in large, the development of our suburbs has revolved around the car.

There is an aspiration to change this in our newest suburbs on the urban fringe and in brownfield redevelopment areas. However, a lack of transport options, particularly in greenfield areas, and car parking policies that still overwhelmingly encourage car ownership, dilute the X-minute city concept before it starts.

We also should begin to acknowledge where we are already hitting our X-Minute targets in neighbourhoods that are demonstrating this example of living and function. Are there regional cities that already lead in this space? How do the organic inner areas of Melbourne compare with the holistically planned outer suburbs?

While reflecting on those cities that I visited, whilst not my area of expertise, I wonder if we have the planning framework right? The best ones were those that felt like they just happened without that much planning at all.

As we are seeking people-focused neighbourhoods, it feels like we are transitioning back to how human settlement used to be (plus technology). So, is the car really just a short-term fad and if so, why are we spending so much effort planning around it?

[Global Travels by a Transport Engineer Part 2 to follow.]