May 19, 2024 | Community

John Stone – a multi-front public transport activist

Author: Pablo Gonzalez

John Stone - Brunswick Daily

*Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this article contains voices or names of deceased persons in writing*.

Sometimes in our community, we’re oblivious to the many characters who drive the ideas, actions, and policies that shape our daily living. Brunswick is home to artists, musicians, writers and also to activists.

On this occasion, Brunswick Daily shares with you an interview with John Stone. John is a local activist and academic who has built his passion for social justice by travelling, exploring social movements from within, and doing research to find and share insights about Urban and Transport planning.

From looking up your name on the internet it seems that Travelling and City planning are things that come together in your career, is this right?

Yes, I did an Undergraduate Science degree but what I said to people is that I was majoring in bushwalking and rock climbing. From that, I fell into working as a full-time volunteer with the Wilderness Society on the campaign to protect the Franklin River in Tasmania

Back then, I was part of the team that was doing nonviolence training for the blockade. The campaign got to the point where Civil Disobedience was likely to be scary. The Wilderness Society was doing the politics of the campaign and bringing a lot of people together and we were anxious about what else Civil Disobedience might mean.

The whole idea was to say “We’re are here peacefully, we are putting our bodies on the line, any violence is on the other side”. 

This is part of how I started being an activist in Brunswick.

What happened next?

Through the 80s, I worked in major conservation campaigns throughout Melbourne protecting forests in Gippsland and then we found ourselves running an organisation that is now called Environment Victoria

This is when climate change, or the greenhouse effect as it was called back then, started to become an issue for Governments. We realised that we had to organise using the things we’d learned from nature conservation around energy, transport, and cities. 

I was always interested in cities and I met Paul Mees who was a lawyer and a public transport activist. He and others were saying “why don’t we have good public transport in Melbourne?”. The typical argument from the Government is that we’re too low-density. Paul pioneered research to say density is not the whole story, in fact, it’s not the most important thing, it’s the service quality, connection frequency and speed.

How did your story connect you back with Brunswick?

The first thing that came along really at the end of the 80s was the State Government saying “The Upfield Line was very short and not very efficient so let’s have a tram line instead!”. 

The idea was to have a tram line coming down to Jewel and then it would come onto Royal Parade and then go to the city. This also meant no tram on Sydney Road. It was a car-based motivated idea wanting Sydney Road for cars only and also wanting the railway line through Flemington for the freeway.

There was a lot of community anger and we organised a campaign against the initiative funded by the transport unions. Using the lessons and tactics we learned from the nature conservation campaign we got people around each station but we observed that they were not talking to each other.

So we did a lot of unifying things so everybody felt part of the campaign. We did, for instance, a survey to count how many people actually used the line. 

We tapped into a long-term feeling that the community felt the Upfield line was always under threat. In fact, the first moves to close it were almost before it was opened. So, if you live in Brunswick and Coburg that’s what you do, you have to protect the Upfield line.

With this story, I’m more curious about how you ended up in the academy.

Well, towards the end of the 90s, after the amalgamation of the Councils, I became a transport consultant for Moreland Council (today Merri-bek). I had been articulating ideas, working with Paul (Mees), and bringing experts from Toronto to learn what they had done with public transport.

So, I wrote the first Integrated Transport Strategy for Moreland in 1999-2000. Then I got a job helping them implement it. After I’d been doing that for a few years, Paul who was by then an academic at Melbourne University researching the exact same things from a different angle said to me “You’re gonna go mad working in local government, why don’t you come and do a PhD?”.

In 2003 I started a PhD about the politics of Melbourne’s Transport story. Why? Because if you look at North American cities, European cities, or even Perth, new public transport ideas that emerged from community campaigns from the 70s and 80s were being implemented. In Melbourne, this didn’t happen because of the politics.

Can you guide me through this? because politics could mean so many things.

Ok, in the 30s, Melbourne was one of the biggest public transport cities in the world because we did suburban development with railways. 

Through the 70s and 80s, the people who were running cities, Governments and planners, were saying that was something of the past. The future is the car and we’re spending lots of money on these public transport systems and it’s a waste of money and we should stop. Closing the Upfield line was one of many proposed closures.

During these times, there were big protests about a plan that was first announced in 1969 to build freeways all across the city. Basically, it was going to be a five-kilometre grid of freeways that would connect the suburbs with city jobs. This was American consultants going around the world telling people that’s what they had to do with their City. 

In addition, the Labour Party had been out of government for twenty-something years through the 50s and 60s. It wasn’t until the 70s that Labour started to get a bit more organised, they had a policy that said no new freeways and they got elected.

For my PhD, I interviewed the people who were the road planners at that time. I was talking to them 20 years after those elections and they were still amazed by this story as if it was yesterday.

Three weeks after the election, the new Minister for Transport, calls his team into his office and they know that this government’s got a no new freeway policy. The team’s job over the last 20 years has been building freeways so they are thinking “We’re all going to get the sack” but he says to them “Don’t worry about the policy, keep building the freeways, I’ll sort out the politics, you just build the freeways”.

So, from that moment in Melbourne, we have the idea where we say we are going to do the right things but behind closed doors, we just say “get on with it and build the freeways!”. When I talked to John Cain he said “Well, we were too far up the track, Lady Macbeth, blah blah blah”.

This story has meant that we’ve had this collective schizophrenia about our policy where we keep putting out these plans which have pictures of people in cafes. But when you go to the back and look at the list of what we’re going to spend all the money on is freeways.

And is this what your thesis talks about?

Yes, it’s basically responding to the question what do Governments do after communities made it impossible for them to build all the freeways? 

It has been my job as an academic to train young planners and engineers to say it is possible to have better public transport. Unpacking that population density idea, looking in real detail at what that service quality means in terms of actually getting connections, frequency, and speed. 

And also knowing that just being a planner isn’t enough, you need to have the community politics. This is why in recent years I’ve been working with communities in the Western suburbs to explore a model of a system that gives people a bus every 10 minutes.

The reason I’m doing this work is because of the two strands of my career. One is the expertise in how you would do it and the other one is you’ll only get it to happen if the politics change.

Regarding urban planning, what do you think are the current challenges for Melbourne, with a suburban lens?

Well, it’s people being able to move around in a way that allows them to connect with their friends and their family and their jobs. If people come to cities because they offer all sorts of things, this connection is what actually makes a city function and makes it cohesive. This is what we lose when we don’t have good public transport because everybody has to have a car, we get stuck in congestion. You can’t get a system to work well if everybody is using a large piece of machinery to move around. 

From an academic point of view is just a question of geometry. We have to make the city function so we don’t fall into the real dangers of social isolation and disconnect that we’re already seeing. 

Even the Committee for Melbourne have realised that the biggest threat we’re facing is social dislocation from people in the suburbs not being able to get to their jobs or services. We need to keep up with the changes so that people have an alternative to their car.

There is an alternative that could work within the money we have available but it is political will what we need to make it happen. 

I’ll close the interview with that line, 

End of speech. 

Thank you, John.

Thanks, Pablo.


This article was written, edited, and published on the stolen lands of the Wurundjeri-woi wurrung People, whose sovereignty was never ceded.

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