Paul Mees, distinguished transport scholar, and one of Australia’s most important living academics, died at the unfairly early age of 52, following battle with cancer.
This is a terrible loss for Australian urbanism and urbanist scholarship. Paul was a tireless, absolutely tireless advocate for public transport, and fought using impeccable logic, world-class research, and brilliant rhetoric. Only shortly before passing away, he recorded this address to the Trains Not Toll Roads campaign launch:
While I am good friends with many people who are good friends with Paul Mees, I have never had a significant personal rapport with him. In some sense, I was perhaps a little bit intimidated, knowing how he tolerated no fool.
But, Paul was my lecturer on transport for cities, and that single semester with him changed my thinking forever. He was one of the very best lecturers I’ve ever had: he arrived to class in his trademark stripey long-sleeved shirt, declared that PowerPoint was for idiots (this point came complete with a presentation of Gettysburg Address on PowerPoint, then pulled out an overhead projector and delivered his lectures on transparencies.
Half of the student body was outraged. Not just because they had to take notes by hand, but also because Paul didn’t do those wishy-washy ‘some say things are black, others say things are white’ sort of lectures that so often explain contentious topics in the built environment (topics contentious because of clashing commercial interest around them, and not many environmental professionals will rock big boats). No, Paul would proclaim the entire Victorian Department of Transport either incompetent or lying, and then demonstrate that one had to be the case, because their published figures were wrong. Transport engineering students would take the subject to argue with him, and there would be huge, passionate arguments exchanged between the lectern and the auditorium, on very fine points of signalisation, track duplication, line design.
The other half of the students, including myself, was electrified. I learned so much that semester. I devoured his books, other books, from transport engineers to urban designers. I got 92 in his subject – still my best mark ever. I was (delightfully) asked to tutor the subject the year after, and had to say no because it was a postgrad/undergrad subject, and I was an undergraduate student. I made good friends – the best friends I’ve made in urban planning – in that subject. And I’m not alone. You can hear former students come out to recognise Paul Mees’ impact on their lives, in articles, tweets and comments around the internet. I turned towards urban design, but I am still – and seriously – considering specialising in public transport.
Paul, like many of the best intellectuals, had the ability to convey why and how this small thing, this technical thing, this boring thing that is public transport was actually hugely important, how it had enormous social, political, economic and health effect on our cities, our societies, us. Paul could articulate that privatisation of public assets was wrong because it harmed us, citizens, financially. He explained why the failure of the government to plan well, to consider the citizens’ opinions, and to sufficiently inform them of the decision-making process was not simply a technical failure, but a failure of our democracy. He detailed the important benefits of public transport – the health benefits of walking, cleaner environment and social cohesion that it engendered; the safer and more socially equitable public realm that it created; the long-term savings to the public purse – and the social harm that car-centric transport planning, in contrast, was causing. He wasn’t proprietary with his ideas, and so they spread: every editorial analysis of transport in The Age is a leaf from his book.
I have subsequently, to my great pleasure, tutored transport planning, but not with Paul. By the time I graduated, he had already left my department for RMIT, after a vicious dispute with the top of the university. I don’t know enough about that dispute to say anything more than this: I was inconsolable that I couldn’t take more subjects with him, and possibly a thesis.
If public transport in Victoria today is a subject of public debate at all, it is because of Paul Mees’ tireless, relentless advocacy of the options that maximise the public good, and the relentless reminding us that that is what is at stake. He was the most public and the most intellectual of all public intellectuals I’ve known – raising the bar high in terms of courage, integrity, and intellectual rigour.
It leaves us – all of us Melburnians, but particularly those who have access to knowledge, data and an understanding of what is at stake – with a particularly big responsibility to continue his fight, a fight in which he was maybe unnecessarily lonely.
Other people have said it better than me: