Sydney traffic transport

TRANSPORT SERIES – SYDNEY:  John Austen is a transport specialist with a big track record including senior roles in the NSW government and as a former member of Infrastructure Australia.  He claims that NSW’s troubled road and rail infrastructure planning is fundamentally flawed. 

John Austen, who worked in operations for the NSW Department of Transport, as the coordinator-general of rail and as a transport advisor for Infrastructure Australia, says a public enquiry is needed to explain transport infrastructure decisions made by successive NSW state governments.

Referring to a number of projects currently underway, including Westconnex, the Metro Northwest and CBD and South East Light Rail projects, Austen claims that planners are either ignoring or ignorant of the basic principles of transport planning.

“It’s not like there are one or two projects we can criticise, it’s just like the whole understanding of transport and human development is way off beam,” he told The Fifth Estate in an interview after he appeared in our We the People panel at Tomorrowland 2018. “It’s hard to imagine getting it more wrong.”

His claims are echoed by a variety of critics of the Berejiklian government’s transport planning, among them Greens MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi, who observed in a Sydney Morning Herald column:

“The system is stretched to the limit and their response is to close down two train lines and hand them over to the private sector. I suspect this government’s strategy is to run the system into the ground to make the handover to the private sector more palatable, meanwhile the people suffer.”

Negative submissions on the Westconnex development through the Legislative Council’s Public Accountability Committee are manifold. They go beyond disaffection with higher traffic impacts, poorer air quality, expensive tolls, and the misdirection of road taxes, with one private submission citing damage from construction to a home in Beverly Hills running upwards of $250,000 and homeowners exposed to the full financial risk of repairing their own property.

The first expert independent assessment of the Motorway, by economics firm SGS Economics & Planning, warned it would not achieve any of its touted aims in financial viability, travel time savings or other key justifications. 

While the government’s infrastructure planning remains highly secretive, it has made no bones about its intention to privatise much of Sydney’s transport network. Its predilection for selling public assets to “political friends” has been harshly criticised by commentators such as influential blogger John Menadue. He observes that the NSW government’s “roads fetish” has seen it massively overestimate toll roads usage because of its vested interest in political favours for road builders.

“The motor and road construction lobbies apply intense pressure on governments to commit to wasteful road expenditures,” he wrote. “Those vested interests are … exploiting business opportunities with taxpayers money and residents having to bear the cost. ‘Infrastructure’ has become almost beyond criticism or challenge. We are encouraged to believe that it is all good. It is not.”

John Austen emphasises that the current administration’s focus on road transport gets the principles of transport planning all wrong.  

“In 2010 Ron Christie, who used to be the head of State Rail and was the guy in charge of transport for the Olympics, did a very extensive review of rail in Sydney, which basically covers road issues as well,” he said. “He underlined the fact that in a medium to big city like Sydney, the railway determines the shape and structure of the city. It’s not the road system at all. 

“When city populations get over a few million, the railways become really important, so in cities like New York and Moscow, Shanghai, Tokyo, the railway systems determine the performance of the city.

“In Sydney we’ve got this belief that roads determine the needs of the city. But in Sydney the main non-negotiable transport task is commuting and the average commute time has been an hour for as long as I can remember. 

“There’s a theory backed by loads of practice around the world that it’s almost impossible to change commute times, that the size of the city changes according to the speed of the transport system, so in Sydney people live inside one hour from where they work and if you speed up the transport system they’ll move further out. If you slow it down they’ll move closer in. 

“That’s been observed in London for about 5-700 years and in other cities as well. So the notion of improving transport times into the city with more roads is just absolute crap.”

Austen is a strident critic of the thinking behind the Westconnex motorway.

“With Westconnex, they say it’s going to make it easier to drive from the southwest of Sydney, where I live, into the CBD. Well, you’re nuts if you drive from here to the CBD, everyone catches trains. About 90 per cent of the people going into the CBD go on public transport and probably 90 per cent of the rest are in taxis. Nobody drives to work, not just because traffic so awful, but because parking is so expensive.

“What it will do is attract people to drive through the CBD, so if I wanna go to the eastern suburbs from the western suburbs, I’ll go through the CBD. If I wanted to go to the Northern Beaches at the moment the best way is to go down the M2. In the future it’s going to be through the CBD, and you’ve gotta ask yourself, who in their right mind wants to put a whole lot of new traffic through the CBD?”

Don’t point a highway at a CBD – it’s crowded and there’s no parking

“It’s first principles; don’t point a highway at a CBD, that’s why the Pacific Highway is being focused on missing town centres. You don’t put traffic where lots of people are, so why do you aim a motorway at a CBD?” Austen said.

“Seoul knocked down a freeway and the traffic sped up, which is in mathematical terms what you’d expect. Knock down a freeway and your congested area improves, because you’re not funnelling traffic into it. You’re trying to keep traffic out of the CBD, that’s why you have bypasses and ring roads, to keep traffic out of built up areas.”

He’s equally scathing of the closure of the Epping to Chatswood rail line, in anticipation of the $8.3 billion Sydney Metro Northwest project.

“The Christie review went through the Metro argument. He said if Sydney needed a Metro, it should be in the inner part of Sydney, not out into the suburbs. The planners are people who haven’t understood how cities are structured. 

“Metro systems go in the middle of big cities, between points of attraction and one of the purposes is to carry many, many people short distances. The peak hour on a metro is bidirectional, so as many people are going one way as are going the other. On a commuting system they have directional peak flows, so it goes into the city in the morning and out of the city in the afternoon, like a tide.

“In New York you’ll see the tide going in and out but in the centre of the city you’ll only see people moving around – the Metro is used all day.

“For many years they’ve been looking to place the Metro in Sydney. It’s like they decided ‘we want to have a railway’, now they’re looking for a place to put it. The right way to do it is you look at what transport needs you have, [then] work out what transport system to put in there.

“Putting it in the west of Castle Hill down to Chatswood, they’ve interdicted the commuter rail system, wrecking part of it and they don’t seem to recognise that.”

Popular criticism of the Metro line is focused on its purpose-built inability to integrate with existing rail networks. The Berejiklian government’s insistence is that this line be retrofitted for single deck carriages, which means it will not be able to take regular double deck services. 

“Some of it’s just plain incompetence,” Austen declared. 

“Commonwealth officials bought this line and told their ministers that single deck trains can’t run on the same tracks as double deck trains. I wrote to the Minister saying ‘what about the single deck Canberra train that comes up three times a day?’”

Critics also point out that the use of single deck trains will actually increase congestion, as more commuters will be squeezed into less space. This will mean more people will take the option of road transport rather than rail, increasing congestion on already overloaded roads infrastructure.

The Metro business model, a public-private partnership, is historically flawed. Previous examples include the Cross City Tunnel and the Airport Rail Link, both of which are under utilised, poorly conceived and have blown out their sizeable budgets.

“The Western Sydney rail study is probably the oddest one of the lot,” Austen laughed. “They said ‘let’s have a Metro between Campbelltown and St Marys’. What are these people on? You could put in a bus rapid transport system for a fiftieth of the cost.

“To unscramble all this now is going to take years. They’re going to have to rebore the tunnels to take a normal size train. 

“They did that in Paris in 1884, but that was the provincial government attempting to keep people out of Paris to thumb their nose at the national government. Sixty years ago they admitted they f**ked it up and their new tunnels can now take big trains as well as their Metro trains. But here now to do the same thing? In Sydney the tunnels have been bored too small, but nobody in the public domain has said why. And all that does is destroy options in the future.”

“I think that somebody had the project and just threw it down, and in order to save embarrassment they kept on doubling down and spending more and more. It goes back to [premiers] Carr, O’Farrell. When Iemma was in, people said they wanted a Metro from Woop Woop into Chatswood. Reese designed his Metro in seven weeks [laughs]. It went to Rozelle. Was it going to Rozelle so he could put the spoil there from the tunnel? It’s just laughable.”

With Sydney’s population growing at a frightening rate, the pressure on travel infrastructure is only going to get worse. Internationally, the trend is to reduce reliance on roads and move towards more sustainable people-moving options. But while heavy and light rail upgrades are underway in Sydney, Austen insists they are being rolled out with absurdly skewed planning.

“The airport line in Sydney is actually not an airport line, its purpose is to bypass Sydenham Junction. The Railway people never thought there’d be so many airport passengers, ergo the passenger peak of people from the airport wanting to go into CBD is also the commuter peak in Sydney, so you’ve got the worst possible outcome as a result. 

“The light rail system or even a heavy rail system is probably a really good idea to go to the Eastern Suburbs, no problem, but then extending it down to Circular Quay, what’s that all about? The way light rails work in reasonable sized cities is in a grid, that is east-west or north-south. Melbourne is a good example. You don’t have a single line rail line going through a CBD. There’s no grasp of the principles of transport – they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Austen points out that infrastructure planning is only part of the problem in NSW. He points to John Menadue’s observations that holistic approaches to mitigating emissions will need to be made in future. 

In order to seriously tackle climate change issues, Menadue makes recommendations in line with EU laws on reducing emissions. He cites congestion taxes to reduce the number of cars in cities and increasing sales taxes, registration fees and fuel excises in line with countries such as Denmark, where the sales tax on vehicles is 143 per cent.

Austen has called for a public enquiry into transport planning in NSW. His blog states:

“Only an open public inquiry can assure us that advice and decisions – costing up to $66 billion and forever changing Sydney – are not tainted by arrogance or vested interests. Other approaches are unsatisfactory because government statements are untrustworthy.”

He claims there is evidence pointing to a cover up over poor transport planning and further wrote:

“The issues go beyond trains into the failure to provide proper, adequate, accurate and unbiased information about important proposals. Unless such information is published, politicians will be locked into policies they don’t understand. The community will then suffer.”

The NSW Greens have successfully pushed for a public enquiry into Westconnex, convening a Public Accountability Committee to inquire and report on various aspects of the project by December 1, 2018.

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  1. Excellent reply Kevin.

    It is frustrating that bad ideas are simple and easy to express but require complex argument and deep knowledge to refute. The arguments against metro conversion of the Bankstown line are dangerously ill informed and Luke Foley is making a mistake backing this cause.

    The question that anti-metro people should be asking is this. If you don’t convert the Bankstown line to a metro, how else do you address the real problems caused by the Bankstown line sharing space and capacity on the city circle to the detriment of other lines?

    You could do an interchange at Sydenham. This would be more complex and costly than doing it at Bankstown and it would inconvenience a lot more people.

    You could build a new tunnel and new stations and give the Bankstown line its own path into the city. That would be more expensive of course.

    But the opponents of metro conversion aren’t really concerned with these kinds of real world issues. Despite the fact that they are already well aware that the airport line is congested and removing the Bankstown line from the city circle would allow more trains there. Despite the fact that inner west line is congested and again limited by the Bankstown line. Despite the fact that the system is being pushed to the point where it is fragile and this kind of complexity is to blame.

    The thing is. A lot of the motivation behind these alternative schemes (however earnest) is actually to do with the wrongheaded belief that there is only a small bucket of money available for rail. Once you think outside that box and ask what could be done with more money spent on rail you quickly find that you can spend a lot less on roads.

  2. Fred there is another solution to congestion and that’s to have fewer cars using the road. Fewer cars, less congestion, you get a faster trip, right?

    The majority of road journeys have nothing to do with the movement of goods and service vehicles. Its simply people driving themselves around because the rail network is too slow.

    The other thing you should take note of is that new motorways create temporary congestion relief. Simple human behaviour guarantees that as you make the trip faster, more people use the road and this will happen up to the point where it reaches an equilibrium where again its almost as fast to use a train.

    The congestion in places like Waterloo has actually gotten worse over the past ten years. The Eastern Distributor routinely shows up as heavily congested. King Street Newtown is at saturation many hours of the day. All this does is displace people onto other routes or onto trains. In any case where do people actually come from and go to? There aint no more parking spots in the CBD, so where does a Westconnex user actually go? Eastern suburbs? Holsworthy? (lol). The point is that the modelling done on Westconnex simply assumed that once traffic got to the off ramps it was someone else’s problem.

    Which leads me to this observation. For every dollar spent on a city motorway another dollar gets spend eventually on feeder roads. The tolls only pay for the motorway. The tax payer cops it for the rest of the road network.

    The solution? A lot of money spent on a fast rail network. That’s the only way to take people off the road permanently and save billions of dollars spent on even more motorways over the next few decades.

  3. Lets start with where I agree.

    You don’t point major roads at a CBD. Absolutely. But that’s exactly what is happening with the M6 and the cause is deeply rooted in history.

    The reason why this is happening is the power and influence of the RMS (formerly RTA). An organisation that is so beyond reproach that it continues to move forward with ideas that originated in the 50s and 60s. Some may recall the Cumberland scheme. Its still alive and kicking.

    I don’t agree with John over metros and to explain why would cover several pages. However the gist of it is this. It isn’t just how many people a train can carry (or seat for that matter). Its how many trains you can actually run over a given period on a given rail line. In the industry its referred to as “trains per hour” or just “tph”, meaning the maximum number of trains you can run in one direction in an hour whilst maintaining safe separation.

    On the Chatswood to Epping line for instance, there were four trains per hour on the old timetable. Why? Because this line was being operated as a branch of the North Shore line and its trains had to share space on the congested upper Northern line (Epping to Hornsby). In theory you could assign 8tph to this line, or maybe 10tph in the hypothetical case that you undo the connection to the upper Northern line.

    In contrast Sydney Metro will operate initially at 15tph with the capacity to operate at 30tph and even this isn’t a hard and fast limit. The Victoria line in London operates at 36tph and Sydney Metro operates with similarly sophisticated systems.

    In terms of raw numbers. The initial 6 car metro will carry 1,125 people per train so its peak hour capacity will be 16,800. The 8 car upgrade will carry 22,500 and at 30tph the capacity of this line will be 45,000 people.

    This stands in contrast to the present capacity of 4,800 people or a theoretical capacity closer to 10,000. There simply is no getting around the fact that the metro conversion of this line is a large upgrade. It bothers me that so many people on the anti-metro side of this argument conveniently ignore the limitations of the network as it stands and the implications of its complex structure. Branch lines are inherently limited and this is just basic knowledge.

    On a related issue. The Sydney rail network as it stands is at its limit. There has been a 23% surge in patronage in the last 3 years. Given a host of reasons (not just population growth but also higher density dwellings and cultural changes) its not unreasonable to think that the number of people using the Sydney rail network will double or even triple over the next few decades. We really have no alternative but to build a number of new rail lines. That’s expensive, but we have to deal with it. Also, the worst possible thing you can do is to build new rail lines and make them integral to the existing network. That simply has a host of problems that I’m not going into here. Its simply too big a subject.

    Whilst I am a critic of the Western Sydney Rail Study and its conclusions, I cringe at the thought of a bus link as suggested by John Austen. In fact I’m a critic of any long bus route. They are far too slow. They don’t work and of course no one uses them because car travel is a better alternative. Buses have their niche in short distance routes feeding heavy rail (metro btw is just another flavour of heavy rail). As far as the residents of western and southwestern Sydney are concerned, the priority should be on fast and high speed rail. Not hour plus commutes.

    Regarding the CBD and SE light rail. My criticism of it is actually the SE portion. This would be better done as a metro. The CBD portion was actually the City of Sydney’s idea and it was about making it a better more liveable city and in this I agree. Move the buses towards the edges of the city is a good policy.

    As for a light rail system being naturally a grid. Well, that’s a good idea, if you’ve got the space. Melbourne is a 2Km x 1.3Km grid. Sydney CBD is 2Km x 0.7Km. Indeed from any light rail stop on George Street, the edge of the Sydney CBD is walkable. Having said this I wouldn’t object to an additional light rail from the core of the CBD to Oxford St, Paddington, even Bondi Beach. (Yes, I’d not let the TfNSW crew anywhere near the design or construction).

    As for the airport line, there were some short sighted decisions. However it is what it is and there are only two solutions for it. Either you introduce more single deck carriages into the T2/T8 fleet (inner west and airport lines) or you relieve the airport line by extending Metro West to the airport, which I believe is what TfNSW intends.

    Btw, I do agree with John in being frustrated at the secrecy and opacity of the RMS and TfNSW. We could do with an open, collegial debate about transport in general. But part of the reason why TfNSW sits in a bunker (besides the political sensitivities) is that as an organisation it lives in the shadow of the real 600 pound gorilla, which is the RMS.

    Is there corruption. Yes probably at the edges. But the core of this is really cultural.

    1. The RMS are a one trick pony. For every transport problem there must be more road pavement. That’s all they know how to do and this is why so much money has gone into road pavement. Because its all they understand. And its because its all that generations of politicians and decision makers understand.

    2. We have to spend a lot, lot more on brand new rail lines. High speed, fast, metro. But that means getting over the learned helplessness that inflicts a lot of rail people. This is a crisis the demands that politicians and decision makers be educated. That spending billions on rail saves billions on roads. Yes, the money does exist, its just a matter of priority. Rail advocates who accept that there isn’t enough money and accept band aid solutions are part of the problem.

  4. re Kevin Colbey point 2: “major rebuild of North Sydney, Wynyard and Town Hall Stations at very high cost, …” Disagree except for Wynyard. North Sydney stub tunnels already exist. Cost for Wynyard would have been high but NW metro is also going to necessitate the demolition of a number of buildings, 70 in all from memory and several large ones in Martin place and vicinity. Town Hall would be bypassed to use the Metro Pitt reservation, would still require some demolition. The Govt didn’t cost this option. Yes the petrol lobby would have been apoplectic re Lanes 7 and 8. They’ve been the real problem in recent years, lead by the NRMA who have given blind support to Westconnex. Agree re the rest except that double deckers will always carry more than single (despite what Rodd Staples says – fancy having someone in his position not getting his facts right). Metros are for compact cities not places like Sydney. Lib gov’t has been a disaster for transport esp. WestConnex and the narrow minded pursuit of urban underground divided carriageways. Labor made their fair share of blunders as well.

  5. It’s clear for several reasons why the Metro Project has been done in this configuration. The previous Labor Government who devised this project had no deliverable or coherent narrative on how this pasted on section between Chatswood and Epping was to be completed. It was only possible for 4 trains per hour to run on this route as the North Shore line was already at capacity. There were several engineering issues with the options available.
    1) Rolling stock to maintain the climb between North Ryde and Chatswood would have to always be a bespoke design specially tailored for this route (this was the fault with the Labor Governments bizarre decision to build a tunnel rather than the much better bridge option).
    2) The only option to keep a bespoke Waratah style train to cross Sydney Harbour would be to build the rail lane on the old position at the eastern side of the Harbour Bridge, with a major rebuild of North Sydney, Wynyard and Town Hall Stations at very high cost, with serious interruptions to passenger access. The road lobby would have never accepted this project at the cost of 2 road traffic lanes.
    When the Liberal Government came to power it was clear that the crossing of the harbour ruled out the option of Sydney Trains rolling stock, unable to complete the climb to Barangaroo or North Sydney. It was then the decision was made to build the North West Metro, with an expansion path to cross the harbour. The Alstom Metropolis Metro System was chosen for its ability to climb a 1/16 grade with a tight turning radius less than 150m. The Liberal Government has so far made all the correct calls with this project.
    It’s also clear that that the Bankstown line needed to be removed from City Rail to allow the 8 peak hour train slots through the City Circle to accommodate much improved services along the East Hills Line and provide more trains through the Airport and Green Square. The Alstom Metropolis trains will run from Bankstown to Martin Place in under 30 minutes and is much shorter than most of the London Transport Tube routes. The trains Initially will be 4 minutes apart. have the capacity to run at 2-minute intervals with a capacity of 30,000 per hour.
    Its time people got over their grumbling about this project and focussed on the vast improvements this project will bring the city. The 4-minute initial metro service from Tallawong to Bankstown with the ability to quickly expand to a 2-minute service. The Liberal Government have shown more vision in public transit with this one project than Labor has shown since WW2.
    Labor’s 70 years of Transport Failure began with the Cahill Labor Government’s removal of the world’s largest tramway system and dumping the “Cahill” monument at Circular Quay, Wran cancelling the remainder of the Eastern Suburbs Railway to build the M4 and the now demolished Darling Harbour Monuments. Bob Carr’s all car Government with it’s ludicrous electoral bribing cash back schemes for motorists. We now have Foley threatening “cancellation” and going back to square one, further Labor failures and incoherent lack of thought bubbles aren’t an option for this city.
    The Southwest extension to the Metro brings its own set of problems that so far, the Liberal Party has been unable to address, untangling the remainder of the Bankstown/T3 lines at a relatively low cost.
    The Metro should be continued along the remainder of the Bankstown Line, underground from Regent’s Park with a major interchange at Lidcombe and thence to Homebush Bay loop line. providing Yagoona, Birrong, Regent’s Park, Berala, Lidcombe and Homebush Bay with a 4 Minute service in both directions to the City and to Homebush Bay via Lidcombe. The T3 line undergrounded, integrated into the Metro running through the Homebush Bay Loop. Lidcombe rebuilt to modern standards to become a major interchange stop with all express services stopping.
    The Western Line to provide all stations services, Leppington services to run via East Hills.
    A low cost zero tunnelling option is available to extend from Tallawong to St Mary’s or Penrith, with a potential high cost recovery with the right development policy along the route.

  6. The comments on the difference between a commuter system and a metro system are insightful. The London underground is always full of a wonderful mix of couples going to the theatre, school kids going home, football fans on their way to a game, shoppers and their baskets, commuters and tourists getting around the city. it is not conceived as simply a way of getting to work in the city.

    Another issue is the way the toll roads are priced. At the moment, business vans and trucks pay twice the rate of private cars. Business vehicles and couriers trying to get around the city have no choice in their need to use toll roads. most occupants of private vehicles do have a choice. Thus, the toll policy should actually be reversed. Business vans and trucks should have free use of the motorway system. private cars should be paying far more.

  7. The legislation on parking fines in NSW need to be reviewed. At the moment half the parking fine is paid to the local council to fatten the salary of the CEO of that council and the other half goes in the SDRO’s pocket. If the government and the council were honest about parking fines they would change the laws but this government is crooked as Eddie. What should be done is for a bank trust account establish for every restricted parking area, and then all the money from the parking fines paid into that trust account. When there is a reasonable amount accumulated, the money should be used to develop more parking areas and stop the cash cow flow to the councils and government. It is amazing the politicians at voting time that promise how they are going to change the world and just waiting on a polies pension while doing nothing, it is amazing how they cannot see all the air space accross railway stations where they should be building car parking areas so people could park their car there and use the train, because there is no parking there they keep driving till they get where they want to go, I know I do it, there is no parking areas at railway stations.

    1. Phew… glad you added more parking at train stations… that bit I agree with…not so much elsewhere, where the lack of parking might hurt..hopefully enough so you leave the car at home next time, or don’t buy one at all!

    1. well, we’re looking for a new photographer… Please imagine chaos littering the road, lots of barriers, congestion, machinery, workers standing around, traffic banked up, empty shops

  8. Moan, moan, moan.
    Westconnex gets cars where they belong, underground and paying their way. Does it work – yes, just look at how Darlinghurst and Surry Hills have improved since the ED and Cross City tunnels were built. Newtown and the inner west will get similar benefits. Drummoyne and Leichhart will also improve – currently they are rat runs and cut off from the harbour by freeways – put roads underground. Also Westconnex doesn’t point to the city and it doesn’t increase access points the city. Get it right.
    Agree rail is highly important and the Northwest metro makes no sense as it stands but will be better when extended to the city. Don’t fool yourself it is a suburban railway. Agree that closing the south west line is crazy – should build the new line underground to Sydenham with lots of stations to serve the inner west area. the “metro” goes for 5 km with no station!!
    Sydney is not New York, Paris or Tokyo, it is a modern city with a very small CBD. It has a huge advantage over the old cities in that people can get around the CBD on foot and not metro is needed. Need a better suburban rail system that is not totally CBD focused.
    Also your photo is of George St pre light rail, it must be very old as Gowings is still in action. Now George st is a construction site and after $2.5 b will be a rail line. Not good progress.

    1. WestConnex is a disaster… Underground? I think the people of Haberfield and Newtown and the rest of the inner city suburbs it will destroy won’t see it that way. Trouble with building big freeways is that they are like new coal fired power stations. Big, dumb and completely redundant. The future is sleek and small.. smart architects are busting a gut trying to convince planners the future of transport calls for less parking, thinner roads….but we need to seize the agenda with autonomous cars and make sure they work for us. Lest we end up sitting at home in front of a screen and send out the AV out to collect our kids, the dinner, the litre of milk we forgot to order last time. No wait, drones are coming! The highest value real estate will be places that have a landing pad for drones. And And someone or other is trialling people drones for business people who don’t want the inconvenience of traffic jams. Can you imagine the constant noise of flying mechanical insects, giant size? And we worry about neighbours overlooking the yard or the kitchen window! We all need to wake up and think about the future we want, then ask for it.