Last month, I wrote about what many practitioners of transport planning and advocates of accessibility have been mulling over: the tidal wave of telecommuting in these turbulent and yet strangely static times, and the potential sustainability and resilience of online access. Scroll down to my previous blog (or an earlier one) if you want to know more.
However, accessibility is much more than access to work, particularly as telecommuting, contract employment, and other flexible working patterns continue to grow – even before the COVID-19 crisis. Jobs and populations are unevenly distributed and dominant employment sectors and local labour skills often don’t quite match up. Thus, whilst it is important for public transport and road networks to link neighbourhoods to employment areas, it is at least as important that places where people live offer easy access to essential non-work services and activities. Especially if we want to see some lasting effects of the current reduction in carbon-emitting car travel.
Part of the problem, however, is that it is tricky to clearly define what is essential for people to continue to access outside the home. Non-work trips are usually more flexible in terms of the time of day / day of the week they could take place, and there are usually multiple options to fulfil each need in a given area, from supermarkets to hair salons. Some services are also moving online in a big way, such as shopping for comparison goods.
Still, my research using the English National Travel Survey to investigate non-work trips by telecommuters (those with an external workplace who work from home at least once a week) suggested that telecommuters make a similar number of trips per week to the rest of the working population, and confirmed that a much higher percentage of those trips cannot be defined as commuting. In other words, if you work from home, you still want to get out for other purposes about the same number of times, even if to a greater variety of destinations.
My conclusion is that if the majority of these destinations were within walking distance, then more walking and less driving would naturally occur. More walking is better for public health, for community cohesion, and for the environment.
However, other than ‘escort education’, I found it difficult in my research to precisely match land uses to trip purposes such as ‘other escort’, ‘personal business’, or ‘leisure’. Which brings me back to what is essential to have in every neighbourhood, within walking distance, other than schools.
The current situation gives us new insight. First, although it would be helpful to know what indoor leisure opportunities are best localised, we clearly could all use more access to outdoor space and nature for daily exercise, especially where gardens are scarce. Is this an argument for ‘green wedges’ rather than ‘green belts’ and linear parks rather than enclosed squares? I’d advocate further research into the possibility at least.
Furthermore, pharmacies, post offices, and banks are clearly essential, if that was ever in doubt. Such facilities need to stop closing local branches and perhaps diversify their business models to provide other essential services. Finally, there is the admittedly anecdotal evidence that local food shops, convenience stores, and takeaways have been more successful through this period in providing the basics, keeping their customers happy, and offering personalised ordering, collection, and delivery services than their bigger rivals. If there were ever signs that the large, out-of-town hypermarkets are not fit for purpose, they are now flashing red.
In conclusion, it is more apparent now than ever that places with plenty of access to nature and plenty of essentials locally are not only more attractive, but also more resilient. If we want more resilient communities, more telecommuting, and less medium-distance travel, then our goal should be walkable places for everyone.