Automotive electrification and social justice

I’d forgotten, but I did write a blog back in February for an Italian Policy Studies Institute: Overlooked? Social Justice Issues in Automotive Electrification (ispionline.it). Its publication was understandably delayed by the need to address the invasion of Ukraine, but it’s available now. And as the research has progressed in the meantime, I will soon publish another blog that provides some updates in light of the new EV Infrastructure Strategy published in the UK in late March.

Emotional Transport Tolls

We had to wait until just 20 hours before our flight to be sure we could get on a plane to see my family in the United States for the first time in almost 3 years. That’s a level of uncertainty and anxiety beyond any I’d experienced travelling before the pandemic. And because the trip was so important to me and my family, the uncertainty and anxiety bubbled away in the background for a good two months before we travelled as I tried to plan who we would see and when – assuming we got over at all.

In fact, I partially blame the uncertainty and anxiety for not only forgetting to write a blog for two months, but also for not even noticing I’d forgotten.

The added mental energy required to move around in recent months is not confined to aviation. Most forms of public transport (including commercial flights) have suffered from reduced passengers and have reduced frequencies as a result. Connections are trickier, finances are more fragile for both the operators and the passengers, and cancellations are common due to ongoing bouts of staff shortages.

Meanwhile, motorists have been facing fuel supply disruptions and price hikes on and off for nine months. No longer can it be assumed that petrol or diesel will be available or affordable when arriving at the pump. Nor should it be surprising that this uncertainty has sometimes resulted in panic-buying.

There have also been ever-increasing shortages, delays and uncertainties around buying or leasing a vehicle. The manufacture of microchips is lagging way behind demand, supply chains have been disrupted, and prices have been going up. There are even shortages of used cars, so their prices rise, but the price of buying a new car has gone up even more.

Moreover, if you’re hoping to switch to electric to minimise the fuel uncertainties, you may have a long wait. Some say that the auto market constraints currently caused by the microchip shortage are tiny compared to the much bigger limits the electric vehicle market will face due to the low availability of battery materials and components, and that we should all be looking for better alternatives.

Likewise, a recent news item on potential train worker strikes did not exactly give me confidence that the uncertainties of current services would be getting back on the rails any time soon.

There are other examples I could discuss, but not to put too fine a point on it, it is worth asking if anxiety and uncertainty is the new normal for medium- and long-distance travel. The anxiety and uncertainty caused by the pandemic has already taken a huge toll on people’s mental health over the past two years – what will be the impact of an ongoing emotional toll on transport?

Will it change how much people travel? Like most transport planners and researchers of travel behaviour, I know people’s travel behaviours and practices need to change, and change quickly, if we are going to have any chance of keeping global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees. We need to reduce air travel and medium- to long-distance road travel. And yet, I’m not sure reducing such travel can really be seen as a silver lining to ongoing uncertainty and anxiety, even if it does have that effect (which it may not).

Financial tolls on those who can afford them are more sensible than emotional tolls on those who can’t. The way that our transport systems are structured in terms of tax and spend needs a massive re-think, but solutions are out there – from frequent flyer levies to road pricing to restructuring public transport ticketing to reflect changing work schedules. Taking clear, fair steps to make these changes would reduce uncertainty and anxiety, whilst still giving people the freedom to travel where and when they need to… even to see family abroad!

Recognising Recognition Justice

I am working on a major research project called ITEM: Inclusive Transition to Electric Mobility, where we review who uses electric mobility alongside whether the policies that are supposed to support us all to switch from fossil-fuel powered transport to electric options are socially just.

Now that we’ve had workshops with stakeholders in all four cities where we are conducting our research, it is clear that what we call the recognition aspect of social justice is the one least recognised.

In transport policy-making, distributional justice is usually part of appraising the problem and implementing solutions. Decision-makers often ask who living where suffers from local air pollution or who benefits from a new electric charging station or shared e-bike service. They might even ask whether it’s the same ‘who’.

Procedural justice is also fairly straightforward. Who participates in what gets done in a city and how meaningful is that participation? Officials working at various levels of government may not always involve other sectors and citizens as much as they could or would like to. They may not quite know how to make participation more meaningful, but they get the idea.

But recognition justice? Our participants hadn’t heard of it.

We all explained that it’s about recognising that different people need, want, value or expect different things at different times and for different purposes. And our participants understood, but rarely consider it explicitly. In fact, we could find questions about recognition justice in all our workshops – our participants just didn’t call it that.

Back in our first workshop in Bristol, there was a discussion about who used electric car clubs, for what purposes, and whether they were getting the service they actually wanted and expected. Could these shared vehicles meet the needs of both those who could not afford a car, particularly not an electric one, as well as those who could afford multiple cars, but wanted to reduce their car ownership? These are questions of recognition justice.

At the second workshop in Poznan, Poland, participants spoke not just about users of electric mobility, but also related industries. They considered how there would be automotive workers who needed re-training and other support. They asked how the experience of groups like these would fit with the promotion of environmental values and acceptance of regulations to encourage electric mobility. These are questions of recognition justice.

In Utrecht, the Netherlands, the participants wondered how to manage the rights to and use of public space when users of e-scooters or electric cars, for example, might expect to use that space differently than those on pedal bikes or parking a conventional vehicle. They asked how conflicts between users could be avoided to ensure no one felt excluded from the public spaces where they felt they had a right to be. These are questions of recognition justice.

In the Norwegian workshop, the participants noted that although electric cars are now easy to use around Oslo, that might not mean they are equally easy for everyone. They asked whether charging services, with their assorted infrastructure, pricing, and payment mechanisms (e.g. apps), were what all users might want and understand, or whether they could be seen as neither inclusive nor fair. These are questions of recognition justice.

So many questions of recognition justice, just as there are so many different needs, wants, values, rights and understandings to recognise. Our participants recognise that there are these differences, but may not yet have considered how to find out the detail of what they are and who holds them. As this project progresses, we will be seeking answers, and opening up yet another aspect of justice – ‘epistemic’ or that related to the creation and incorporation of knowledge.

Looking forward to an electric 2022

The outlook for 2022 is uncertain, but one thing my household is looking forward to is switching from a conventional fossil-fuel powered vehicle to our first fully-battery-electric family car. As a one-car family on three-year contracts, we couldn’t find an affordable car with enough space and range for our needs in the summer of 2019, but this time we’ve ordered early so can still be certain to have the new vehicle before our contract runs out.

Our situation is not unique. Electric Vehicles (EV) make up less than 1% of the vehicles we see today on the UK’s roads, but almost 10% of new cars purchased in the past year have been battery electric. The transition is taking off. And once you have an EV on order, you soon start seeing other EV everywhere. Teslas are easy to spot, but it’s surprising how many other cars have little green squares on their registration plates.

I’ve started noticing the cars more recently, but I’d been taking note of EV charging stations or points for about two years now – ever since I started researching public charging options for residents who cannot charge at home.

I know from my research that the vast majority of private electric cars in the UK at the moment will usually be charged on someone’s driveway at their home. We certainly intend to do most of our charging at home on our driveway. Yet before we moved a little over a year ago, we would have struggled to find somewhere to charge an EV – another reason we put off buying one.

An estimated 25-30% of households in England park their cars on-street. But these are not the only type of household who may not be able to charge from home. Car parks, communal parking areas, private laybys and garage blocks are all forms of off-street residential parking, but installing a charger or even an electricity connection may not be straightforward.

Our situation before we moved was a case in point. We lived on an estate with communal car parking areas, no allocated spaces, and garages around the corner that were not supplied with electricity. We spoke to the estate managers before we chose our last car, and they said they’d think about installing EV charging in the future… but it was low on their priority list at the time.

Without an option to charge at home, switching to an electric car may seem impossible or at least challenging for residents of our former estate, as well as those who live in other more modern estates of flats, townhouses, maisonettes, and on the many historic terraced streets in cities, towns, and villages around the country.

So I have been on the lookout for public charging, and seen hubs at motorway services and in EV hotspots like Milton Keynes. I have seen them start to proliferate in ones and twos in supermarket car parks too – one was even installed at our local supermarket a couple of months ago.

But there doesn’t appear to be much strategic thinking behind the installation of most local public charging infrastructure to provide for residents without home charging. So our research asked: How much and where do these households need public charging? Should it be on-street or in car parks? What sort of service should this charging infrastructure provide? How can it offer flexibility both to the operator and the users? What will give households who can’t charge at home the confidence to switch to an electric car?

We are ready to present our findings and their policy implications in a webinar in February 2022, where we will also release a series of policy briefings to mark the end of this particular project. It’s another milestone to look forward to in what may be an uncertain year, but also promises to be, both personally and professionally, electric.

A lever to shift poor parking practices?

About a year ago, the consultation (and my blog recommendation) on options to end pavement parking in England closed. Since then, there has been no news on whether any options are to be taken forward or anything done at all.

It’s not a surprise. Parking is transport’s poor relation. It attracts less considered attention than walking, which by the way certainly deserves more attention. Walking is my favourite, most chosen mode, which is why I am so keen on a ban on pavement parking, but it is still a mode that you choose. Parking is just what happens when you stop driving.

Even if circumstances limit the alternatives people feel they have, they still can be said to actively choose to drive, to have a car, and therefore they must park it somewhere. And if they decide their best option for a house is one that does not have a driveway, then they park on the street or in a shared parking area or a layby or a car park. And if there is not enough room to park sensibly in these places, then they park wherever they can find room. Such as on the pavement.

This is why the Social Practices perspective is such a perfect fit for the act of parking. As an academic concept, social practices are viewed independently from the individual who performs them. Practices are routines made up of material things (the space, the vehicle), skills (to park), and meanings (e.g. convenience, entitlement) which can be bundled with other practices, such as driving or domestic activities. They are social in that they are so recognisable and accepted that they become something that people do because that’s how it’s done. People park on the pavement or otherwise clutter the public realm because it is socially acceptable and routine. But although routine, social practices can change.

Unfortunately, despite all the talk of driving less and switching to electric-powered cars to combat climate change, there’s very little discussion of reducing vehicle ownership. Or reducing parking space. Or even banning pavement parking.

But my research suggests that the switch to electric is changing the social practice of parking anyway, although in more subtle ways than policy interventions into parking itself. Recharging an electric car usually happens whilst parking, but adds to the practice new things (e.g. charge point and plug), skills (e.g. programming the charger), and meanings (e.g. balancing price to speed of charge).

It also adds a new social dimension. And where most social interactions around parking alone have been negative, some of those around the hybrid practice of parking and charging offer positive feedback. Early adopters of electric cars may compete for charging infrastructure, but our research suggests they also form social networks to help find and share charging.

Current electric car drivers also often find themselves attracting attention from neighbours and colleagues. Whilst, depending upon the scenario, this attention can be the usual complaints about space or pavement clutter, our research also suggests a genuine desire to learn about electric cars and the practicalities of charging them.

Will these changes, as they gain momentum alongside the mass adoption of electric-powered cars, be enough to rid our pavements and public realm of the scourge of poor parking practices? Probably not. I’d still like to see a ban on pavement parking. And more attention to reducing vehicle ownership, not just vehicle mileage. But researching how parking and charging practices combine does give a glimpse into how parking practices can change, and where there are opportunities to leverage that change in the transition to electric vehicles.

Levelling up Digital Divides: it’s not just about infrastructure

What is the digital divide? Wikipedia describes it as “the gap between those able to benefit from the digital age and those who are not.”

Most commonly this is interpreted as whether people have access to the internet or not, and whether that access is convenient enough and of a decent enough quality to use in the many ways modern society demands. And those demands have expanded exponentially during the pandemic, as so many aspects of life went online, intensifying the impact of digital divisions. 

Therefore, amid economic recovery plans and policies to level up, we can include the UK government’s aims to expand digital infrastructure, 5G and full fibre across the country. This investment and expansion of digital infrastructure is important, especially where some rural areas still lack connections or are operating on wires that cannot deliver speeds fast enough to allow any streaming or video calls. Yet it ignores lessons from the pandemic about the complexity of digital divisions. 

Prior to the first lockdown here in the UK, the peak demand for residential internet services occurred in the evening when households are streaming entertainment services like Netflix. Therefore, broadband download speeds at that time of day were benchmarked against the speeds promised by the internet service providers to their customers to determine performance and quality of service.

However, our research shows that in Spring 2020, patterns of demand altered significantly in most of the country. Demand, slowdown due to this demand creating network congestion, and frustration with such poor reliability of service speeds, were all greater during working hours, such as between 9:00-11:00 in the morning. 

Furthermore, the new pattern of demand could be found not only in download speeds, but also upload speeds, which are rarely highlighted in speed and performance management. Yet the reasons are clear. The mass uptake of video-conferencing by those working (and learning) from home for meetings and other social interactions with colleagues, as well as the constant need to upload work to remote servers and networks resulted in an extreme demand that had never existed before. 

To put this in perspective, only about 5% of employed people in the UK worked primarily from home in 2019, but in April 2020, this jumped to 47% – almost half the working population. Extreme demand for quality internet services during working hours was inevitable. 

Yet the other half the UK’s working population still had to go to work or were furloughed. These people may not have been complaining about connectivity, but neither could they benefit from quality internet infrastructure and services even if such were available.

We analysed clusters of Local Authorities’ experienced upload speeds during the spring 2020 lockdown and how they correlated with economic indicators for those authorities, such as occupations and numbers furloughed.

Our results showed that areas of the country with relatively slow and unreliable internet services were not those with the highest percentages of people put on furlough. Increased demand for digital services such as Zoom and network congestion occurred in these areas where, and perhaps because, occupations were more economically resilient. They were able to continue operating despite the pandemic.

Conversely, some areas with reliably high broadband speeds suffered economically as reflected in high furlough numbers. These areas were characterised by fewer jobs in occupations, such as technology and business services, that would enable workers to be productive at home. 

This tells a story that is about more than just having the skills to use digital technology, it is about having the skills to undertake productive, paid work using digital technology. If digital divisions are to be addressed to enable places not just to be connected, but also to gain economic benefits and resilience, then there needs to be a recognition of these different sorts of digital divisions.  

The impacts of the pandemic may be waning, but the working from home lifestyle they have introduced is not going away for many businesses and organisations, nor is the demand for fast and reliable upload and download speeds during working hours. Better infrastructure, although necessary, cannot boost the economic resilience of places on its own, where the industrial structure does not align with occupations that incorporate the digital skills and capabilities to work from home. This complex web of digital and socio-economic divides needs to be incorporated into our thinking of local economies and government priorities.

Inclusive group interactions: online or in person?

I recently published a paper on the intersections, or as it turned out, the divergence between three different levels of digital divide. The first level is about infrastructure and having fast enough internet connections. A bit like accessibility in transport. The second is about skills to use the required software. The third is whether digital technology enables people to be more productive or resilient or gain from the use of the technology.

The first two divides include the uneven distribution of infrastructure and technical capabilities across the population. The last is more a question of some forms of work or knowledge being recognised as valuable, useful, and worthy of remuneration even when forced online. Other forms of knowledge and work are designated essential but only possible in person, whilst still others are temporarily disposable (e.g. via furlough).

Another way to think about digital divides is to consider how they map onto aspects of social justice such as I am researching for a different project; these include distribution, recognition, and epistemic (or knowledge).

For example, as we slowly emerge from a world where social interactions were forced online in order to make decisions about whether we will return in person or continue to use digital technologies, will these interactions become more or less just?

I am not referring to jobs and occupations, as I was in the paper mentioned above, but rather the advantages and disadvantages of holding meetings, workshops, coffee breaks, and conferences online or in person as this becomes a matter of employer, organisational or individual choice. Similar choices are being made for many other group interactions which had unexpectedly switched to a screen during the pandemic; from charity committees to book clubs, from religious services to exercise classes.

So how did the online switch influence how just these interactions became in comparison to their previous formats?

In terms of distribution, some have the internet connections, data contracts and devices to support video-conferencing platforms. Some do not. Some find using the software easy and some difficult. However, many would note that spatial, temporal, and cost barriers were much reduced. People could meet, discuss, worship, or exercise together with little concern for distance. People could schedule activities without the travel time, fitting in online interactions between other responsibilities. And the cost to interact online is usually much lower.

In terms of recognition, some found it easier to put across their needs, wants, and points of view. Perhaps they could raise their virtual hand or comment in a chat box. Yet for others, the lack of body language, the unnatural uniformity of grids of faces make it much harder to recognise the expressions of others or to express oneself. Whilst some blossom in the odd combination of distance and intimacy that online interactions afford, others shrink from it, often unnoticed, such that their potential contribution to the team or club or congregation goes unrecognised.

Finally, whose knowledge is gained and whose is lost? What is spoken and what left unsaid? And even if different voices and views are heard, whose are valued and whose ignored? In some cases, knowledge has been gained from more diverse participants, perhaps due to reduced distance, time and cost barriers. In other cases, not only have previous attendees been excluded due to distributional issues of infrastructure and skills, but also knowledge is exchanged differently. Online social interactions reduce the ability to share non-verbal knowledge. There is a deficit of side conversations, informal commentary and one-to-one conversations on the way in and the way out.

The justice of online group interactions is context-dependent and interactions in person can also include or exclude in different ways. And yet, just as there are multiple levels of digital divide to consider, multiple aspects of justice should inform our decisions. Whilst many point to what are often net gains made in distributional justice from going online, the recognition and knowledge aspects of justice suggest a more complex and nuanced balance sheet as we make these tricky choices over how to meet and interact in the future.

Handling Holiday Travel

We once travelled to South Devon on the late May bank holiday weekend to celebrate the wedding of some friends. It took us a tortuous 8 hours to travel less than 200 miles. But it wasn’t a surprise.

We expect certain bank holidays or weekends at the beginning and end of Christmas and summer holidays to be the busiest travel days of the year, and yet holiday travel does not seem to come within the remit of transport planners, nor does it ever seem to be a major consideration in surface transport infrastructure strategies.

Tourist destinations make plans to accommodate visitors, but not the journeys they take to get there, and aviation strategy tends to sit in a separate silo from surface transport.

And yet, long distance travel is responsible for a larger share of climate emissions from transport than shorter distance travel, and the further you go, the fewer the options to travel in a more environmentally friendly way. Furthermore, as we come out of a period which has shown how efficient video conferencing can be for businesses, the likelihood is that long-distance travel will be increasingly synonymous with ‘holiday travel’, even though that includes the varied purposes of tourism, visiting friends and family, attending events, or participating in leisure pursuits.

So transport planners need to start thinking about how to plan for holiday travel when we plan for strategic transport infrastructure, when we target travel behaviour, when we model impacts or appraise projects.

This has to be about more than aviation. Whilst I stand by previous blogs arguing for that long haul flights are necessary and important, if not guilt-free, especially for someone like me who lives an ocean away from close family (and the pandemic has definitely demonstrated to me that online interaction is NOT a replacement!), there are few realistic alternatives other than managing demand through measures such as the frequent flyer tax.

Short haul and domestic travel is another story. It is worrying that new domestic aviation routes are being introduced and at prices well below train travel. And the price / time comparisons between air and train are incomplete without also considering where each mode terminates, how people travel the rest of the way (or to the airport or train station in the first place) and then how that compares with travelling by road.

Remember those interminable bank holiday traffic jams I described at the start? Traffic flow affects emissions, as does car occupancy, weight, age, engine type / fuel and use of heating or air conditioning. Taking the train might still be a more sustainable option, but as the emissions link above shows, car travel is not a monolithic behaviour or emitter – and the characteristics of holiday car travel are more difficult to pin down than a daily car commute.

Meanwhile, households do consider their holiday travel when making long-term choices, even if transport planners are not thinking of holiday travel strategically.

This is particularly noticeable when researching the motivations and barriers to switching to battery-powered vehicles. Consumers may realise that the range of most electric cars is perfectly adequate for their daily travel, but worry they will not be able to visit dispersed family. Others see the lack of electric vehicles large enough to pack the gear or to tow the trailer for their annual camping trip as a reason to postpone adoption. Still others worry about the availability of charging infrastructure when going somewhere unfamiliar. Some households even keep a fossil-fuel powered car after they have switched to electric, specifically for occasional, ‘holiday’ travel.

Whether providing for or managing travel, transport planning has long focused on regular, necessary trips, especially the commute, but also accessibility to key goods and services, such as food, education, and healthcare. But holidays happen, are impactful, and are integral to some of the bigger choices, such as car ownership, that affect travel behaviour. We need to start thinking about how to handle holiday travel.

Carless on a car dependent Thursday

As well as being a transport planner and researcher, I am also a wife and mother of two children in primary school. We live in a one-car household, partly due to our mobility history and partly on principle.

Despite living in a small town in South East England, which some locals prefer to call a village and many would consider fairly car-dependent, we moved here so my husband could walk to work. I have always taken the train when not working from home. With our excellent, catchment school less than a mile away and local amenities to meet many of our needs, the car’s role in our mobility history has been for more occasional errands and leisure trips.

Meanwhile, my principles as a transport planner and researcher are to practice what I preach and minimise the car ownership and use of my household. A single car should be able to give us more than enough flexibility and freedom to go where we wanted.

Then, two years ago, my husband changed jobs. Commuting by car is at least twice as quick and convenient for him as convoluted cycling-public transport options. We still have one car, but it is in use at particular times of day and year without much flexibility.

I can still commute by train (although I have been working from home for 16 months), and the children’s school and activities are all within walking and cycling distance. And yet, I was recently forced to admit that our car dependence has increased.

One sunny Thursday, my husband had to work late. Three of the four activities (two each) outside school which my children attend are on a Thursday, so my husband usually comes home early to help with the ferrying, whether by car, bicycle, or on foot. But now I had to do it alone. Without a car.

I walked to pick the children up from school. We came home and my son changed for his first activity. We walked there (~10 minutes). I waited outside, doing some work on my phone, and then we walked home.

A little later, we walked (~10 minutes) to my daughter’s Thursday activity, but this time I rushed home, as my son’s next activity starts 15 minutes after my daughter’s.

I cycled with my son to his activity, his pace slower than mine due to leg and wheel size. He was less than 15 minutes late. Not bad. I cycled quickly straight from there to pick up my daughter and we walked home together.

My phone’s health app said I’d been ‘active’ for four hours without stopping. My husband came home in time to pick up our son and his bicycle in the car.

I don’t begrudge the exercise. I’m lucky to be fit enough, and my work flexible enough to have been able to get my kids where they needed to go all afternoon. Indeed, we’re privileged to be able to let them participate in such activities and to even have the option to purchase a second car. We won’t because I still have my principles, but I recognise that my son wouldn’t have been late and I would have been able to do more work and finish the day less exhausted if I had a car available.

It was a car dependent day. For accessibility and car dependency is not just about the location of activities, it is also about their timing – schedule, duration, and travel time.

Car dependency is also about family structure and household decisions (unless in single person households). Not only did we choose to prioritise my husband’s car commute, I chose not to let even our older child walk unaccompanied to a nearby activity because there is a busy road without a pedestrian crossing between our home and the venue.

Until transport and accessibility planning takes account of time as well as space, families as well as individuals, it will struggle to solve car dependency.