#urbanchildhoods

Think of somewhere that was special to you when you were a child. Was it outdoors? Was there an adult present in your memory? For most, at a presentation on the Cities Alive report by Arup, the answers were ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ respectively.

Perhaps because of my awareness of the agenda to get kids walking and cycling and the campaigns for ‘free-range kids’ or what the report calls ‘everyday freedoms’, my first thought was not of a place, but of a journey. My walk to primary school in the 1980s. Like previous generations, from the age of 6, I walked to my local primary school, sometimes in the company of children two or three years older, but rarely with an adult. My daughter’s primary school does not let a child leave the school site without an adult until they are 10 or 11. Thus my daughter’s confusion when I read about the 1950s school children in the Ramona books by Beverley Cleary. Everything else she could relate to, but not this idea that children were allowed to walk themselves to Kindergarten.

For most others at the presentation, however, the memory was of playing in the street. I don’t remember doing that. The driveways, front and back yards of my American childhood were large and open, with rarely a fence or hedge between them. There were sidewalks and verges between us and the road. The key was being allowed to cross the road on our own to play with kids who lived across the street.

By the time I was 8, I was allowed to play with kids on other blocks or to walk to the park without an adult, 4-5 blocks away. At 10 or 11, I could walk downtown, using the signalised cross-walks, and hang out with friends on the busy Main Street. At 13, when I went with my family into Boston, MA, I was allowed, along with my invited friend, to wander around independently for a couple hours once a meeting time and place was arranged.

So in my ‘urban childhood’ (hometown population: 75,000), the everyday freedoms were all important. The independence to wander about, on foot, without adult supervision was all I wanted. I loved to play what my daughter calls ‘walk and talk’ with a close friend. But whereas we used to stroll along city blocks, through the park, from one family household to another, at almost 7, she has so far only played ‘walk and talk’ going in circles round the school playground.

Meanwhile, my son, just finishing pre-school, has an even smaller circle to circumscribe:

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At least that’s a great piece of children’s infrastructure: a circle to run around, benches to climb on, a tree to hide beneath… and right outside the local library too.

Yet primary school age children are not given the everyday freedom to use this space unsupervised. The excuse would be because it is on the busy High Street. But the High Street is a 20mph zone with plenty of traffic calming. And 1950s small-town America had plenty of busy roads for Ramona and her friends to contend with.

So whilst there are many cities with traffic-swamped, dangerous, and unwelcoming places and many positive recommendations in Cities Alive for children’s infrastructure, for my children at least, I see the major barrier as a risk-adverse, somewhat intolerant culture that suggests children are not responsible enough to be unsupervised and have everyday freedoms. Perhaps we need to remind everyone of the independence they had as children, and that only they can make part of their own children’s inheritance.

Monitor and Adapt

In my research, I’ve been thinking a lot about how people might respond to storms, snow, or other severe weather events in a more resilient way to avoid delays, disruption, and risks to personal safety. I’ve been analysing data and searching for evidence of existing resilient responses and considering how more people might be encouraged to follow suit. However, the ‘people’ I have in mind are commuters, ordinary households, the so-called ‘general public’.

Yet at the Local Government Transport Advisory Group President’s Conference at the end of May, I was reminded of the role of a different group of people. The people who have a responsibility to the community to minimise the risk to life and property of any emergency, to react and recover from the disruption, damage, and danger that not only severe weather, but also terrorism, accidents or other unforeseen events might cause. These people include the emergency services, obviously, but they also include local government officers, people responsible for transport, energy, and digital infrastructure and services, social care and hospital staff, even the local media who help disseminate important messages and warnings.

It may not be the ‘general public’ but that’s a lot of people to coordinate. And we heard, with examples, how important it is that all these different people and services are working together in an emergency, have a ‘joint understanding of risk’ and a ‘shared situational awareness’. Without organised collaboration, mistakes are made, and in some cases, more lives are lost.

Yet resilience is not just response and recovery. It is also adaptation and preparation. And when it comes to planning for security and resilience, I learned that there are risks to sharing too much. Too much data can be open to ‘hostile reconnaissance’. Too much planning for specifics is sure to miss something or someone. Too many warnings might be a bit like the boy who cried wolf.

Rather, the advice was to plan based on generic principles. Before opening up data, consider what it can be used for and linked with. Design adaptations with dual functionality. Do have a nominated individual in every organisation responsible for understanding the interactions between physical, personnel, and cyber security and making policy decisions. Don’t have a single individual designated as the only one who can make emergency decisions.

So what does all this have to do with my research? Resilience planning is closely linked to the current debate in transport planning circles around future uncertainty in the field. Uncertainty around the role of new technologies, uncertainty around trends and forecasts, uncertainty around risks and responsibilities. There have been various proposals to replace ‘predict and provide’ with ‘scenario planning’, ‘decide and provide,’ or ‘vision and validate’, which means that the starting point should be policy and a vision of the future we all want to live in, and then we should plan for that future and evaluate whether we are achieving it on an ongoing basis.

Yet to these tidy phrases, I’d add another one I heard for the first time at the conference: ‘monitor and adapt’. If responsible professionals and researchers monitor and review what happens during various types of extreme events in different places and at different times, then we can design adaptations which offer multiple options for resilience. We can prepare and share unified messages, rather than specific data, to generate a more resilient response in the next emergency situation.

In the past, transport planners have tended to monitor what happens on ‘average’ days to plan for future certainties. Now there is a drive to consider future uncertainties, which are partly due to the internal pressures of increasing flexibility and variability in work and travel patterns, and partly due to external events that require resilience. For the latter at least, ‘monitor and adapt’ seems the best approach to take. And with such an approach, transport planners might do their part to help that list of responsible people on the front line of an emergency.

Smarter Future Choices

Did Smarter Choices programmes make us smarter? Did personalised travel planning change personal travel behaviour? Did pilots, challenges, and temporary designations leave a lasting impression? These were the sort of questions my fellow transport professional @jamesgleave1 was asking in his blog of mid-March. His answer was, over time, a qualified not quite, a methodologically minimal.

One of the reasons he gave for his scepticism included the impossibility of disentangling any results from other changes to the accessibility offer. One of the reasons for moderating his response was the valuable discovery of links between travel behaviour choices and changes in other aspects of life, even if the presence of such links further diminished the attribution of impacts to Smarter Choices programmes themselves. Yet this got me thinking that if the debate around Smarter Choices is due to an inability to isolate its impacts, especially longer term, maybe we should start embracing its interactions. Surely Smarter Choices can build on existing trends, encourage any seeds of sustainability to grow without trying to plant them in the first place.

More people are living in cities with access to frequent public transport. Younger generational cohorts are delaying licence holding and car ownership, and are making fewer trips per capita. Surely these are trends on which we could build a Smarter Choices extension, focusing our information and incentives on younger, more urban audiences. Indeed, if younger people are spending their precious disposable income on devices instead of driving, all the more reason to put all that information and those incentives into mobile apps that integrate accessibility planning (including remote and virtual options!), real time information and alerts, fitness tracking, gamification… and perhaps booking and payment as well. The latter brings us to Mobility as a Service, which could be the next Smarter Choices, and indeed, most of the list in the last sentence is already available in one form or another, but is it integrated? Is it being developed to achieve Smarter Future Choices?

Another trend is that more and more jobs and occupations are becoming temporally and spatially independent from traditional workplaces, and the links between commuting distances or cost and residential location choice is weakening. So from travel planning to journey planning, we need to incorporate the geography of ICT supply and demand, and build on the ever-increasing flexibility of the modern economy and the potential for improving resilience that comes from such flexibility. In other words, there are ever more people working from home 1-2 days per week, so transport planners should nourish the trend. Surely Smarter Future Choices are being made if the proportion of car commuters who work from home once a week increases by 20%. Such a target would be easier to achieve than a 20% switch of car commuters to a sustainable mode of travel to work. In fact, previous rounds of Smarter Choices programmes may well have had such an impact, but this trend is poorly monitored by long-term surveys. Tracking this flexibility will be key to judging the success of such Smarter Future Choices.

Finally, Smarter Future Choices could offer daily flexibility via the technology at which younger generations are so adept, and increase awareness of the options urban places can offer. If done properly, this approach could result in so much more than a one-off intervention. It could result in the ability of travellers to decide daily what will not only be their most sustainable option, but also their most convenient, resilient, and productive option, no matter the day of the week, time of the day, weather or season – the smartest option is theirs to take.

 

A Haggadah for Transport Planning

To continue my self-imposed tradition, this is the time of year when I wish a Happy Passover to all the closeted transport planners of a Jewish persuasion out there by writing a blog that brings Passover and transport planning together.

Over the last four years, I tended to focus on the story of the Exodus, but this year, I thought I’d look at a different aspect of the holiday: The Haggadah, that all-important booklet that provides the Order for the Seder. Or the Order for the Order. For Seder literally translates as Order, which, considering the chaos that often attends the Passover prayers, festivities, and food of which Jews partake around the dinner table with friends and family, ‘order’ may seem a bit of a misnomer (especially in my family?!). But a good Haggadah can make sense of the occasion. Likewise, good transport planning aims to make sense of the cacophony of spaces we travel through and the ways and means by which we do so.

What specific parallels can I find between transport planning and a Haggadah? Four is an important number during the Seder. The proceedings are punctuated by four cups of wine representing God’s four promises of freedom and redemption. Four is an important number in transport planning too. For example, besides the various debates around accommodating two-wheeled and four-wheeled vehicles, transport modelling is traditionally divided into four – trip generation, trip distribution, modal split, and trip assignment.

I can also imagine breaking the middle matzah and hiding half for the children to find as an afikomen to be a metaphor for filtered permeability – breaking up the road network for children and others who cannot drive so they can find more routes safely open to them. And what about the Hillel sandwich? Transport planners often have to think about balancing space for different groups, just as we balance the bitter with the sweet in that symbolic food.

The most important parts of the Seder, however, are telling the story and having the festive meal. It is important too that transport planning has a narrative about place, community, and connectivity. Like in the Haggadah, where the story starts with the four questions, any transport planning narrative should start by questioning how assumptions and standards actually apply in what are often different, if not unique contexts. And just as the festive meal brings the whole family or congregation together, so transport planning should deliver places that everyone in the community can partake of and connections that allow everyone to have their fill of access to what they need and options to get there.

Finally, towards the end of the Seder, we open the door for the prophet, Elijah, in hopes that he will herald a better future. Likewise, if transport planning is to be a success, then any order or organisation which it brings to the myriad of movement made by people and goods must be future-proofed and help us to a better future. So a transport planning Haggadah might conclude with the prayer of ‘Next year in a sustainable transport paradise!’

#NPPFlaunch – the transport take

IMG_20180305_103852_resized_20180307_084743602After spending the best part of three hours to travel less than 40 miles (don’t you love rail replacement buses with incredibly unrealistic timetables), I found myself in a slightly surreal position among members of the press with a front row seat for a speech from Prime Minister Theresa May.

I was at a conference jointly organised by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) to [re]launch the National Planning Policy Framework. The PM was there to explain how this revised policy would address the national housing crisis. Presumably, I was invited as a long-time RTPI Member and current Chair of their Transport Planning Network.

Not that transport was specifically mentioned by the Prime Minister or Secretary of State, and it was hardly mentioned in the technical sessions or during my casual chats during the long ‘networking’ lunch. I understand it was on at least one slide during the technical session on development locations – my late arrival meant that I had not been able to register for that most popular of sessions – and yet, looking around at people’s badges, I didn’t see job titles suggesting that many transport planners were there to take away any messages that might have been given.

This frustrates me as much as the lack of land use planners at transport events which I have attended in the past year. Transport infrastructure is, more obviously than other types of infrastructure, the warp on which the weft of the built environment is woven. It is the gravy which holds the stew together. Public land, known legally as ‘highways’ that include carriageway, footway, verge, parking spaces, street furniture, and more, make up the majority of what happens in between the private property boundaries, or in other words the ‘buildings’, of our settled, planned places.

And yet the prime minister made far more mention of open space – and preserving the openness of Green Belt land – than she did of the spaces between the 300,000 new houses per year they are planning to build. Perhaps this is because the transport-related changes in the new draft of the NPPF out for consultation are more minor than those relating to the natural environment? It still seemed like there were missed opportunities.

The section in the updated NPPF on sustainable transport is re-structured, with an emphasis on incorporating and engaging with transport planning at the outset, which is encouraging, yet there are no references to the Local Transport Plan or joint spatial plan-making. Some authorities do this anyway, but surely national policy should clearly link the disciplines?

Fortunately, the ill-defined ‘commuter hubs’ proposed in previous consultations are absent, and local discretion is encouraged in identifying places “well served by public transport” to apply density standards. This suggests local transport and land use planners will be given more freedom to decide how to define a transport hub with appropriate capacity and surround it with appropriate development. Unfortunately, local planners are not supported in this endeavour by the barely revised paragraphs in the NPPF on parking. These, whilst less antagonistic about parking charges and enforcement than previously, are more direct with regard to scorning maximum parking standards, despite the success of such policies in the past and the potential for such policies to better provide for a future of electric, potentially autonomous vehicles that are more likely to be shared than owned.

Still, at the conference and in the document, local governments are no longer scapegoats and planners of all types are given more recognition for their ability to create better places. There is even recognition that sustainable transport is about creating “places that are safe, secure and attractive” that “respond to local character and design standards”. And creating such places should be exactly what all planners, transport and land use, are trained to do. There’s still time to do it together a bit more often.

You say Congestion, I say Contention…

‘Transport’ describes the systems and methods for connecting people and places, goods and services, activities and opportunities. We study, plan, fund, and operate transport networks as a means to support economic growth and social interaction. It is a utility, a public good.

Substitute Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for ‘Transport’ in the sentences above, and they still make sense. But ICT is not a direct replacement for transport. For example, increased use of ICT by businesses can result in longer-distance if less frequent business trips, and whilst shoppers may visit fewer stores, more delivery trucks are on our roads carrying goods ordered online.1 More generally, ICT loosens the bonds between commuting options and costs, and work and residential location choices, as the availability of local services, amenities, and social networks become more important in deciding where to live.2 Thus, virtual access complements physical access, and it may be more useful to view ICT as an alternative way to connect, another choice or manifestation of travel behaviour.

Like any mode of transport, the attractiveness and convenience of mobile or fixed ICT for making connections depends upon the quality of infrastructure and services in a particular geographical area. For fixed broadband, for example, digital accessibility depends upon characteristics like what type of connections are available in a given location, the length of any hybrid copper line, how providers manage different connections, and how connections are wired.3

Thus, like any other transport system, ICT networks comprise links and nodes with variable accessibility. Still, differences are worth noting. ICT users find routing much more fluid than do train passengers or car drivers or even cyclists planning how to reach to their destination. Speeds for ICTs are not fixed, but how they will impact on performance is often obscure.

Meanwhile, again like transport systems, demand-side factors can affect capacity. Transport planners may not be aware, but there are peak times for internet activity as much as for travel. OfCom, the ICT regulator in the UK, calls this dynamic “contention”. Basically, contention increases when too many people are trying to access too much data on the network at the same time and broadband download speeds fall from their maximum rates. The scale of contention also varies by type of connection technology, just as the scale of a traffic jam varies by the number of lanes on the carriageway. However, unlike the travel peak that occurs between 7am and 9am, contention is usually at its worst between 8pm and 10pm, due largely to video streaming.4

However, and this is where transport planners should take note, contention can occur at other times. Unexpected spikes in contention have been observed at unexpected times due to mass streaming of sporting and entertainment events that occur outside of ‘prime time’.5

My own research estimates significant contention in response to certain severe weather events, which may indicate an increase in internet activity for work purposes or telecommuting. On public holidays, it may suggest that outings are cancelled in favour of watching movies at home. In either case, such contention offers insight into the flexibility of travel behaviour, and the benefits of that flexibility.

Unlike congestion, which carries the risks of incidents and accidents as well as delays, contention need not discourage remote access. Slow download speeds are unlikely to result in the hours of unproductive time a commuter might experience due to unusual levels of congestion, closures, and cancellations, making ICTs the wisest modes during period of severe weather. True, high winds can knock down power lines as soon as block rail tracks with trees. Floods can cause water to seep into telephone cabinets as well as making roads impassable. Yet ICT infrastructure is generally more resilient to severe weather impacts than transport infrastructure.6 And newer broadband technologies not only deliver higher speeds, but are even more resilient than those that preceded them.

In conclusion, as society moves from the motor age into the digital age, ICT will become ever more important for accessing goods and services and for making connections. Transport planners should be incorporating ICTs into their forecasts and appraising them for their potential return on investment, and their ability, in contrast to other modes, to reduce risk, maintain productivity, improve flexibility, and change travel behaviour.

 

  1. Andreev  P, Salomon, Ilan and Pliskin, Nava. (2010) Review: State of teleactivities. Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Technologies 18: 17. And various other articles!
  2. Lyons G. (2015) Transport’s digital age transition. The Journal of Transport and Land Use 8: 1-19.
  3. Tranos E, Reggiani, A., Nijkamp, P. (2013) Accessibility of cities in the digital economy. Cities 30: 59-67. I am now focusing on fixed broadband technology, although there are also parallels in mobile technology.
  4. (2017) UK Home Broadband Performance. UK fixed-line broadband performance: Research Report. 1-82.
  5. (2014) Infrastructure Report 2014. OfCom, 1-188.
  6. Dawson R. (2016) Chapter 4: Infrastructure. UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017: Evidence Report. Committee on Climate Change, 1-111.

 

Flexible Resolve

Last month I wrote about the importance of evidence. The month before I wrote about how averages can’t always be used as evidence of what society needs from transport planners. And this month I have even more evidence of how little society may reflect averages.

The University Transport Studies Group annual conference was packed full of papers presenting ongoing or recently completed research from senior academics down to PhD students. The standard was high, and much of the work fascinating. A presentation offering an historic overview of urban transport policy by Professor Peter Jones of University College London best elucidated one conclusion I’ve been coming to over the last year – that we need to move from a ‘Predict and Provide’ to a ‘Vision and Validate’ model. To do this, transport planners must work with other sectors to change how their needs for accessibility can be met in order to meet mobility demand sustainably – and flexibly.

Flexibility is key. People’s need for mobility is dependent upon their need to access activities, goods, and services. As I’ve noted before, more and more people already maintain their accessibility in different ways at different times for different purposes. Their patterns of access can be variable instead of habitual. And between different people or groups of people, there is even more heterogeneity.

For example, there was a presentation on the night-time economy at the conference. I can’t say I’d given much thought to these sorts of workers before. Neither, it turns out, have policy-makers, who have focused on access to places of food, drink, and entertainment for the customers, ignoring those who work in these venues, who might require different travel options than those they serve. Never mind other 24-hour services, such as health and social care, or transport and logistics. How can we envision and plan for transport networks that work for these people, as well as the day-time commuter?

Various presentations also investigated whether ‘Mobility as a Service’ was a realistic scenario for the future of transport. There remain many barriers to its implementation and success. Not least if such services cannot match the flexibility of those most likely to sign on. One paper estimated that Mobility as a Service is of most interest to those who have private vehicles, but only drive their cars 1-2 days a week. Yet as noted in previous blogs, do our current methods of surveying and modelling sufficiently capture such regular, but infrequent behaviours that they enable the design of services catering to these people?

Another paper found that by looking at different data sources and then interrogating the results of one source with the results of the other, travel behaviours that seemed regular and even habitual masked variation. Those who travelled along a stretch of road regularly were more likely to vary their time of travel, whilst those who travelled less regularly were less likely to vary their timing. Getting the right messages out to these irregular travellers, who might not be familiar with their location or choices, is challenging. Yet, it is these people who most need advice, if, as another paper pointed out, they feel they can understand and trust that advice.

Trust is also key for all the ‘shared transport’ that we are apparently ever more willing to use in the 21st century, and, without which, many of our visions for a technologically-advanced, but sustainable future fall apart. However, to note the topic of one final presentation, we would do well to remember that not just vehicles, but roads too are a shared resource. And we don’t always trust each other to use even those flexibly and appropriately!

In conclusion, let’s hope for a New Year that brings not only transport research and policy development that supports flexibility and variation rather than habits and averages, but also a resolve to be a bit more flexible ourselves.