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.


Evidentially, my dear Watson

I recently chaired a panel at the Transport Planning Network’s annual event, which presented evidence on the wider benefits of integrating transport and land use planning to promote sustainable transport. The panel was fairly academic, but the presentations were short, snappy, and discussed their area of evidence at a relatively generalist level. There was little that I hadn’t heard before. The audience was full of transport planners and land use planners working in local government, consultancies, and a few from charities, academia or other non-profit organisations with an interest in transport and land use planning. Before opening the panel for questions from the floor, I asked the audience how many had heard at least one piece of evidence that was completely new to them. The response was surprising. So many hands went up that I couldn’t see whether there were any that remained down.

Sherlock Holmes’ famous catch phrase is a contradiction. His deductions are only elementary if they are sitting on a mountain of evidence, and knowledge about that evidence, such as where the evidence in question was made, under what circumstances, etc. At the transport planning event, it would seem that even professionals in the field are sitting on a mountain of evidence, but have not been given the knowledge to interpret it. Now it may be that many in the audience could interpret portions of the evidence. Maybe they knew what economic agglomeration means for sustainable urban forms, but they didn’t know how physical inactivity causes chronic inflammation. Maybe they knew all about the proportion of greenhouse gas emissions caused by longer distance car trips, but they didn’t realise how that could be translated into proportion of transport emissions from dispersed settlement patterns.

The point still remains that there was something they didn’t know. As another task on my list at the moment is writing an article about sustainable mobility that can be understood by people at graduate level outside the discipline, it raises an interesting question if even those in the discipline don’t know some of the key reasons why sustainable mobility matters. Now, I am tasked more with defining the ‘what’ than describing the ‘why’ in this article, but how much information gives people enough to construct the knowledge on which to act?

Another recent trip I made was to take a short course for post-graduates who want to do a little teaching. In that course, there is some discussion about the need to construct knowledge through active learning. Presenting the information is not enough. For students to be able to incorporate the information into their own body of knowledge, the information needs to be presented in such a way that it builds on what they already know and understand, and they need to be engaged in its exploration through asking questions, discussing its relevance, etc.

For information, substitute evidence. Sure, we had a fairly long Q & A session after the panel presentations, but were more than a dozen people truly engaged in active learning? I asked a simple question about whether any of the information presented was new. I didn’t get to ask them whether anything was partially familiar or how it might relate to what evidence they were already using. Evidence is so important to make the case for sustainable transport, sustainable development, sustainable governance. And that case is mainly being made, not to planning professionals, but to politicians and the public, most of whom are even less likely to be familiar with the academic research in the discipline. So hopefully, the Transport Planning Network event fulfilled its aim to build on evidence that the audience already understood, because only then would they have a chance of applying that evidence to their local projects and passing it on to decision-makers and the public in such a way that sustainability meets acceptability.

Note: The Transport Planning Network is a professional network of over 1600 members administered by the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Transport Planning Society.

Anything but Average

Back in July, I wrote about transport planning for places, rather than individual modes and ‘networks’. Last month, I wrote about transport planning to accommodate the needs of people, rather than the temptations of technology. Last week, I spoke about both at the South West England regional conference for transport planning. Planning, including transport planning, is by definition about looking towards the future and how we create better places than we have now that improve the quality of life for the people in those places.

Yet in preparing my presentation for last week, and in listening to some of the other presentations, I realised that transport modelling, forecasting, and thus planning have yet another loadstone to cast off before they can ‘help shape a better world’, another challenge besides remembering that the best transport planning invisibly serves people and places. And that weight is the weight of averages.

As a methodology for representing individual behaviour, the average, the ‘usual’, falls woefully short. It ignores the steps people may take to be sustainable or exercise more unless they do so more than half the time being measured. It glosses over the people who do not have the same destinations to access on a daily basis. It downplays the regular, but infrequent patterns of linked trips to visit family or participate in other activities that induce diversionary routes once a week or once a month. It gives no thought to how some people may react to increased risk, delay, or disruption due to severe weather, planned events, unplanned incidents, scheduled repair works, or even terrorist threats.

To plan for local contexts, the average assumptions about how people travel to, from, and within areas of particular land uses can easily miss the diversity of options, variety of economic drivers, and cultural preferences in different places. If most traffic and transport models, whether to assess the impacts of new developments or to inform investment decisions with a cost-benefit ratio, are based upon data collected on average dates for an average population and average land uses, it is no wonder that transport planners are still living in a ‘predict and provide’ paradigm. Nor is it surprising that those predictions often turn out to be wrong.

Way back in March, I wrote about Visions of the future of transport and society developed through scenario-planning techniques. I’ve read academic articles advocating scenario planning in order to address the uncertainties we face. But the key to scenario-planning is not only to think about how people behave and how places might take shape, but also to consider a spectrum of possibilities. A spectrum that encompasses extremes, which in turn do allow for hybrid possibilities, but not averages.

This is where big data and new technologies and ‘smart’ infrastructure can help. Algorithms might still regress data back to averages, but that data, those sensors, the digital trail we all leave in our wake like high-tech breadcrumbs , can also give us a much better understanding of extremes than we’ve ever had before. No longer dependent upon snapshots or cross-sections, planners can take a long view and find the patterns of flexibility that better represent the lives we all lead. Instead of predict and provide, let’s propose and future-proof. Because the future is unlikely to be any more ‘average’ than the present.

Who is the future for?

At the Smarter Travel Live conference in Milton Keynes, Jesse Norman, MP and Undersecretary of State at the Department for Transport proposed three R’s to describe the future of transport: Risk, Regulation, and Research. I rather liked the idea, and was quite ready to agree with him.

However, the rest of his address applied those three R’s fairly narrowly to technological advances, and specifically the current Government’s favourite types of technological advances: vehicle technologies. Whilst it’s useful to discuss how electric vehicle and battery technology improvements might reduce air pollution risks, how de-regulation of autonomous vehicle technology could propel the UK to the front of this market, and how research into platooning lorries will save time and space on UK roads, such matters are hardly at the core of the future of transport.

Rather, as a later session roundly discussed, the future of transport is not about what, it’s about who.

There is no need to reduce the risk of air pollution if there are no people around breathing it in. So are we thinking about where the people buying these electric vehicles are? If in the countryside, it might help reduce carbon emissions, but not air pollution risk. If in the city, should we be pushing electric vehicles and space for charging points in residential areas over space for cycle lanes and parking and pedestrian-friendly public realm and play streets?

Meanwhile, de-regulating autonomous vehicle technology won’t make people buy or use autonomous vehicles if there are no regulations controlling what happens and who is responsible if such a vehicle is involved in a crash. It will be a big leap for many people to try, to trust a completely new mode of transport, to be sure it is safe and secure, especially if the most efficient and sustainable approach to such vehicles is for them to be shared.

And whilst freight is an important area of research, consumer behaviour will have at least as much influence on how much space is needed for transporting goods on the road network as any technological twist in lorry manufacture. Indeed, there is another technology that might eliminate the need for many lorries altogether – some scenarios envision people preferring to buy local goods and produce, and choosing to use 3D printing for currently mass-produced items at local depots or shops.

Thus, an understanding of consumer behaviour, travel behaviour, human behaviour, should inform all our discussions about the future of transport. How do people understand risk? How do you encourage changes in behaviour, especially when there is no frame of reference for new technologies? How can research from other disciplines like social psychology help transport planners shape the future of transport to meet complex tangles of economic, environmental and social objectives?

Whichever vision of the future is most accurate – the flying cars of 20th century science fiction or the shared, electric autonomous cars of current transport geek passion, there is a startling lack of people present in those visions. A more visionary approach to the future of transport is to imagine one where people can access the goods and services they need and participate in the activities and interactions they want by more affordable, healthy, sustainable, and equitable means than they have used in the past or present. A future where people and the places they inhabit are central, and technology, like transport itself, is a means to an end, not an end in itself.


A Time to Stop

This blog is very unusual for a transport planner. I want to write about not moving. About stopping. Or not stopping, but being still.

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is a time to make resolutions and look forward to things to come and make plans to improve ourselves, improve our contribution to our community and our world. But although I would be the first to admit that I could always do more, do better, I would not count a lack of forward planning among my greatest faults. In fact, I am perhaps guilty of too much forward planning at times. Always thinking about the next tasks I need to undertake for my research, or where the kids need to go, or what chores are to be done at home. Always asking what’s next, what’s the plan, what should we do this afternoon, tomorrow, next weekend, next holiday. More than that, I’m a transport planner who does take the time to think about how my discipline can change to tackle the challenges of the 21st century and what I can do to contribute to that debate in some small way.

Thus, as a holy day of new beginnings, it should have been easy for me, the planner, to get in the spirit of Rosh Hashanah. But it wasn’t. And I thought it was maybe because I was thinking too much about the future and all those notes in my diary in pages to come. For there is another name for Rosh Hashanah: the Day of Remembrance. A day to look back and remember what we’ve done that we wished we’d done better, to remember all the people that have come before us, in distant generations or recently passed loved ones. To remember to count our blessings and how lucky we are not to have personally suffered a debilitating illness or a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.

Yet to be honest, I don’t think that my inability to enter into the spirit of the holiday had much to do with a lack of remembering. Despite the weight of tragedy in current events, I force myself to follow the news closely, to not stick my head in the sand no matter how tempting. I appreciate the value of history and learning lessons from it, whether in my own research or as applies to society more generally. And I’ve been acutely aware of my blessings in the last year. Two healthy, happy children becoming ever more engaging and wonderful, a loving husband and extended family, a new professional role as a paid PhD researcher, and a comfortable home in a welcoming community, where I can afford treats as well as the basics. Somehow so far from terrorist attacks and natural disasters, I can’t help but feel lucky. And what can be more holy than counting one’s blessings and being genuinely grateful?

Well, then I thought about the other name for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the 10 days in between for good measure. They are collectively the Days of Awe. How does one feel awe? Not by looking behind or ahead, but by trying to be, to feel right now. Not by bustling or moving or talking, but by stopping. Finding that moment of stillness. That is what I have lacked in the lead up to these holidays. A medieval poem in our liturgy says that once the Shofar blasts, the still, small voice is heard. I blow the Shofar for our congregation, but I had not practiced as much as I usually would before today. And I had not stopped at all to listen for the still, small voice afterwards. I heard it a little today during the service, but I know I don’t hear it often enough.

So perhaps my resolution for this New Year’s should be to stop occasionally. Just to be still, to allow myself to hear the small voice and maybe feel a little of the greater awe. In our busy, daily lives, stillness is available. In the minute before dinner or as I close the bedtime story book. Even in the world of movement, of transport: in that moment on the train platform or at the bus stop; in that pause in my step or on my pedals before I turn onto a main road, even just as the car key comes out of the ignition. The moments, minutes, are there. If I can remember to stop for them.


A Transport Defence System

I’ve been thinking a bit over the weekend about the attacks in Barcelona. And Charlottesville. And London, Nice, and more places than I can quite keep track of recently. And what I’ve been thinking about most is the weapon of choice in all these attacks: motor vehicles. Cars, vans, trucks. Objects whose purpose is to enable people and goods to get from A to B. A purpose I have long considered a main driver of my professional life. Pun intended. But in these cases, the transport purpose of vehicles is being perverted.

Not that motor vehicles have ever been innocent. Even before the idea to consciously use them as terrorist weapons was fomented, motor vehicles have killed people in their thousands. Through the sprawling, sedentary urban forms and the subsequent inactivity they foster, through carbon emissions and local air pollution, and of course, through road traffic incidents. Some who is run over by accident is as much a casualty as someone who is run over on purpose.

Which is not to say that an accidental weapon is as potent as one used with intent. The terrorists, no matter their ideological background, are driving into crowds, into pedestrian areas, in places where they can cause the most damage. So how do we limit the damage?

Obviously there are debates about surveillance and police presence in vulnerable places, about the means available to gather intelligence about terrorist cells or radicalised and potentially violent individuals, about the regulations and background checks required to access vehicles, particularly rented ones. Still, if transport is the weapon, surely transport planning can be part of the solution.

The security services have already been speaking on the radio about concrete barriers and similar physical infrastructure. Indeed, they have been talking about such things for years. I once attended a meeting in Wales back in the days when the new Wembley Stadium was under construction, and Cardiff was hosting football matches and events of international importance. The Welsh police and anti-terrorist units discussed the need then to have physical infrastructure that could stop car bombs from approaching and detonating near ‘soft targets’ like the stadium. The room was full of planners, transport planners, architects, engineers, and urban designers. We were being tasked not with coming up with the idea of having physical barriers in the first place, nor even necessarily where they should go. No, our job was to integrate such barriers into the urban fabric.

So what is the transport planning part of the solution to this new use of vehicles as weapons? It is to develop the public realm with beautiful planters, seating, bollards, and other street furniture or even street art that also act as barriers to motor vehicles. Perhaps it is also to create new pedestrian spaces. Or make more spaces pedestrian-only, 24-7, protected by physical infrastructure, rather than opened up to motor vehicles and deliveries at various times of day. And then to solve the delivery issues by creating appropriate delivery consolidation locations, loading bays, and more creative delivery options, such as bicycle couriers who are allowed to enter the pedestrian area. And whilst we’re on bicycles, why not combine the creation of new, segregated bicycle lanes with lines of attractive and protective concrete planters? Planters have been used instead of kerbs or verges to segregate cycle facilities before, so why not make sure they also serve a defensive function on crowded roads and bridges?

If we put our minds to it, transport planners can think of many ways that they could help develop a defence system to deal not only with the use of motor vehicles as weapons, but also to address some of the other dangers motor vehicles present to human life. Concurrent objectives could include segregating vulnerable cyclists and pedestrians from motor vehicles to reduce accidents, creating better spaces for pedestrians and cyclist to encourage more active travel, and increasing the distance of places crowded with people from the generators of local air pollution. It might not be enough to completely stop the use of motor vehicles as a weapon in the future, but we can do something constructive to save lives now.