Buses Bounce Back

In my research into weather risks to transport supply and demand, I come across the word ‘resilience’ fairly frequently. I cannot always assume a singular definition, though. Some of the literature uses resilience to refer to low levels of vulnerability to extreme weather conditions or other disturbances; some to the presence of redundancy in a network, such that an alternative means of access can be substituted for any closure; others to the speed of recovery from a time of disruption until systems return to normal. Yet it all comes back to a similar idea. That like a rubber ball, strong yet flexible, designed to bounce back, something is resilient if it is strong enough to withstand the impacts of incidents like severe weather, and/or flexible enough to offer more than one option/way/route to users, and/or bounces back quickly to reasonable levels of performance.

It should be possible to look at any transport network, in any geography, of any mode, and assess its resilience. Ideally, multiple modes and geographies would be analysed in concert, as transport should act as an integrated system. Yet most studies of resilience or lack thereof in the transport discipline focus on only the road or rail networks, and only the private vehicles or passenger trains that use them respectively. This leaves multiple gaps in our understanding of transport resilience to different weather conditions, and one of these gaps is the lack of discussion about the resilience of bus services.

I cannot yet claim to be able to fill that gap, but I have just completed the analysis, write-up, and submission of a brief case study that perhaps starts to bridge it. And this case study indicates that buses might be one of the most resilient modes of transport available.

Furthermore, whilst there is some research into how people behave during disruption, it seems there is less consideration of their awareness of risk and resilience in the networks and services they are using, and how resilient this might make their behaviour. My short case study, however, provides some insight into the behaviour of public transport users, suggesting they are indeed resilient.

If you want to read my case study article, you’ll have to wait for its publication, but the key point is that where buses and rail run in parallel, the bus services are less disrupted, can divert if need be and still deliver the service, and can make up lost time more quickly than rail. The buses also seem to create redundancy, not just for themselves, but for the adjacent rail services. Finally, the number of bus trips rose sharply to and from places where rail passengers were likely to know that buses would be more reliable during the disruption.

I mentioned this to a former colleague, who suggested my discoveries should really be common sense. He also pointed out that the most vulnerable portions of the bus network were the depots and fuelling stations, which could easily be targeted for flood protection measures, for example, compared to the mile upon mile of train tracks needing improvements to resist those floods and ensure the operation of even a limited rail service.

Yet I later heard evidence that buses can be resilient even when the bus depot is inaccessible for many hours. In a talk I attended, a bus company manager explained how he, his drivers, and other staff improvised on the spot to keep a limited service running following a police closure of their depot’s access road. This won them great appreciation from their customers, and a flexibility, a resilience on the part of the not only the bus company and their passengers, but also the entire local community.

So an early finding in my PhD research: buses bounce back better than most transport options, their passengers know it, and the resilience of both buses and their passengers is rather unappreciated in wider transport research and practice.

Air Questionable Plan


The Government’s recently released consultation draft Air Quality Plan is more of an Air Questionable Plan. Why? I may be down to one blog a month these days, but this is a question I’m keen to answer.

It is often written that people struggle with environmental risks, because they are not imminent, proximate, and/or visible. That’s why people may feel climate change is an important issue to address, but struggle to be motivated. Air pollution is more local, but it’s potential, personal, health impacts may be even longer-term than the climactic increase in floods and droughts.

So it was easy for the Government to drag its proverbial heels until environmental groups forced its hand through the courts. Then they published a consultation Plan. Which I read. And, with my fairly extensive knowledge of local transport and my less extensive, but still greater than average awareness of air pollution, realised the Government was still dragging its heels. And its exhaust pipes.

Local air pollution is not a new problem. When I worked in local government, we were measuring, monitoring, and making plans to mitigate a decade ago. We even wrote a business case to introduce a Low Emission Zone. One that charged certain polluting vehicle types, but also invested in walking, cycling, and public transport. One not dissimilar to what the Government calls in its consultation document a ‘charging’ Clean Air Zone. But in 2010, as the Conservatives came to power, our business case was pulled. We continued with plans to improve sustainable transport, but we were not encouraged to resubmit any charging measures in the new rounds of challenge funding. Charging was part of the war on the motorist (including freight) that the new Government strove to roll back.

Fast-forward seven years, and it looks like anything too anti-motorist will still be discouraged. Or at least framed to ensure that possible political fall-out is local, not national. Charging is only to be implemented as a last resort. Somehow local authorities are supposed to encourage and support the mass retro-fit of polluting vehicles instead if at all possible. Or engineer their replacement with cleaner models. Even if many of the fleets in question are privately owned and operated. Local governments are also going to have to either use their own shrinking resources or compete for funding, spending money building business cases before they win, or don’t win, a penny.

In building the business case for Clean Air Zone measures, local authorities will also be aware that the Government’s guidance takes a very minimalist approach to the role of increasing the share of other modes like walking and cycling in improving air quality. It lumps all the alternative modes together as one measure in its list of eight , whilst four bullet points are given over to ways to reduce vehicle emissions without reducing vehicles. One of these four is: “Improving road layouts and junctions to optimise traffic flow, for example by considering removal of road humps”, a measure that is repeated as the first suggestion in a paragraph on “targeted infrastructure investment”.  What signal does this send? The safety of pedestrians and cyclists is secondary to improving the flow of traffic, despite traffic being the source of the pollution?

Furthermore, there is no mention anywhere that air pollution is measured as much by the population breathing it in as by the absolute amounts of pollutant present. That’s why so little of the strategic road network – less than 1% – is affected. There aren’t many schools and hospitals with motorway frontage. So why is there no mention of removing traffic entirely outside such sensitive receptors? Why not more pedestrianisation or “filtered permeability” with physically blocked streets to prevent through traffic?

I’m not saying that I have all the answers. And even this consultation document admits charging might be necessary. But neither do I think I’m jumping to conclusions to suggest that the draft Air Quality Plan favours the motorist over anyone who gets around in a different way, and pushes responsibility onto local governments, especially all those polluted, urban ones, many of a redder political persuasion. It makes it the whole commitment to reducing air pollution look rather… Questionable.


Road Rage at the Red Sea

Happy Passover, blog readers!

Have you ever wondered how the Hebrews crossed the Red Sea? The simple answer is on dry land, created by G-d’s miracle through Moses the prophet. But does that really explain anything?

Let’s picture the scene in more detail. The Hebrews, and we’re told they were numerous, have fled Egypt with their families, old and young, as many possessions and as much food as they could gather together at speed. There were probably some animals, maybe even carts, or perhaps wheelbarrows. They have come to the edge of the Red Sea and run out of land, never mind road. Do they queue up in an orderly line awaiting Moses’ miracle to enable them to cross? Unlikely.

In all probability, they were a milling mess, spreading out along the shore in both directions, in some areas crowded many bodies deep, in some areas standing solitary to peer out across the waves in the hope of spotting this promised land. So what happens when they hear the chariots of the Egyptian Army behind them and Moses raises his staff? Do they then re-group, line up with military precision? Unlikely again.

So how did they cross the Red Sea? Perhaps Moses created a bridge of dry land big enough for them all to walk abreast, but that’s certainly not how it’s shown in the paintings. Sure they were probably fine once between the towers of water on dry seabed. But before that? I imagine they were a seething, pushing, elbows-out, road-rage-driven, traffic jam. If you didn’t try to run round the edges and push ahead, then everyone probably cut in front of you, leaving the Egyptian warhorses nipping at your heels.

Or at least that’s the image that came to me last week as we sat queuing to get into the tunnel to Logan Airport in Boston, my aunt coming ever closer to missing her flight. Tunnels and bridges are often pinch-points, but in this case, behaviour played a part too. As if there were ancient, avenging Egyptians at their heels, car after car cut down the inside lane headed towards South Boston and then cut in at the last minute, pushing those waiting outside the tunnel ever further back in the queue, stationary and sweating.

And so, eventually, we had to do the same. With guilty conscience, we cut around, half wishing we’d done it earlier, half wishing we weren’t driven to being another of ‘those bastards’ as other drivers were probably swearing. My aunt had the barest half hour until her flight took off, and by the time she reached the gate, her ticket had been sold. She just managed to secure another empty seat at the back of the plane. Luckily it wasn’t oversold like the plane that made the news this week.

Yet it does make you wonder. Not only at the insanity of the design of the tunnels that access Logan Airport or the parallels that could be drawn between Boston’s peninsular, landfill airfields and the mooted Thames Estuary island airport, which would be likely even less accessible to the volumes of people it needs to serve. Nor necessarily solely at the challenges of modern driving with the limitations of GPS and traffic updates, which you expect will enable foresight and contingency planning, but often get you within a few miles of your destination, reporting a problem only when you are immovably stuck in it. No, it also makes you wonder at that ancient challenge, crossing the Red Sea, G-d’s people already risking G-d’s wrath with their own road rage long before the Golden Calf episode. Seems to me agetting across bodies of water was probably a problem even back then.

Anecdote or Endgame

When I tell friends, family, other mums at the school gate that I’m doing a PhD, they all ask me what my research is about. I’ve been working on my answer:

I’m looking at ‘big data’ to see what it can tell us about risks to how and whether people travel for work during severe weather events. That’s the one sentence version.

Sometimes it’s better to frame it as a question: What do commuters do when a big storm disrupts their usual journey to work, is telecommuting a preferred option, and what does that mean for how we plan for the more frequently extreme weather likely in the future?

That last bit is the aim, the purpose, the endgame of my research and why I believe a research council has agreed to fund it. I’m looking for evidence that might suggest that governments, businesses, and communities change the way they plan for and invest in resilience to severe weather and its impacts on infrastructure and property. And I’m looking in the new world of ‘big data’ because that evidence needs to be as statistically significant and scalable as possible, not just anecdotal.

Well, I’m still chasing the really ‘big’ data, but I have recently acquired some data on the transport impacts of Storm Doris on Thursday, 23 February 2017 in the Reading urban area. Trees fallen down, billboards blocking roads. Trains and buses delayed, diverted and cancelled. My data is sourced from local news reports, Twitter, and passenger numbers from Reading Buses on the day and on a more ‘average’ Thursday for comparison.

A few quick calculations and the results were suggestive. Passenger numbers were down during Storm Doris. Routes affected by diversions and delays due to fallen trees or other debris saw lower ridership than the ‘average’ day, but then so did other routes without noted storm-related problems. Did people stay home? Travel virtually or cancel their activity entirely? Were there map-able patterns?

I noticed that there were some routes which gained passengers. Why were more Vodafone employees on their dedicated services? The numbers couldn’t tell me. Why were more people on the long-distance route to Wokingham and Bracknell and on the Park & Ride service in that direction? A likely answer is that as the trains were even more affected than the buses, some people may have decided to switch. In which case, thinking of my endgame, perhaps Reading Buses should build that likelihood into their emergency planning for that route, run more buses. But was there enough evidence of actual cause and effect, of probability of recurrent behaviour to justify such an operational response?

I’ve been thinking about how much more evidence I might tease out from public data sources or a little more data from the bus operator. Are there patterns in the individual bus trips where the loss or gain of passengers was particularly noteworthy or could be matched to service disruptions? Is it worth looking at the type of tickets, the stops along the routes to get an idea of the demographics of who did or didn’t take the bus? Did anyone tweet their intentions to switch modes, to stay at home?

Yet with every dive deeper into the data, the falling probability of demonstrating statistical significance echoes ever louder. The passenger dataset was less than 90,000 on the average Thursday, falling by over 4%. The numbers on individual routes, different ticket types, different times, quickly descended into the hundreds or tens, even on the popular routes. My recently refreshed, but untested and uncertain statistical skills are already struggling with how to make a more than anecdotal comparison between one average Thursday and one disrupted Thursday during one storm in one urban area. How do I show that the most basic null hypothesis – that the storm had no impact on passenger numbers – is extremely unlikely, never mind look at any route in more depth to propose emergency service tweaks to the operator?

I have to face it. It will always be an anecdote. But it could still be an anecdote with an endgame.

Visions: the potential in probabilities

On 28 February, the RTPI / TPS Transport Planning Network, with CILT and DAC Beechcroft, hosted an event to discuss the RAND Corporation report ‘Travel in Britain 2035’.

The report offers three alternative visions of the future of mobility, which are intended to cover the spectrum of probability, rather than a forecast of reality. One of the authors, Charlene Rohr, explained to the assembled professionals that the aim of their project was to review how emerging technologies might influence our transport systems, and envision the multiple potential futures that could occur.

Why carry out this research? The one certainty in this crystal ball gazing is that technologies affecting transport, which have been relatively stable for decades, are now undergoing significant change. This could transform not only how we travel, but also our lifestyles, and even societies. Imagining visions of the future can help us prepare for them.

It is not only the giants of the Tech world that realise this. Did you see Ford’s Superbowl ad? The car company is promoting a vision of mobility for the future where it would be selling a lot more than just cars – perhaps shifting towards mobility as a service. It seems that car manufacturers will have to offer different models of ownership, operation and efficiency to stay in the transport game.

Transport planners have to change their tactics too. Cost benefit analyses for infrastructure investment currently calculate 60 years into the future – but technology is changing so quickly that making predictions for 2035 is challenging enough. Transport appraisal has never been much good at distributional analysis – considering how investment choices impact upon different parts of society – but if we want to avoid the report’s dystopian vision of a ‘Digital Divide’, then we need to correct that fault quickly. More investment will also be needed in adaptable infrastructure, which avoids locking us into 60 years of technology or behaviour that will be obsolete in 20.

Meanwhile, a lot of the visioning buzz is around fully autonomous vehicles (AVs), which will probably be electric and shared as well. The report’s ‘Driving Ahead’ scenario focuses on this technology, whilst the UK Government is investing heavily to be a world leader in AV development. The Transport Systems Catapult offers some thoughts on this future, summarising the many benefits of going driver-less.

However, as the discussion ranged at the event, it is clear that it is not only the difficulty of transition that may threaten a driver-less society. Land use planners face a capacity conundrum. If AVs result in much less parking adjacent to homes and commercial uses, what should that land be used for instead? WSP|PB had a panellist at the event to discuss some of the answers they’ve envisioned. But the vehicles themselves still need to be off-road some of the time, for storage and maintenance. Where is that going to happen? How do streets need to be re-configured for picking up and dropping off instead of parking? If the reduced travel cost and additional productive time offered by AVs attract more use than the additional road capacity their efficient movement frees up, is the answer to build more road infrastructure?

The RAND report specifically ignores the need for new infrastructure. But even roads aside, all the scenarios require more electricity and ICT infrastructure, built to be as resilient as possible in the face of frequent severe weather and other disruptions.

Yet it is not all doom and gloom. Freight drivers may not be out of a job if the complicated work at either end of the journey becomes ever more involved with shared loading and consolidated delivery. Children may be able to play on the streets again as space is freed from parking and AVs are trusted with their safety. And if policy makers, planners, and transport practitioners are proactive about standards, regulations, taxation and investment, we can push the future to better resemble the RAND report’s more utopian ‘Live Local’ vision, where road user charging replaces fuel duty and mobility is not only a service, but an equitable one.


Birthday for the Trees


Last week I observed a little-known, but very special, Jewish Holiday called Tu B’Shvat.

I explain it to my five-year-old as ‘the birthday of the trees’, which is a basic, but not inaccurate way of explaining it to adults too. Although it is not listed in the Bible as a holiday, the Bible does prescribe that fruit from trees less than three years old should not be eaten and the fruit brought to the ancient temple should be from trees in their fourth year. So trees needed a ‘birthday’ from which to calculate their age, that would broadly relate to when they had been planted, presumably in the Mediterranean Spring. In the Rabbinic writings known as the Talmud, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat, or Tu B’Shvat was identified as that ‘birthday’ or the New Year of the Trees.

On Tu B’Shvat, it is traditional to plant trees and this tradition has greatly contributed to the greening of the Israeli landscape, where whole forests have been planted in land once largely desolate and desertified. We too planted trees last week, although a snowy, muddy, English woodland in February doesn’t feel much like a New Year for trees and Spring seemed a rather distant promise.

Yet Spring will be in full bloom when the next tree event I’m aware of comes around: Trees, People and the Built Environment, a conference in early April. Unfortunately, I cannot attend, but simply reading the programme was to be reminded and inspired by the ways that trees touch our lives, even in urban areas. We all know that trees make an enormous contribution to the global and local environment, that if you live on a tree-lined street, you are likely to be healthier, wealthier and perhaps even wiser. I grew up on a tree-lined street, making me one of the fortunate ones, and I feel blessed for it.

There were gaps in the row of trees, however, including in front of my childhood home when my parents moved there, the year before I was born. So they filled that gap, planting two maple trees to mark the birth of each of their daughters. By the time I left home at 18, my tree was over twice my height. Now it is much taller again, and I can still appreciate it if I visit my hometown. Without trespassing. Because my parents planted it not in the garden, but on the grass verge, between pavement and street.

Trees and streets and planning can be a trio in a messy relationship. Trees make a street more desirable at the same time as their roots crack the pavement and their falling leaves block the gutters and drains each Autumn. People fight against a favourite tree being felled in a public space, but protest Tree Preservation Orders that protect a tree blocking their planned, new extension.

The problem is perhaps that town and transport planning often operate on a tree by tree or street by street or development by development basis. There is inadequate consideration of strategic tree policies for urban areas. And it is inadequacies like this that the Trees, People and the Built Environment conference aim to address. Perhaps, like the holiday of Tu B’Shvat creates a holistic policy for marking the age of trees, so planners and transport planners can learn to create holistic policies for the presence of trees in the built environment once they have evidence for what they have always known – that trees make for better places.

The Daily March

I was feeling guilty and proud over the last couple days. Guilty that I hadn’t marched, didn’t check and hadn’t even realised that sister marches were organised in British cities until too late. And proud that so many of my family and friends in the United States did march in big cities and small towns around the country.

I’ve slightly assuaged the guilt by writing to my senator, as per the first action suggested by the #WomensMarch movement. And I’ve had a thought that has helped me regain my own sense of pride on this issue. Namely, that I march almost every day.

Or rather, I walk almost every day, and although I’ve written in the past about many of the benefits of walking, I’m not sure I’ve written that those benefits include social justice, community cohesion and generally making a place and its people more civilised.

Because when you walk, you connect to your community. You say hello to people you see regularly, even if they are not part of your social circle. If you live in a diverse community, people with different faces become familiar. People with different views become familiar.

I live in a very split area in terms of the Brexit vote – Bracknell Forest district went slightly to Leave, but it was closer even than the national results. I thought that the reason I find those who voted Leave more understandable than those who voted for Trump, even if I disagree with both, was because perhaps Leave has more persuasive and less extreme arguments. Now I wonder if the reason I understand them is simply because I know them. I know Leave voters in my neighbourhood because I’ve walked around and been in conversations with them.

Mind you, I may never see how Trump as an individual could be seen as anything but repulsive and unrepresentative of the people who voted him in. Yet the real reason I can’t understand why those individuals did what they did is because I don’t know them walking down the street. I don’t live in the United States and unsurprisingly know no one who voted for Trump personally. Yet the state where I am registered to vote, New Hampshire, is as divided as Bracknell Forest and went to Hillary Clinton by the narrowest of margins.

So if I still lived there, presumably walking would have resulted in expanding my horizons and theirs. And even if no one ever changed their minds by such encounters, being on foot and able to see and interact with people around you would still be a way to break through those ominous social media bubbles, put faces to views and improve familiarity with the ‘other’ until perhaps they weren’t so ‘other’ anymore.

Thus, it is important to realise that walking is not only good for your health, your wallet and the environment. It is also good for solidarity, not only on marches with people you agree with, but around your neighbourhood with people you don’t. If we can walk together, we can work together to fight the politics of fear and division, no matter who is peddling them in the future.