Silence on Social Justice?

Bristol was chosen for our case study city for three reasons.

First, in practical terms, we needed a medium-sized British city that would allow comparison with our partner cities across Europe – Oslo, Poznan and Utrecht.

Second, it needed to be somewhere with electric mobility policies and projects to study for social justice implications. Bristol has won a number of UK and European bids funding electric mobility infrastructure and services, either specifically or as part of larger transport packages.

Finally, we thought it might be a positive critical case study – somewhere more likely to be an exemplar of social justice in policy making.

Bristol has a history of civic activism and concern for equity and inclusion. It was home not only to the most significant Black Lives Matter protests in the UK, but also the Bristol bus boycott in 1963, when protesters forced the local bus company to change their discriminatory employment policies. It was not only the first local government authority in the UK to declare a climate emergency, but also the first place women were ordained into the Church of England.

In the transport domain, Sustrans, the charity which created and maintains the National Cycle Network and advocates for walking and cycling was founded in Bristol in 1977. More recently, parents in Bristol who wanted to see their children play in the streets in front of their homes without fear of traffic started the charity Playing Out, which helps residents apply for temporary, but regular road closures.

Could we find evidence of that sort of civic spirit in the transition to electric mobility and the policies designed to support it?

Ten recent, urban policy documents were analysed to find out, including transport and climate strategies and a few UK funding bids with electric mobility elements.

We did not find a suitable document specifically covering the successful European bid that funded the REPLICATE project, but thought the social outcomes of that project would surely be mentioned in policy documents that did make our list. REPLICATE included an e-bike loan scheme and new electric car club bays and was specifically targeted at neighbourhoods with more minority groups and less housing or transport capital.

REPLICATE was mentioned in three of our analysed documents, but as an example of successful delivery, without reference to social outcomes or equity nor if local residents were involved in choosing the bay locations or gave their views on driving the shared electric cars.

My analysis of data provided by Co-Wheels, the car club operator that participated in the project, showed that the e-car club bays installed during the project were located in significantly more deprived areas than other car club bays and used by residents of more deprived areas. An academic involved in the project confirmed to me that the locations were purposefully chosen to increase access to shared electric vehicles among low income residents.

Yet whilst the potential of increased access through EV car clubs is highlighted in the UK Go Ultra Low bid (see page 17), the bid cited REPLICATE only for its synergy with the proposed scheme, not for its inclusivity. All three documents mentioning REPLICATE are strangely silent on the project’s social justice implications.

We found a similar silence on another social justice initiative described in just one document: the One City Plan proposes to apply the recommendations of the citizens’ assembly that was just finishing its deliberations as the Plan was published in March 2021. Yet the two documents we could find published after the One City Plan do not mention the citizen’s assembly at all. Will others yet to be published do more?

Meanwhile, as mentioned in my blog, the Future Mobility Zone bid promises co-production and user-centred design, but there is no knowing from the document itself whether the e-mobility aspects of the bid have been or will be implemented in such a socially just way. We have to use other sources to find out.

Thus, whilst Bristol may still be an exemplar of social justice in terms of civic activism and opportunities for genuine participation, potentially even in ways that relate to electric mobility policy, relevant policy documents are strangely silent on the subject and evidence is thus far missing, particularly of recognition justice and the incorporation of diverse knowledge, values, and practices in the transition to electric mobility.

Interviews with stakeholders come next as our search for evidence of Bristol as a positive critical case study in the inclusive transition to electric mobility (ITEM) continues.

Car clubs coming to you?

Car clubs fascinate me.

Whilst still cars, car club vehicles are used much more intensively, and the people who use them travel less intensively. It is not a different mode of travel, but car club members use different modes of travel more: they walk, cycle, and ride on buses and trains more often than they drive. The vehicles are more likely to be electric and produce fewer emissions than the average private car. Sharing cars saves space and reduces congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution. CoMoUK, the national charity for the public benefit of shared transport, publishes reports on the many benefits of car clubs.

But car clubs also frustrate me. Why? Since car clubs are often designed for those with a car-lite, multimodal lifestyle in mind, they’re rarely found in places where people are most car-dependent nor are necessarily available to people who have the fewest options for getting around.

Let me explain. Most car clubs in the UK are run commercially – they need to be financially viable. Also, the most common model is ‘back-to-base’, which involves a dedicated parking bay on street or in a parking area for each car club vehicle, often requiring a long-term agreement with the local highways authority or workplace or housing estate / developer. Therefore, car club operators want their cars where they will attract customers and be valued by the landowner and local community for some years. Such places tend to be in denser urban areas, or in the car parks owned by larger businesses and institutions, usually where there is a better-educated if not wealthier population who are seeking a more flexible, greener and healthier lifestyle.

This is a bit of a simplification, and CoMoUK has information on all the types of car clubs as well as the less well-known and studied peer-to-peer car sharing options operational in the UK. And as they put it to policy-makers, a shared car is quite simply not the same as a privately-owned car. Car sharing should be supported in transport strategies.

I agree with them, but I also wonder whether a shared car in a dense urban area where people have good public transport can have as much impact as a shared car in a suburb or smaller town with minimal public transport? The latter places contribute to climate change too. They suffer from congestion and air pollution and too many cars taking up too much public space.

But if car sharing were available in smaller settlements, would people give up as many privately-owned cars for shared ones, would they would walk and cycle more, and most importantly, would they provide enough business to make a car club or other car sharing arrangement viable?

There are three recent trends that suggest the answers could be ‘yes’:

  1. Driving Electric: People don’t have to live in dense urban areas to be unable to afford to purchase an electric vehicle, or to not have a place at home to charge it, or to feel motivated by the climate crisis to want to switch sooner rather than later. Working with CoMoUK, I have gathered some evidence of the extra opportunities for electric car sharing in this publication.
  2. Digital Accessibility: Since the pandemic, more people are working flexibly and from home, do not need to use their privately-owned cars to commute, and often live in suburbs and smaller towns. More people are ordering goods and groceries online. Car sharing fits well with flexibility and less frequent essential trips. Good public transport links may no longer be a prerequisite.
  3. Informal Options: People have been sharing cars with friends and family for a long time, but there are now digital platforms that support informal car sharing between community groups, neighbours or even strangers. These offer ways to car-share that don’t have the same fixed costs or location, and can meet more diverse needs in more places.

Research is clearly required – CoMoUK staff and I are keen to take our collaboration forward to find the evidence to help car sharing come to you, wherever you live.

The Paradox of Procedural Justice

The old adage goes, you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Likewise, you can register someone to vote, but you can’t make them to turn out on election day. Or send a survey, but can’t make them fill it out. Or even hold a protest, but can’t make every affected individual or group attend. Efforts towards inclusion in civil society and policy-making can only go so far. At some point the responsibility for achieving justice is transferred to citizens who choose to vote, respond, march – or not.

No matter the attempts at genuine participation or the influence afforded those participating, there will be always be some who stay at home. And they might be people who never participate, who belong to marginalised groups, who have values, experiences, rights and needs that are often ignored. This can result in policies being perpetuated that are not only procedurally unjust, but also result in the misrepresentation of these groups, maldistribution of interventions intended to help them, and ongoing exclusion.

But what can one do? Elected representatives, local government officers, or neighbourhood activists can all try to make policy and govern justly, but cannot justly force people to get involved. Therein lies the paradox of procedural justice. It is limited by not only the level of participation offered, but also who decides to participate.

Nonetheless, it is too easy to blame apathy and hide behind the excuse that an opportunity was offered but ignored. Decision-makers can take responsibility for offering multiple ways to participate at multiple levels of involvement. Variety will increase inclusion by virtue of the likelihood that different techniques will attract different people who will feel more or less comfortable getting involved at that intensity.

‘Consultation’ is one of the most traditional techniques for involving individuals and groups, which we have found referred to again and again in our analysis of policy documents in Bristol and the UK for the ITEM project. Yet even this technique can be applied in various ways. Publishing and advertising policy in a ‘consultation draft’ on a website with pre-set questions or headline objectives and asking the extent to which respondents agree offers neither a high level of participation nor is likely to attract a high number of participants.

Instead, consultation on the 2020 Joint Local Transport Plan strategy for the West of England combined authority (WECA) used multiple different media – social media, websites, paper, in person – to solicit feedback on the policy in a variety of ways: a survey; an interactive tool to prioritise policy; and during discussions at stakeholder workshops. There were also opportunities for open answers, to raise concerns or suggestions that may have been excluded.

This multiplicity of techniques can enhance procedural justice, but that potential is diminished by focusing on the response to the policy-makers’ pre-set questions over more open responses; generalising the reported response so individual participants have little influence; and not paying attention to who did not respond or was otherwise missing.

Despite the paradox previously described, state-centric decision-makers and even society-centric grass-roots organisers should take responsibility for finding out who doesn’t participate and, ideally, why, without making assumptions. This is challenging at scale, so proposals in the city’s Bristol Transport Strategy or WECA’s Future Mobility Zone application focus on the smallest geographic scale when proposing more procedurally just techniques – co-design and co-production.

From neighbourhood plans to proposals for mobility hubs as local community assets, at this scale, reaching out to a greater number of individuals from more diverse groups through more channels is more possible, having more of them respond is more likely, and enabling their response to influence the decisions made is more manageable. Our next step is to find out if this has actually happened.

Either way, not everyone will get involved nor will the policies implemented meet every need, desire or expectation. The paradox still persists and procedural justice may not be fully achieved, but at least such an approach, if carried through, improves the chances of social justice.

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.