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.

You Say You Want a Revolution

Some say there’s a revolution in transport. But to have a revolution, you need revolutionaries.

Transport is certainly undergoing a transformation in the digital age, forging ahead rapidly in the buzzwords of ‘big data’ generation and the development of ‘Internet of Things’ connections. Transport has become ‘smarter’, i.e. more automated, more dynamic, more shared, and more personalised, such that ‘mobility as a service’ (MAAS) is billed as the ‘mode’ of travel of the future. But is MAAS the transport revolution of the 21st century in the same way that the train or the automobile revolutionised transport in the 19th and 20th centuries by creating mass markets of revolutionaries willing to adopt new ways of getting around and even new lifestyles because of the new transport technology?

According to Professor Cristina Pronello of the Université Technologique de Compiègne and Politecnico di Torino, MAAS will only revolutionize transport and travel behaviour if it is developed in a ‘user-centric’, transparent and integrated manner. Which, she said, means MAAS should not be developed and imposed on society by the big corporate players such as Google, Amazon, Apple, etc.

In a talk she recently gave at the University of Greenwich, she compared the tech company travel solutions to an app which was developed for Turin, Italy as part of a European Commission-funded project she led. She called her app an urban navigator, not a journey planner, and pointed to the depth of real-time, multi-modal feeds and customization it offered to users to support their travel decisions.

This ticked the user-centric and integrated boxes, but the Professor admitted difficulty both in establishing data-sharing arrangements with the various transport providers to build truly real-time integration and also in recruiting participating travellers to ensure user-centricity.

I couldn’t help thinking that Google Maps has none of these problems. Most people have it pre-loaded on their smartphone, and the company set the original standard for open data feeds. And if it has not quite the depth and real-time reactions of the app she discussed, I have met Google employees and am given to understand that they are constantly improving the multi-modal integration and accuracy of their mapping – journey planning – navigation tools through validated historic trips which users have themselves tracked and reported.

So what about transparency? There’s the rub. The European project embarked on numerous contracts, enforced a standard data format, and created an open data portal. Anyone with the skills could see where the data was coming from and how it was driving the app’s results. The tech giants are much more opaque, and most would agree that they are more motivated by the bottom line and intellectual property rights, than by a public service mission.

Yet, as was discussed in another presentation in Greenwich, traditional methods and local governments can fail to address social equity in their transport provision as much as corporations do. Although statistical methods tend to be based on assumptions about behaviour in the pursuit of explaining why travel patterns occur and how societal trends may influence those patterns, they are rarely then used to influence decisions to create more equitable patterns. And the models themselves are often black boxes, with calculations undertaken within proprietary software.

In contrast, the algorithms of data analytics are based on no assumptions at all. They seek to learn patterns to accurately make predictions, not to explain how or why those futures have come to pass. If such patterns are most likely to create a viable, successful Mobility as a Service, then transport practitioners should surely be turning to algorithms instead of assumptions, and perhaps also to companies like Google for their expertise – and for access to all those potential revolutionaries already using Google Maps or paying for multi-modal transport on their smartphones.

And yet. Maybe the companies of the digital age should only be supporting the revolution, not leading it. If they are producing the algorithms and finding the patterns, there is still a place for transport planners, land use planners, and civic society to shape those patterns to be more equitable, more affordable, more sustainable. The beauty of those algorithms is that if they happen to find a pattern in the shape of a virtuous circle, they’ll advertise it and disseminate it without asking why, and that really would be a revolution.

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.