Anything but the commute

I have two full-time jobs, but I don’t ‘commute’ at all. I thought that was unusual, but now I’m not so sure.

One job is research, as I work towards a PhD. The other is my role as mother, wife, and general domestic organiser.

I generally work from home for the former, but I make rather a lot of trips for the latter.

If I were filling in a travel diary for my average week, it would include lots of short walks escorting the children to and from their primary school, a little over 1km away; other errands completed on foot on the way there and back: grocery shopping at least twice a week, visits to the library or playground; more short trips by bicycle or car to take my daughter to her dance classes twice a week… you get the picture.

Meanwhile, for my research work, I would only record a 1-2 hour train journey at most once a week and sometimes only once in a month.

None of these trips would count as a commute, a journey from home to a regular place of paid employment and back again.

But then the majority of journeys made by the majority of people are not regular commutes by the same mode, along the same route, at the same time, 5 days a week. Children and pensioners obviously don’t commute. But even though many working-age, employed people still organise their day around their work schedule, the minority are regular commuters. Ever greater proportions work flexibly in space and time – sometimes from home, sometimes visiting clients or customers, sometimes at a remote office; sometimes shifts, sometimes part time, sometimes longer but fewer days (compressed hours); sometimes even part days in different places. Never mind the number of journeys to work that are not defined as ‘commuting’, at least here in the UK, because they are part of longer trip chains, dropping the children at school or picking up the groceries on route. No wonder the numbers of commuting trips, defined as a journey from home to work and back again, have been falling for years here.

So what’s my point? First, my lack of commuting is not as unusual as I thought. Second, my travel patterns enable me to lead a fairly sustainable (ignoring long-distance travel, but that’s another blog entirely), active lifestyle.

And putting the two together, if there are many people like me who don’t have a daily commute, are there also many people whose daily travel is sustainable and active? Or if there are not, why not? Answering the latter, are there too many people who live in places where schools, food shopping, pharmacies, playgrounds, post offices, libraries, etc., etc. are not easily accessed on foot, at least in part because there has been too much focus by transport and land use planners, modellers, and researchers, never mind developers and investors, on the commute and access to work?

Sure, where employment is concentrated in offices or factories, it should be accessible to residential areas, preferably by public transport. But let’s plan a bit more for access to all those other destinations if they are such a greater share of individual travel. It might be the route to more sustainable, active lifestyles becoming mainstream, which, as a mother, I want to see for my children. And it might make people more resilient to disruption too, which, as a researcher, is what I’m tasked to investigate.

Exterior Designs

Next week, the Transport Planning Society is holding ‘Transport Planning Day’ and presenting a People’s Award to a “local transport planning initiative” nominated by the community for the positive impact it has had on their neighbourhood. Among the short list is a vintage bus, a ‘parklet’, and a rather lovely pedestrian-cycle bridge over a gorge.

Last week, I attended a seminar about the project Use-It that recruited community researchers and asked them to find out what their neighbours really felt about their built environment, and then act as liaison between their communities and the local Council, developers operating in the area, the University and other stakeholders. Some of the results included a desire to redefine planning conditions on outdoor play areas, create a food-based social enterprise, and ensure the connectivity of a major new development to existing streets and paths.

And in between, I’ve been catching up on a favourite television programme: Grand Designs. Which got me to thinking, Grand Designs has a lot to say about the architecture of the homes it showcases, including the buildings, facades, interior design, and landscape design. It also philosophises about the architecture in terms of integrity, sustainability, function, and aesthetics. Yet, whilst the surrounding environment of the building and any views and constraints they may offer are referenced, there is no discussion of the design beyond the property boundaries, the exterior design.

On the other hand, exterior design is very much what the Transport Planning Society’s People’s Award, the Use-It project, and indeed transport planners, community activists, and many others with civic concerns are all about.

I call it exterior design instead of urban design because urban design is rarely considered part of transport planning or vice versa. It excludes more rural or even ‘small town’ places. And although urban design does have roots in architecture, I have rarely heard it expressed in the philosophical tones presenter Kevin McCloud employs so well, that great design has to reflect the people who invest in it and make it and live in it.

Is it any wonder that the projects shortlisted for the People’s Award and chosen by the community researchers are people-focused, not building / vehicle oriented? Is it a surprise that the aesthetic of a vintage bus or a green oasis in place of a parking space or a beautiful bridge have more appeal than widening motorways or reprogramming traffic signals? Is it so unexpected that communities faced with a large new development are most concerned about play areas, pedestrian paths, and the potential for locally-sourced food?

No, because there is the same instinctive attraction to such projects and places and spaces as there is to ideas of child-friendly cities that I wrote about back in the summer.

There are, of course, many challenges in reflecting not an individual or a family, but a whole community, and doing so not in a single dwelling, but the public realm. But starting with abstract numbers of people movements and vehicle flows does not result in great exterior design.

The recent mantra is we need to do more visioning in strategic transport planning, for both big infrastructure, as well as local area enhancements. So why not make the task easier by waxing philosophical about how we want public spaces, transport spaces to look and feel, rather than assume a vision needs to be couched in abstract policy terms. Maybe there is something to thinking about form over function? Kevin would probably say that a good form is one that will function well.

At the very least it could help broaden the sorts of discussions with communities that the People’s Award and the Use-It project were designed to instigate. A discussion about transport planning indirectly, a discussion about exterior design.

 

Transport for Women

It’s been bothering me that I hadn’t written a blog for October, when I usually write them at the beginning of the month, but at the beginning of the month I was in a bit of a funk.

A big part of that was politics and current events, namely the Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court after he was accused of sexual assault and harassment. I read the news regularly, and am interested in politics, but I try to keep my emotions at an arms-length. It would be too easy to let it all get to you when the positive so rarely features, especially in the last couple years. But this news really got to me, upset me, as a woman. Considering all the other #MeToo stories, I wasn’t sure why.

I have never, thank God, been sexually assaulted. The closest I could come to what Kavanaugh’s accusers described was a memory of a man exposing himself to me. Not at a drunken frat party, but when I was about seven, riding around my neighbourhood on my bicycle. A car pulled up and a complete stranger flashed me. I sped the other way so fast, I might have left the block faster than he did. My mother called the police and I had to describe what had happened. Which wasn’t much. I don’t know if they ever caught him. I’ve rarely thought about the incident since, nor could I say it has affected my life.

And yet, I am a transport planner, and the whole thing was intimately (pun intended) tied up with modes of transport; the more powerful, the more entitled preying upon the more vulnerable. I love my chosen profession of transport planning, but as a woman in a male-dominated profession, the metaphors of female subordination in transport are often just below the surface. And it’s that contrast of entitlement and assumed subordination that upset me most in the Kavanaugh case.

However, having recently read an article in the Times about a former Google employee, Sarah Cooper, who has turned to stand-up comedy and writing tongue-in-cheek tips (and books) on how women try to get ahead by pleasing and pacifying men, I’ve been cathartically inspired to write a few ideas in the same tone. Perhaps I can thus make the argument that women are not only well suited to working in transport, but should feel entitled to work in transport!

Here goes:

  1. Boats, airplanes, and cars are all often referred to with female pronouns, so surely females will know best how to plan for them.
  2. Trains might sometimes have male names, but most would say girls are best at staying within the lines.
  3. If the fastest female athletes are slower than the fastest men, slow modes must be our thing too.
  4. We’re the only half of the species biologically designed to carry a foreign body for 9 months at a time – it makes us naturals in long-term logistics.
  5. Women make up the majority of professional models, so why not modellers?
  6. There must be a reason car insurance for young women costs much less – an instinct for road safety that young men can only hope to learn?
  7. Community engagement and public involvement require empathy and emotional intelligence, which women are supposed to be over-endowed with.
  8. From buggy pushers to tartan trolleys, we can definitely deal in accessible planning for the whole life-cycle.
  9. Ever heard of women’s intuition or that a woman always changes her mind? Not so great for fixed forecasts, but in a world of technological change and uncertainty, the womanly tasks of visioning and scenario planning are on the rise.

But what about that technological change? Technology is a professional discipline, like transport, where women trail men. But then Sarah Cooper made it, and moved on to make jokes about being a female tech professional that have launched her comedy career. I don’t claim to be a comedienne. And there’s always the danger that patronising too can be disguised as joking. But perhaps a bit of humour will help women in transport move from the trailer into the driver’s seat too?

 

Slow down, you move too fast…

As children head back to school, the weather changes, and Jewish people look forward to celebrating their new year, it feels as if life is speeding up again after the long, (and even in the UK!) hot days of summer. Transport policy, with its tendency to assume sleek new technology will solve all our transport problems, also seems to assume that speeding up is inherently a good thing. That shared, electric, autonomous, and motorised mobility plus immediate information available anywhere will increase road safety, reduce emissions, free up road space, and help move the growing population of elderly and disabled around more easily.

And yet, does the population, elderly or otherwise, actually want to always move faster and further? It seems to me that the Future of Mobility call for evidence, whilst acknowledging that people are travelling less, commuting less, and driving less, only considers how information and communication technologies are changing attitudes to transport information and accessibility. Yet the high-tech accessibility of information is changing not just attitudes, but accessibility itself – how we obtain goods and services, how we participate in activities and opportunities. The consultation document mentions telecommuting, but not online shopping, which is likely one reason van traffic is growing so fast, nor does it consider the advent of other tele-services, such as tele-healthcare.

My point is that technology can mean faster and further and more frequent OR it could mean fewer, more flexible trips. It could push us all to operate like machines or it could serve to help us keep things human. There could be accessibility as a service instead of mobility as a service, meeting people’s needs by meeting them halfway. The sharing economy could be finding groups of families to share the school run between busy parents, whilst still enabling their kids to walk to school. Or perhaps technology can match not passengers, but patients who will can share the walk to the doctor’s office to improve their own health by not only increasing physical activity, but reducing loneliness and fear.

Maybe that vision is idealistic, but surely it’s more appealing than the transport-tech-optimism that seems to suggest we should be shaping our cities to accommodate driverless, and perhaps empty, vehicles, rather than living, breathing people. Besides, once we stop valuing speed of travel over quality of life, we may have a better chance of making these new technologies work for people and places, rather than as ends in themselves.

My New Year’s resolutions this year are all about making the moment last.1 I aim to be more patient, to default less to that overused excuse of being ‘stressed’, to savour the change and growth this new year promises to bring to my family and to me. Oh, I’m sure we’ll all be doing lots of different activities, getting work done, moving around. And some of that movement will require covering long distances quickly. But day to day, we will often be walking, interacting with each other and the environment, thinking and learning.

In my own small way, as a representative of transport professionals and a researcher into the opportunities technology may bring for future mobility and accessibility in a changing climate, some of the thinking and learning I will be doing when I am taking it slow will be about a future vision of technology and travel that supports quality of life. And that might mean the technology offers ways to slow down.

 

1The title of this blog and this line are from Simon and Garfunkel’s Feeling Groovy.

Hot Options

As the recent unprecedented heatwave comes to an end, at least temporarily, it seems a good time to reflect on how hot, sunny weather might affect travel behaviour.

Unlike wind-driven storms or winter weather which have much more direct and obvious impacts on transport infrastructure, the physical impacts of heatwaves on roads and public transport are more diffuse. Steel rails may buckle, tarmac occasionally melts, and fewer people may be allowed to crowd onto the London Underground carriages, but mostly roads and services are available for normal use (barring planned engineering works, resurfacing and other construction that often is scheduled in the summer). The heat and talk of beaches and barbecues may make the headlines, but travel disruption much less so. Even where heat and drought result in forest fires, they rarely affect major routes.

Yet heat itself can still be an extreme type of weather as much as cold or wind or rain. And people do change their travel behaviour based on the weather, especially extreme weather. Various studies have shown decreases in trips by different modes in adverse weather. And in countries which regularly experience extreme heat, another study recorded decreases in active travel once temperatures pass a certain threshold.

However, it is not regular for the UK or many of the other countries that have been affected by this summer’s heatwaves to experience extremely hot weather. That makes it difficult to hypothesise how people might respond in terms of travel behaviour. Especially as these heatwaves are only extreme in relative terms – temperatures are still not reaching the levels common in tropical or desert countries, so it is not necessarily too hot for people to walk, bicycle, or otherwise want to be outdoors and enjoy the weather when they travel. Alternatively, the lack of familiarity with such weather may result in people struggling to adjust and seeking travel spaces that are air-conditioned, mainly cars, but also, in some areas, a subset of public transport services.

Or it may depend on where people are going or where they live. How comfortable are different houses or apartments in the heat? How about offices or shops? Are private gardens or public parks more readily available? Which are more likely to provide relief from the even hotter microclimates of urban streets? The answers to such questions may suggest less travel altogether, but the possibility of empirical, quantitative evidence to support this is confounded by yet another factor. Holidays.

Days of extreme heat occur in the summer, when there are often fewer regular, short-distance trips and more long-distance travel for leisure purposes. People often plan such trips well in advance and can’t change travel arrangements nimbly. Thus, families with school children, those who work in education, and various other groups are likely to change their travel behaviour in the summer no matter what weather summer brings. There is consistently less traffic during summer school holidays. There is also usually more walking and cycling, more sporting events and festivals. Such activities are often only cancelled for electrical storms or other immediate dangers; unusual heat or drought is not among these dangers.

Still, even if current travel behaviour during heatwaves cannot easily be tracked, that does not mean that we should not use this unusually long heatwave to try to monitor how people have responded. Nor does it mean we should not work to adapt our transport networks to the likelihood of future, more frequent hot weather. We could stress our steel rails to higher temperatures and ensure we use appropriate aggregate mixes to prevent melt, but also we could provide more public water fountains and street trees to help people walking and cycling to re-hydrate and cool off. I have written before that one way forward for resilience is ‘monitor and adapt’, and this summer provides a perfect opportunity to start such a process.

#urbanchildhoods

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_20180706_122231_resized_20180708_105726203

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

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

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

Monitor and Adapt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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