A Haggadah for Transport Planning

To continue my self-imposed tradition, this is the time of year when I wish a Happy Passover to all the closeted transport planners of a Jewish persuasion out there by writing a blog that brings Passover and transport planning together.

Over the last four years, I tended to focus on the story of the Exodus, but this year, I thought I’d look at a different aspect of the holiday: The Haggadah, that all-important booklet that provides the Order for the Seder. Or the Order for the Order. For Seder literally translates as Order, which, considering the chaos that often attends the Passover prayers, festivities, and food of which Jews partake around the dinner table with friends and family, ‘order’ may seem a bit of a misnomer (especially in my family?!). But a good Haggadah can make sense of the occasion. Likewise, good transport planning aims to make sense of the cacophony of spaces we travel through and the ways and means by which we do so.

What specific parallels can I find between transport planning and a Haggadah? Four is an important number during the Seder. The proceedings are punctuated by four cups of wine representing God’s four promises of freedom and redemption. Four is an important number in transport planning too. For example, besides the various debates around accommodating two-wheeled and four-wheeled vehicles, transport modelling is traditionally divided into four – trip generation, trip distribution, modal split, and trip assignment.

I can also imagine breaking the middle matzah and hiding half for the children to find as an afikomen to be a metaphor for filtered permeability – breaking up the road network for children and others who cannot drive so they can find more routes safely open to them. And what about the Hillel sandwich? Transport planners often have to think about balancing space for different groups, just as we balance the bitter with the sweet in that symbolic food.

The most important parts of the Seder, however, are telling the story and having the festive meal. It is important too that transport planning has a narrative about place, community, and connectivity. Like in the Haggadah, where the story starts with the four questions, any transport planning narrative should start by questioning how assumptions and standards actually apply in what are often different, if not unique contexts. And just as the festive meal brings the whole family or congregation together, so transport planning should deliver places that everyone in the community can partake of and connections that allow everyone to have their fill of access to what they need and options to get there.

Finally, towards the end of the Seder, we open the door for the prophet, Elijah, in hopes that he will herald a better future. Likewise, if transport planning is to be a success, then any order or organisation which it brings to the myriad of movement made by people and goods must be future-proofed and help us to a better future. So a transport planning Haggadah might conclude with the prayer of ‘Next year in a sustainable transport paradise!’

#NPPFlaunch – the transport take

IMG_20180305_103852_resized_20180307_084743602After spending the best part of three hours to travel less than 40 miles (don’t you love rail replacement buses with incredibly unrealistic timetables), I found myself in a slightly surreal position among members of the press with a front row seat for a speech from Prime Minister Theresa May.

I was at a conference jointly organised by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) to [re]launch the National Planning Policy Framework. The PM was there to explain how this revised policy would address the national housing crisis. Presumably, I was invited as a long-time RTPI Member and current Chair of their Transport Planning Network.

Not that transport was specifically mentioned by the Prime Minister or Secretary of State, and it was hardly mentioned in the technical sessions or during my casual chats during the long ‘networking’ lunch. I understand it was on at least one slide during the technical session on development locations – my late arrival meant that I had not been able to register for that most popular of sessions – and yet, looking around at people’s badges, I didn’t see job titles suggesting that many transport planners were there to take away any messages that might have been given.

This frustrates me as much as the lack of land use planners at transport events which I have attended in the past year. Transport infrastructure is, more obviously than other types of infrastructure, the warp on which the weft of the built environment is woven. It is the gravy which holds the stew together. Public land, known legally as ‘highways’ that include carriageway, footway, verge, parking spaces, street furniture, and more, make up the majority of what happens in between the private property boundaries, or in other words the ‘buildings’, of our settled, planned places.

And yet the prime minister made far more mention of open space – and preserving the openness of Green Belt land – than she did of the spaces between the 300,000 new houses per year they are planning to build. Perhaps this is because the transport-related changes in the new draft of the NPPF out for consultation are more minor than those relating to the natural environment? It still seemed like there were missed opportunities.

The section in the updated NPPF on sustainable transport is re-structured, with an emphasis on incorporating and engaging with transport planning at the outset, which is encouraging, yet there are no references to the Local Transport Plan or joint spatial plan-making. Some authorities do this anyway, but surely national policy should clearly link the disciplines?

Fortunately, the ill-defined ‘commuter hubs’ proposed in previous consultations are absent, and local discretion is encouraged in identifying places “well served by public transport” to apply density standards. This suggests local transport and land use planners will be given more freedom to decide how to define a transport hub with appropriate capacity and surround it with appropriate development. Unfortunately, local planners are not supported in this endeavour by the barely revised paragraphs in the NPPF on parking. These, whilst less antagonistic about parking charges and enforcement than previously, are more direct with regard to scorning maximum parking standards, despite the success of such policies in the past and the potential for such policies to better provide for a future of electric, potentially autonomous vehicles that are more likely to be shared than owned.

Still, at the conference and in the document, local governments are no longer scapegoats and planners of all types are given more recognition for their ability to create better places. There is even recognition that sustainable transport is about creating “places that are safe, secure and attractive” that “respond to local character and design standards”. And creating such places should be exactly what all planners, transport and land use, are trained to do. There’s still time to do it together a bit more often.

You say Congestion, I say Contention…

‘Transport’ describes the systems and methods for connecting people and places, goods and services, activities and opportunities. We study, plan, fund, and operate transport networks as a means to support economic growth and social interaction. It is a utility, a public good.

Substitute Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for ‘Transport’ in the sentences above, and they still make sense. But ICT is not a direct replacement for transport. For example, increased use of ICT by businesses can result in longer-distance if less frequent business trips, and whilst shoppers may visit fewer stores, more delivery trucks are on our roads carrying goods ordered online.1 More generally, ICT loosens the bonds between commuting options and costs, and work and residential location choices, as the availability of local services, amenities, and social networks become more important in deciding where to live.2 Thus, virtual access complements physical access, and it may be more useful to view ICT as an alternative way to connect, another choice or manifestation of travel behaviour.

Like any mode of transport, the attractiveness and convenience of mobile or fixed ICT for making connections depends upon the quality of infrastructure and services in a particular geographical area. For fixed broadband, for example, digital accessibility depends upon characteristics like what type of connections are available in a given location, the length of any hybrid copper line, how providers manage different connections, and how connections are wired.3

Thus, like any other transport system, ICT networks comprise links and nodes with variable accessibility. Still, differences are worth noting. ICT users find routing much more fluid than do train passengers or car drivers or even cyclists planning how to reach to their destination. Speeds for ICTs are not fixed, but how they will impact on performance is often obscure.

Meanwhile, again like transport systems, demand-side factors can affect capacity. Transport planners may not be aware, but there are peak times for internet activity as much as for travel. OfCom, the ICT regulator in the UK, calls this dynamic “contention”. Basically, contention increases when too many people are trying to access too much data on the network at the same time and broadband download speeds fall from their maximum rates. The scale of contention also varies by type of connection technology, just as the scale of a traffic jam varies by the number of lanes on the carriageway. However, unlike the travel peak that occurs between 7am and 9am, contention is usually at its worst between 8pm and 10pm, due largely to video streaming.4

However, and this is where transport planners should take note, contention can occur at other times. Unexpected spikes in contention have been observed at unexpected times due to mass streaming of sporting and entertainment events that occur outside of ‘prime time’.5

My own research estimates significant contention in response to certain severe weather events, which may indicate an increase in internet activity for work purposes or telecommuting. On public holidays, it may suggest that outings are cancelled in favour of watching movies at home. In either case, such contention offers insight into the flexibility of travel behaviour, and the benefits of that flexibility.

Unlike congestion, which carries the risks of incidents and accidents as well as delays, contention need not discourage remote access. Slow download speeds are unlikely to result in the hours of unproductive time a commuter might experience due to unusual levels of congestion, closures, and cancellations, making ICTs the wisest modes during period of severe weather. True, high winds can knock down power lines as soon as block rail tracks with trees. Floods can cause water to seep into telephone cabinets as well as making roads impassable. Yet ICT infrastructure is generally more resilient to severe weather impacts than transport infrastructure.6 And newer broadband technologies not only deliver higher speeds, but are even more resilient than those that preceded them.

In conclusion, as society moves from the motor age into the digital age, ICT will become ever more important for accessing goods and services and for making connections. Transport planners should be incorporating ICTs into their forecasts and appraising them for their potential return on investment, and their ability, in contrast to other modes, to reduce risk, maintain productivity, improve flexibility, and change travel behaviour.

 

  1. Andreev  P, Salomon, Ilan and Pliskin, Nava. (2010) Review: State of teleactivities. Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Technologies 18: 17. And various other articles!
  2. Lyons G. (2015) Transport’s digital age transition. The Journal of Transport and Land Use 8: 1-19.
  3. Tranos E, Reggiani, A., Nijkamp, P. (2013) Accessibility of cities in the digital economy. Cities 30: 59-67. I am now focusing on fixed broadband technology, although there are also parallels in mobile technology.
  4. (2017) UK Home Broadband Performance. UK fixed-line broadband performance: Research Report. 1-82.
  5. (2014) Infrastructure Report 2014. OfCom, 1-188.
  6. Dawson R. (2016) Chapter 4: Infrastructure. UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017: Evidence Report. Committee on Climate Change, 1-111.

 

Flexible Resolve

Last month I wrote about the importance of evidence. The month before I wrote about how averages can’t always be used as evidence of what society needs from transport planners. And this month I have even more evidence of how little society may reflect averages.

The University Transport Studies Group annual conference was packed full of papers presenting ongoing or recently completed research from senior academics down to PhD students. The standard was high, and much of the work fascinating. A presentation offering an historic overview of urban transport policy by Professor Peter Jones of University College London best elucidated one conclusion I’ve been coming to over the last year – that we need to move from a ‘Predict and Provide’ to a ‘Vision and Validate’ model. To do this, transport planners must work with other sectors to change how their needs for accessibility can be met in order to meet mobility demand sustainably – and flexibly.

Flexibility is key. People’s need for mobility is dependent upon their need to access activities, goods, and services. As I’ve noted before, more and more people already maintain their accessibility in different ways at different times for different purposes. Their patterns of access can be variable instead of habitual. And between different people or groups of people, there is even more heterogeneity.

For example, there was a presentation on the night-time economy at the conference. I can’t say I’d given much thought to these sorts of workers before. Neither, it turns out, have policy-makers, who have focused on access to places of food, drink, and entertainment for the customers, ignoring those who work in these venues, who might require different travel options than those they serve. Never mind other 24-hour services, such as health and social care, or transport and logistics. How can we envision and plan for transport networks that work for these people, as well as the day-time commuter?

Various presentations also investigated whether ‘Mobility as a Service’ was a realistic scenario for the future of transport. There remain many barriers to its implementation and success. Not least if such services cannot match the flexibility of those most likely to sign on. One paper estimated that Mobility as a Service is of most interest to those who have private vehicles, but only drive their cars 1-2 days a week. Yet as noted in previous blogs, do our current methods of surveying and modelling sufficiently capture such regular, but infrequent behaviours that they enable the design of services catering to these people?

Another paper found that by looking at different data sources and then interrogating the results of one source with the results of the other, travel behaviours that seemed regular and even habitual masked variation. Those who travelled along a stretch of road regularly were more likely to vary their time of travel, whilst those who travelled less regularly were less likely to vary their timing. Getting the right messages out to these irregular travellers, who might not be familiar with their location or choices, is challenging. Yet, it is these people who most need advice, if, as another paper pointed out, they feel they can understand and trust that advice.

Trust is also key for all the ‘shared transport’ that we are apparently ever more willing to use in the 21st century, and, without which, many of our visions for a technologically-advanced, but sustainable future fall apart. However, to note the topic of one final presentation, we would do well to remember that not just vehicles, but roads too are a shared resource. And we don’t always trust each other to use even those flexibly and appropriately!

In conclusion, let’s hope for a New Year that brings not only transport research and policy development that supports flexibility and variation rather than habits and averages, but also a resolve to be a bit more flexible ourselves.

 

Evidentially, my dear Watson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything but Average

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is the future for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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