Broadband in Extreme Demand

Resilience is often described by a number of other words beginning with ‘R’. Resistance or Robustness are two. These refer to infrastructure that is designed or an activity that is organised to avoid risk and withstand the expected impact or disruption. Redundancy and Replication are two more. These refer to equivalent or at least parallel alternatives that enable the same outcomes, even if not by the same means. In transport, it could be an alternative route or another mode that still enables access to the same destination. Finally, there is Response and Recovery, how quickly action is taken and life returns to either its previous ‘normal’ or stabilises into a new ‘normal’.

As I explored in my recently awarded doctoral thesis, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have a major role to play in resilience to severe weather events. Broadband networks are often more robust than transport infrastructure and access to some activities such as work can be replicated online. Opportunities for communication are also enhanced to speed recovery.

Yet the ability of ICT to play these roles may be constrained by the interactions between supply and demand, availability and quality. Broadband supply and availability can be limited if there are not the physical connections to support superfast services, or certain providers simply do not operate. Yet even where the supply is available, broadband quality is affected by increased demand – something the industry calls ‘contention’ or slowdown in busy periods. Usually this happens due to entertainment, and the daily peak tends to be in the evenings, when streaming video content is most popular. Other times, such as during major sporting events, capacity can be managed to some extent by Internet Service Providers.

In contrast, my research was designed to test if contention could be detected when internet activities are in unusually high demand because household members are unexpectedly home due to extreme weather events. Thus, I analysed data comprising 5 years of broadband speeds, from 2012-2016, in England and Wales, which was provided by Speedchecker Ltd, a private company that allows internet users to check their own broadband upload / download speeds, and stores every speed-check with a timestamp and geolocation. Using multilevel modelling to control for supply side variation, I regressed download speeds against daily weather records to assess how more severe weather affects contention experienced at the neighbourhood level. My results confirmed that winter weather and storm-level winds have significant, albeit small, negative effects on broadband speeds.

Yet these effects are likely to have been an underestimate – sensitivity testing suggested greater contention in subsets of the data designed to control for uneven growth in average broadband speeds or exclude spatial extremes in service. There are also divergences between weather parameters and weather impacts, with the latter dependent upon confounding variables like what type of transport infrastructure is affected and the length of advance warning. Also, the noise in this big data source and the subtleties of the assessment meant it was not easy to identify who was most likely to avoid travel risks and work from home during severe weather or where the most telecommuting activity occurs.

In contrast, we now have an ongoing disruption where everyone who can has been told to use ICT in order to be more resilient, avoid a very different type of risk, and replicate their productive activities as much as possible until we can recover. How is the quality and level of service of broadband in the UK coping with what is likely to be the most extreme level of demand it has ever experienced? I’m planning to find out!

Doris to Dennis

First, I want to acknowledge that I am lucky. Storm Dennis has done nothing worse to me and mine than drive my kids a little stir crazy and delay my train journey home from work the past couple of evenings.

But it has also given me a strange feeling of having come full circle. For just less than 3 years ago, on 23 February 2017, there was Storm Doris.

Storm Doris also had little direct impact on me, my family, or my property. I remember having to carry my then two and a half year old son the last 100 yards to his childminder because the road was blocked by a fallen tree, but that was it. I didn’t commute by train very often at the time.

Instead, I went home to sit down at my laptop and continue work on my doctoral research. But with a difference.

After about 6 months of reviewing the literature for gaps I could fill, studying methodologies that I wasn’t sure I would apply, and chasing down dead ends for data I could not access, I suddenly had a real-time opportunity. Storm Doris meant a case study. It meant data. It meant my first foray into empirical research, and eventually my first peer-reviewed publication in the Royal Meteorological Society’s journal Weather.

Three years later, I have completed my PhD, passed my viva, and, just this week, ordered hard copies of my thesis – one for the University library in Birmingham and one for my bookshelf at home. My little story about Storm Doris comprises the content of Chapter 5. Thus I have travelled from Storm Doris to Storm Dennis.

And yet, perhaps because climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of severe weather events, these aren’t the only storms that are relevant to the trajectory of my career in transport research.

Over 20 years ago, as an undergraduate, I took a seminar on environmental and climate science, and chose to write a paper investigating the likely impacts of future hurricane storm surges on the New York City subway-metro system. It was my first foray into a transport-related topic, and in 2012, following Hurricane Sandy, I learned that my paper, and the more sophisticated research of the professor that had taken that seminar, had gone from speculation and prediction to become an unwelcome reality.

Unwelcome, but not unenlightening. Hurricane Sandy taught public authorities lessons about managing resilience and emergency planning. For me, it highlighted the importance of research. Doing it, disseminating it, learning from it before reality strikes. Perhaps it even planted in me the seeds of interest in returning to academia, to research, which then bloomed a few years later when I spotted an advertisement for a doctoral researcher who would investigate a topic that included both transport and extreme weather.

Thus, although I was a PhD student for six months before Storm Doris keeping busy with plenty of preparatory work, at some level, Doris marked the start of my personal investigation into the topic. Now, it seems that Dennis marks the end. Yet I somehow doubt it is the last time a storm will take an auspicious position in my transport career.

A Future of Transport Equity?

I’ve been thinking about transport equity this month. I don’t mean transport poverty, although I’ve read some interesting literature on that too recently. But transport poverty is now and transport equity, or rather inequity, is what we are building into the future of mobility through our investment and policy decisions.

Three areas where we might be steering towards future transport inequity have been on my mind.

The first is electric vehicles. Many see a transition to electric vehicles as the solution to a low-carbon future. Yet my current research explores how mass adoption of plug-in electric vehicles might be delivered when at least a third of car drivers have no ability to park and charge their vehicles at their homes. Many of these people, who may be living in flats or small terraces or rented accommodation without private parking are unlikely to be able to afford the purchase price of battery electric vehicles anyway. Yet even if costs come down and the second-hand market grows, their lack of driveways and garages mean they would still fail to benefit from the ultra-low refuelling costs of slow-charging overnight using home electricity. There are solutions, and we are researching their social sustainability, but it is hard to see how state subsidies for private electric vehicle purchase will lead us to an equitable future of mobility. (Never mind the implications for congestion, urban environments, lithium mining…)

The second transport, or, more accurately, access equity issue that I’ve been mulling over is online access. Online access was a big part of my doctoral research, and as I defended my thesis this month, the external examiner acknowledged that I’d mentioned the equity aspect of online access, but questioned whether I addressed it directly enough. Indeed, the more I think about my analysis of the potential resilience and sustainability of telecommuting as an option to access work activities during transport disruption, the more I realise that it is an option for far too few, and those few tend to be among the more privileged. It does not have to be that way. Changes in government and corporate policy to promote computer skills and allow remote and autonomous working could enable telecommuting to be available to many more sectors of society. But there must also be investment in infrastructure that delivers both availability and quality online access to all – and I’m not sure the current preoccupation with 5G allows that.

Finally, it’s been hard to ignore recent headlines on HS2. Whatever you think about the political agenda or ballooning budget, a new high speed rail service will mainly serve relatively wealthy commuters, as, like telecommuting, rail commuters tend to be found among those with higher incomes. Especially if they’re travelling to benefit from London’s already bloated job market. One can’t help but agree with those who suggest the money might better be spent on local transport, reduced rail fares, or any number of other things. Unless there’s plenty in the coffers for both HS2 and the rest of the wish list, you’d be hard pressed to argue that this is socially-progressive infrastructure investment.

In conclusion, I am not against high-speed rail, 5G or other advanced information and communication technologies, nor electric vehicles and charging systems. Yet if this is all that policy is promoting or institutional actors are investing in, it will leave large portions of society behind and create the transport and access poverty of the future. Instead, I’m advocating for a bit more attention to transport equity when planning the future of mobility and accessibility.

Trains of Thought

First things first. This is not a blog about the general election or Brexit – others have done that. Besides, I write about transport planning, and transport issues were barely mentioned in the news programmes I saw, the articles I read, and the leaflets through my door. Not even Heathrow expansion, which tends to be favoured in this Berkshire constituency, which is far enough away to avoid any bulldozers, but close enough to house many of the airport’s employees. I think it was mentioned during the climate change debate on Channel 4, but any statements were eclipsed by the melting Earth sculptures that stood in for the two main party leaders.

So if not Brexit or the election, then what topical transport news story is there to comment on? How about train fares? Every December, the train operating companies announce their planned January fare rises, often alongside bulletins about Christmas engineering works, and major timetable changes. Impotent outcry regularly ensues. Partly this is in response to the ever increasing costs of travelling on what is already one of the most expensive networks in Europe. But this is far from the only frustration.

The fares pay for a service that often is far from comfortable, punctual, or perfect. And at no time of year is it more obvious than in the run up to the fare rise. Having recently started commuting by train again, although thankfully not every day, it feels like everything that can go wrong on the rail network has done so in the last 6 weeks. Which is, maybe, (shh!) just a bit like the general election campaign and the political hot topics which the Conservative manifesto studiously avoided.

First of course, there is the strike on Southwest Trains. Its cause cuts to the heart of the nation’s economic anxiety. Once secure jobs, in this case of train guards, are at risk of being lost, not until the next time the economy grows, but forever. Whether the decline of secure, well-paid work, particularly for those without higher education, is blamed on austerity, automation, globalisation or migration is the subject of many political fall-outs between friends and family. But there is much less discussion around how jobs might be re-framed or renewed, or how in-work, economic security might be redistributed. For example, what if the guards’ role was redefined as customer service? Train travellers could use a bit of that.

Second, there are the normal weather problems this time of year that cause delays and disruptions, signalling failures, and slow track speeds. Leaves on the line, high winds, trees on the line, train crew unable to get to work. As climate change increases the frequency and severity of storms, such problems also occur with greater frequency and severity. Never mind heat buckling in the summer. Even after the events at Dawlish in February 2014, which cut off the whole of Cornwall and most of Devon from train services for eight weeks, Extinction Rebellion and school children have highlighted the completely inadequate levels of interest and investment in climate change policy for mitigation or adaptation. We could do a lot more to make sure our rail network is part of the solution.

Finally, problems of trespass, and then, last week, a fatality on the line. The cracks in our social infrastructure are wider than ever and people are falling through. The lyrics of Runaway Train by Soul Asylum play in my head, a pop song that made me cry when I first heard it on the radio. Mental health, shelter, food, people who care about you – they should be for life, not just for Christmas. We do need more unity, more governance in this country, but it won’t happen if vulnerability is stigmatised and equity is worthy only of lip service. Can we turn our Runaway Train into the Polar Express? Optimism is in short supply this holiday season, but maybe, just maybe, we can find a way to reignite our belief in our power for positive, progressive change.

Start at your Destination

This year’s Transport Planning Network Conference was all about visioning. Which is the process by which a desirable future is imagined and then you work backwards to find how you can get there.

But starting at your destination is tricky. People carry a lot of baggage from the past and present. It’s difficult to think about what you would like to see, when you’re constantly feeling the pressure of what you think you could actually accomplish. Even if such thinking may hold you back.

Indeed, if you have not been trained on images of Freiburg and Copenhagen and Dutch transport planning, it can be difficult to ‘see’ the vision in the first place, even if pockets of it are right around the corner. Our first keynote speaker, Professor Emeritus Phil Goodwin noted that not only vested interests and political resistance are holding us back from visions of pedestrian paradise. People in their communities are often so car dependent that they may not be able to see any viable alternative for a low-car future of mobility that will allow them to fully participate in economic, civic, and social life.

Which is why one of our other speakers, James Gleave, asked us to think about what powers transport and planning professionals are willing to give up to help people dig through the practical, cultural, and social influences that affect their choices so that they can develop, define, and perhaps even deliver their own visions for their own communities. In such a scenario, transport planners might become more than regulators and legislators or even funders. They could take roles as leaders and educators, stewards and customers, negotiators and reformers.

And these suggestions fit in well with the other challenges to developing a future of mobility that is visionary.

Keith Mitchell noted that despite the push to prioritise housing numbers over places, the private sector is already looking at what other roles they should fulfil to deliver better visions. Tackling climate change and social value are gaining prominence in their tenders for work.

Leo Murray noted that technology, and particularly EVs, cannot alone solve the climate emergency. By some calculations, a reduction of 60% in vehicle miles travelled is required by 2030, and it won’t happen without a vision – and different roles for planning professionals to make sure that vision is shared.

Besides, even where legislation and policy support already exist, from the Climate Change Act to legislation and policy on equity and inclusion, as Joanna Ward noted, it may be the lack of diversity and awareness of different access needs among decision-makers which is perpetuating biases.

Our second keynote speaker, Lynda Addison OBE, summed up the problem perfectly. Not only do we need to start with a vision, which is our destination, but that collaborative vision should be based on the premise that ‘Transport is the solution, not the problem’. Then, instead of transport being something to mitigate through the land use planning process, sustainable travel choice are part of the vision we are working towards through the spatial planning process. Plans and planning applications can respond to the vision through inter-disciplinary evidence gathering and iterative thinking.

In other words, start at your destination, your vision, then work backwards, but your path will not be linear, but circular. Ask: What exists already that fits the vision? What opportunities or obstacles sit between where you are now and where you want to be? What actions can you or your organisation take and what actions must be taken by others, by people working at a larger or smaller scale? We asked questions of this sort in the final workshop of the event.

And we discovered a few answers. Not all, as an iterative process means going back and forth between the vision and those questions, not just as a small group of transport planners, but as wider communities. Yet we certainly learned a few things. One of which is how difficult it is to start at your destination!

A New Plan for Parking?

I started a new job, with a new research project last week. I’m working for the Transport Studies Unit at Oxford with public and private sector partners to investigate the potential of ‘Park and Charge’ business models. Ostensibly, therefore, it is about electric vehicles and the role they must play in achieving future, carbon-free mobility.

But I’m much more excited about the parking bit of the brief.

Basically, the premise is ‘that at least 30% of households in the UK lack access to off-street charging or home charging’, or, in other words, lack private, off-street parking for their own safe, plug-in connection. These people may be in terraces or flats or homes with only on-street parking or communal parking without allocated spaces. They may or may not already use a car, but either way, if they want to buy into the electric car revolution, they need an alternative ‘home-charging’ solution. My initial research suggests that home charging availability is one of the biggest barriers to electric car adoption, even as cost comes down and range / performance / battery life goes up.

The proposal? Develop a ‘park and charge’ business model for ‘home’ charging points in public car parks. The key point is that this is a plan for not just charging, but managing and pricing parking space.

Let me take a step back to explain why I think this is exciting. As a young, transport planning consultant 15 years ago, my job included helping local governments ‘decriminalise’, manage, and value their parking. Legislation had been passed to enable local authorities outside London to decide to take responsibility for on-street parking enforcement from the police, even issue and collect fines. However, they could not enforce anything unless they also published Traffic Regulation Orders and installed all the appropriate signs and lines that accompany them. The discretion to decide if someone had left their car in a dangerous or obstructive position was still a police matter. As police officers usually have better things to do, anywhere with no lines and signs remain a free-for-all. So any parking management had to be designed, agreed, and implemented.

What did this mean? I spent a lot of time walking the streets, measuring the lengths and widths available for parking, confirming adjacent land uses, and writing detailed descriptions of which bays would be designated for residents permit parking or limited waiting or pay and display or shared use. And where there should be yellow lines and no parking. Many of these streets were narrow, with housing that had no possibility of off-street parking. Some areas were quite wealthy and households had two or more vehicles on street. Some streets were located near employment or the local train station. There was a lot of competition for parking and a lot of complaints about what was fair and equitable as we designed residents’ parking schemes.

Yet last year I met someone from one of the towns where I had worked who said how much their parents and their parents’ neighbours loved having the residents’ parking. They pay for a permit. They are not guaranteed a space. But managed space is still better than a free-for-all, and attitudes have changed about the value that space has, even for parking cars.

To bring it back to today, climate change targets mean that it is necessary to not only accelerate the switch to electric vehicles, but also to reduce the number of private vehicles on our roads. Managing parking and planning where space should be given to cars as well as to which type of cars (electric, shared…) means addressing both these challenges. So the Park and Charge research project could be a parking space in the right direction.

Siloed Sustainability

Sustainability is all about securing, if not a better future, than at least one that is not a whole lot worse for our children and subsequent generations.

This ambition is usually described as having three pillars: Society, Economy, and Environment. It is not unusual to hear that one of these pillars has been given undue priority or another has been unfairly ignored.

But in the last couple of years, I have become aware of another aspect of siloed sustainability. Not three pillars but two challenges, which seem to rarely be considered or addressed by the same people or research. These are the twin climate challenges of mitigation and adaptation.

In transport circles, you might hear about them in discussions of infrastructure resilience or reducing car use. But you are unlikely to hear these discussions in the same room, around the same table.

This is a problem because many agree that the only way the transport sector can really tackle either the climate emergency or emergencies caused by climate change is by highlighting as many ‘co-benefits’ of sustainable (and resilient?!) transport as possible. For example, switching to active travel modes like walking and cycling not only reduces carbon emissions, but is also good for your health and your wallet.

Yet who asks if active travel has a resilience co-benefit or can be promoted as an adaptation measure? True, it seems unlikely that walking or cycling will be attractive options if the weather is too hot or too wet much more often.

However, that is too simplistic a view. Integration of land use and transport planning is key to increasing active travel, with more local service provision. Reducing the distance residents have to travel to access essential services during transport disruption makes communities more resilient because, maybe not during the storm, but when faced with post-storm flooding, walking to a local food shop or pharmacy is probably more practical than driving to such facilities further away.

Yet how often is such a scenario taken into account by those making policy, strategy, and decisions on the sustainability of transport proposals or land use planning developments? And what tools do highways teams have at their disposal to help communities without local services maintain accessibility when they have to close a road after flooding has occurred? The unsatisfactory answers to these questions are a manifestation of siloed sustainability planning.

Another example is the promotion of online access as a sustainable travel alternative. Transport researchers enthusiastically investigated the potential of ICT to reduce the need to travel, and thus reduce the environmental, economic, and social impacts of travel, including congestion, carbon emissions, and severance. However, there have been some disappointing results. Online shopping increases the vehicle mileage required for deliveries. Regular telecommuters tend to live further from their place of employment and make more trips for purposes other than commuting, resulting in only minimal reductions in their travel.

Yet these analyses do not consider the potential of online access to provide a resilient alternative to travelling. Information and communication technology infrastructure is often newer, more robust in extreme weather, and has more redundancy built in due to competition between providers than traditional road and rail networks.

Thus, a proactive approach to integrating online and transport access options would help communities adapt during extreme weather and give them a greater ability to continue to interact socially, maintain productivity, and respond in real time to an emergency. Only the siloed nature of planning for sustainability leaves such integration until the last minute and results in a reactive and piecemeal approach.

Therefore, just as we try to ‘join up’ our thinking on the three pillars of sustainability in order to build a holistic perspective, let’s also not forget to break down the invisible silos between adaptation and mitigation. It will help us all do our jobs better and deliver a better future.