Time is of the essence

Come gather ’round people Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters Around you have grown
And accept it that soon You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’ – Bob Dylan, 1964

He wasn’t talking about climate change, but the lyrics fit today’s challenges more literally those in the 1960’s. Time is of the essence.

Yet time is a tricky concept. From children to philosophers, we grapple with its relativity and its measured pace, its fluidity and its standardisation.

When I started my PhD, I could conceive of the brevity of three years more easily than colleagues for whom it was a larger fraction of their lives. And yet, I understood that it was long enough to require intermediate deadlines and effort if I was to keep up with professional networks. It was also long enough to not be distracted by thinking about what I might do next, at least for a while.

Now that I have months, rather than years left, the pressure is mounting to bring all my research together into a coherent thesis, whilst still juggling balls of family, publications, job applications, professional commitments and more. And the urgency I feel every school holidays as my work becomes the interruption rather than the main event seems less likely to dissipate this time within a handful or two of child-free week-days.

Thus, three years has slipped by, as I expected it would. But I feel prepared for the next challenge, able to swim, not sink, partly because I know time is of the essence, and I can manage it accordingly.

A similar challenge faces local authorities who have declared a climate emergency. The science says that a mere decade remains to change course, and in the timescale of local government, that is brief indeed. Particularly with all the political and budgetary challenges.

Yet local governments also have the power to set intermediate targets based on locally specific data and to commit to exchanging lessons learned and best practice. They too must realise that to be overwhelmed or distracted by what happens next is counterproductive. If they are prepared, if they work with their citizens and hold central government and corporations to account, then they have more power than they think. And they might find that by treating time as an essence, what they do now will make the future easier to manage.

So what sort of intermediate targets should be set? What actions taken? Local authorities can utilise new data sources to understand their carbon emissions and their future capacity as they have in the West Midlands. They might learn to think backwards from their policy position as proposed in my last blog.

True, options like regulating auto-manufacturers or changing the motor taxing regime are not within local authority’s gifts. But land use planning is, and local policy can hold developers to account. Local governments have greater influence over bus operators following the Bus Services Act. They have the powers to manage parking, which can raise funds for other transport improvements, such as filtered permeability where there are traditional street patterns and new links between cul-de-sacs for pedestrians and cyclists only.

However, their power comes from their communities, so it is time to call for people to ‘gather round’ and realise time is of an essence. It won’t be easy and if the questions are about transport and movement, then the traditional car-centric, loudest voices might dominate. Instead, if the questions are about forming a vision of the places people want to live in and the activities they want to do in those places and the solutions are framed in terms of ‘how’ rather than ‘what’, a manageable future might take shape where we can swim, not sink.

 

Inverting the Intervention

Problem: Way too many cars. Car dominance. Car dependency. Congestion. Carbon emissions. Pollution. Obesity. Unattractive places…

Solution: Increase use of alternative modes – walking, cycling, and public transport.

Approach: ‘Smarter Choices’ – basically, persuade people that alternative modes are better than driving.

Result: Slowed the pace at which things got worse.

Inspirational pessimism: Transport planners have failed. But maybe we need to seize the day and be radical, change the framing, consider that not all growth is good.

New Approach: Invert the intervention.

Example: Rather than asking how we can make public transport more appealing by making it more like driving, we ask how do we make car travel less appealing and level the playing field with public transport?

Principle 1: Cars should be no more, nor less convenient than public transport. They should not offer door to door service other than in exceptional circumstances.

How it could work: Build new developments without drive-ways or private parking, prohibit the replacement of gardens with driveways, and support the return of existing private parking space to gardens or residential extensions. The default position where no road markings exist would ban not only pavement, but also kerbside parking. Instead, designated parking areas would be provided an average of 400m away from residential properties. These might be placed in spaces created by selective road mouth closures and filtered permeability schemes. They might be located alongside other transport and complimentary services in ‘mobility hubs’, which could include electric charging points. Loading, dropping off and picking up would only be permitted on a limited basis or on application, ensuring that many streets remain car-free or low traffic even if driverless vehicles become the norm.

Principle 2: The use of cars should be pay-as-you-go, rather than primarily up-front or sunk cost models.

How it could work: The cost of driving should be paid per trip / per mile. Part of this cost should be a tax that replaces fuel tax (which would disappear with electric vehicles anyway) and annual road taxes. Part could be a fare if car club style operators took responsibility for purchasing and maintaining the vehicles. If anyone chose to own a car directly, they would have to pay the purchase and maintenance costs themselves on top of the per trip / per mile tax, at a rate that puts ownership at a premium, whilst there would also be restrictions on space within the designated areas for cars that were not shared.

Principle 3: Cars and public transport would each have a fair share of advantages and disadvantages depending upon the user group, journey purpose, and destination.

How it could work: Public transport should be cheaper and more convenient for some journeys, particularly commuting and shopping along dense corridors and to city centres, as efforts would continue to improve its frequency and quality of service. Cars might be the more efficient choice for a family group travelling together or to access more isolated workplaces or dispersed activities.

Next Steps: Even with a fair wind and a sympathetic political climate, neither of which is available at the moment, getting the above principles accepted as policy would be difficult. And implementation requires research to model what levels of car provision, distribution, typology, and space requirements are appropriate.

I haven’t done any of this modelling. I’m starting with the policy implications and working backwards. We want to reduce car use and dependency and the externalities from both. Past interventions have done little, so let’s try inverting our interventions.

Preparing Potential

Early on in my search for case studies of how people adapt to transport disruption during to severe weather events, I realised that my research project is as much about the potential for resilient travel behaviour change as it is about revealed travel behaviour change.

Some people take evasive action to avoid risk on the roads or rails, others do not. That’s revealed behaviour. But whether travellers’ reactions to storms, snow, wind and floods is due to conscious choice or pre-existing constraint, that’s about their potential.

Therefore, my project was as much about identifying the potential to encourage and support resilient travel behaviour change in response to transport disruption during severe weather as it was about describing behaviours already prevalent.

Then, at a conference last week, I learned that there are academic terms and concepts to describe this potential: capability and motility and eudaemonic wellbeing – at which point I’ve probably already lost most reading this blog. But let me explain.

Whereas transport planners usually view travel behaviour in terms of choices made because of the utility (cost, time, convenience, comfort) of transport options, this perspective looks at choices in terms of whether the traveller has the capability to make that choice, a question that considers the individual’s physical and mental abilities or constraints, their skills in navigation, their disposition to travel, their perceptions of safety and inclusion (or not).

The traditional approach then leads to planning for mobility, mainly by trying to increase modal choice, encourage modal shift, offer more services, or build more infrastructure. Motility, meanwhile, tries to take account of all the resources that make access choices possible, not just the transport ones. Therefore, there is more consideration of land use as well as transport, of past experiences and transport history, as well as present travel patterns, of levels of confidence as well as levels of competence.

As a result, a narrow focus on the ‘hedonic’ wellbeing of travellers – whether they have been helped to move quickly and reliably from A to B by whichever mode – is replaced by a broad mission of helping travellers fulfil their potential or achieve greater ‘eudaemonic wellbeing’ through inclusive motility.

All of this fits neatly with the goal of successful adaptation to increasingly extreme weather and the transport disruption it causes. For although infrastructure and services can be adapted and made more resilient, they are unlikely to be so well adapted as to maintain a high level of reliability or speed during severe weather events. Thus, measures of utility, mobility, and hedonic wellbeing are all likely to fall short.

Meanwhile, studies have demonstrated that people adapt better if they have experience with disruption, are familiar with additional accessibility choices (including online access), and if they have more time to adapt (e.g. because they have more warning or disruption is longer term). In other words, people respond more resiliently if they can boast of greater access capabilities, more motility, and more time to achieve their potential. Which, if they do, would probably make them feel more eudaemonic well-being even when things aren’t going to plan, if for no other reason than that they have avoided getting stuck on a motorway or a train platform for hours.

Conclusion? My project is about identifying who changes their travel behaviour during severe weather and how they avoid risk. But it is also about translating those evidenced behaviours into ideas for policies and measures which prepare more people and groups for severe weather, increase their potential to respond resiliently, and give them greater capability, motility, and eudemonic wellbeing.

 

Credit not Commodity

It is admittedly difficult to find many take-home messages from a departmental conference of doctoral researchers who are all studying topics very different from yours. However, there was one notable exception, a completely new concept that offered plenty to ponder on. Namely, that the majority of money circulating in our economy and in our wallets is fundamentally credit, not a commodity.

What does that mean? The research was looking at local currencies, their success and failure, and suggested that failure could largely be attributed to how the scheme interpreted and applied the social construct that is money. In particular, many assume money is a commodity, a representation of something tangible with value that is used for exchange. This may be how currencies were originally envisioned. I’m not an expert and my colleague didn’t go into the history. However, standard currencies have long been divorced from anything tangible and the vast majority is credit created by banks. Thus, if standard currencies are not commodities; then new, local currencies cannot successfully be sold and circulated to individuals or businesses as such.

Instead, local currencies should be seen as the representation of credit similar to the real state of national currencies. That is, money represents future value not yet achieved, or the potential for something tangible to be created rather than something that already exists. In this framework, it makes much more sense to accept local currencies within a local network, where businesses and supply chains can trust that they will see something tangible in the future or realise valuable outcomes in their local area.

So what does this all have to do with transport? Transport is often viewed as a commodity, the sum of its assets. That’s part of the logic behind the ideology that says building roads and other big, shiny infrastructure will stimulate economic growth, whilst funding operational costs, maintenance, and demand management is often undervalued and not seen as an ‘investment’. Commoditisation prioritises quantity of assets over quality of service, and tends to be popular at the more strategic, abstract, national level of politics.

Yet if transport were viewed more as a credit system, then perhaps the value would be in how people use infrastructure. Just as a local currency is successful if it circulates more, transport infrastructure’s success should be measured by how efficiently it is used, how much it is valued by local people, whether it provides quality services. If transport were viewed as a credit system, as investment in the future, then far greater value would be assigned to proper maintenance and management, to spending on providing a better quality of service and on interventions that encourage modes that serve more people in less space. Transport delivery would be more local, bottom-up.

Okay, the commodity / credit dichotomy might be tenuous when applied to transport networks, but what about transport spend? Then we’re looking at capital (commodity) investment versus operating costs. Operating costs are rarely seen as investment, but whilst they may not buy or build an asset, they can increase or create value within the existing system. And they can be credited with having a tangible impact on the sustainability of the public realm and local well-being.

Striking a Balance

I’ve been thinking a lot about balance lately, personal and professional.

As I near the end of my time as a doctoral researcher, I have been wondering what I will do next. I don’t expect as much flexibility as I have now, what a male colleague called ‘work-leisure’ balance, where I mainly work from home, enabling me to walk my children to school and cook home-made dinners. It has been a privilege to have such extensive freedom when managing my time, even if I wouldn’t term domestic / parental responsibilities as leisure. So when I’m no longer a PhD student with so much flexibility, I hope I can still strike a balance.

I also want to find a job that makes good use of both my previous professional experience and my more recently acquired data science and analytical skills. If I can find something that combines research with its application to policy / society, that would be career progression. A job that challenges me and one that values what I have to offer is how I want to strike a balance.

Such a job should involve working towards a more sustainable future. Climate change is inevitably part of that work, as a crisis we must address urgently (12 years!?) for our environmental, economic, and social futures. In the transport sector, some feel this requires a moratorium on flying and driving. Yet there are economic and, more importantly, social consequences of such a policy, particularly in the short term when technology is not yet available or affordable, which mean it is not something I can imminently or unconditionally support.

I would not want a world without intercontinental travel. As I have argued in this blog before, there are many ‘world citizens’ like me, with family oceans apart. Like immigrants of by-gone days, should we never see, or more importantly, touch our family or past again? Should our children never meet their overseas relatives in person? Should the next generation of young people be discouraged from travelling and forming international relationships, despite the values of diversity and tolerance they bring to society? And that’s to say nothing of refugees and asylum seekers who are forced from their homes. Whether by war or natural disaster, is it our vision of the future that they have no hope of ever going back to re-build, or be isolated from their new community until they do go back rather than form their own international relationships?

Even the opportunities car travel offers should not be discounted. Whilst planners like me want to help shape our villages and towns and cities so that no one has to drive in them or between them, can we truly plan for all interactions so that they can be served online, by public transport or active travel? Hopefully we can get closer to the ideal over time, but until then do we expect people to abandon activities or relationships because, perhaps, another part of their lives has changed, such as their job or family structure, forcing relocation or different travel patterns? I remember once explaining to an environmental activist that it is simply not always possible for people to live and work in the same location, particularly when there are multiple workers in the same household. And travel for social purposes is often even more complex.

Thus, at least in the transport sector, I see contradictions between being environmentally and socially sustainable. And whilst I can envisage, and hopefully participate in achieving through my work, a future where governance, policy, community, and technology come together to find win-win solutions and overturn these contradictions, this is not the reality, at least in the short term. Rather, by reducing, adjusting, advocating, and even in some cases offsetting, I hope, as with my personal and professional life, to strike a balance.

Translating Trends from the National Travel Survey (UK)

Britain’s National Travel Survey (NTS) has been analysed in depth to show a decline in car trips and mileage, both per head and in absolute terms. Despite job growth, commuter trips are down, again resulting in a reduction of vehicle mileage. The youngest cohorts are applying for drivers’ licences and becoming car owners later and in lower numbers than the previous generations. So can we declare a major victory for transport demand management – battles still to be won, but a turning point reached?
However, it’s not all good news. Other studies of the data from the NTS show less multi-modality, that the fewer trips for purposes like shopping, errands, and visiting friends are mainly due to a reduction in short distance trips, and that the reduction in trips may also indicate underemployment and less human interaction. So are the trends an indication of good or bad things to come in terms of transport demand management, resilience, and healthy, sustainable lifestyles?
The NTS may not be able to tell us. Every year, a large, clustered, random sample of households, and the individuals within them are surveyed, including an extensive interview on their travel behaviour and a seven-day travel diary, to record trip purposes, distances, travel times, and modes. There are a few questions about internet access, including frequency of working from home and online shopping, but the catalogue of online activities is general and incomplete. There is also only one day of data collected on short walks, defined as those under 1 mile. Finally, although the sample is determined by geography, there is little geographical context in terms of land uses, public realm, or environmental quality.
Naturally, the potential for trends to result in a more sustainable and better quality of life is very much dependent upon all types of accessibility, including online or within a mile of one’s home. And understanding the geographic characteristics of neighborhoods, such as population density, pollution, mix of uses and services available, to name a few, is essential if planners, policy-makers, and other professionals want to make more places that will encourage healthy, sustainable travel and lifestyles. Still, the NTS data does offer perspectives of the potential trends might have if some of these other aspects are in place.
For example, my research shows that rail commuting and telecommuting are growing (whilst car and bus commuting are falling), and that those who say they regularly telecommute (at least once a week) are also more likely than other groups to say their regular commute mode is rail. They are more likely to record more short walk trips per person than the general population, and most of these trips are for purposes other than commuting. Finally, they take only slightly fewer trips (by all modes) per person than those who do not regularly telecommute, but more of those trips are for business, escort trips, or errands, and to participate in sport or recreational activities.

To put these trends together, more people have the opportunity to work from home more regularly using ICT than ever before, and more of them also take trains and walk in their local neighbourhood than the general population. Such people also make a similar number of journeys, but for non-commuting purposes. Thus, telecommuting needs to be encouraged (or telecommuters encouraged to live) in mixed-use neighbourhoods with plenty of activities and services locally so that online work access can be balanced with healthy, sustainable pedestrian access to as many other activities and services as possible. The NTS sample sizes and information about local land uses might not be sufficient to determine if this is already happening, but there is definitely enough data to say that, with vision and planning, it can.

Some references of studies using the NTS (there are also a few academic articles if interested!):
Chatterjee K, Goodwin, P, Schwanen, T, Clark, B, Jain, J, Melia, S, Middleton, J, Plyushteva, A, Ricci, M, Santos, G, Stokes, G. (2018) Young People’s Travel – What’s Changed and Why? Review and Analysis. Report to Department for Transport. UWE Bristol, UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/young-peoples-travel-whats-changed-and-why.
Headicar P, Stokes, G. (2016) On the Move 2: Making sense of travel trends in England 1995-2014: Technical Report. Independent Transport Commission. http://www.theitc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/OTM2-Technical-Report-FINAL.pdf.
Le Vine S, Polak, J, Humphrey, A. (2017) Commuting Trends in England 1988-2015. Department for Transport. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/commuting-trends-in-england-1988-to-2015.
Marsden G, Dales, J, Jones, P, Seagriff, E, Spurling, N. (2018) All Change? The future of travel demand and the implications for policy and planning. The First Report of the Commission on Travel Demand. http://www.demand.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/FutureTravel_report_final.pdf.
Stillwell D, Cummings, J, Slocombe, M. (eds). (2018) Analyses from the National Travel Survey: Statistical Release. Department for Transport. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/674568/analysis-from-the-national-travel-survey.pdf.
Stillwell D, Kelly, A, Slocombe, M. (eds). (2019) Analyses from the National Travel Survey: Statistical Release. Department for Transport. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/775032/2019-nts-commissioned-analyses.pdf.

Subjectively Assessed Places

I was reading up recently on ‘objectively assessed need’ – for housing, not transport. Our land use planning colleagues in England who work in policy development at local government level start their plan-making by calculating something called ‘objectively assessed need’. The number of court cases related to housing allocations since this calculation became national policy 8 years ago suggests that it is not necessarily ‘objective’. Indeed, even with a new ‘standard method’ introduced by the revised National Planning Policy Framework, I would argue that it is still very much subjective. Yet that is only a problem because of claims to objectivity in the first place. This is a problem long faced by transport modellers, and which, for both, could be overcome by embracing subjectivity of place.

But let me take a step back. Objectively assessed need is intended to be a transparent methodology to tackle the lack of housing, house-building, and affordability in the country by calculating how many houses need to be built, ideally within, local planning authorities over set time periods. The idea is that this calculation should take place at the outset, before considering any other matters, including land availability. The basis of the calculation in the new standard method is national demographic statistics that have already been pre-processed into ‘household formation’ forecasts, which is then boosted by a ratio of the affordability of local housing stock compared to local income. It is the ‘predict and provide’ of housing.

Yet just as studies have shown that population growth, economic growth, and fuel prices are no longer (if they ever were) directly linked to traffic growth, so household formation and house prices do not appear the best indication of how many new houses people need. Mainly because all these things are taken out of their spatial context. Demographic and economic trends affect urban and rural places differently. The availability and quality of technology and its future uncertainties differ by region. Accessibility to local services and living costs might have a greater influence than housing affordability on household formation or its suppression, never mind car dependency, commuting patterns, and the availability and quality of existing residential stock. A standard methodology is hardly likely to be equally and objectively accurate in every place.

Furthermore, even if and perhaps because these various input statistics are for use at the level of the responsible local authority for planning or transport, subjectivity is unavoidable before the analysis even begins. Local authorities and their administrative boundaries were determined by history and politics, not by functional economic, labour, or transport considerations. Boundaries can sever locally-recognised neighbourhoods, service catchment areas, and appropriate housing or transport inputs for forecasting. Thus, such forecasts cannot be objective.

But is this a problem? Not if the subjectivity of places is embraced. Not if professional land use and transport planners are empowered to apply knowledge of local circumstances to their understanding of future demographic or economic trends, and to integrate their vision of accessibility and sustainability. Not if local people are engaged to consider a future that tolerates growth and change and is sensitive to the community’s existing culture. We need transparent methodologies, but not ones divorced from the places for which they are planning. Places which may be best assessed with subjectivity, sensitivity, and professionalism, rather than objectivity, standardisation, and regulatory rubber-stamping.