Let’s bring City Centres back to the people

Clean Air Zones, Low and Zero Emission Zones are the subject of headlines and political debate in the UK, but our work with colleagues in Poland show that Clean Transportation Zones, as they are called there, are no less controversial. Our research suggests that part of that controversy is due not to the potential impacts and benefits of these policy interventions, but how they are defined, measured and implemented. In particular, we advocate for a more experimental and participatory approach that doesn’t expect immediate and exacting results and allows for more gradual and transformative change. 

The Polish article, which highlights the particular challenges faced by cities with a much older vehicle fleets and the action being taken in Krakow, can be found here: Przywróćmy centra miast mieszkańcom – rp.pl.

A more general version in English is available here: Expert Comment: Let’s bring the city centres back to the people | University of Oxford

Happy Electric New Year

In December 2021, as we set out on our annual New Year’s trip to see friends and family, I thought my household was on its last long-distance drive in a vehicle with an internal combustion engine. We had ordered an electric vehicle (EV) in late September and it was supposed to arrive in February. So we had a home charger installed in February, but then no EV.

Three notifications of delay later, and we were facing not only ever-rising petrol prices, but having to service and refinance our family car, as the contract would expire before the new car would be delivered. So after some reassessment, negotiation, and in light of the second-hand car shortages, we managed to secure an 18-month old, ex-demo, but more expensive vehicle make and model for similar monthly payments. It had less range, but a lot nicer finish – and a few bells and whistles we probably never would have ordered!

So I cannot report on a fully electric 2022, but we have had six months of all-EV driving – and parking and charging.

How’s it gone?

Our solar panels kept us topped up for free over the summer, and we only had to charge elsewhere on a single journey to see family. We found a rapid charge point in a retail park a little over halfway there, and had all the energy we needed in the time it took us to pick up a few groceries. Slow charging from an outdoor plug at a relatives’ home was an easy option, and we discovered that another relation had a pre-installed home charger in their recently bought new-build.

A little road trip in October half term was even more satisfactory. We benefitted from VIP parking (and got a charge) at Harry Potter Studios (an attraction I recommend). We then had a couple nights in a holiday cottage in Norfolk, where the EV-owning owners let us use their charger and pay for the electricity with our bill. They were also more than happy to talk about their EV experiences – I was interested to learn they had installed a home charger at an elderly parent’s home to minimise range anxiety when on caring duties.

With Autumn rain, our neighbour’s house blocking the low winter sun and my other half’s daily commute, our EV was ever more rarely chargeable by solar, but we appreciated our smart home charger even more. We could programme our car to charge in the middle of the night and track the energy use in our home. It was useful when our smart meter was on the blink, and more recently helped us benefit from the government’s energy saving scheme.

Our travel patterns over the last six months haven’t change much. We drive for the same sorts of journeys as before, and I walk as much as ever. We’re still a one-car family that occasionally struggles with logistics. We enjoy knowing that our family car is more environmentally friendly, cheaper to run, gets us out of regular journeys to the petrol station, and makes spaceship sounds under 10mph.

On the other hand, on longer journeys in the winter, you have to worry not only about finding a charger, but also finding one that’s operational and available. And if someone else is plugged into the same rapid charger at the same time as you, your EV will charge at half speed or less, result in longer-than-planned stops with antsy children or running the battery down further and feeling range anxiety.

More charging infrastructure would help – and it has been surprising to realise which places have more or less available – but we’ve realised it’s not just about planning ahead, but also planning in a different way than for refuelling.

With an EV, plan to keep topped up, rather than waiting until you’re on a quarter charge (and that includes when charging at home!). Think about how many charge-points are available at a given location, not just where they are. Think about where you can charge when on longer journeys whilst stopped for a meal, rather than simply along a route. Supermarkets might be better bets than motorway services, and you never know whose home might have a charger you can use.

Which leads me to my final point – if EVs are to maximise their potential to drive forward a more sustainable future, EV drivers must come together to share advice, charging, and even vehicles. The more we do so, the more we will be able to wish each other a Happy Electric New Year.

Public Realm Resource

The thorniest topic at the UN’s COP27 on climate change this month has been finance, or the lack thereof, to lower income and more vulnerable countries. Affordability is front and centre of the debate to not only tackle climate change globally, but also to do so justly.

Similarly, affordability is a word that has been on the lips of many policy makers and stakeholders as soon as we started researching inclusivity in the transition to electric mobility in Bristol. Electric vehicles (EVs) are seen as unaffordable by and for many people. Even retrofitting or upgrading to a vehicle compliant with the Clean Air Zone (introduced today!) is considered financially out of reach for some of the most vulnerable and vehicle-dependent.

Furthermore, for cash-strapped governments, there is debate as to whether limited public monies should be spent on installing public EV charging infrastructure, rather than leaving it to the private sector? Public sector public charging might improve inclusion by enabling EV adoption by those without an off-street parking and domestic charging option, but if only wealthier households (whether they have private parking or not) can afford an EV, do they really need public charging infrastructure to be subsidised? Especially as electricity prices go up, and providing as well as using public charging becomes less affordable.

There are arguments the other way, of course, as lower income households might still drive a company car or van. They might be able to access a second-hand or shared EV.

And there are other forms of electric mobility. E-scooters and e-bikes not only can improve accessibility, but also can be considered a reasonably affordable transport option, especially for medium-length journeys where public transport is limited. Besides, many e-scooter trials have included discounts for low income groups to make sure the scheme is affordable.

But affordability and how public monies are used are not the only topic up for debate when considering whether the transition to electric mobility is progressing in an inclusive way. Digging a little deeper, another inclusion / justice issue is around the rights of different people to use the public realm in different ways and how their different ways of moving are accommodated in public spaces.

A number of the policy-makers and stakeholders we spoke to described how the allocation or reallocation of space on the public highway or footway is one of the most contentious interventions they can propose. Even in terms of people moving through space, there are the ever-recurring problems of congestion, crowding, and the use of space of different modes. Then there’s the space taken up for parking, deliveries, sign posts, bollards, traffic signals, cycle stands – so much of our public realm is used for dormant vehicles or the smooth running of the transport network, never mind for other things like retail or socialising.

The addition of electric mobility infrastructure such as EV charging and e-scooter parking places new demands on the scarce resource that is our public realm. Electric mobility also raises questions about how that resource is used – which modes are sharing which spaces, whose space is reallocated, who will face new challenges using public space, and will there be new conflicts and safety concerns? Basically, how efficient and fair is the use and allocation of the public realm once electric mobility is added into our transport systems?

Unsurprisingly, the policy makers and stakeholders we spoke to did not all have the same answers or perhaps any answers to these questions. And yet, they were asking the questions. They realised that social justice is not all about affordability or accessibility, but also the diverse needs, rights, experiences, and expectations of the public realm resource. That is an important step in not only our developing research, but also in achieving an inclusive transition to electric mobility.

Pet Peeve Pavement Parking

I was recently reminded of two of my biggest pet peeves / bugbears / aggravations / vexations / annoyances. Sorry, a bit too much fun with the thesaurus there.

First, petrol leaf blowers. Despite the unusually mild weather, leaves have been falling, and I was out walking with the family when we passed someone using one of these loathsome machines. The nuisance as well as the noise, air and climate pollution makes me grit my teeth, although also thankful I no longer live on a managed estate where the contracted gardeners used them about once a week this time of year.

Second, pavement parking. For my well-being and sanity, I force myself to ignore all but the most egregious examples, so ubiquitous they are. Even then, I am often walking with my children when we are forced into the road by an obstructive vehicle, so I grit my teeth and refrain from swearing. In one recent case, a delivery driver must have seen my face and actually apologised! Although he was technically unloading, not parking.

But the real reminder of how much pavement parking winds me up came not from a chance encounter, but as I was drafting a response to an academic query. I was reminded that it’s been almost two years now since the government’s consultation on banning pavement parking outside London closed. At the time, I argued in a blog that it was important to have a full, enforceable ban as the default. Traffic Regulation Orders, and all the red tape they involve, should not be required to forbid pavement parking on certain streets but to permit it in special circumstances.

Yet since all those responses, no new legislation has been passed. Not even a summary of the feedback to the consultation has been published. I have heard that it is regularly discussed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Cycling and Walking, who know how important it is to activists (and I hope ordinary pedestrians!). Even a quick internet search suggests that some action has been regularly expected and anticipated, including by automotive groups.

However, with the government in constant disarray and a revolving door for Secretary of State for Transport, will they do something soon? And once they do something, will it be a complete ban or will more red tape be needed to stop obstructive parking? And no matter which, are our local Councils, highways officers, and civil enforcement teams ready to take action? The answers to all three of these questions are cause for concern.

Many motorists think they have a right to park outside their home, even if that means they block the public footway. Or rather, they simply take it for granted, usually without thought. When parking is removed or threatened with removal, it is often politically contentious. Policies to increase the regulation of parking would probably be up there with Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in terms of generating controversy, if it weren’t for the fact that such policies are so rarely debated and any action so often delayed.

Thus, although banning pavement parking would be an inexpensive and impactful way to improve the environment for active travellers, discourage often obstructive car use, and potentially even raise money to spend on other transport improvements, the government may continue to demur and delay.

I hope they don’t. I hope they realise that any public protests and bad press are driven (pun intended) by a vocal minority. I hope that one day I can walk around my neighbourhood and only be bothered by the occasional electric leaf blower for a couple months a year, rather than by pavement parking every day of every month.

Quality in Qualitative Methods

As we describe in the ‘About ITEM’ section of our project website, ‘Work Package Two’ reviews policy documents and holds workshops and interviews with policy-makers and stakeholders in each of our case study cities in order to review how the different dimensions of justice are accounted for in the policies and decisions that govern the transition to electric mobility, why this is, and whether policy processes can be improved.

We use qualitative methods because this research question is all about answering how and why the transition to electric mobility is happening in certain ways, not just who is(n’t) using electric mobility and where electric mobility infrastructure and services can(‘t) be found. Which is not to say we are not asking questions about people and places, but these questions too are formulated as how and why.

For example: How are different people expected to use or respond to the transition to electric mobility? Why are some groups, but not others, involved or recognised in the policies and decisions that govern that transition? How are different places imagined when planning electric mobility interventions? Why are some places identified as needing more, less or different interventions?

Qualitative methods are well-placed to answer how and why questions rigorously, and help us find ways to make use of those answers.

For Bristol alone, we have iteratively read and coded 16 policy documents, from the city, combined authority and national levels. These have included transport and climate changes strategies at urban and national scales, bids and business cases prepared for central government review, and central government guidance prepared to assist local authorities. Hundreds of pages resulted in thousands of references. Our coding worked both top down and bottom up.

We created 11 ‘parent’ codes from our analytical framework, covering five dimensions of justice (capabilities and epistemic justice formed separate parent codes) and six central aspects of policy and governance:

  • sources of knowledge;
  • policy interventions;
  • their strategic programming;
  • the problems (and opportunities) policies address;
  • the people / subjects identified or implied; and
  • the places / territories addressed or characterised.

Within these, a close reading of the texts led to child, grandchild and even great-grandchild codes that help us understand:

  • how dimensions of justice manifest in policy, in concepts such as accessibility or affordability;
  • why certain sources of knowledge or evidence are foregrounded, e.g. when it is politically expedient to show generalised public support or expert advice;
  • why different policy interventions or strategic packages are targeted at certain places and people, e.g. because they are seen as needing more intervention; and
  • how local residents or businesses are expected to respond, including as rational actors who will choose the most attractive and efficient mobility options provided.

Thus, qualitative analytical methods help us recognise patterns of meaning within the narratives these documents present about the transition to electric mobility, its role in wider policy debates around sustainable transport, climate change, and public funding. They also help us consider what is not said, especially in our hunt for indications of inclusivity in policy decisions and delivery.

These methods can also be used to analyse, quite literally, what is said, as we interview policy-makers and related stakeholders. We can ask them directly which and whether aspects of social justice are accounted for in their work. We can then use the same coding methods to see whether the answers to those how and why questions are the same, how the narratives compare, and why knowledge, approach, perspectives vary.

In summary, the research in this work package aims not only to understand how and why in the past and present, but also how and why policy and governance may accelerate a more inclusive transition to electric mobility in the future. And we will continue to use qualitative methods to not only search for answers, but also apply them.

Silence on Social Justice?

Bristol was chosen for our case study city for three reasons.

First, in practical terms, we needed a medium-sized British city that would allow comparison with our partner cities across Europe – Oslo, Poznan and Utrecht.

Second, it needed to be somewhere with electric mobility policies and projects to study for social justice implications. Bristol has won a number of UK and European bids funding electric mobility infrastructure and services, either specifically or as part of larger transport packages.

Finally, we thought it might be a positive critical case study – somewhere more likely to be an exemplar of social justice in policy making.

Bristol has a history of civic activism and concern for equity and inclusion. It was home not only to the most significant Black Lives Matter protests in the UK, but also the Bristol bus boycott in 1963, when protesters forced the local bus company to change their discriminatory employment policies. It was not only the first local government authority in the UK to declare a climate emergency, but also the first place women were ordained into the Church of England.

In the transport domain, Sustrans, the charity which created and maintains the National Cycle Network and advocates for walking and cycling was founded in Bristol in 1977. More recently, parents in Bristol who wanted to see their children play in the streets in front of their homes without fear of traffic started the charity Playing Out, which helps residents apply for temporary, but regular road closures.

Could we find evidence of that sort of civic spirit in the transition to electric mobility and the policies designed to support it?

Ten recent, urban policy documents were analysed to find out, including transport and climate strategies and a few UK funding bids with electric mobility elements.

We did not find a suitable document specifically covering the successful European bid that funded the REPLICATE project, but thought the social outcomes of that project would surely be mentioned in policy documents that did make our list. REPLICATE included an e-bike loan scheme and new electric car club bays and was specifically targeted at neighbourhoods with more minority groups and less housing or transport capital.

REPLICATE was mentioned in three of our analysed documents, but as an example of successful delivery, without reference to social outcomes or equity nor if local residents were involved in choosing the bay locations or gave their views on driving the shared electric cars.

My analysis of data provided by Co-Wheels, the car club operator that participated in the project, showed that the e-car club bays installed during the project were located in significantly more deprived areas than other car club bays and used by residents of more deprived areas. An academic involved in the project confirmed to me that the locations were purposefully chosen to increase access to shared electric vehicles among low income residents.

Yet whilst the potential of increased access through EV car clubs is highlighted in the UK Go Ultra Low bid (see page 17), the bid cited REPLICATE only for its synergy with the proposed scheme, not for its inclusivity. All three documents mentioning REPLICATE are strangely silent on the project’s social justice implications.

We found a similar silence on another social justice initiative described in just one document: the One City Plan proposes to apply the recommendations of the citizens’ assembly that was just finishing its deliberations as the Plan was published in March 2021. Yet the two documents we could find published after the One City Plan do not mention the citizen’s assembly at all. Will others yet to be published do more?

Meanwhile, as mentioned in my blog, the Future Mobility Zone bid promises co-production and user-centred design, but there is no knowing from the document itself whether the e-mobility aspects of the bid have been or will be implemented in such a socially just way. We have to use other sources to find out.

Thus, whilst Bristol may still be an exemplar of social justice in terms of civic activism and opportunities for genuine participation, potentially even in ways that relate to electric mobility policy, relevant policy documents are strangely silent on the subject and evidence is thus far missing, particularly of recognition justice and the incorporation of diverse knowledge, values, and practices in the transition to electric mobility.

Interviews with stakeholders come next as our search for evidence of Bristol as a positive critical case study in the inclusive transition to electric mobility (ITEM) continues.

Car clubs coming to you?

Car clubs fascinate me.

Whilst still cars, car club vehicles are used much more intensively, and the people who use them travel less intensively. It is not a different mode of travel, but car club members use different modes of travel more: they walk, cycle, and ride on buses and trains more often than they drive. The vehicles are more likely to be electric and produce fewer emissions than the average private car. Sharing cars saves space and reduces congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution. CoMoUK, the national charity for the public benefit of shared transport, publishes reports on the many benefits of car clubs.

But car clubs also frustrate me. Why? Since car clubs are often designed for those with a car-lite, multimodal lifestyle in mind, they’re rarely found in places where people are most car-dependent nor are necessarily available to people who have the fewest options for getting around.

Let me explain. Most car clubs in the UK are run commercially – they need to be financially viable. Also, the most common model is ‘back-to-base’, which involves a dedicated parking bay on street or in a parking area for each car club vehicle, often requiring a long-term agreement with the local highways authority or workplace or housing estate / developer. Therefore, car club operators want their cars where they will attract customers and be valued by the landowner and local community for some years. Such places tend to be in denser urban areas, or in the car parks owned by larger businesses and institutions, usually where there is a better-educated if not wealthier population who are seeking a more flexible, greener and healthier lifestyle.

This is a bit of a simplification, and CoMoUK has information on all the types of car clubs as well as the less well-known and studied peer-to-peer car sharing options operational in the UK. And as they put it to policy-makers, a shared car is quite simply not the same as a privately-owned car. Car sharing should be supported in transport strategies.

I agree with them, but I also wonder whether a shared car in a dense urban area where people have good public transport can have as much impact as a shared car in a suburb or smaller town with minimal public transport? The latter places contribute to climate change too. They suffer from congestion and air pollution and too many cars taking up too much public space.

But if car sharing were available in smaller settlements, would people give up as many privately-owned cars for shared ones, would they would walk and cycle more, and most importantly, would they provide enough business to make a car club or other car sharing arrangement viable?

There are three recent trends that suggest the answers could be ‘yes’:

  1. Driving Electric: People don’t have to live in dense urban areas to be unable to afford to purchase an electric vehicle, or to not have a place at home to charge it, or to feel motivated by the climate crisis to want to switch sooner rather than later. Working with CoMoUK, I have gathered some evidence of the extra opportunities for electric car sharing in this publication.
  2. Digital Accessibility: Since the pandemic, more people are working flexibly and from home, do not need to use their privately-owned cars to commute, and often live in suburbs and smaller towns. More people are ordering goods and groceries online. Car sharing fits well with flexibility and less frequent essential trips. Good public transport links may no longer be a prerequisite.
  3. Informal Options: People have been sharing cars with friends and family for a long time, but there are now digital platforms that support informal car sharing between community groups, neighbours or even strangers. These offer ways to car-share that don’t have the same fixed costs or location, and can meet more diverse needs in more places.

Research is clearly required – CoMoUK staff and I are keen to take our collaboration forward to find the evidence to help car sharing come to you, wherever you live.

The Paradox of Procedural Justice

The old adage goes, you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Likewise, you can register someone to vote, but you can’t make them to turn out on election day. Or send a survey, but can’t make them fill it out. Or even hold a protest, but can’t make every affected individual or group attend. Efforts towards inclusion in civil society and policy-making can only go so far. At some point the responsibility for achieving justice is transferred to citizens who choose to vote, respond, march – or not.

No matter the attempts at genuine participation or the influence afforded those participating, there will be always be some who stay at home. And they might be people who never participate, who belong to marginalised groups, who have values, experiences, rights and needs that are often ignored. This can result in policies being perpetuated that are not only procedurally unjust, but also result in the misrepresentation of these groups, maldistribution of interventions intended to help them, and ongoing exclusion.

But what can one do? Elected representatives, local government officers, or neighbourhood activists can all try to make policy and govern justly, but cannot justly force people to get involved. Therein lies the paradox of procedural justice. It is limited by not only the level of participation offered, but also who decides to participate.

Nonetheless, it is too easy to blame apathy and hide behind the excuse that an opportunity was offered but ignored. Decision-makers can take responsibility for offering multiple ways to participate at multiple levels of involvement. Variety will increase inclusion by virtue of the likelihood that different techniques will attract different people who will feel more or less comfortable getting involved at that intensity.

‘Consultation’ is one of the most traditional techniques for involving individuals and groups, which we have found referred to again and again in our analysis of policy documents in Bristol and the UK for the ITEM project. Yet even this technique can be applied in various ways. Publishing and advertising policy in a ‘consultation draft’ on a website with pre-set questions or headline objectives and asking the extent to which respondents agree offers neither a high level of participation nor is likely to attract a high number of participants.

Instead, consultation on the 2020 Joint Local Transport Plan strategy for the West of England combined authority (WECA) used multiple different media – social media, websites, paper, in person – to solicit feedback on the policy in a variety of ways: a survey; an interactive tool to prioritise policy; and during discussions at stakeholder workshops. There were also opportunities for open answers, to raise concerns or suggestions that may have been excluded.

This multiplicity of techniques can enhance procedural justice, but that potential is diminished by focusing on the response to the policy-makers’ pre-set questions over more open responses; generalising the reported response so individual participants have little influence; and not paying attention to who did not respond or was otherwise missing.

Despite the paradox previously described, state-centric decision-makers and even society-centric grass-roots organisers should take responsibility for finding out who doesn’t participate and, ideally, why, without making assumptions. This is challenging at scale, so proposals in the city’s Bristol Transport Strategy or WECA’s Future Mobility Zone application focus on the smallest geographic scale when proposing more procedurally just techniques – co-design and co-production.

From neighbourhood plans to proposals for mobility hubs as local community assets, at this scale, reaching out to a greater number of individuals from more diverse groups through more channels is more possible, having more of them respond is more likely, and enabling their response to influence the decisions made is more manageable. Our next step is to find out if this has actually happened.

Either way, not everyone will get involved nor will the policies implemented meet every need, desire or expectation. The paradox still persists and procedural justice may not be fully achieved, but at least such an approach, if carried through, improves the chances of social justice.

Automotive electrification and social justice

I’d forgotten, but I did write a blog back in February for an Italian Policy Studies Institute: Overlooked? Social Justice Issues in Automotive Electrification (ispionline.it). Its publication was understandably delayed by the need to address the invasion of Ukraine, but it’s available now. And as the research has progressed in the meantime, I will soon publish another blog that provides some updates in light of the new EV Infrastructure Strategy published in the UK in late March.