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.

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.