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.

Thinking Transport Resolutions

My research related thoughts at the moment are still flitting around the subject discussed in my last blog post and have yet to land, so I thought for this January blog post, I might turn to a tried and tested topic – New Year’s Resolutions.

Many people will have made some New Year’s Resolutions over the past couple weeks, and a fair few are likely to have transport implications. For example:

Reducing plastic became a hot button issue in 2018, as not just tree huggers, but even avowed materialist consumers considering trying to make a few changes. This could be great news for our global environment, but I suggest a moment of reflection before you resolve to shop plastic-free for your dry-goods, when the nearest such outlet is miles away. Scientists agree that global warming and climate change is an even bigger problem than plastic pollution in our oceans, and transport, mainly airplanes and private motor vehicles, is overtaking other sectors as the biggest carbon emitter on the planet. So think carefully about whether you can make a resolution that reduces both plastic and mileage, whether yours, the product’s or both.

Speaking of mileage, as mentioned, air transport remains a big problem in terms of carbon emissions, with no near-term technical solutions. But another thing people often do at the turn of the year is book their next overseas holiday. Some might resolve to travel more slowly or have a stay-cation, but for those who are unwilling or unable to give up flying, when was the last time you considered carbon offsetting? It’s rarely given as an option anymore when you purchase your flights because airlines and other commercial actors are doing it for you, but surely every extra contribution helps. Not sure where to give? Find out what the big players are doing. For example, I was fascinated to read that the UK’s busiest airport, Heathrow, is investing in restoring peat bogs, which are important ecosystems in some parts of the UK and excellent carbon sinks. Perhaps more could be restored with your charitable donations? There are plenty of websites which can help decide to whom and how much to give.

Perhaps though, you’ve gone for a more traditional resolution, say to exercise more. Then I would put in a plug for switching some of or part of your regular daily trips to active travel modes – walking, cycling, scooting. Even if it’s simply parking a bit further away from where you’re going or getting off the bus a stop or two earlier, you’re much more likely to maintain your resolve if exercise is part of your daily routine than if you take up a sport or try to force yourself to the gym on a dark, cold night after work. And you’re helping more than yourself. Getting out of the car for even part of your journey reduces local air pollution, injects more vitality into the local community, and sets a good example!

So my proposition to all New Year’s resolvers is to think about whether you can make your resolution go further, and contribute to a better transport future.

Merry moving and a Happy New Year!


Anything but the commute

I have two full-time jobs, but I don’t ‘commute’ at all. I thought that was unusual, but now I’m not so sure.

One job is research, as I work towards a PhD. The other is my role as mother, wife, and general domestic organiser.

I generally work from home for the former, but I make rather a lot of trips for the latter.

If I were filling in a travel diary for my average week, it would include lots of short walks escorting the children to and from their primary school, a little over 1km away; other errands completed on foot on the way there and back: grocery shopping at least twice a week, visits to the library or playground; more short trips by bicycle or car to take my daughter to her dance classes twice a week… you get the picture.

Meanwhile, for my research work, I would only record a 1-2 hour train journey at most once a week and sometimes only once in a month.

None of these trips would count as a commute, a journey from home to a regular place of paid employment and back again.

But then the majority of journeys made by the majority of people are not regular commutes by the same mode, along the same route, at the same time, 5 days a week. Children and pensioners obviously don’t commute. But even though many working-age, employed people still organise their day around their work schedule, the minority are regular commuters. Ever greater proportions work flexibly in space and time – sometimes from home, sometimes visiting clients or customers, sometimes at a remote office; sometimes shifts, sometimes part time, sometimes longer but fewer days (compressed hours); sometimes even part days in different places. Never mind the number of journeys to work that are not defined as ‘commuting’, at least here in the UK, because they are part of longer trip chains, dropping the children at school or picking up the groceries on route. No wonder the numbers of commuting trips, defined as a journey from home to work and back again, have been falling for years here.

So what’s my point? First, my lack of commuting is not as unusual as I thought. Second, my travel patterns enable me to lead a fairly sustainable (ignoring long-distance travel, but that’s another blog entirely), active lifestyle.

And putting the two together, if there are many people like me who don’t have a daily commute, are there also many people whose daily travel is sustainable and active? Or if there are not, why not? Answering the latter, are there too many people who live in places where schools, food shopping, pharmacies, playgrounds, post offices, libraries, etc., etc. are not easily accessed on foot, at least in part because there has been too much focus by transport and land use planners, modellers, and researchers, never mind developers and investors, on the commute and access to work?

Sure, where employment is concentrated in offices or factories, it should be accessible to residential areas, preferably by public transport. But let’s plan a bit more for access to all those other destinations if they are such a greater share of individual travel. It might be the route to more sustainable, active lifestyles becoming mainstream, which, as a mother, I want to see for my children. And it might make people more resilient to disruption too, which, as a researcher, is what I’m tasked to investigate.

Exterior Designs

Next week, the Transport Planning Society is holding ‘Transport Planning Day’ and presenting a People’s Award to a “local transport planning initiative” nominated by the community for the positive impact it has had on their neighbourhood. Among the short list is a vintage bus, a ‘parklet’, and a rather lovely pedestrian-cycle bridge over a gorge.

Last week, I attended a seminar about the project Use-It that recruited community researchers and asked them to find out what their neighbours really felt about their built environment, and then act as liaison between their communities and the local Council, developers operating in the area, the University and other stakeholders. Some of the results included a desire to redefine planning conditions on outdoor play areas, create a food-based social enterprise, and ensure the connectivity of a major new development to existing streets and paths.

And in between, I’ve been catching up on a favourite television programme: Grand Designs. Which got me to thinking, Grand Designs has a lot to say about the architecture of the homes it showcases, including the buildings, facades, interior design, and landscape design. It also philosophises about the architecture in terms of integrity, sustainability, function, and aesthetics. Yet, whilst the surrounding environment of the building and any views and constraints they may offer are referenced, there is no discussion of the design beyond the property boundaries, the exterior design.

On the other hand, exterior design is very much what the Transport Planning Society’s People’s Award, the Use-It project, and indeed transport planners, community activists, and many others with civic concerns are all about.

I call it exterior design instead of urban design because urban design is rarely considered part of transport planning or vice versa. It excludes more rural or even ‘small town’ places. And although urban design does have roots in architecture, I have rarely heard it expressed in the philosophical tones presenter Kevin McCloud employs so well, that great design has to reflect the people who invest in it and make it and live in it.

Is it any wonder that the projects shortlisted for the People’s Award and chosen by the community researchers are people-focused, not building / vehicle oriented? Is it a surprise that the aesthetic of a vintage bus or a green oasis in place of a parking space or a beautiful bridge have more appeal than widening motorways or reprogramming traffic signals? Is it so unexpected that communities faced with a large new development are most concerned about play areas, pedestrian paths, and the potential for locally-sourced food?

No, because there is the same instinctive attraction to such projects and places and spaces as there is to ideas of child-friendly cities that I wrote about back in the summer.

There are, of course, many challenges in reflecting not an individual or a family, but a whole community, and doing so not in a single dwelling, but the public realm. But starting with abstract numbers of people movements and vehicle flows does not result in great exterior design.

The recent mantra is we need to do more visioning in strategic transport planning, for both big infrastructure, as well as local area enhancements. So why not make the task easier by waxing philosophical about how we want public spaces, transport spaces to look and feel, rather than assume a vision needs to be couched in abstract policy terms. Maybe there is something to thinking about form over function? Kevin would probably say that a good form is one that will function well.

At the very least it could help broaden the sorts of discussions with communities that the People’s Award and the Use-It project were designed to instigate. A discussion about transport planning indirectly, a discussion about exterior design.


Transport for Women

It’s been bothering me that I hadn’t written a blog for October, when I usually write them at the beginning of the month, but at the beginning of the month I was in a bit of a funk.

A big part of that was politics and current events, namely the Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court after he was accused of sexual assault and harassment. I read the news regularly, and am interested in politics, but I try to keep my emotions at an arms-length. It would be too easy to let it all get to you when the positive so rarely features, especially in the last couple years. But this news really got to me, upset me, as a woman. Considering all the other #MeToo stories, I wasn’t sure why.

I have never, thank God, been sexually assaulted. The closest I could come to what Kavanaugh’s accusers described was a memory of a man exposing himself to me. Not at a drunken frat party, but when I was about seven, riding around my neighbourhood on my bicycle. A car pulled up and a complete stranger flashed me. I sped the other way so fast, I might have left the block faster than he did. My mother called the police and I had to describe what had happened. Which wasn’t much. I don’t know if they ever caught him. I’ve rarely thought about the incident since, nor could I say it has affected my life.

And yet, I am a transport planner, and the whole thing was intimately (pun intended) tied up with modes of transport; the more powerful, the more entitled preying upon the more vulnerable. I love my chosen profession of transport planning, but as a woman in a male-dominated profession, the metaphors of female subordination in transport are often just below the surface. And it’s that contrast of entitlement and assumed subordination that upset me most in the Kavanaugh case.

However, having recently read an article in the Times about a former Google employee, Sarah Cooper, who has turned to stand-up comedy and writing tongue-in-cheek tips (and books) on how women try to get ahead by pleasing and pacifying men, I’ve been cathartically inspired to write a few ideas in the same tone. Perhaps I can thus make the argument that women are not only well suited to working in transport, but should feel entitled to work in transport!

Here goes:

  1. Boats, airplanes, and cars are all often referred to with female pronouns, so surely females will know best how to plan for them.
  2. Trains might sometimes have male names, but most would say girls are best at staying within the lines.
  3. If the fastest female athletes are slower than the fastest men, slow modes must be our thing too.
  4. We’re the only half of the species biologically designed to carry a foreign body for 9 months at a time – it makes us naturals in long-term logistics.
  5. Women make up the majority of professional models, so why not modellers?
  6. There must be a reason car insurance for young women costs much less – an instinct for road safety that young men can only hope to learn?
  7. Community engagement and public involvement require empathy and emotional intelligence, which women are supposed to be over-endowed with.
  8. From buggy pushers to tartan trolleys, we can definitely deal in accessible planning for the whole life-cycle.
  9. Ever heard of women’s intuition or that a woman always changes her mind? Not so great for fixed forecasts, but in a world of technological change and uncertainty, the womanly tasks of visioning and scenario planning are on the rise.

But what about that technological change? Technology is a professional discipline, like transport, where women trail men. But then Sarah Cooper made it, and moved on to make jokes about being a female tech professional that have launched her comedy career. I don’t claim to be a comedienne. And there’s always the danger that patronising too can be disguised as joking. But perhaps a bit of humour will help women in transport move from the trailer into the driver’s seat too?


Slow down, you move too fast…

As children head back to school, the weather changes, and Jewish people look forward to celebrating their new year, it feels as if life is speeding up again after the long, (and even in the UK!) hot days of summer. Transport policy, with its tendency to assume sleek new technology will solve all our transport problems, also seems to assume that speeding up is inherently a good thing. That shared, electric, autonomous, and motorised mobility plus immediate information available anywhere will increase road safety, reduce emissions, free up road space, and help move the growing population of elderly and disabled around more easily.

And yet, does the population, elderly or otherwise, actually want to always move faster and further? It seems to me that the Future of Mobility call for evidence, whilst acknowledging that people are travelling less, commuting less, and driving less, only considers how information and communication technologies are changing attitudes to transport information and accessibility. Yet the high-tech accessibility of information is changing not just attitudes, but accessibility itself – how we obtain goods and services, how we participate in activities and opportunities. The consultation document mentions telecommuting, but not online shopping, which is likely one reason van traffic is growing so fast, nor does it consider the advent of other tele-services, such as tele-healthcare.

My point is that technology can mean faster and further and more frequent OR it could mean fewer, more flexible trips. It could push us all to operate like machines or it could serve to help us keep things human. There could be accessibility as a service instead of mobility as a service, meeting people’s needs by meeting them halfway. The sharing economy could be finding groups of families to share the school run between busy parents, whilst still enabling their kids to walk to school. Or perhaps technology can match not passengers, but patients who will can share the walk to the doctor’s office to improve their own health by not only increasing physical activity, but reducing loneliness and fear.

Maybe that vision is idealistic, but surely it’s more appealing than the transport-tech-optimism that seems to suggest we should be shaping our cities to accommodate driverless, and perhaps empty, vehicles, rather than living, breathing people. Besides, once we stop valuing speed of travel over quality of life, we may have a better chance of making these new technologies work for people and places, rather than as ends in themselves.

My New Year’s resolutions this year are all about making the moment last.1 I aim to be more patient, to default less to that overused excuse of being ‘stressed’, to savour the change and growth this new year promises to bring to my family and to me. Oh, I’m sure we’ll all be doing lots of different activities, getting work done, moving around. And some of that movement will require covering long distances quickly. But day to day, we will often be walking, interacting with each other and the environment, thinking and learning.

In my own small way, as a representative of transport professionals and a researcher into the opportunities technology may bring for future mobility and accessibility in a changing climate, some of the thinking and learning I will be doing when I am taking it slow will be about a future vision of technology and travel that supports quality of life. And that might mean the technology offers ways to slow down.


1The title of this blog and this line are from Simon and Garfunkel’s Feeling Groovy.

Hot Options

As the recent unprecedented heatwave comes to an end, at least temporarily, it seems a good time to reflect on how hot, sunny weather might affect travel behaviour.

Unlike wind-driven storms or winter weather which have much more direct and obvious impacts on transport infrastructure, the physical impacts of heatwaves on roads and public transport are more diffuse. Steel rails may buckle, tarmac occasionally melts, and fewer people may be allowed to crowd onto the London Underground carriages, but mostly roads and services are available for normal use (barring planned engineering works, resurfacing and other construction that often is scheduled in the summer). The heat and talk of beaches and barbecues may make the headlines, but travel disruption much less so. Even where heat and drought result in forest fires, they rarely affect major routes.

Yet heat itself can still be an extreme type of weather as much as cold or wind or rain. And people do change their travel behaviour based on the weather, especially extreme weather. Various studies have shown decreases in trips by different modes in adverse weather. And in countries which regularly experience extreme heat, another study recorded decreases in active travel once temperatures pass a certain threshold.

However, it is not regular for the UK or many of the other countries that have been affected by this summer’s heatwaves to experience extremely hot weather. That makes it difficult to hypothesise how people might respond in terms of travel behaviour. Especially as these heatwaves are only extreme in relative terms – temperatures are still not reaching the levels common in tropical or desert countries, so it is not necessarily too hot for people to walk, bicycle, or otherwise want to be outdoors and enjoy the weather when they travel. Alternatively, the lack of familiarity with such weather may result in people struggling to adjust and seeking travel spaces that are air-conditioned, mainly cars, but also, in some areas, a subset of public transport services.

Or it may depend on where people are going or where they live. How comfortable are different houses or apartments in the heat? How about offices or shops? Are private gardens or public parks more readily available? Which are more likely to provide relief from the even hotter microclimates of urban streets? The answers to such questions may suggest less travel altogether, but the possibility of empirical, quantitative evidence to support this is confounded by yet another factor. Holidays.

Days of extreme heat occur in the summer, when there are often fewer regular, short-distance trips and more long-distance travel for leisure purposes. People often plan such trips well in advance and can’t change travel arrangements nimbly. Thus, families with school children, those who work in education, and various other groups are likely to change their travel behaviour in the summer no matter what weather summer brings. There is consistently less traffic during summer school holidays. There is also usually more walking and cycling, more sporting events and festivals. Such activities are often only cancelled for electrical storms or other immediate dangers; unusual heat or drought is not among these dangers.

Still, even if current travel behaviour during heatwaves cannot easily be tracked, that does not mean that we should not use this unusually long heatwave to try to monitor how people have responded. Nor does it mean we should not work to adapt our transport networks to the likelihood of future, more frequent hot weather. We could stress our steel rails to higher temperatures and ensure we use appropriate aggregate mixes to prevent melt, but also we could provide more public water fountains and street trees to help people walking and cycling to re-hydrate and cool off. I have written before that one way forward for resilience is ‘monitor and adapt’, and this summer provides a perfect opportunity to start such a process.