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.

 

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.

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.

You say Congestion, I say Contention…

‘Transport’ describes the systems and methods for connecting people and places, goods and services, activities and opportunities. We study, plan, fund, and operate transport networks as a means to support economic growth and social interaction. It is a utility, a public good.

Substitute Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for ‘Transport’ in the sentences above, and they still make sense. But ICT is not a direct replacement for transport. For example, increased use of ICT by businesses can result in longer-distance if less frequent business trips, and whilst shoppers may visit fewer stores, more delivery trucks are on our roads carrying goods ordered online.1 More generally, ICT loosens the bonds between commuting options and costs, and work and residential location choices, as the availability of local services, amenities, and social networks become more important in deciding where to live.2 Thus, virtual access complements physical access, and it may be more useful to view ICT as an alternative way to connect, another choice or manifestation of travel behaviour.

Like any mode of transport, the attractiveness and convenience of mobile or fixed ICT for making connections depends upon the quality of infrastructure and services in a particular geographical area. For fixed broadband, for example, digital accessibility depends upon characteristics like what type of connections are available in a given location, the length of any hybrid copper line, how providers manage different connections, and how connections are wired.3

Thus, like any other transport system, ICT networks comprise links and nodes with variable accessibility. Still, differences are worth noting. ICT users find routing much more fluid than do train passengers or car drivers or even cyclists planning how to reach to their destination. Speeds for ICTs are not fixed, but how they will impact on performance is often obscure.

Meanwhile, again like transport systems, demand-side factors can affect capacity. Transport planners may not be aware, but there are peak times for internet activity as much as for travel. OfCom, the ICT regulator in the UK, calls this dynamic “contention”. Basically, contention increases when too many people are trying to access too much data on the network at the same time and broadband download speeds fall from their maximum rates. The scale of contention also varies by type of connection technology, just as the scale of a traffic jam varies by the number of lanes on the carriageway. However, unlike the travel peak that occurs between 7am and 9am, contention is usually at its worst between 8pm and 10pm, due largely to video streaming.4

However, and this is where transport planners should take note, contention can occur at other times. Unexpected spikes in contention have been observed at unexpected times due to mass streaming of sporting and entertainment events that occur outside of ‘prime time’.5

My own research estimates significant contention in response to certain severe weather events, which may indicate an increase in internet activity for work purposes or telecommuting. On public holidays, it may suggest that outings are cancelled in favour of watching movies at home. In either case, such contention offers insight into the flexibility of travel behaviour, and the benefits of that flexibility.

Unlike congestion, which carries the risks of incidents and accidents as well as delays, contention need not discourage remote access. Slow download speeds are unlikely to result in the hours of unproductive time a commuter might experience due to unusual levels of congestion, closures, and cancellations, making ICTs the wisest modes during period of severe weather. True, high winds can knock down power lines as soon as block rail tracks with trees. Floods can cause water to seep into telephone cabinets as well as making roads impassable. Yet ICT infrastructure is generally more resilient to severe weather impacts than transport infrastructure.6 And newer broadband technologies not only deliver higher speeds, but are even more resilient than those that preceded them.

In conclusion, as society moves from the motor age into the digital age, ICT will become ever more important for accessing goods and services and for making connections. Transport planners should be incorporating ICTs into their forecasts and appraising them for their potential return on investment, and their ability, in contrast to other modes, to reduce risk, maintain productivity, improve flexibility, and change travel behaviour.

 

  1. Andreev  P, Salomon, Ilan and Pliskin, Nava. (2010) Review: State of teleactivities. Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Technologies 18: 17. And various other articles!
  2. Lyons G. (2015) Transport’s digital age transition. The Journal of Transport and Land Use 8: 1-19.
  3. Tranos E, Reggiani, A., Nijkamp, P. (2013) Accessibility of cities in the digital economy. Cities 30: 59-67. I am now focusing on fixed broadband technology, although there are also parallels in mobile technology.
  4. (2017) UK Home Broadband Performance. UK fixed-line broadband performance: Research Report. 1-82.
  5. (2014) Infrastructure Report 2014. OfCom, 1-188.
  6. Dawson R. (2016) Chapter 4: Infrastructure. UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017: Evidence Report. Committee on Climate Change, 1-111.

 

Mobility vs Accessibility: new evidence for an old debate

I was at a public exhibition many years ago where I was approached by a rather aggressive environmental campaigner. He told me that if public sector transport planners like me really wanted to promote sustainable travel, then we’d all live and work within the same Local Authority area. Everything we did should be local and we shouldn’t really need to go anywhere, and then we wouldn’t be emitting all that carbon travelling. As I lived in another District from where I was working, albeit only 10-12 miles away, I naturally did no more than nod and smile politely.

Inside, I was thinking: Yes I agree that we need to reduce our transport emissions and impacts on the climate, but my husband is the one that lives next to his work and I had to find a job nearby. Yes I’d like a shorter, more convenient commute, but there wasn’t a job in my field, never mind at the level I was looking for, advertised within my District at the time. Yes I prefer to travel by sustainable modes, but I do take the train to get here, whereas I might have to drive to other jobs at a similar or shorter distance. Yes, but…!

Ok, enough of the protests in my head that clearly have been yearning to break free for far too long. My point in recalling this story is that the man’s superficially inane, impractical argument does have a grounding in a fundamental principle of transport that many transport planners, never mind transport users, often overlook. Transport planners tend to focus on creating and promoting options (read new infrastructure or services) for mobility, rather than accessibility.

Yet people travel for the purpose of accessing a job or a shop or a friend’s house, and travel further if those things they are trying to access are further away. The further they travel, the less mobility options they have, which may result in a poor choice between car-dependence and isolation. The latter I add as we consider the impact of new online technologies on accessibility over mobility. See a great blog on this by @alikirkbride for #LTTMobilityMatters.

Moreover, I have recently discovered that the concept that humans seek accessibility rather than mobility can be backed up scientifically. In the last decade, researchers [1-4] have used big data from mobile phone call records and social media to show that human movement follows certain patterns, namely:

  • Most people can be found in a few predictable places (home, work) most days of the week at the times (night and day) where you’d expect to find them there.
  • Most people make more short trips than long trips, and the distribution of short trips follows a certain pattern, decreasing with distance, up to a threshold.
  • At which point you have a different pattern where people who travel further can be found in expected places more often and have fewer irregular trips.
  • And, those people who travel further tend to live where there is less density – of population, employment, opportunities, activities – than those who travel shorter distances.

It is this last point that is key. None of the studies are looking at mode of travel, but they say something very basic about travel behaviour. Namely, that people are not choosing which trips to make to minimise journey times or distance travelled, even if that may influence modal choice. No, they are choosing which trips to make based on where the destinations are which they are trying to reach. They will choose the nearest destination that meets their need or desire or nearest ‘intervening opportunity’ as one study calls it [2].

Thus, transport planners should be as aware as land use planners of the importance of place-making, of mixed-use development, of walkable neighbourhoods. Discussing those is a whole other blog, so I’ll leave it there, but in a twisted way, that man who chastised me long ago had a point. If we could work at the sort of job we wanted, shop for whatever we needed, socialise with our friends and family and have our children in decent schools, all in the same area as our home, we would probably choose to do so. Then we would have more options for sustainable mobility (e.g. walking and cycling), which would be better for the environment and our health and make us more resilient to unforeseen events. And so transport planners would be planning for accessibility rather than mobility.

  1. Gonzalez, M.C.H., Cesar A. & Barabasi, Albert-Laszlo, Understanding individual human mobility patterns. Nature, 2008. 453(7196): p. 779-782.
  2. Noulas A, S.S., Lambiotte R, Pontil M, and Mascolo C, A Tale of Many Cities: Universal Patterns in Human Urban Mobility. PLoS ONE, 2012. 7(5): p. 1-10.
  3. Isaacman S, B.R., Caceres R, Kobourov SG, Martonosi M, Rowland, J and Varshavsky, A. Identifying Important Places in People’s Lives from Cellular Network Data. in 9th International Conference on Pervasive Computing (Pervasive). 2011.
  4. Song, C.Q., Zehui Qu; Blumm, Nicholas and Barabási, Albert-László, Limits of Predictability in Human Mobility. Science, 2010. 327: p. 1018-1021.