Start at your Destination

This year’s Transport Planning Network Conference was all about visioning. Which is the process by which a desirable future is imagined and then you work backwards to find how you can get there.

But starting at your destination is tricky. People carry a lot of baggage from the past and present. It’s difficult to think about what you would like to see, when you’re constantly feeling the pressure of what you think you could actually accomplish. Even if such thinking may hold you back.

Indeed, if you have not been trained on images of Freiburg and Copenhagen and Dutch transport planning, it can be difficult to ‘see’ the vision in the first place, even if pockets of it are right around the corner. Our first keynote speaker, Professor Emeritus Phil Goodwin noted that not only vested interests and political resistance are holding us back from visions of pedestrian paradise. People in their communities are often so car dependent that they may not be able to see any viable alternative for a low-car future of mobility that will allow them to fully participate in economic, civic, and social life.

Which is why one of our other speakers, James Gleave, asked us to think about what powers transport and planning professionals are willing to give up to help people dig through the practical, cultural, and social influences that affect their choices so that they can develop, define, and perhaps even deliver their own visions for their own communities. In such a scenario, transport planners might become more than regulators and legislators or even funders. They could take roles as leaders and educators, stewards and customers, negotiators and reformers.

And these suggestions fit in well with the other challenges to developing a future of mobility that is visionary.

Keith Mitchell noted that despite the push to prioritise housing numbers over places, the private sector is already looking at what other roles they should fulfil to deliver better visions. Tackling climate change and social value are gaining prominence in their tenders for work.

Leo Murray noted that technology, and particularly EVs, cannot alone solve the climate emergency. By some calculations, a reduction of 60% in vehicle miles travelled is required by 2030, and it won’t happen without a vision – and different roles for planning professionals to make sure that vision is shared.

Besides, even where legislation and policy support already exist, from the Climate Change Act to legislation and policy on equity and inclusion, as Joanna Ward noted, it may be the lack of diversity and awareness of different access needs among decision-makers which is perpetuating biases.

Our second keynote speaker, Lynda Addison OBE, summed up the problem perfectly. Not only do we need to start with a vision, which is our destination, but that collaborative vision should be based on the premise that ‘Transport is the solution, not the problem’. Then, instead of transport being something to mitigate through the land use planning process, sustainable travel choice are part of the vision we are working towards through the spatial planning process. Plans and planning applications can respond to the vision through inter-disciplinary evidence gathering and iterative thinking.

In other words, start at your destination, your vision, then work backwards, but your path will not be linear, but circular. Ask: What exists already that fits the vision? What opportunities or obstacles sit between where you are now and where you want to be? What actions can you or your organisation take and what actions must be taken by others, by people working at a larger or smaller scale? We asked questions of this sort in the final workshop of the event.

And we discovered a few answers. Not all, as an iterative process means going back and forth between the vision and those questions, not just as a small group of transport planners, but as wider communities. Yet we certainly learned a few things. One of which is how difficult it is to start at your destination!

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.

 

Weather Warnings

 

A couple weeks ago, I published a blog called Whether the Weather. It was about some of the research I’ve been doing into how everyday changes in the weather affect our daily travel choices. I’ve read quite a bit more on the topic since then, but I won’t bore you with that. Because I’ve also read about the impacts of more extreme weather on transport infrastructure and how that can more irregularly and infrequently affect our travel choices. Except it’s not as infrequent as you think.

I found a couple of websites from the Met Office and an organisation called FloodList with non-exhaustive reports of recent extreme weather events in the UK. Who needs disaster movies when you can read about real life? Especially when you can attach personal memories to many a story or photo.

Although not every individual resident has experience of being evacuated from their home due to floods or stranded for hours due to transport disruption, most of us can probably recall how some of these events affected us, our family, our social network or even the wider society.

Did you know people who took untold hours to get home after snow cut short Christmas shopping in 2010? Did you smell smoke from the forest fires of Spring 2011? Maybe someone told you about the Toon Monsoon in 2012. Or you saw on social media one of the great pictures of the lightening during the electrical storms in July 2013? Do you have family in the Southwest you couldn’t visit when the rail line was washed away in 2014? Or friends in Yorkshire that saw their favourite restaurant flood in 2015? Perhaps the flash floods on 23rd June 2016 in London affect the voter turn-out there for the EU referendum?

Although snow may be more immediately disruptive and heatwaves more enduring, heavy rain and storms and the floods they cause are the greatest risks to the UK’s transport infrastructure [1]. Great Britain may be an island, but coastal flooding is only a small part of it. Tides and storm surges, rivers bursting their banks, flash flooding, overflowing drains, groundwater seeping upwards – all forms of flooding pose risks to a significant proportion of national transport (and other) infrastructure throughout the country. Heavy rain, storms and flooding can trigger further problems, like landslips, sinkholes, coastal erosion and trees falling in the heavy winds that often accompany storms. When energy and communications infrastructure are also affected, the impacts can be compounded.

One study calculated that the storms of 28 June 2012 caused 10,000 minutes of delay on the national rail network, which didn’t get back to normal until mid-July, whilst there were also long delays on the strategic road network [2]. And this research didn’t even investigate local impacts. As this was the storm that caused the Toon Monsoon, a different study describes roads and properties flooded and severe disruption and damage from which it took some time to recover [3].

As we face such destructive weather, we as a society needs to adapt. I found three ‘R’s’ that should form our strategy: resistance, resilience and recovery. These ‘R’s’ are not only for engineers and scientists, civil servants and emergency responders to consider as they prepare strategies, redesign infrastructure, or even coordinate evacuations. They are also for people in their communities to think about how they would prepare, adapt and react.

Put yourself in that disaster movie. What would you do when the severe weather warnings or flood warnings were first issued? How many of your daily activities could you carry on with in the event? Do you have the skills to help get things back to normal quickly and painlessly? And in the longer term, would it affect your decisions about where you live and work and play, and how you get around?

 

 

1.Dawson, R., Chapter 4: Infrastructure, in UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017: Evidence Report. 2016, Committee on Climate Change. p. 1-111.

2.Jaroszweski, D.H., Elizabeth; Baker, Chris; Chapman, Lee and Quinn, Andrew, The impacts of the 28 June 2012 storms on UK road and rail transport. Meteorological Applications, 2015. 22: p. 470-476.

3.Pregnolato, M.F., Alistair; Robson, Craig; Glenis, Vassilis; Barr, Stuart and Dawson, Richard Assessing urban strategies for reducing the impacts of extreme weather on infrastructure networks. Royal Society Open Science, 2016. 3: p. 1-15.

Flying: more or less

I just got back from America. We had a great time seeing dozens of family and friends. Yet, every time I fly, I feel a pang of guilt. Well, pang might be overstating it, but definitely a twinge.

After all, a major part of my professional life is advocating for sustainable transport and taking action to increase travel options that are friendlier to the environment and society. I tend to practice what I preach as well. I have commuted by bicycle, by train, and now mainly work from home. I walk my daughter to school and my groceries home from the shops. There are many benefits to making such choices, but I would not shirk from saying that reducing my carbon footprint is one of those benefits. I have learned about and believed in climate change for decades.

Yet I continue to fly. Regularly. As do many others. And although I feel a twinge of guilt, I wouldn’t want to see air travel severely restricted, even as I want to see the nations and cities of the world come together to fight climate change. In fact, if flight was restricted, wouldn’t the coming together of nations for whatever purpose be restricted as well?

So what place does flight have in the future of movement? Is the recent trend of more flights to more places carrying more passengers set to continue? Or will it come to an abrupt halt in our lifetimes?

Many argue for the importance of air travel on economic grounds, but only 19% of airplane passengers are travelling for business.

Yet flying for tourism, cultural exchange, exploration, international experience and involvement is not bereft of value either, not least economic value. Even if that value accrues to other countries more than my own.

And I would argue that flying for family has inestimable value to the positive development of our world civilisation. I previously suggested (https://go-how.com/2014/04/14/flying-for-family/) that leisure travel to visit family rather than for pure tourism likely accounts for a greater percentage of air passengers than commonly considered. Over 8 million people or 13% of the resident population of the UK in 2014 were born elsewhere. It would be fair to assume that a large number of these people, whether UK citizens or not, have family outside the country to visit, perhaps regularly, even if they can’t all boast of the numbers I saw this trip.

So flight must have a future. But perhaps its future requires more endeavour to remove those twinges of guilt.

The car is accelerating towards new technologies much faster than the airplane, but there is some progress to report. A solar airplane has flown over halfway round the world and is soon to complete the rest of its journey; http://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/three-unusual-ways-solar-soaring. Solar power is gaining traction in other areas of the sector as well.

Meanwhile, NASA and commercial aircraft manufacturers are reported to be researching the future of supersonic air travel, with the aim of not only economic viability, but less emissions too: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/supersonic-flight-concordes-successors-are-in-the-works-15-years-on-from-the-paris-crash-10415912.html.

Trends in other forms of transport are emphasising the sharing economy and utilisation of idle capacity. With more cooperation between nations, cities and airlines, I am certain that air travel too could become more efficient. Whenever I read about the debate around hub airports and expanding London’s Heathrow, I always wonder what could be achieved if Heathrow, Amsterdam’s Schipol and Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airports could collaborate to better serve the flying public and the local communities, never mind the environment. If they no longer saw themselves as competitors, perhaps an analysis of flight paths and filling seats could translate to significant fuel savings. There could be apps that guide passengers to journey choices that enable flights and airports to operate at optimum capacity in near real-time. Such application of current technological trends and use of big data is surely more likely if conglomerates of airports are involved.

I would like to believe that human flight is a 21st century trend that is and can be sustained. But that will only be the case if air travel can supress its extensive emissions and I can fly, without the guilt.

Floods of the Future… Now

For my first blog of 2016, there are some obvious topics.

One is New Year’s Resolutions. I tackled that two years ago and wrote about physical activity and how perhaps the transport and public health benefits can keep us to our commitments a little longer: https://go-how.com/2014/01/02/a-physical-impact/. Looking back, the blog still stands. Or moves. No need to write it again.

A second topic is what is new in the New Year. Here in the UK, rail commuters are greeted every year by new fares. Higher fares. Despite the policy promises to freeze regulated rail fares and introduce flexible season tickets late last year, I’ve seen enough on the news and Twitter as people went back to work on Monday, 4 January to suggest that not enough has happened yet to make my blog last year an un-fare reflection of this new year as well: https://go-how.com/2014/12/31/a-happy-new-fare/.

The most obvious topic, however, is not one that has to do with the annual change of number on calendars, but one that has been inescapable news for the last month: Floods. Since the beginning of December, parts of the UK have seen homes, businesses, villages and even cities were submerged under feet of water as storm after storm made December 2015 the wettest for over 100 years in Scotland, Wales and northwest England.

Even in the comparatively dry southeast, I thought I might have to invent a new sport of mud-skiing when I took my children to a local playground. And when we went to visit relatives on the Welsh borders, I didn’t dare take my toddler out for a walk on the usually lovely (and high ground of the) village common for fear of losing him in mud as deep and dangerous as quicksand.

The year as a whole is provisionally making the Met Office’s list of top ten wettest years since records of such things began in 1910. Even before the rains of Storm Desmond, Eva and Frank battered the British Isles, a met office blog: http://blog.metoffice.gov.uk/tag/wettest/ noted that seven of those top ten years have been since 1998. Perhaps it is now eight of ten? Global warming and climate change anyone?

Enter link to transport:

Transport is a major carbon emitter, so transport planners are working hard to reduce emissions with measures aimed to increase walking, cycling and public transport use and to replace public, private and commercial vehicle fleets with electric/zero-emission vehicles powered by renewably-generated energy.

Yet, it’s not enough. The floods are here and even with all the commitments of the Paris conference, likely to get worse.

Still, is it a coincidence that a Transport Minister has been set to oversee the flood response in Yorkshire? Highways services often have responsibility over the maintenance of storm drains and street gutters. I only focused on transport in my review of the spending review: https://go-how.com/2015/12/01/spend-nationally-speak-locally/, but there are parallels between the budgets for the Department for Transport and local governments and that of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has responsibility for flood control. Namely, a focus on infrastructure spending, undermined by cuts in revenue and maintenance spending and indeed overall budget.

Conclusion? Transport planners need to get involved in adaptation and we need to be creative. Not by inventing mud skiing or recommending that people keep canoes in their garages (although the canoe is the bicycle of the water). Rather, by how we build and maintain our roads and drains and other public infrastructure.

Car parks, for example. When I worked at Reading, an annual question was how many days during that year had the Park and Ride site in the flood plain of the River Lodden been closed due to flood warnings and how much money had been lost in fares whilst paying rent on the private car park the service used. The solution to this perennial problem was realised in 2015: a replacement Park and Ride site on drier ground. Yet, ignoring the land ownership issue, true adaptation might have gone one step further – making the old site a fit-for-purpose water storage area that might protect property downstream.

Likewise, what role could riverside roads, whether highways or pedestrian/cycle green-ways play in offering another level to which a river could rise, another barrier before the waters cascade into buildings? Centuries-old bridges have been broken by the recent floods – could we not only rebuild them stronger, but also better, designed to not only withstand, but accommodate and re-direct flood waters?

This Christmas, the UK had yet another taste of the floods of the future. Floods have caused billions in damage more frequently than ever before. They will continue to do so unless politicians and professionals think strategically and creatively. Transport planners and engineers are one set of professionals that can help.

STIP Forward

Ten years ago, world leaders of almost 200 nations reached an historic agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stave off the worst impacts of global warming by targeting a global temperature rise of no more than 1.5C. The Paris climate compact of 2015 was not without flaws and compromise, but it was a great achievement to secure signatures from so many countries to a legally binding document on addressing climate change.

One key element agreed was to review progress every five years. The national pledges in 2015 were insufficient to meet the 1.5C or even 2C maximum target, so ambition and action had to ramp up over time. But it was not a smooth ride. Some of the pledges were delayed by domestic politics or watered down by links to economic indicators.

However, the global agreement galvanised cities, who met in a parallel conference at the time. In just five years, walking, cycling, shared electric transport and public transport became the preferred modes of travel and of delivery over private motor vehicles run on fossil fuels. Cities pushed for green building standards, retrofitting buildings for the 21st century and insisting on carbon neutrality for iconic new developments. Such initiatives were supported by large private sector investment, as companies strove to become market leaders in the green economy and secure high-skilled employment for the future.

Thus, the world was on target in 2020 due to local action. However, to continue on that path over the last five years has required the international community to step forward again. We live in a local-global world, where nations can only offer so much, where countries may have less power over their own environment than a group of their neighbours.

Therefore, we have prepared this document, to be modified and ratified at the Climate Review 2025 conference in December. It is the Spatial, Trans-national Infrastructure Plan, and it brings together all infrastructure matters which are international and/or inter-continental. Such matters include aviation, shipping, long-distance pipelines, aqueducts and viaducts, watersheds and river systems, satellites and space installations.

Scientists, activists, economists, planners, senior civil servants, and diplomats have contributed to the pages of the STIP, ensuring it is based on accurate data and appropriate forecasts. We are aware that many of these topics are of strategic, international importance and must be dealt with delicately. However, as was highlighted in 2015, their absence in the original agreement and in many national pledges undermined the ambitions of the accord. Therefore, this Plan considers the impacts and outcomes of such infrastructure on trans-national and global climate without reference to national boundaries in order to maintain neutrality.

Through the work of trans-national teams and computers programmed to remove national bias, this document then offers spatial recommendations for international, inter-continental and global infrastructure. For example it proposes the appropriate number of hub airports and flight patterns in, to and from Western Europe to maximise the carbon efficiency of aviation, without undermining national economies.

We are offering to the world what many countries should offer to their citizens if they are serious about social, economic and environmental sustainability: spatial planning. If accepted by world leaders at the 2025 Review, these spatial planning recommendations will help us take the next step or STIP in preserving our planet for future generations.

 

Sarah Gomez-Chen

UN Climate Ambassador

November 2025