Muddle of Mobility Messages

As the UK begins to ease its lockdown restrictions and people are allowed to move about more, I don’t have a problem with the change of message from ‘Stay at Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’. I feel I can be trusted to behave responsibly and sensibly as I encounter more people beyond my household, and I’d like to think the majority of my fellow citizens can be trusted likewise.

Besides, the first message when it comes to work activities, is to remain working from home if this is possible. And whilst the group that can work from home is not a majority and their socio-demographics have implications for equity, it turns out that far more people can work from home at least some of the time than were doing so before the pandemic. This will reduce pressure on transport infrastructure and destinations alike.

The second message is to walk and cycle where possible, and it is backed up by emergency powers to make changes quickly and funding to implement those changes. Local transport authorities around the country are reallocating road space to pedestrians and cyclists, both to enable safe active travel, and to support social distancing outside essential shops and services.

As I wrote in my last blog, with a proactive approach supported by good spatial planning of these essential non-work destinations, these facilities will help increase walking and cycling among those who are working from home as well as those travelling to work over relatively short distances. In 2018, two thirds of trips in England were under 5 miles (p19).

So far so good. But then we get to the muddle. Whilst some of the other third of trips will be to destinations that are still closed, trips to work and to exercise further from home are being actively encouraged, whilst the use of public transport is being actively discouraged. This is problematic and indeed contradictory for a number of reasons:

  • People are being asked to stay alert if they need to go to workplaces where they risk potential infection due to social interactions outside their household, often in indoor spaces. Meanwhile workplaces are expected to put into place safety measures (for cleaning, social distancing, etc) that make staying alert rather than staying home a sufficient precaution. Public transport vehicles are also workplaces. They are also expected to put into place safety measures (for cleaning, social distancing, etc). Therefore, surely the directive to stay alert should be sufficient for both workplaces and public transport, without the additional directive to avoid public transport altogether?
  • Related to this, encouraging the reallocation of road space at the same time as encouraging a return to car use could create more conflicts between motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists – both on the road and in the media. Clarity on the hierarchy of road users is preferable to the current mixed messages.
  • Furthermore, reductions in carbon emissions and air pollution has been a major benefit of reduced road traffic during lockdown. As COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, keeping air pollution down will not reduce risk of transmission, but may reduce the numbers who are at risk of becoming severely ill. Air pollution causes excess mortality from numerous respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
  • Finally, a study in NYC correlates higher infection rates after lockdown with car-dependent areas, compared to those connected by public transport. The authors suggest this could be because people who travel by car to shops and services are more likely to come into contact with more people from different areas of the city than people who travel by public transport and access what they need by foot within their own neighbourhood. Indeed, if people are returning to work by car (or visiting more distant places for exercise), they may split their essential shopping (food, medicine) across communities, potentially spreading or picking up the virus from multiple places rather than one. Such linked trips by public transport are much less likely, whilst active travellers keep everything local.

In conclusion, if a resurgence in car travel is to be avoided, trust in public transport cannot be undermined further by stark warnings, local people must have priority on local roads, and long distance day trips should be discouraged – at least until more destinations re-open and there are more economic and social benefits to making those trips. The messaging around mobility needs modification and a more strategic outlook.

A Transport Defence System

I’ve been thinking a bit over the weekend about the attacks in Barcelona. And Charlottesville. And London, Nice, and more places than I can quite keep track of recently. And what I’ve been thinking about most is the weapon of choice in all these attacks: motor vehicles. Cars, vans, trucks. Objects whose purpose is to enable people and goods to get from A to B. A purpose I have long considered a main driver of my professional life. Pun intended. But in these cases, the transport purpose of vehicles is being perverted.

Not that motor vehicles have ever been innocent. Even before the idea to consciously use them as terrorist weapons was fomented, motor vehicles have killed people in their thousands. Through the sprawling, sedentary urban forms and the subsequent inactivity they foster, through carbon emissions and local air pollution, and of course, through road traffic incidents. Some who is run over by accident is as much a casualty as someone who is run over on purpose.

Which is not to say that an accidental weapon is as potent as one used with intent. The terrorists, no matter their ideological background, are driving into crowds, into pedestrian areas, in places where they can cause the most damage. So how do we limit the damage?

Obviously there are debates about surveillance and police presence in vulnerable places, about the means available to gather intelligence about terrorist cells or radicalised and potentially violent individuals, about the regulations and background checks required to access vehicles, particularly rented ones. Still, if transport is the weapon, surely transport planning can be part of the solution.

The security services have already been speaking on the radio about concrete barriers and similar physical infrastructure. Indeed, they have been talking about such things for years. I once attended a meeting in Wales back in the days when the new Wembley Stadium was under construction, and Cardiff was hosting football matches and events of international importance. The Welsh police and anti-terrorist units discussed the need then to have physical infrastructure that could stop car bombs from approaching and detonating near ‘soft targets’ like the stadium. The room was full of planners, transport planners, architects, engineers, and urban designers. We were being tasked not with coming up with the idea of having physical barriers in the first place, nor even necessarily where they should go. No, our job was to integrate such barriers into the urban fabric.

So what is the transport planning part of the solution to this new use of vehicles as weapons? It is to develop the public realm with beautiful planters, seating, bollards, and other street furniture or even street art that also act as barriers to motor vehicles. Perhaps it is also to create new pedestrian spaces. Or make more spaces pedestrian-only, 24-7, protected by physical infrastructure, rather than opened up to motor vehicles and deliveries at various times of day. And then to solve the delivery issues by creating appropriate delivery consolidation locations, loading bays, and more creative delivery options, such as bicycle couriers who are allowed to enter the pedestrian area. And whilst we’re on bicycles, why not combine the creation of new, segregated bicycle lanes with lines of attractive and protective concrete planters? Planters have been used instead of kerbs or verges to segregate cycle facilities before, so why not make sure they also serve a defensive function on crowded roads and bridges?

If we put our minds to it, transport planners can think of many ways that they could help develop a defence system to deal not only with the use of motor vehicles as weapons, but also to address some of the other dangers motor vehicles present to human life. Concurrent objectives could include segregating vulnerable cyclists and pedestrians from motor vehicles to reduce accidents, creating better spaces for pedestrians and cyclist to encourage more active travel, and increasing the distance of places crowded with people from the generators of local air pollution. It might not be enough to completely stop the use of motor vehicles as a weapon in the future, but we can do something constructive to save lives now.

The Myth-ing Truth

“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Col. Jessep spits at Lt. Kaffee in the 1992 blockbuster, A Few Good Men.

It was a favourite film in my early teens. I could have quoted whole scenes at the time, but I haven’t seen it for many years. So what made me think of it?

I was reading tweets trending under #cycleactivecity, the Twitter Handle for the Cycle City Active City conference in Leicester on 19-20 May. I should have been there. I had been scheduled a short slot to speak about bike share, but I couldn’t make the logistics / finances of childcare and travel stack up. So I was checking what people there were tweeting about.

Someone had used the opportunity to launch a new website: Cycling Fallacies: http://cyclingfallacies.com/en/.

I admire this initiative and the interactive approach to dispelling common myths about cycling. The authors clearly believe that at least people at a conference on cycling can handle the truth. But does the website itself have a handle on those truths? I’m a transport planner with an ongoing passion for the promotion of sustainable transport and with experience delivering cycle strategy and infrastructure. Surely, I would recognise whether the listed cycling fallacies were myths or not. I had a look.

Yes, there they were. Commonly-heard statements like hilliness or weather or the absence of the Dutch ‘culture’ causing the lack of cycling in Britain. I agree that statements like these aren’t true, and I could give as much or more evidence than the website does as to why.

Some statements of myth were less common, but perhaps because they were so patently false, no explanation was required. Surely, I thought, people aren’t actually claiming that cycling causes congestion, nor that one can’t cycle without getting sweaty. When I used to cycle to work, I simply pedalled slower to avoid the need for a shower on arrival.

Yet I also spotted statements that were less clear-cut fallacy. For example, the need for increased driver education and cyclist skills training are not mythical. They are positive measures, even if they would not solve issues of cycle safety nor increase rates of cycling on their own. I doubt many transport planners or interested members of the public would profess that such measures should be taken in isolation nor that offering training undermines plans to implement cycle infrastructure.

Finally, I saw a statement which challenged me: “Everyone needs to share the road.” Surely, that is truth, not myth? I clicked on it. The explanation was that we can’t depend upon people travelling by car to respect the needs of cyclists on busy roads, so segregation is required. Ok, so maybe I have a different definition of sharing. I was thinking more of the road space, not necessarily the running lanes of a busy distributor road.

That thought might still be myth-understanding the fallacy purported in the original statement. I have been reading Dr Steve Melia’s book, Urban Transport without the Hot Air (2015), and he is also in the business of dispelling myths. He has a chapter on cycling myths and one on shared space myths. If the goal is to increase walking and cycling, he counsels against cycle lanes, shared pedestrian/cycle routes, and the complete ‘decluttering’ advocated by the shared space movement. He points to a lack of evidence on the effectiveness of the latter, and the assumption that there are different ‘types’ of cyclists as myth-takenly supporting the former two approaches. [I noted he attributed this assumption to the vocal British ‘sports’ cyclists and its once representative body, the CTC.] Rather, there should be space allocated fully to each mode on busy streets and ‘filtered permeability’ (through routes for cyclists and pedestrians, but not motor vehicles) on quiet streets.

So is that the myth-ing truth? If so, I think I can handle it.