Public Realm Resource

The thorniest topic at the UN’s COP27 on climate change this month has been finance, or the lack thereof, to lower income and more vulnerable countries. Affordability is front and centre of the debate to not only tackle climate change globally, but also to do so justly.

Similarly, affordability is a word that has been on the lips of many policy makers and stakeholders as soon as we started researching inclusivity in the transition to electric mobility in Bristol. Electric vehicles (EVs) are seen as unaffordable by and for many people. Even retrofitting or upgrading to a vehicle compliant with the Clean Air Zone (introduced today!) is considered financially out of reach for some of the most vulnerable and vehicle-dependent.

Furthermore, for cash-strapped governments, there is debate as to whether limited public monies should be spent on installing public EV charging infrastructure, rather than leaving it to the private sector? Public sector public charging might improve inclusion by enabling EV adoption by those without an off-street parking and domestic charging option, but if only wealthier households (whether they have private parking or not) can afford an EV, do they really need public charging infrastructure to be subsidised? Especially as electricity prices go up, and providing as well as using public charging becomes less affordable.

There are arguments the other way, of course, as lower income households might still drive a company car or van. They might be able to access a second-hand or shared EV.

And there are other forms of electric mobility. E-scooters and e-bikes not only can improve accessibility, but also can be considered a reasonably affordable transport option, especially for medium-length journeys where public transport is limited. Besides, many e-scooter trials have included discounts for low income groups to make sure the scheme is affordable.

But affordability and how public monies are used are not the only topic up for debate when considering whether the transition to electric mobility is progressing in an inclusive way. Digging a little deeper, another inclusion / justice issue is around the rights of different people to use the public realm in different ways and how their different ways of moving are accommodated in public spaces.

A number of the policy-makers and stakeholders we spoke to described how the allocation or reallocation of space on the public highway or footway is one of the most contentious interventions they can propose. Even in terms of people moving through space, there are the ever-recurring problems of congestion, crowding, and the use of space of different modes. Then there’s the space taken up for parking, deliveries, sign posts, bollards, traffic signals, cycle stands – so much of our public realm is used for dormant vehicles or the smooth running of the transport network, never mind for other things like retail or socialising.

The addition of electric mobility infrastructure such as EV charging and e-scooter parking places new demands on the scarce resource that is our public realm. Electric mobility also raises questions about how that resource is used – which modes are sharing which spaces, whose space is reallocated, who will face new challenges using public space, and will there be new conflicts and safety concerns? Basically, how efficient and fair is the use and allocation of the public realm once electric mobility is added into our transport systems?

Unsurprisingly, the policy makers and stakeholders we spoke to did not all have the same answers or perhaps any answers to these questions. And yet, they were asking the questions. They realised that social justice is not all about affordability or accessibility, but also the diverse needs, rights, experiences, and expectations of the public realm resource. That is an important step in not only our developing research, but also in achieving an inclusive transition to electric mobility.

Quality in Qualitative Methods

As we describe in the ‘About ITEM’ section of our project website, ‘Work Package Two’ reviews policy documents and holds workshops and interviews with policy-makers and stakeholders in each of our case study cities in order to review how the different dimensions of justice are accounted for in the policies and decisions that govern the transition to electric mobility, why this is, and whether policy processes can be improved.

We use qualitative methods because this research question is all about answering how and why the transition to electric mobility is happening in certain ways, not just who is(n’t) using electric mobility and where electric mobility infrastructure and services can(‘t) be found. Which is not to say we are not asking questions about people and places, but these questions too are formulated as how and why.

For example: How are different people expected to use or respond to the transition to electric mobility? Why are some groups, but not others, involved or recognised in the policies and decisions that govern that transition? How are different places imagined when planning electric mobility interventions? Why are some places identified as needing more, less or different interventions?

Qualitative methods are well-placed to answer how and why questions rigorously, and help us find ways to make use of those answers.

For Bristol alone, we have iteratively read and coded 16 policy documents, from the city, combined authority and national levels. These have included transport and climate changes strategies at urban and national scales, bids and business cases prepared for central government review, and central government guidance prepared to assist local authorities. Hundreds of pages resulted in thousands of references. Our coding worked both top down and bottom up.

We created 11 ‘parent’ codes from our analytical framework, covering five dimensions of justice (capabilities and epistemic justice formed separate parent codes) and six central aspects of policy and governance:

  • sources of knowledge;
  • policy interventions;
  • their strategic programming;
  • the problems (and opportunities) policies address;
  • the people / subjects identified or implied; and
  • the places / territories addressed or characterised.

Within these, a close reading of the texts led to child, grandchild and even great-grandchild codes that help us understand:

  • how dimensions of justice manifest in policy, in concepts such as accessibility or affordability;
  • why certain sources of knowledge or evidence are foregrounded, e.g. when it is politically expedient to show generalised public support or expert advice;
  • why different policy interventions or strategic packages are targeted at certain places and people, e.g. because they are seen as needing more intervention; and
  • how local residents or businesses are expected to respond, including as rational actors who will choose the most attractive and efficient mobility options provided.

Thus, qualitative analytical methods help us recognise patterns of meaning within the narratives these documents present about the transition to electric mobility, its role in wider policy debates around sustainable transport, climate change, and public funding. They also help us consider what is not said, especially in our hunt for indications of inclusivity in policy decisions and delivery.

These methods can also be used to analyse, quite literally, what is said, as we interview policy-makers and related stakeholders. We can ask them directly which and whether aspects of social justice are accounted for in their work. We can then use the same coding methods to see whether the answers to those how and why questions are the same, how the narratives compare, and why knowledge, approach, perspectives vary.

In summary, the research in this work package aims not only to understand how and why in the past and present, but also how and why policy and governance may accelerate a more inclusive transition to electric mobility in the future. And we will continue to use qualitative methods to not only search for answers, but also apply them.