Silence on Social Justice?

Bristol was chosen for our case study city for three reasons.

First, in practical terms, we needed a medium-sized British city that would allow comparison with our partner cities across Europe – Oslo, Poznan and Utrecht.

Second, it needed to be somewhere with electric mobility policies and projects to study for social justice implications. Bristol has won a number of UK and European bids funding electric mobility infrastructure and services, either specifically or as part of larger transport packages.

Finally, we thought it might be a positive critical case study – somewhere more likely to be an exemplar of social justice in policy making.

Bristol has a history of civic activism and concern for equity and inclusion. It was home not only to the most significant Black Lives Matter protests in the UK, but also the Bristol bus boycott in 1963, when protesters forced the local bus company to change their discriminatory employment policies. It was not only the first local government authority in the UK to declare a climate emergency, but also the first place women were ordained into the Church of England.

In the transport domain, Sustrans, the charity which created and maintains the National Cycle Network and advocates for walking and cycling was founded in Bristol in 1977. More recently, parents in Bristol who wanted to see their children play in the streets in front of their homes without fear of traffic started the charity Playing Out, which helps residents apply for temporary, but regular road closures.

Could we find evidence of that sort of civic spirit in the transition to electric mobility and the policies designed to support it?

Ten recent, urban policy documents were analysed to find out, including transport and climate strategies and a few UK funding bids with electric mobility elements.

We did not find a suitable document specifically covering the successful European bid that funded the REPLICATE project, but thought the social outcomes of that project would surely be mentioned in policy documents that did make our list. REPLICATE included an e-bike loan scheme and new electric car club bays and was specifically targeted at neighbourhoods with more minority groups and less housing or transport capital.

REPLICATE was mentioned in three of our analysed documents, but as an example of successful delivery, without reference to social outcomes or equity nor if local residents were involved in choosing the bay locations or gave their views on driving the shared electric cars.

My analysis of data provided by Co-Wheels, the car club operator that participated in the project, showed that the e-car club bays installed during the project were located in significantly more deprived areas than other car club bays and used by residents of more deprived areas. An academic involved in the project confirmed to me that the locations were purposefully chosen to increase access to shared electric vehicles among low income residents.

Yet whilst the potential of increased access through EV car clubs is highlighted in the UK Go Ultra Low bid (see page 17), the bid cited REPLICATE only for its synergy with the proposed scheme, not for its inclusivity. All three documents mentioning REPLICATE are strangely silent on the project’s social justice implications.

We found a similar silence on another social justice initiative described in just one document: the One City Plan proposes to apply the recommendations of the citizens’ assembly that was just finishing its deliberations as the Plan was published in March 2021. Yet the two documents we could find published after the One City Plan do not mention the citizen’s assembly at all. Will others yet to be published do more?

Meanwhile, as mentioned in my blog, the Future Mobility Zone bid promises co-production and user-centred design, but there is no knowing from the document itself whether the e-mobility aspects of the bid have been or will be implemented in such a socially just way. We have to use other sources to find out.

Thus, whilst Bristol may still be an exemplar of social justice in terms of civic activism and opportunities for genuine participation, potentially even in ways that relate to electric mobility policy, relevant policy documents are strangely silent on the subject and evidence is thus far missing, particularly of recognition justice and the incorporation of diverse knowledge, values, and practices in the transition to electric mobility.

Interviews with stakeholders come next as our search for evidence of Bristol as a positive critical case study in the inclusive transition to electric mobility (ITEM) continues.

Automotive electrification and social justice

I’d forgotten, but I did write a blog back in February for an Italian Policy Studies Institute: Overlooked? Social Justice Issues in Automotive Electrification (ispionline.it). Its publication was understandably delayed by the need to address the invasion of Ukraine, but it’s available now. And as the research has progressed in the meantime, I will soon publish another blog that provides some updates in light of the new EV Infrastructure Strategy published in the UK in late March.

Recognising Recognition Justice

I am working on a major research project called ITEM: Inclusive Transition to Electric Mobility, where we review who uses electric mobility alongside whether the policies that are supposed to support us all to switch from fossil-fuel powered transport to electric options are socially just.

Now that we’ve had workshops with stakeholders in all four cities where we are conducting our research, it is clear that what we call the recognition aspect of social justice is the one least recognised.

In transport policy-making, distributional justice is usually part of appraising the problem and implementing solutions. Decision-makers often ask who living where suffers from local air pollution or who benefits from a new electric charging station or shared e-bike service. They might even ask whether it’s the same ‘who’.

Procedural justice is also fairly straightforward. Who participates in what gets done in a city and how meaningful is that participation? Officials working at various levels of government may not always involve other sectors and citizens as much as they could or would like to. They may not quite know how to make participation more meaningful, but they get the idea.

But recognition justice? Our participants hadn’t heard of it.

We all explained that it’s about recognising that different people need, want, value or expect different things at different times and for different purposes. And our participants understood, but rarely consider it explicitly. In fact, we could find questions about recognition justice in all our workshops – our participants just didn’t call it that.

Back in our first workshop in Bristol, there was a discussion about who used electric car clubs, for what purposes, and whether they were getting the service they actually wanted and expected. Could these shared vehicles meet the needs of both those who could not afford a car, particularly not an electric one, as well as those who could afford multiple cars, but wanted to reduce their car ownership? These are questions of recognition justice.

At the second workshop in Poznan, Poland, participants spoke not just about users of electric mobility, but also related industries. They considered how there would be automotive workers who needed re-training and other support. They asked how the experience of groups like these would fit with the promotion of environmental values and acceptance of regulations to encourage electric mobility. These are questions of recognition justice.

In Utrecht, the Netherlands, the participants wondered how to manage the rights to and use of public space when users of e-scooters or electric cars, for example, might expect to use that space differently than those on pedal bikes or parking a conventional vehicle. They asked how conflicts between users could be avoided to ensure no one felt excluded from the public spaces where they felt they had a right to be. These are questions of recognition justice.

In the Norwegian workshop, the participants noted that although electric cars are now easy to use around Oslo, that might not mean they are equally easy for everyone. They asked whether charging services, with their assorted infrastructure, pricing, and payment mechanisms (e.g. apps), were what all users might want and understand, or whether they could be seen as neither inclusive nor fair. These are questions of recognition justice.

So many questions of recognition justice, just as there are so many different needs, wants, values, rights and understandings to recognise. Our participants recognise that there are these differences, but may not yet have considered how to find out the detail of what they are and who holds them. As this project progresses, we will be seeking answers, and opening up yet another aspect of justice – ‘epistemic’ or that related to the creation and incorporation of knowledge.

Looking forward to an electric 2022

The outlook for 2022 is uncertain, but one thing my household is looking forward to is switching from a conventional fossil-fuel powered vehicle to our first fully-battery-electric family car. As a one-car family on three-year contracts, we couldn’t find an affordable car with enough space and range for our needs in the summer of 2019, but this time we’ve ordered early so can still be certain to have the new vehicle before our contract runs out.

Our situation is not unique. Electric Vehicles (EV) make up less than 1% of the vehicles we see today on the UK’s roads, but almost 10% of new cars purchased in the past year have been battery electric. The transition is taking off. And once you have an EV on order, you soon start seeing other EV everywhere. Teslas are easy to spot, but it’s surprising how many other cars have little green squares on their registration plates.

I’ve started noticing the cars more recently, but I’d been taking note of EV charging stations or points for about two years now – ever since I started researching public charging options for residents who cannot charge at home.

I know from my research that the vast majority of private electric cars in the UK at the moment will usually be charged on someone’s driveway at their home. We certainly intend to do most of our charging at home on our driveway. Yet before we moved a little over a year ago, we would have struggled to find somewhere to charge an EV – another reason we put off buying one.

An estimated 25-30% of households in England park their cars on-street. But these are not the only type of household who may not be able to charge from home. Car parks, communal parking areas, private laybys and garage blocks are all forms of off-street residential parking, but installing a charger or even an electricity connection may not be straightforward.

Our situation before we moved was a case in point. We lived on an estate with communal car parking areas, no allocated spaces, and garages around the corner that were not supplied with electricity. We spoke to the estate managers before we chose our last car, and they said they’d think about installing EV charging in the future… but it was low on their priority list at the time.

Without an option to charge at home, switching to an electric car may seem impossible or at least challenging for residents of our former estate, as well as those who live in other more modern estates of flats, townhouses, maisonettes, and on the many historic terraced streets in cities, towns, and villages around the country.

So I have been on the lookout for public charging, and seen hubs at motorway services and in EV hotspots like Milton Keynes. I have seen them start to proliferate in ones and twos in supermarket car parks too – one was even installed at our local supermarket a couple of months ago.

But there doesn’t appear to be much strategic thinking behind the installation of most local public charging infrastructure to provide for residents without home charging. So our research asked: How much and where do these households need public charging? Should it be on-street or in car parks? What sort of service should this charging infrastructure provide? How can it offer flexibility both to the operator and the users? What will give households who can’t charge at home the confidence to switch to an electric car?

We are ready to present our findings and their policy implications in a webinar in February 2022, where we will also release a series of policy briefings to mark the end of this particular project. It’s another milestone to look forward to in what may be an uncertain year, but also promises to be, both personally and professionally, electric.

Can we build back fairer?

As we reach the end of a difficult year, we are all looking forward to the next one – one in which we regain the freedom to move around more, go places, see people, participate in activities in person. We have missed out on connecting, which is the main purpose of transport systems. Although it is also the main purpose of telecommunications systems, these could only offer incomplete substitutes for some of the most meaningful types of connecting.

Yet transport systems and the connections they offer cannot, will not, and should not return in all the same forms they took less than a year ago.

We need to continue to encourage walking, cycling and other forms of active travel that improve public health. We need to help people renew their confidence in the safety of public transport. We need to reduce the amount of travel per person, where telecommunications can replace unnecessary mileage.

As the slogans go, we need to support a ‘green recovery’ and ‘to build back better’ in transport as in other sectors. If we are to avoid further crises, it is time to take the decarbonisation of transport seriously and reduce local air pollution as well.

A switch to electric cars is part of the solution, but my current and future research suggests that we need to put this switch into perspective, not only because it is not the whole of any environmental solution, but also because the transition to electric mobility will not be a socially just solution without efforts to make it so.

This year has highlighted the importance of redressing decades of social injustices due to race, poverty, and gender as much as it has taught us not to ignore our vulnerability to natural disasters. It is as important to build back fairer as it is to build back greener.

My research looks at both the social and the environmental through the lens of the transition to electric mobility. If the replacement of petrol and diesel with electric is to be fair and equitable, then how do we recognise different needs and capabilities, enable more participation in identifying solutions, and make sure the relevant infrastructure is built in an accessible way?

Electric cars are very expensive, but they are becoming more affordable to purchase, lease or access on the now-developing second-hand market. Yet what about post-purchase? Any household who can plug their electric car into their home electricity overnight whilst they’re sleeping will rarely have to make a special trip to refuel, and will save money on the daily costs of running a car.

In contrast, those who rent and / or live in flats and terraced housing are less likely to have a private garage or driveway to park and charge an electric car. So how do we build the right sort of charging infrastructure in the right places so that drivers who cannot charge an electric car at home aren’t put at a disadvantage? How do we make public charging affordable?

How do we also make it safe and convenient if such characteristics are subjective and the majority of electric car owners and enthusiasts are currently men? How do we involve women, or those on low incomes, or those from different ethnic backgrounds in the forums on and front lines of implementing electric charging infrastructure?

Will the solutions for central urban areas be the same as those in the suburbs, small towns, or villages? For whom is shared electric transport, or micro-mobility (e.g. e-bikes and scooters) a more accessible solution?

These are the types of questions we need to begin to answer next year, as we all seek to reconnect in not just a green recovery, but an equitable one. Let’s build back better, greener, and fairer.

A Future of Transport Equity?

I’ve been thinking about transport equity this month. I don’t mean transport poverty, although I’ve read some interesting literature on that too recently. But transport poverty is now and transport equity, or rather inequity, is what we are building into the future of mobility through our investment and policy decisions.

Three areas where we might be steering towards future transport inequity have been on my mind.

The first is electric vehicles. Many see a transition to electric vehicles as the solution to a low-carbon future. Yet my current research explores how mass adoption of plug-in electric vehicles might be delivered when at least a third of car drivers have no ability to park and charge their vehicles at their homes. Many of these people, who may be living in flats or small terraces or rented accommodation without private parking are unlikely to be able to afford the purchase price of battery electric vehicles anyway. Yet even if costs come down and the second-hand market grows, their lack of driveways and garages mean they would still fail to benefit from the ultra-low refuelling costs of slow-charging overnight using home electricity. There are solutions, and we are researching their social sustainability, but it is hard to see how state subsidies for private electric vehicle purchase will lead us to an equitable future of mobility. (Never mind the implications for congestion, urban environments, lithium mining…)

The second transport, or, more accurately, access equity issue that I’ve been mulling over is online access. Online access was a big part of my doctoral research, and as I defended my thesis this month, the external examiner acknowledged that I’d mentioned the equity aspect of online access, but questioned whether I addressed it directly enough. Indeed, the more I think about my analysis of the potential resilience and sustainability of telecommuting as an option to access work activities during transport disruption, the more I realise that it is an option for far too few, and those few tend to be among the more privileged. It does not have to be that way. Changes in government and corporate policy to promote computer skills and allow remote and autonomous working could enable telecommuting to be available to many more sectors of society. But there must also be investment in infrastructure that delivers both availability and quality online access to all – and I’m not sure the current preoccupation with 5G allows that.

Finally, it’s been hard to ignore recent headlines on HS2. Whatever you think about the political agenda or ballooning budget, a new high speed rail service will mainly serve relatively wealthy commuters, as, like telecommuting, rail commuters tend to be found among those with higher incomes. Especially if they’re travelling to benefit from London’s already bloated job market. One can’t help but agree with those who suggest the money might better be spent on local transport, reduced rail fares, or any number of other things. Unless there’s plenty in the coffers for both HS2 and the rest of the wish list, you’d be hard pressed to argue that this is socially-progressive infrastructure investment.

In conclusion, I am not against high-speed rail, 5G or other advanced information and communication technologies, nor electric vehicles and charging systems. Yet if this is all that policy is promoting or institutional actors are investing in, it will leave large portions of society behind and create the transport and access poverty of the future. Instead, I’m advocating for a bit more attention to transport equity when planning the future of mobility and accessibility.

A New Plan for Parking?

I started a new job, with a new research project last week. I’m working for the Transport Studies Unit at Oxford with public and private sector partners to investigate the potential of ‘Park and Charge’ business models. Ostensibly, therefore, it is about electric vehicles and the role they must play in achieving future, carbon-free mobility.

But I’m much more excited about the parking bit of the brief.

Basically, the premise is ‘that at least 30% of households in the UK lack access to off-street charging or home charging’, or, in other words, lack private, off-street parking for their own safe, plug-in connection. These people may be in terraces or flats or homes with only on-street parking or communal parking without allocated spaces. They may or may not already use a car, but either way, if they want to buy into the electric car revolution, they need an alternative ‘home-charging’ solution. My initial research suggests that home charging availability is one of the biggest barriers to electric car adoption, even as cost comes down and range / performance / battery life goes up.

The proposal? Develop a ‘park and charge’ business model for ‘home’ charging points in public car parks. The key point is that this is a plan for not just charging, but managing and pricing parking space.

Let me take a step back to explain why I think this is exciting. As a young, transport planning consultant 15 years ago, my job included helping local governments ‘decriminalise’, manage, and value their parking. Legislation had been passed to enable local authorities outside London to decide to take responsibility for on-street parking enforcement from the police, even issue and collect fines. However, they could not enforce anything unless they also published Traffic Regulation Orders and installed all the appropriate signs and lines that accompany them. The discretion to decide if someone had left their car in a dangerous or obstructive position was still a police matter. As police officers usually have better things to do, anywhere with no lines and signs remain a free-for-all. So any parking management had to be designed, agreed, and implemented.

What did this mean? I spent a lot of time walking the streets, measuring the lengths and widths available for parking, confirming adjacent land uses, and writing detailed descriptions of which bays would be designated for residents permit parking or limited waiting or pay and display or shared use. And where there should be yellow lines and no parking. Many of these streets were narrow, with housing that had no possibility of off-street parking. Some areas were quite wealthy and households had two or more vehicles on street. Some streets were located near employment or the local train station. There was a lot of competition for parking and a lot of complaints about what was fair and equitable as we designed residents’ parking schemes.

Yet last year I met someone from one of the towns where I had worked who said how much their parents and their parents’ neighbours loved having the residents’ parking. They pay for a permit. They are not guaranteed a space. But managed space is still better than a free-for-all, and attitudes have changed about the value that space has, even for parking cars.

To bring it back to today, climate change targets mean that it is necessary to not only accelerate the switch to electric vehicles, but also to reduce the number of private vehicles on our roads. Managing parking and planning where space should be given to cars as well as to which type of cars (electric, shared…) means addressing both these challenges. So the Park and Charge research project could be a parking space in the right direction.