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.