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.

You say Congestion, I say Contention…

‘Transport’ describes the systems and methods for connecting people and places, goods and services, activities and opportunities. We study, plan, fund, and operate transport networks as a means to support economic growth and social interaction. It is a utility, a public good.

Substitute Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for ‘Transport’ in the sentences above, and they still make sense. But ICT is not a direct replacement for transport. For example, increased use of ICT by businesses can result in longer-distance if less frequent business trips, and whilst shoppers may visit fewer stores, more delivery trucks are on our roads carrying goods ordered online.1 More generally, ICT loosens the bonds between commuting options and costs, and work and residential location choices, as the availability of local services, amenities, and social networks become more important in deciding where to live.2 Thus, virtual access complements physical access, and it may be more useful to view ICT as an alternative way to connect, another choice or manifestation of travel behaviour.

Like any mode of transport, the attractiveness and convenience of mobile or fixed ICT for making connections depends upon the quality of infrastructure and services in a particular geographical area. For fixed broadband, for example, digital accessibility depends upon characteristics like what type of connections are available in a given location, the length of any hybrid copper line, how providers manage different connections, and how connections are wired.3

Thus, like any other transport system, ICT networks comprise links and nodes with variable accessibility. Still, differences are worth noting. ICT users find routing much more fluid than do train passengers or car drivers or even cyclists planning how to reach to their destination. Speeds for ICTs are not fixed, but how they will impact on performance is often obscure.

Meanwhile, again like transport systems, demand-side factors can affect capacity. Transport planners may not be aware, but there are peak times for internet activity as much as for travel. OfCom, the ICT regulator in the UK, calls this dynamic “contention”. Basically, contention increases when too many people are trying to access too much data on the network at the same time and broadband download speeds fall from their maximum rates. The scale of contention also varies by type of connection technology, just as the scale of a traffic jam varies by the number of lanes on the carriageway. However, unlike the travel peak that occurs between 7am and 9am, contention is usually at its worst between 8pm and 10pm, due largely to video streaming.4

However, and this is where transport planners should take note, contention can occur at other times. Unexpected spikes in contention have been observed at unexpected times due to mass streaming of sporting and entertainment events that occur outside of ‘prime time’.5

My own research estimates significant contention in response to certain severe weather events, which may indicate an increase in internet activity for work purposes or telecommuting. On public holidays, it may suggest that outings are cancelled in favour of watching movies at home. In either case, such contention offers insight into the flexibility of travel behaviour, and the benefits of that flexibility.

Unlike congestion, which carries the risks of incidents and accidents as well as delays, contention need not discourage remote access. Slow download speeds are unlikely to result in the hours of unproductive time a commuter might experience due to unusual levels of congestion, closures, and cancellations, making ICTs the wisest modes during period of severe weather. True, high winds can knock down power lines as soon as block rail tracks with trees. Floods can cause water to seep into telephone cabinets as well as making roads impassable. Yet ICT infrastructure is generally more resilient to severe weather impacts than transport infrastructure.6 And newer broadband technologies not only deliver higher speeds, but are even more resilient than those that preceded them.

In conclusion, as society moves from the motor age into the digital age, ICT will become ever more important for accessing goods and services and for making connections. Transport planners should be incorporating ICTs into their forecasts and appraising them for their potential return on investment, and their ability, in contrast to other modes, to reduce risk, maintain productivity, improve flexibility, and change travel behaviour.

 

  1. Andreev  P, Salomon, Ilan and Pliskin, Nava. (2010) Review: State of teleactivities. Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Technologies 18: 17. And various other articles!
  2. Lyons G. (2015) Transport’s digital age transition. The Journal of Transport and Land Use 8: 1-19.
  3. Tranos E, Reggiani, A., Nijkamp, P. (2013) Accessibility of cities in the digital economy. Cities 30: 59-67. I am now focusing on fixed broadband technology, although there are also parallels in mobile technology.
  4. (2017) UK Home Broadband Performance. UK fixed-line broadband performance: Research Report. 1-82.
  5. (2014) Infrastructure Report 2014. OfCom, 1-188.
  6. Dawson R. (2016) Chapter 4: Infrastructure. UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017: Evidence Report. Committee on Climate Change, 1-111.

 

Visions: the potential in probabilities

On 28 February, the RTPI / TPS Transport Planning Network, with CILT and DAC Beechcroft, hosted an event to discuss the RAND Corporation report ‘Travel in Britain 2035’.

The report offers three alternative visions of the future of mobility, which are intended to cover the spectrum of probability, rather than a forecast of reality. One of the authors, Charlene Rohr, explained to the assembled professionals that the aim of their project was to review how emerging technologies might influence our transport systems, and envision the multiple potential futures that could occur.

Why carry out this research? The one certainty in this crystal ball gazing is that technologies affecting transport, which have been relatively stable for decades, are now undergoing significant change. This could transform not only how we travel, but also our lifestyles, and even societies. Imagining visions of the future can help us prepare for them.

It is not only the giants of the Tech world that realise this. Did you see Ford’s Superbowl ad? The car company is promoting a vision of mobility for the future where it would be selling a lot more than just cars – perhaps shifting towards mobility as a service. It seems that car manufacturers will have to offer different models of ownership, operation and efficiency to stay in the transport game.

Transport planners have to change their tactics too. Cost benefit analyses for infrastructure investment currently calculate 60 years into the future – but technology is changing so quickly that making predictions for 2035 is challenging enough. Transport appraisal has never been much good at distributional analysis – considering how investment choices impact upon different parts of society – but if we want to avoid the report’s dystopian vision of a ‘Digital Divide’, then we need to correct that fault quickly. More investment will also be needed in adaptable infrastructure, which avoids locking us into 60 years of technology or behaviour that will be obsolete in 20.

Meanwhile, a lot of the visioning buzz is around fully autonomous vehicles (AVs), which will probably be electric and shared as well. The report’s ‘Driving Ahead’ scenario focuses on this technology, whilst the UK Government is investing heavily to be a world leader in AV development. The Transport Systems Catapult offers some thoughts on this future, summarising the many benefits of going driver-less.

However, as the discussion ranged at the event, it is clear that it is not only the difficulty of transition that may threaten a driver-less society. Land use planners face a capacity conundrum. If AVs result in much less parking adjacent to homes and commercial uses, what should that land be used for instead? WSP|PB had a panellist at the event to discuss some of the answers they’ve envisioned. But the vehicles themselves still need to be off-road some of the time, for storage and maintenance. Where is that going to happen? How do streets need to be re-configured for picking up and dropping off instead of parking? If the reduced travel cost and additional productive time offered by AVs attract more use than the additional road capacity their efficient movement frees up, is the answer to build more road infrastructure?

The RAND report specifically ignores the need for new infrastructure. But even roads aside, all the scenarios require more electricity and ICT infrastructure, built to be as resilient as possible in the face of frequent severe weather and other disruptions.

Yet it is not all doom and gloom. Freight drivers may not be out of a job if the complicated work at either end of the journey becomes ever more involved with shared loading and consolidated delivery. Children may be able to play on the streets again as space is freed from parking and AVs are trusted with their safety. And if policy makers, planners, and transport practitioners are proactive about standards, regulations, taxation and investment, we can push the future to better resemble the RAND report’s more utopian ‘Live Local’ vision, where road user charging replaces fuel duty and mobility is not only a service, but an equitable one.