Start at your Destination

This year’s Transport Planning Network Conference was all about visioning. Which is the process by which a desirable future is imagined and then you work backwards to find how you can get there.

But starting at your destination is tricky. People carry a lot of baggage from the past and present. It’s difficult to think about what you would like to see, when you’re constantly feeling the pressure of what you think you could actually accomplish. Even if such thinking may hold you back.

Indeed, if you have not been trained on images of Freiburg and Copenhagen and Dutch transport planning, it can be difficult to ‘see’ the vision in the first place, even if pockets of it are right around the corner. Our first keynote speaker, Professor Emeritus Phil Goodwin noted that not only vested interests and political resistance are holding us back from visions of pedestrian paradise. People in their communities are often so car dependent that they may not be able to see any viable alternative for a low-car future of mobility that will allow them to fully participate in economic, civic, and social life.

Which is why one of our other speakers, James Gleave, asked us to think about what powers transport and planning professionals are willing to give up to help people dig through the practical, cultural, and social influences that affect their choices so that they can develop, define, and perhaps even deliver their own visions for their own communities. In such a scenario, transport planners might become more than regulators and legislators or even funders. They could take roles as leaders and educators, stewards and customers, negotiators and reformers.

And these suggestions fit in well with the other challenges to developing a future of mobility that is visionary.

Keith Mitchell noted that despite the push to prioritise housing numbers over places, the private sector is already looking at what other roles they should fulfil to deliver better visions. Tackling climate change and social value are gaining prominence in their tenders for work.

Leo Murray noted that technology, and particularly EVs, cannot alone solve the climate emergency. By some calculations, a reduction of 60% in vehicle miles travelled is required by 2030, and it won’t happen without a vision – and different roles for planning professionals to make sure that vision is shared.

Besides, even where legislation and policy support already exist, from the Climate Change Act to legislation and policy on equity and inclusion, as Joanna Ward noted, it may be the lack of diversity and awareness of different access needs among decision-makers which is perpetuating biases.

Our second keynote speaker, Lynda Addison OBE, summed up the problem perfectly. Not only do we need to start with a vision, which is our destination, but that collaborative vision should be based on the premise that ‘Transport is the solution, not the problem’. Then, instead of transport being something to mitigate through the land use planning process, sustainable travel choice are part of the vision we are working towards through the spatial planning process. Plans and planning applications can respond to the vision through inter-disciplinary evidence gathering and iterative thinking.

In other words, start at your destination, your vision, then work backwards, but your path will not be linear, but circular. Ask: What exists already that fits the vision? What opportunities or obstacles sit between where you are now and where you want to be? What actions can you or your organisation take and what actions must be taken by others, by people working at a larger or smaller scale? We asked questions of this sort in the final workshop of the event.

And we discovered a few answers. Not all, as an iterative process means going back and forth between the vision and those questions, not just as a small group of transport planners, but as wider communities. Yet we certainly learned a few things. One of which is how difficult it is to start at your destination!

Buses Bounce Back

In my research into weather risks to transport supply and demand, I come across the word ‘resilience’ fairly frequently. I cannot always assume a singular definition, though. Some of the literature uses resilience to refer to low levels of vulnerability to extreme weather conditions or other disturbances; some to the presence of redundancy in a network, such that an alternative means of access can be substituted for any closure; others to the speed of recovery from a time of disruption until systems return to normal. Yet it all comes back to a similar idea. That like a rubber ball, strong yet flexible, designed to bounce back, something is resilient if it is strong enough to withstand the impacts of incidents like severe weather, and/or flexible enough to offer more than one option/way/route to users, and/or bounces back quickly to reasonable levels of performance.

It should be possible to look at any transport network, in any geography, of any mode, and assess its resilience. Ideally, multiple modes and geographies would be analysed in concert, as transport should act as an integrated system. Yet most studies of resilience or lack thereof in the transport discipline focus on only the road or rail networks, and only the private vehicles or passenger trains that use them respectively. This leaves multiple gaps in our understanding of transport resilience to different weather conditions, and one of these gaps is the lack of discussion about the resilience of bus services.

I cannot yet claim to be able to fill that gap, but I have just completed the analysis, write-up, and submission of a brief case study that perhaps starts to bridge it. And this case study indicates that buses might be one of the most resilient modes of transport available.

Furthermore, whilst there is some research into how people behave during disruption, it seems there is less consideration of their awareness of risk and resilience in the networks and services they are using, and how resilient this might make their behaviour. My short case study, however, provides some insight into the behaviour of public transport users, suggesting they are indeed resilient.

If you want to read my case study article, you’ll have to wait for its publication, but the key point is that where buses and rail run in parallel, the bus services are less disrupted, can divert if need be and still deliver the service, and can make up lost time more quickly than rail. The buses also seem to create redundancy, not just for themselves, but for the adjacent rail services. Finally, the number of bus trips rose sharply to and from places where rail passengers were likely to know that buses would be more reliable during the disruption.

I mentioned this to a former colleague, who suggested my discoveries should really be common sense. He also pointed out that the most vulnerable portions of the bus network were the depots and fuelling stations, which could easily be targeted for flood protection measures, for example, compared to the mile upon mile of train tracks needing improvements to resist those floods and ensure the operation of even a limited rail service.

Yet I later heard evidence that buses can be resilient even when the bus depot is inaccessible for many hours. In a talk I attended, a bus company manager explained how he, his drivers, and other staff improvised on the spot to keep a limited service running following a police closure of their depot’s access road. This won them great appreciation from their customers, and a flexibility, a resilience on the part of the not only the bus company and their passengers, but also the entire local community.

So an early finding in my PhD research: buses bounce back better than most transport options, their passengers know it, and the resilience of both buses and their passengers is rather unappreciated in wider transport research and practice.

Air Questionable Plan

 

The Government’s recently released consultation draft Air Quality Plan is more of an Air Questionable Plan. Why? I may be down to one blog a month these days, but this is a question I’m keen to answer.

It is often written that people struggle with environmental risks, because they are not imminent, proximate, and/or visible. That’s why people may feel climate change is an important issue to address, but struggle to be motivated. Air pollution is more local, but it’s potential, personal, health impacts may be even longer-term than the climactic increase in floods and droughts.

So it was easy for the Government to drag its proverbial heels until environmental groups forced its hand through the courts. Then they published a consultation Plan. Which I read. And, with my fairly extensive knowledge of local transport and my less extensive, but still greater than average awareness of air pollution, realised the Government was still dragging its heels. And its exhaust pipes.

Local air pollution is not a new problem. When I worked in local government, we were measuring, monitoring, and making plans to mitigate a decade ago. We even wrote a business case to introduce a Low Emission Zone. One that charged certain polluting vehicle types, but also invested in walking, cycling, and public transport. One not dissimilar to what the Government calls in its consultation document a ‘charging’ Clean Air Zone. But in 2010, as the Conservatives came to power, our business case was pulled. We continued with plans to improve sustainable transport, but we were not encouraged to resubmit any charging measures in the new rounds of challenge funding. Charging was part of the war on the motorist (including freight) that the new Government strove to roll back.

Fast-forward seven years, and it looks like anything too anti-motorist will still be discouraged. Or at least framed to ensure that possible political fall-out is local, not national. Charging is only to be implemented as a last resort. Somehow local authorities are supposed to encourage and support the mass retro-fit of polluting vehicles instead if at all possible. Or engineer their replacement with cleaner models. Even if many of the fleets in question are privately owned and operated. Local governments are also going to have to either use their own shrinking resources or compete for funding, spending money building business cases before they win, or don’t win, a penny.

In building the business case for Clean Air Zone measures, local authorities will also be aware that the Government’s guidance takes a very minimalist approach to the role of increasing the share of other modes like walking and cycling in improving air quality. It lumps all the alternative modes together as one measure in its list of eight , whilst four bullet points are given over to ways to reduce vehicle emissions without reducing vehicles. One of these four is: “Improving road layouts and junctions to optimise traffic flow, for example by considering removal of road humps”, a measure that is repeated as the first suggestion in a paragraph on “targeted infrastructure investment”.  What signal does this send? The safety of pedestrians and cyclists is secondary to improving the flow of traffic, despite traffic being the source of the pollution?

Furthermore, there is no mention anywhere that air pollution is measured as much by the population breathing it in as by the absolute amounts of pollutant present. That’s why so little of the strategic road network – less than 1% – is affected. There aren’t many schools and hospitals with motorway frontage. So why is there no mention of removing traffic entirely outside such sensitive receptors? Why not more pedestrianisation or “filtered permeability” with physically blocked streets to prevent through traffic?

I’m not saying that I have all the answers. And even this consultation document admits charging might be necessary. But neither do I think I’m jumping to conclusions to suggest that the draft Air Quality Plan favours the motorist over anyone who gets around in a different way, and pushes responsibility onto local governments, especially all those polluted, urban ones, many of a redder political persuasion. It makes it the whole commitment to reducing air pollution look rather… Questionable.

 

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.

 

Mobility vs Accessibility: new evidence for an old debate

I was at a public exhibition many years ago where I was approached by a rather aggressive environmental campaigner. He told me that if public sector transport planners like me really wanted to promote sustainable travel, then we’d all live and work within the same Local Authority area. Everything we did should be local and we shouldn’t really need to go anywhere, and then we wouldn’t be emitting all that carbon travelling. As I lived in another District from where I was working, albeit only 10-12 miles away, I naturally did no more than nod and smile politely.

Inside, I was thinking: Yes I agree that we need to reduce our transport emissions and impacts on the climate, but my husband is the one that lives next to his work and I had to find a job nearby. Yes I’d like a shorter, more convenient commute, but there wasn’t a job in my field, never mind at the level I was looking for, advertised within my District at the time. Yes I prefer to travel by sustainable modes, but I do take the train to get here, whereas I might have to drive to other jobs at a similar or shorter distance. Yes, but…!

Ok, enough of the protests in my head that clearly have been yearning to break free for far too long. My point in recalling this story is that the man’s superficially inane, impractical argument does have a grounding in a fundamental principle of transport that many transport planners, never mind transport users, often overlook. Transport planners tend to focus on creating and promoting options (read new infrastructure or services) for mobility, rather than accessibility.

Yet people travel for the purpose of accessing a job or a shop or a friend’s house, and travel further if those things they are trying to access are further away. The further they travel, the less mobility options they have, which may result in a poor choice between car-dependence and isolation. The latter I add as we consider the impact of new online technologies on accessibility over mobility. See a great blog on this by @alikirkbride for #LTTMobilityMatters.

Moreover, I have recently discovered that the concept that humans seek accessibility rather than mobility can be backed up scientifically. In the last decade, researchers [1-4] have used big data from mobile phone call records and social media to show that human movement follows certain patterns, namely:

  • Most people can be found in a few predictable places (home, work) most days of the week at the times (night and day) where you’d expect to find them there.
  • Most people make more short trips than long trips, and the distribution of short trips follows a certain pattern, decreasing with distance, up to a threshold.
  • At which point you have a different pattern where people who travel further can be found in expected places more often and have fewer irregular trips.
  • And, those people who travel further tend to live where there is less density – of population, employment, opportunities, activities – than those who travel shorter distances.

It is this last point that is key. None of the studies are looking at mode of travel, but they say something very basic about travel behaviour. Namely, that people are not choosing which trips to make to minimise journey times or distance travelled, even if that may influence modal choice. No, they are choosing which trips to make based on where the destinations are which they are trying to reach. They will choose the nearest destination that meets their need or desire or nearest ‘intervening opportunity’ as one study calls it [2].

Thus, transport planners should be as aware as land use planners of the importance of place-making, of mixed-use development, of walkable neighbourhoods. Discussing those is a whole other blog, so I’ll leave it there, but in a twisted way, that man who chastised me long ago had a point. If we could work at the sort of job we wanted, shop for whatever we needed, socialise with our friends and family and have our children in decent schools, all in the same area as our home, we would probably choose to do so. Then we would have more options for sustainable mobility (e.g. walking and cycling), which would be better for the environment and our health and make us more resilient to unforeseen events. And so transport planners would be planning for accessibility rather than mobility.

  1. Gonzalez, M.C.H., Cesar A. & Barabasi, Albert-Laszlo, Understanding individual human mobility patterns. Nature, 2008. 453(7196): p. 779-782.
  2. Noulas A, S.S., Lambiotte R, Pontil M, and Mascolo C, A Tale of Many Cities: Universal Patterns in Human Urban Mobility. PLoS ONE, 2012. 7(5): p. 1-10.
  3. Isaacman S, B.R., Caceres R, Kobourov SG, Martonosi M, Rowland, J and Varshavsky, A. Identifying Important Places in People’s Lives from Cellular Network Data. in 9th International Conference on Pervasive Computing (Pervasive). 2011.
  4. Song, C.Q., Zehui Qu; Blumm, Nicholas and Barabási, Albert-László, Limits of Predictability in Human Mobility. Science, 2010. 327: p. 1018-1021.

 

Weather Warnings

 

A couple weeks ago, I published a blog called Whether the Weather. It was about some of the research I’ve been doing into how everyday changes in the weather affect our daily travel choices. I’ve read quite a bit more on the topic since then, but I won’t bore you with that. Because I’ve also read about the impacts of more extreme weather on transport infrastructure and how that can more irregularly and infrequently affect our travel choices. Except it’s not as infrequent as you think.

I found a couple of websites from the Met Office and an organisation called FloodList with non-exhaustive reports of recent extreme weather events in the UK. Who needs disaster movies when you can read about real life? Especially when you can attach personal memories to many a story or photo.

Although not every individual resident has experience of being evacuated from their home due to floods or stranded for hours due to transport disruption, most of us can probably recall how some of these events affected us, our family, our social network or even the wider society.

Did you know people who took untold hours to get home after snow cut short Christmas shopping in 2010? Did you smell smoke from the forest fires of Spring 2011? Maybe someone told you about the Toon Monsoon in 2012. Or you saw on social media one of the great pictures of the lightening during the electrical storms in July 2013? Do you have family in the Southwest you couldn’t visit when the rail line was washed away in 2014? Or friends in Yorkshire that saw their favourite restaurant flood in 2015? Perhaps the flash floods on 23rd June 2016 in London affect the voter turn-out there for the EU referendum?

Although snow may be more immediately disruptive and heatwaves more enduring, heavy rain and storms and the floods they cause are the greatest risks to the UK’s transport infrastructure [1]. Great Britain may be an island, but coastal flooding is only a small part of it. Tides and storm surges, rivers bursting their banks, flash flooding, overflowing drains, groundwater seeping upwards – all forms of flooding pose risks to a significant proportion of national transport (and other) infrastructure throughout the country. Heavy rain, storms and flooding can trigger further problems, like landslips, sinkholes, coastal erosion and trees falling in the heavy winds that often accompany storms. When energy and communications infrastructure are also affected, the impacts can be compounded.

One study calculated that the storms of 28 June 2012 caused 10,000 minutes of delay on the national rail network, which didn’t get back to normal until mid-July, whilst there were also long delays on the strategic road network [2]. And this research didn’t even investigate local impacts. As this was the storm that caused the Toon Monsoon, a different study describes roads and properties flooded and severe disruption and damage from which it took some time to recover [3].

As we face such destructive weather, we as a society needs to adapt. I found three ‘R’s’ that should form our strategy: resistance, resilience and recovery. These ‘R’s’ are not only for engineers and scientists, civil servants and emergency responders to consider as they prepare strategies, redesign infrastructure, or even coordinate evacuations. They are also for people in their communities to think about how they would prepare, adapt and react.

Put yourself in that disaster movie. What would you do when the severe weather warnings or flood warnings were first issued? How many of your daily activities could you carry on with in the event? Do you have the skills to help get things back to normal quickly and painlessly? And in the longer term, would it affect your decisions about where you live and work and play, and how you get around?

 

 

1.Dawson, R., Chapter 4: Infrastructure, in UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017: Evidence Report. 2016, Committee on Climate Change. p. 1-111.

2.Jaroszweski, D.H., Elizabeth; Baker, Chris; Chapman, Lee and Quinn, Andrew, The impacts of the 28 June 2012 storms on UK road and rail transport. Meteorological Applications, 2015. 22: p. 470-476.

3.Pregnolato, M.F., Alistair; Robson, Craig; Glenis, Vassilis; Barr, Stuart and Dawson, Richard Assessing urban strategies for reducing the impacts of extreme weather on infrastructure networks. Royal Society Open Science, 2016. 3: p. 1-15.

The Infrastructure of Health

The American Federal Government has closed. Only essential services are continuing to be delivered. 

Although the rhetoric has shifted, this was started as a fight over Obamacare, and that’s a fight I find frustrating to begin with. I’m in the camp that believes the Affordable Care Act did not go far enough because it is only about health insurance, not health care. It is health care, or at least some elements of health care such as vaccinations, cancer screenings, emergency medical attention, basic maternity and pediatric care which I believe Governments should have a responsibility to provide. Healthcare is not a socialist nose poking itself into everyone’s personal affairs; it is part of the universal infrastructure of society like roads or sewers.  

The health and transport sectors have a lot in common. Both exist on the margins between public service and private enterprise. Both are highly political and require a high level of investment. Both are wide-ranging, diverse fields with plenty of room for individualism, free market enterprise and other buzzwords of capitalist democracy. However, both involve choices and actions the implications of which cannot be contained within individual households or companies. Rather, they, with other services like sanitation and education, form the fabric that connects households and companies. Or, to use the Oxford English Dictionary definition of infrastructure, they are part of ‘the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities… needed for the operation of a society.’ 

Let us consider a company with a supply chain and sales strategy. Does it not require some way of transporting raw materials and employees to its offices and factories and some means by which to distribute its goods or services to customers? Maybe it runs its own trucks and buses, but should it also build its own roads? To where? Customers, employees, suppliers; all have transport requirements. Those requirements change and so do the people a company can call its customers, employees, and suppliers. Even if the company in question is in the business of building roads or running buses, it is reasonable for government to have some oversight of transport infrastructure to support all those independent companies and consumers and choices. 

Likewise, every person is an employee or employer or customer, just as they are a son or daughter, mother or father, and many other roles besides. A certain level of healthcare is required within a certain proportion of the population if society is to have sufficient numbers who can function as employees and employers and customers as well as in their private lives. A certain level of healthcare is required for everyone if society has the goal of promoting the freedom for all employees to change who they work for and all customers who they buy from. This is not actually about life or death. It is about achieving at least enough quality of life for society to function while supporting those individual liberties and free markets. It’s not even about equality, but only its lesser cousin, equality of opportunity, or the something akin to that which is actually achieved. 

Regulations and standards are also characteristics of infrastructure and both the transport and health sectors require them, for the sake of safety at least. People wouldn’t know how to interact on the roads without rules. Buses and trains would never have any customers without an understanding of how, where and when to board them. As for health, how would diseases be controlled without regulated programs for vaccination? How would anyone be able to help someone who through injury had lost the power to communicate without standards for emergency care? What would happen if there was no government dictated number for emergency calls? 

Transport and healthcare are about how individuals and organizations can and do interact. They are the means to, rather than the end goal, which is a healthy, functioning society.  

It’s been two weeks since the government shutdown, and so the list of essential services is increasing because some things that can be done without for a day or two are missed after two weeks. In transport, employees like air traffic controllers and others with responsibility for the safety and operation of the network were deemed essential from the beginning, but only recently have some staff been recalled from the Center for Disease Control and Protection to deal with a salmonella outbreak. This is an unequivocal example of how health is fighting for its place as an essential service.   

Healthcare, like transport, is not only an essential service, but also part of the basic infrastructure of society. Until the American government and the people who elect it realize that ignoring that reality is the disease they are trying to cure, reopening the government will be no more than managing the symptoms.