Slow down, you move too fast…

As children head back to school, the weather changes, and Jewish people look forward to celebrating their new year, it feels as if life is speeding up again after the long, (and even in the UK!) hot days of summer. Transport policy, with its tendency to assume sleek new technology will solve all our transport problems, also seems to assume that speeding up is inherently a good thing. That shared, electric, autonomous, and motorised mobility plus immediate information available anywhere will increase road safety, reduce emissions, free up road space, and help move the growing population of elderly and disabled around more easily.

And yet, does the population, elderly or otherwise, actually want to always move faster and further? It seems to me that the Future of Mobility call for evidence, whilst acknowledging that people are travelling less, commuting less, and driving less, only considers how information and communication technologies are changing attitudes to transport information and accessibility. Yet the high-tech accessibility of information is changing not just attitudes, but accessibility itself – how we obtain goods and services, how we participate in activities and opportunities. The consultation document mentions telecommuting, but not online shopping, which is likely one reason van traffic is growing so fast, nor does it consider the advent of other tele-services, such as tele-healthcare.

My point is that technology can mean faster and further and more frequent OR it could mean fewer, more flexible trips. It could push us all to operate like machines or it could serve to help us keep things human. There could be accessibility as a service instead of mobility as a service, meeting people’s needs by meeting them halfway. The sharing economy could be finding groups of families to share the school run between busy parents, whilst still enabling their kids to walk to school. Or perhaps technology can match not passengers, but patients who will can share the walk to the doctor’s office to improve their own health by not only increasing physical activity, but reducing loneliness and fear.

Maybe that vision is idealistic, but surely it’s more appealing than the transport-tech-optimism that seems to suggest we should be shaping our cities to accommodate driverless, and perhaps empty, vehicles, rather than living, breathing people. Besides, once we stop valuing speed of travel over quality of life, we may have a better chance of making these new technologies work for people and places, rather than as ends in themselves.

My New Year’s resolutions this year are all about making the moment last.1 I aim to be more patient, to default less to that overused excuse of being ‘stressed’, to savour the change and growth this new year promises to bring to my family and to me. Oh, I’m sure we’ll all be doing lots of different activities, getting work done, moving around. And some of that movement will require covering long distances quickly. But day to day, we will often be walking, interacting with each other and the environment, thinking and learning.

In my own small way, as a representative of transport professionals and a researcher into the opportunities technology may bring for future mobility and accessibility in a changing climate, some of the thinking and learning I will be doing when I am taking it slow will be about a future vision of technology and travel that supports quality of life. And that might mean the technology offers ways to slow down.


1The title of this blog and this line are from Simon and Garfunkel’s Feeling Groovy.

Who is the future for?

At the Smarter Travel Live conference in Milton Keynes, Jesse Norman, MP and Undersecretary of State at the Department for Transport proposed three R’s to describe the future of transport: Risk, Regulation, and Research. I rather liked the idea, and was quite ready to agree with him.

However, the rest of his address applied those three R’s fairly narrowly to technological advances, and specifically the current Government’s favourite types of technological advances: vehicle technologies. Whilst it’s useful to discuss how electric vehicle and battery technology improvements might reduce air pollution risks, how de-regulation of autonomous vehicle technology could propel the UK to the front of this market, and how research into platooning lorries will save time and space on UK roads, such matters are hardly at the core of the future of transport.

Rather, as a later session roundly discussed, the future of transport is not about what, it’s about who.

There is no need to reduce the risk of air pollution if there are no people around breathing it in. So are we thinking about where the people buying these electric vehicles are? If in the countryside, it might help reduce carbon emissions, but not air pollution risk. If in the city, should we be pushing electric vehicles and space for charging points in residential areas over space for cycle lanes and parking and pedestrian-friendly public realm and play streets?

Meanwhile, de-regulating autonomous vehicle technology won’t make people buy or use autonomous vehicles if there are no regulations controlling what happens and who is responsible if such a vehicle is involved in a crash. It will be a big leap for many people to try, to trust a completely new mode of transport, to be sure it is safe and secure, especially if the most efficient and sustainable approach to such vehicles is for them to be shared.

And whilst freight is an important area of research, consumer behaviour will have at least as much influence on how much space is needed for transporting goods on the road network as any technological twist in lorry manufacture. Indeed, there is another technology that might eliminate the need for many lorries altogether – some scenarios envision people preferring to buy local goods and produce, and choosing to use 3D printing for currently mass-produced items at local depots or shops.

Thus, an understanding of consumer behaviour, travel behaviour, human behaviour, should inform all our discussions about the future of transport. How do people understand risk? How do you encourage changes in behaviour, especially when there is no frame of reference for new technologies? How can research from other disciplines like social psychology help transport planners shape the future of transport to meet complex tangles of economic, environmental and social objectives?

Whichever vision of the future is most accurate – the flying cars of 20th century science fiction or the shared, electric autonomous cars of current transport geek passion, there is a startling lack of people present in those visions. A more visionary approach to the future of transport is to imagine one where people can access the goods and services they need and participate in the activities and interactions they want by more affordable, healthy, sustainable, and equitable means than they have used in the past or present. A future where people and the places they inhabit are central, and technology, like transport itself, is a means to an end, not an end in itself.


You Say You Want a Revolution

Some say there’s a revolution in transport. But to have a revolution, you need revolutionaries.

Transport is certainly undergoing a transformation in the digital age, forging ahead rapidly in the buzzwords of ‘big data’ generation and the development of ‘Internet of Things’ connections. Transport has become ‘smarter’, i.e. more automated, more dynamic, more shared, and more personalised, such that ‘mobility as a service’ (MAAS) is billed as the ‘mode’ of travel of the future. But is MAAS the transport revolution of the 21st century in the same way that the train or the automobile revolutionised transport in the 19th and 20th centuries by creating mass markets of revolutionaries willing to adopt new ways of getting around and even new lifestyles because of the new transport technology?

According to Professor Cristina Pronello of the Université Technologique de Compiègne and Politecnico di Torino, MAAS will only revolutionize transport and travel behaviour if it is developed in a ‘user-centric’, transparent and integrated manner. Which, she said, means MAAS should not be developed and imposed on society by the big corporate players such as Google, Amazon, Apple, etc.

In a talk she recently gave at the University of Greenwich, she compared the tech company travel solutions to an app which was developed for Turin, Italy as part of a European Commission-funded project she led. She called her app an urban navigator, not a journey planner, and pointed to the depth of real-time, multi-modal feeds and customization it offered to users to support their travel decisions.

This ticked the user-centric and integrated boxes, but the Professor admitted difficulty both in establishing data-sharing arrangements with the various transport providers to build truly real-time integration and also in recruiting participating travellers to ensure user-centricity.

I couldn’t help thinking that Google Maps has none of these problems. Most people have it pre-loaded on their smartphone, and the company set the original standard for open data feeds. And if it has not quite the depth and real-time reactions of the app she discussed, I have met Google employees and am given to understand that they are constantly improving the multi-modal integration and accuracy of their mapping – journey planning – navigation tools through validated historic trips which users have themselves tracked and reported.

So what about transparency? There’s the rub. The European project embarked on numerous contracts, enforced a standard data format, and created an open data portal. Anyone with the skills could see where the data was coming from and how it was driving the app’s results. The tech giants are much more opaque, and most would agree that they are more motivated by the bottom line and intellectual property rights, than by a public service mission.

Yet, as was discussed in another presentation in Greenwich, traditional methods and local governments can fail to address social equity in their transport provision as much as corporations do. Although statistical methods tend to be based on assumptions about behaviour in the pursuit of explaining why travel patterns occur and how societal trends may influence those patterns, they are rarely then used to influence decisions to create more equitable patterns. And the models themselves are often black boxes, with calculations undertaken within proprietary software.

In contrast, the algorithms of data analytics are based on no assumptions at all. They seek to learn patterns to accurately make predictions, not to explain how or why those futures have come to pass. If such patterns are most likely to create a viable, successful Mobility as a Service, then transport practitioners should surely be turning to algorithms instead of assumptions, and perhaps also to companies like Google for their expertise – and for access to all those potential revolutionaries already using Google Maps or paying for multi-modal transport on their smartphones.

And yet. Maybe the companies of the digital age should only be supporting the revolution, not leading it. If they are producing the algorithms and finding the patterns, there is still a place for transport planners, land use planners, and civic society to shape those patterns to be more equitable, more affordable, more sustainable. The beauty of those algorithms is that if they happen to find a pattern in the shape of a virtuous circle, they’ll advertise it and disseminate it without asking why, and that really would be a revolution.

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.


Can Creativity Beat Cuts?

A Conservative Majority Government is in power after their big message blitz on budget responsibility and debt reduction. But throughout the campaign, they refused to say precisely where cuts will be made and what they will mean for service delivery.

In the last 5 years, the Department for Communities and Local Government has faced some of the deepest cuts of any in Whitehall, perhaps because the majority of the cuts aren’t actually in Whitehall? Town and city halls, especially in the country’s most deprived urban areas, have had to make year on year savings amounting to significant proportions of their budgets. Spend per head has fallen by up to £220 since 2010 ( Libraries have closed, subsidised bus services have been cancelled, and care for the most vulnerable minimised.

And everyone knows that there are more, and potentially deeper cuts to come. How can Councils save more money? Administrative efficiencies, joint services, outsourcing, redundancies; they’ve all already happened. Local Government and its partners in the private and charitable sectors need to think ever more creatively.

The transport sector has faced many cuts itself, but could it save other services? Yes! Is transport only about getting people and goods from one place to another? No! A street can be so much more than a corridor for movement. It can be a marketplace, a meeting place, a café, a playground. Walking not only transports us, it improves our physical and mental well-being, allows us to be aware of our environment and to socialise with friends and family.

So what services can transport deliver beyond the obvious? Here are some examples:

In Massachusetts, the Boston Public Library founded Bibliocycle, a mobile library service on a bicycle. It helps those who cannot go to a library to access free books. Bibliocycle makes its rounds at community events, farmers’ markets and arts festivals. People can sign up for library cards, get a demonstration of digital resources and ask for help with reference questions as well as check out books. We’d all like our local library branch to stay open, but retaining a mobile service is better than nothing. And if it’s pedal-powered, it can go where a van cannot and is environmentally friendly.

In Liverpool, taxis are aiming to compete with buses by travelling along bus routes to the airport and picking up people from bus stops. Does this suggest a solution to cuts in government-subsidised bus services which are, by definition, unable to make ends meet? Such buses serve areas where passenger numbers are too low to cover costs, yet people without access to a car are otherwise isolated from jobs, education and health services. Dial-a-ride services cannot pick up the slack as they are usually charity/grant-funded and aimed at those with disabilities who cannot use normal buses. A taxi using bus stops could be commercially viable where a bus is not, offering a middle way between a dial-a-ride or door-to-door taxi service and a 45-90 passenger bus. Even if they could accept bus passes and were reimbursed like bus operators under the statutory scheme, this would surely still represent a saving to subsidising entire bus services?

In Reading, UK, one result of local government working more closely with the NHS since public health became a local government responsibility has been a creative approach to delivering health services to vulnerable groups: A double decker bus is providing ‘First aid, Information, Refuge, Safety, and Treatment’ in the town centre on Friday and Saturday nights and in hard-to-reach communities on weekdays. It offers savings to police and A&E services, whilst also functioning as a health outreach and educational facility. Considering the budgetary challenges facing social services and charities undertaking outreach, FIRST Stop is a bus service that has arrived right on time.

Let’s think. What other buses may pull up to the ‘other-services-delivered-here’ stop in a Local Authority near you?