Muddle of Mobility Messages

As the UK begins to ease its lockdown restrictions and people are allowed to move about more, I don’t have a problem with the change of message from ‘Stay at Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’. I feel I can be trusted to behave responsibly and sensibly as I encounter more people beyond my household, and I’d like to think the majority of my fellow citizens can be trusted likewise.

Besides, the first message when it comes to work activities, is to remain working from home if this is possible. And whilst the group that can work from home is not a majority and their socio-demographics have implications for equity, it turns out that far more people can work from home at least some of the time than were doing so before the pandemic. This will reduce pressure on transport infrastructure and destinations alike.

The second message is to walk and cycle where possible, and it is backed up by emergency powers to make changes quickly and funding to implement those changes. Local transport authorities around the country are reallocating road space to pedestrians and cyclists, both to enable safe active travel, and to support social distancing outside essential shops and services.

As I wrote in my last blog, with a proactive approach supported by good spatial planning of these essential non-work destinations, these facilities will help increase walking and cycling among those who are working from home as well as those travelling to work over relatively short distances. In 2018, two thirds of trips in England were under 5 miles (p19).

So far so good. But then we get to the muddle. Whilst some of the other third of trips will be to destinations that are still closed, trips to work and to exercise further from home are being actively encouraged, whilst the use of public transport is being actively discouraged. This is problematic and indeed contradictory for a number of reasons:

  • People are being asked to stay alert if they need to go to workplaces where they risk potential infection due to social interactions outside their household, often in indoor spaces. Meanwhile workplaces are expected to put into place safety measures (for cleaning, social distancing, etc) that make staying alert rather than staying home a sufficient precaution. Public transport vehicles are also workplaces. They are also expected to put into place safety measures (for cleaning, social distancing, etc). Therefore, surely the directive to stay alert should be sufficient for both workplaces and public transport, without the additional directive to avoid public transport altogether?
  • Related to this, encouraging the reallocation of road space at the same time as encouraging a return to car use could create more conflicts between motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists – both on the road and in the media. Clarity on the hierarchy of road users is preferable to the current mixed messages.
  • Furthermore, reductions in carbon emissions and air pollution has been a major benefit of reduced road traffic during lockdown. As COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, keeping air pollution down will not reduce risk of transmission, but may reduce the numbers who are at risk of becoming severely ill. Air pollution causes excess mortality from numerous respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
  • Finally, a study in NYC correlates higher infection rates after lockdown with car-dependent areas, compared to those connected by public transport. The authors suggest this could be because people who travel by car to shops and services are more likely to come into contact with more people from different areas of the city than people who travel by public transport and access what they need by foot within their own neighbourhood. Indeed, if people are returning to work by car (or visiting more distant places for exercise), they may split their essential shopping (food, medicine) across communities, potentially spreading or picking up the virus from multiple places rather than one. Such linked trips by public transport are much less likely, whilst active travellers keep everything local.

In conclusion, if a resurgence in car travel is to be avoided, trust in public transport cannot be undermined further by stark warnings, local people must have priority on local roads, and long distance day trips should be discouraged – at least until more destinations re-open and there are more economic and social benefits to making those trips. The messaging around mobility needs modification and a more strategic outlook.

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.