On Foot Essentials

Last month, I wrote about what many practitioners of transport planning and advocates of accessibility have been mulling over: the tidal wave of telecommuting in these turbulent and yet strangely static times, and the potential sustainability and resilience of online access. Scroll down to my previous blog (or an earlier one) if you want to know more.

However, accessibility is much more than access to work, particularly as telecommuting, contract employment, and other flexible working patterns continue to grow – even before the COVID-19 crisis. Jobs and populations are unevenly distributed and dominant employment sectors and local labour skills often don’t quite match up. Thus, whilst it is important for public transport and road networks to link neighbourhoods to employment areas, it is at least as important that places where people live offer easy access to essential non-work services and activities. Especially if we want to see some lasting effects of the current reduction in carbon-emitting car travel.

Part of the problem, however, is that it is tricky to clearly define what is essential for people to continue to access outside the home. Non-work trips are usually more flexible in terms of the time of day / day of the week they could take place, and there are usually multiple options to fulfil each need in a given area, from supermarkets to hair salons. Some services are also moving online in a big way, such as shopping for comparison goods.

Still, my research using the English National Travel Survey to investigate non-work trips by telecommuters (those with an external workplace who work from home at least once a week) suggested that telecommuters make a similar number of trips per week to the rest of the working population, and confirmed that a much higher percentage of those trips cannot be defined as commuting. In other words, if you work from home, you still want to get out for other purposes about the same number of times, even if to a greater variety of destinations.

My conclusion is that if the majority of these destinations were within walking distance, then more walking and less driving would naturally occur. More walking is better for public health, for community cohesion, and for the environment.

However, other than ‘escort education’, I found it difficult in my research to precisely match land uses to trip purposes such as ‘other escort’, ‘personal business’, or ‘leisure’. Which brings me back to what is essential to have in every neighbourhood, within walking distance, other than schools.

The current situation gives us new insight. First, although it would be helpful to know what indoor leisure opportunities are best localised, we clearly could all use more access to outdoor space and nature for daily exercise, especially where gardens are scarce. Is this an argument for ‘green wedges’ rather than ‘green belts’ and linear parks rather than enclosed squares? I’d advocate further research into the possibility at least.

Furthermore, pharmacies, post offices, and banks are clearly essential, if that was ever in doubt. Such facilities need to stop closing local branches and perhaps diversify their business models to provide other essential services. Finally, there is the admittedly anecdotal evidence that local food shops, convenience stores, and takeaways have been more successful through this period in providing the basics, keeping their customers happy, and offering personalised ordering, collection, and delivery services than their bigger rivals. If there were ever signs that the large, out-of-town hypermarkets are not fit for purpose, they are now flashing red.

In conclusion, it is more apparent now than ever that places with plenty of access to nature and plenty of essentials locally are not only more attractive, but also more resilient. If we want more resilient communities, more telecommuting, and less medium-distance travel, then our goal should be walkable places for everyone.

Bottom Up

You may well ask what a lecture on water management, a webinar on neighbourhood planning and my specialism of transport planning have in common. The obvious answer is that they are all subjects of RTPI-sponsored events this November (the transport planning one is on the 23rd) that I am attending for Continuing Professional Development and networking opportunities. This is true, but gives no indication of the insights I have gained from presentations about subjects only tangentially related to the work of a transport planner.

Major water infrastructure such as barriers and dykes have strong parallels with major transport infrastructure like roads and railways. These are projects of national scale and investment. One seeks to reduce the probability of flood damage and the other to provide increased capacity, usually for long distance travel. Neither actually manages water or movement. Nor do they directly address the consequences thereof, be it a flood that breaches the barrier or the increased traffic brought in by a new road link or attracted by a new high-speed railway station. Nor do they create resilience in a local community to adapt.

Professor Woltjer’s lecture on 16 November was called A Place-Based Approach to Water and Infrastructure Management, and although mainly about water management, one of his first points was that infrastructure in western cities is part of ‘complete’ networks. Therefore infrastructure management is more about replacement and adaptation to changing circumstances, rather than building new major infrastructure, be it dyke or road.

Later in the talk, I was struck by a slide on local flood groups. These are people in communities coming together to plan for potential consequences, by having evacuation procedures or emergency food stores. They also seek adaptation strategies together, perhaps identifying areas suitable for water storage or objecting to development that increases land area impervious to water drainage.

The link between the flood groups and the parish councils or urban forums who come together to make neighbourhood plans is plain. But the flood groups do not have any legal status nor funding stream. The Environment Agency has limited resources to adequately manage its own workload, never mind support these groups, although it may be that this happens on a more ad hoc or voluntary basis.

It occurred to me that local transport planning is in a similar position. With the disappearance of 5-year funding allocations tied to the Local Transport Plan back in 2011, the capacity for capital projects in individual neighbourhoods like public realm enhancements or new pedestrian crossings was greatly reduced. The Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) offered certain opportunities, particularly for revenue-based schemes, e.g. personal, work or school travel planning, but not all areas were successful in winning funding. Nor would all local highway authorities be aware of the needs of every neighbourhood or invest in every neighbourhood.

Furthermore, LSTF is almost over and there is no indication yet that it will be replaced. All we know ahead of next week’s spending review is that the DfT, the DCLG and Defra have all already agreed to extensive additional funding cuts. Devolution deals may be the main silver lining to all this reduction in local spending, but the webinar on neighbourhood planning did make me wonder whether localism cannot successfully be taken even further. It was a question I asked during the webinar, and I look forward to receiving feedback.

I have already expressed my general support for devolution in earlier blogs: https://go-how.com/2014/10/22/municipal-independence-referendum/ and https://go-how.com/2015/09/28/devolution-is-in-the-detail/. I have also expressed my reservations about devolution without appropriate tax and spend powers given to the optimised geographies.

Professor Woltjer asked if flood-prone areas could locally tax households that increase their hard-standings. The webinar asked multiple times about the appropriate geography for a neighbourhood plan, particularly in an urban area. So, in conclusion, I ask whether we need an even more bottom-up devolution of legal and financial powers for water management, transport planning and other neighbourhood impact management, resilience and adaptation issues? Or am I reading too much into a couple CPD events?