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.

A New Plan for Parking?

I started a new job, with a new research project last week. I’m working for the Transport Studies Unit at Oxford with public and private sector partners to investigate the potential of ‘Park and Charge’ business models. Ostensibly, therefore, it is about electric vehicles and the role they must play in achieving future, carbon-free mobility.

But I’m much more excited about the parking bit of the brief.

Basically, the premise is ‘that at least 30% of households in the UK lack access to off-street charging or home charging’, or, in other words, lack private, off-street parking for their own safe, plug-in connection. These people may be in terraces or flats or homes with only on-street parking or communal parking without allocated spaces. They may or may not already use a car, but either way, if they want to buy into the electric car revolution, they need an alternative ‘home-charging’ solution. My initial research suggests that home charging availability is one of the biggest barriers to electric car adoption, even as cost comes down and range / performance / battery life goes up.

The proposal? Develop a ‘park and charge’ business model for ‘home’ charging points in public car parks. The key point is that this is a plan for not just charging, but managing and pricing parking space.

Let me take a step back to explain why I think this is exciting. As a young, transport planning consultant 15 years ago, my job included helping local governments ‘decriminalise’, manage, and value their parking. Legislation had been passed to enable local authorities outside London to decide to take responsibility for on-street parking enforcement from the police, even issue and collect fines. However, they could not enforce anything unless they also published Traffic Regulation Orders and installed all the appropriate signs and lines that accompany them. The discretion to decide if someone had left their car in a dangerous or obstructive position was still a police matter. As police officers usually have better things to do, anywhere with no lines and signs remain a free-for-all. So any parking management had to be designed, agreed, and implemented.

What did this mean? I spent a lot of time walking the streets, measuring the lengths and widths available for parking, confirming adjacent land uses, and writing detailed descriptions of which bays would be designated for residents permit parking or limited waiting or pay and display or shared use. And where there should be yellow lines and no parking. Many of these streets were narrow, with housing that had no possibility of off-street parking. Some areas were quite wealthy and households had two or more vehicles on street. Some streets were located near employment or the local train station. There was a lot of competition for parking and a lot of complaints about what was fair and equitable as we designed residents’ parking schemes.

Yet last year I met someone from one of the towns where I had worked who said how much their parents and their parents’ neighbours loved having the residents’ parking. They pay for a permit. They are not guaranteed a space. But managed space is still better than a free-for-all, and attitudes have changed about the value that space has, even for parking cars.

To bring it back to today, climate change targets mean that it is necessary to not only accelerate the switch to electric vehicles, but also to reduce the number of private vehicles on our roads. Managing parking and planning where space should be given to cars as well as to which type of cars (electric, shared…) means addressing both these challenges. So the Park and Charge research project could be a parking space in the right direction.