Flexible Resolve

Last month I wrote about the importance of evidence. The month before I wrote about how averages can’t always be used as evidence of what society needs from transport planners. And this month I have even more evidence of how little society may reflect averages.

The University Transport Studies Group annual conference was packed full of papers presenting ongoing or recently completed research from senior academics down to PhD students. The standard was high, and much of the work fascinating. A presentation offering an historic overview of urban transport policy by Professor Peter Jones of University College London best elucidated one conclusion I’ve been coming to over the last year – that we need to move from a ‘Predict and Provide’ to a ‘Vision and Validate’ model. To do this, transport planners must work with other sectors to change how their needs for accessibility can be met in order to meet mobility demand sustainably – and flexibly.

Flexibility is key. People’s need for mobility is dependent upon their need to access activities, goods, and services. As I’ve noted before, more and more people already maintain their accessibility in different ways at different times for different purposes. Their patterns of access can be variable instead of habitual. And between different people or groups of people, there is even more heterogeneity.

For example, there was a presentation on the night-time economy at the conference. I can’t say I’d given much thought to these sorts of workers before. Neither, it turns out, have policy-makers, who have focused on access to places of food, drink, and entertainment for the customers, ignoring those who work in these venues, who might require different travel options than those they serve. Never mind other 24-hour services, such as health and social care, or transport and logistics. How can we envision and plan for transport networks that work for these people, as well as the day-time commuter?

Various presentations also investigated whether ‘Mobility as a Service’ was a realistic scenario for the future of transport. There remain many barriers to its implementation and success. Not least if such services cannot match the flexibility of those most likely to sign on. One paper estimated that Mobility as a Service is of most interest to those who have private vehicles, but only drive their cars 1-2 days a week. Yet as noted in previous blogs, do our current methods of surveying and modelling sufficiently capture such regular, but infrequent behaviours that they enable the design of services catering to these people?

Another paper found that by looking at different data sources and then interrogating the results of one source with the results of the other, travel behaviours that seemed regular and even habitual masked variation. Those who travelled along a stretch of road regularly were more likely to vary their time of travel, whilst those who travelled less regularly were less likely to vary their timing. Getting the right messages out to these irregular travellers, who might not be familiar with their location or choices, is challenging. Yet, it is these people who most need advice, if, as another paper pointed out, they feel they can understand and trust that advice.

Trust is also key for all the ‘shared transport’ that we are apparently ever more willing to use in the 21st century, and, without which, many of our visions for a technologically-advanced, but sustainable future fall apart. However, to note the topic of one final presentation, we would do well to remember that not just vehicles, but roads too are a shared resource. And we don’t always trust each other to use even those flexibly and appropriately!

In conclusion, let’s hope for a New Year that brings not only transport research and policy development that supports flexibility and variation rather than habits and averages, but also a resolve to be a bit more flexible ourselves.

 

Anything but Average

Back in July, I wrote about transport planning for places, rather than individual modes and ‘networks’. Last month, I wrote about transport planning to accommodate the needs of people, rather than the temptations of technology. Last week, I spoke about both at the South West England regional conference for transport planning. Planning, including transport planning, is by definition about looking towards the future and how we create better places than we have now that improve the quality of life for the people in those places.

Yet in preparing my presentation for last week, and in listening to some of the other presentations, I realised that transport modelling, forecasting, and thus planning have yet another loadstone to cast off before they can ‘help shape a better world’, another challenge besides remembering that the best transport planning invisibly serves people and places. And that weight is the weight of averages.

As a methodology for representing individual behaviour, the average, the ‘usual’, falls woefully short. It ignores the steps people may take to be sustainable or exercise more unless they do so more than half the time being measured. It glosses over the people who do not have the same destinations to access on a daily basis. It downplays the regular, but infrequent patterns of linked trips to visit family or participate in other activities that induce diversionary routes once a week or once a month. It gives no thought to how some people may react to increased risk, delay, or disruption due to severe weather, planned events, unplanned incidents, scheduled repair works, or even terrorist threats.

To plan for local contexts, the average assumptions about how people travel to, from, and within areas of particular land uses can easily miss the diversity of options, variety of economic drivers, and cultural preferences in different places. If most traffic and transport models, whether to assess the impacts of new developments or to inform investment decisions with a cost-benefit ratio, are based upon data collected on average dates for an average population and average land uses, it is no wonder that transport planners are still living in a ‘predict and provide’ paradigm. Nor is it surprising that those predictions often turn out to be wrong.

Way back in March, I wrote about Visions of the future of transport and society developed through scenario-planning techniques. I’ve read academic articles advocating scenario planning in order to address the uncertainties we face. But the key to scenario-planning is not only to think about how people behave and how places might take shape, but also to consider a spectrum of possibilities. A spectrum that encompasses extremes, which in turn do allow for hybrid possibilities, but not averages.

This is where big data and new technologies and ‘smart’ infrastructure can help. Algorithms might still regress data back to averages, but that data, those sensors, the digital trail we all leave in our wake like high-tech breadcrumbs , can also give us a much better understanding of extremes than we’ve ever had before. No longer dependent upon snapshots or cross-sections, planners can take a long view and find the patterns of flexibility that better represent the lives we all lead. Instead of predict and provide, let’s propose and future-proof. Because the future is unlikely to be any more ‘average’ than the present.