A Transport Defence System

I’ve been thinking a bit over the weekend about the attacks in Barcelona. And Charlottesville. And London, Nice, and more places than I can quite keep track of recently. And what I’ve been thinking about most is the weapon of choice in all these attacks: motor vehicles. Cars, vans, trucks. Objects whose purpose is to enable people and goods to get from A to B. A purpose I have long considered a main driver of my professional life. Pun intended. But in these cases, the transport purpose of vehicles is being perverted.

Not that motor vehicles have ever been innocent. Even before the idea to consciously use them as terrorist weapons was fomented, motor vehicles have killed people in their thousands. Through the sprawling, sedentary urban forms and the subsequent inactivity they foster, through carbon emissions and local air pollution, and of course, through road traffic incidents. Some who is run over by accident is as much a casualty as someone who is run over on purpose.

Which is not to say that an accidental weapon is as potent as one used with intent. The terrorists, no matter their ideological background, are driving into crowds, into pedestrian areas, in places where they can cause the most damage. So how do we limit the damage?

Obviously there are debates about surveillance and police presence in vulnerable places, about the means available to gather intelligence about terrorist cells or radicalised and potentially violent individuals, about the regulations and background checks required to access vehicles, particularly rented ones. Still, if transport is the weapon, surely transport planning can be part of the solution.

The security services have already been speaking on the radio about concrete barriers and similar physical infrastructure. Indeed, they have been talking about such things for years. I once attended a meeting in Wales back in the days when the new Wembley Stadium was under construction, and Cardiff was hosting football matches and events of international importance. The Welsh police and anti-terrorist units discussed the need then to have physical infrastructure that could stop car bombs from approaching and detonating near ‘soft targets’ like the stadium. The room was full of planners, transport planners, architects, engineers, and urban designers. We were being tasked not with coming up with the idea of having physical barriers in the first place, nor even necessarily where they should go. No, our job was to integrate such barriers into the urban fabric.

So what is the transport planning part of the solution to this new use of vehicles as weapons? It is to develop the public realm with beautiful planters, seating, bollards, and other street furniture or even street art that also act as barriers to motor vehicles. Perhaps it is also to create new pedestrian spaces. Or make more spaces pedestrian-only, 24-7, protected by physical infrastructure, rather than opened up to motor vehicles and deliveries at various times of day. And then to solve the delivery issues by creating appropriate delivery consolidation locations, loading bays, and more creative delivery options, such as bicycle couriers who are allowed to enter the pedestrian area. And whilst we’re on bicycles, why not combine the creation of new, segregated bicycle lanes with lines of attractive and protective concrete planters? Planters have been used instead of kerbs or verges to segregate cycle facilities before, so why not make sure they also serve a defensive function on crowded roads and bridges?

If we put our minds to it, transport planners can think of many ways that they could help develop a defence system to deal not only with the use of motor vehicles as weapons, but also to address some of the other dangers motor vehicles present to human life. Concurrent objectives could include segregating vulnerable cyclists and pedestrians from motor vehicles to reduce accidents, creating better spaces for pedestrians and cyclist to encourage more active travel, and increasing the distance of places crowded with people from the generators of local air pollution. It might not be enough to completely stop the use of motor vehicles as a weapon in the future, but we can do something constructive to save lives now.

Public Health is the Purpose

The 2010-2015 UK Parliament has made many changes affecting local government in the first half of its term, but one notable (and positive!) change of 2013 went fairly unremarked other than by those affected. In the major re-structure of the National Health Service, it was not only GP practices which had to take on more responsibility. All public health functions have now transferred to Local Authorities.

Public health functions include vaccinations and the commissioning of community health services such as maternity and post-natal care. Also included are all the preventative health interventions including education and campaigns on topics such as sexual health, tobacco, alcohol, obesity and physical activity. Considering the nature of such health prevention measures, the synergy between public health functions and other local government services is manifold.

For example, social services have often had as much or more interaction with those at most risk of sexually transmitted diseases as primary care trust staff. Environmental health officers and licensing teams control the locations where alcohol and tobacco are sold, inspect food hygiene and deal with many other topics that have been the focus of years of public health campaigns. Waste collection and drainage has an important role in preventing the spread of diseases that afflict other nations with less developed infrastructure. Local Authority Planners have been at the forefront of finding new ways to tackle childhood obesity by limiting fast food outlets near schools. And transport and highways officers manage the quality of public space to make the roads safer and encourage active travel (e.g. walking and cycling). There are therefore clear benefits to public health professionals working within the same organisations as all these service deliverers.

There are also many benefits to those of us delivering these services. Public health colleagues are on hand to remind us of the interplay between lifestyle choice and quality of life, and that the purpose of all the work we are doing is to improve the wellbeing of the citizens we serve. Too often in departments such as transport, planning and licensing, statutory duties and service plan targets focus on economic and environmental concerns, allowing officers to overlook the individuals who are involved. Public health in comparison is all about improving health outcomes for individuals, particularly those known to be at risk. Social objectives are re-prioritised and more likely to be incorporated into transport, planning and climate change strategies.

The new public health teams in local authorities also have substantial information about the needs of different sectors of the population. This information can help other services appraise projects and target interventions where they will have the most impact. Such information can also support the evaluation of completed projects, supplementing the traditionally outputs-based reporting with a longer-term view of outcomes. Finally, the information and knowledge public health teams have about the communities they serve can help others in Local Authorities get to know their customers better and understand what motivates them.

Indeed, the incorporation of public health functions into local government is full of opportunities for all involved and reinforces what local government is designed to do. It is more of a return to the first principles of local governance than an introduction of a new service to deliver. After all, local government was originally formed to deal with public health issues like poor sanitation, facilities for the vulnerable, and the safe and healthy management of public spaces such as roads and parks. One could say that public health is the purpose of local government. In which case, 2013 saw Local Authorities recover their raison d’etre. Perhaps 2014 will see them make it their own.