Siloed Sustainability

Sustainability is all about securing, if not a better future, than at least one that is not a whole lot worse for our children and subsequent generations.

This ambition is usually described as having three pillars: Society, Economy, and Environment. It is not unusual to hear that one of these pillars has been given undue priority or another has been unfairly ignored.

But in the last couple of years, I have become aware of another aspect of siloed sustainability. Not three pillars but two challenges, which seem to rarely be considered or addressed by the same people or research. These are the twin climate challenges of mitigation and adaptation.

In transport circles, you might hear about them in discussions of infrastructure resilience or reducing car use. But you are unlikely to hear these discussions in the same room, around the same table.

This is a problem because many agree that the only way the transport sector can really tackle either the climate emergency or emergencies caused by climate change is by highlighting as many ‘co-benefits’ of sustainable (and resilient?!) transport as possible. For example, switching to active travel modes like walking and cycling not only reduces carbon emissions, but is also good for your health and your wallet.

Yet who asks if active travel has a resilience co-benefit or can be promoted as an adaptation measure? True, it seems unlikely that walking or cycling will be attractive options if the weather is too hot or too wet much more often.

However, that is too simplistic a view. Integration of land use and transport planning is key to increasing active travel, with more local service provision. Reducing the distance residents have to travel to access essential services during transport disruption makes communities more resilient because, maybe not during the storm, but when faced with post-storm flooding, walking to a local food shop or pharmacy is probably more practical than driving to such facilities further away.

Yet how often is such a scenario taken into account by those making policy, strategy, and decisions on the sustainability of transport proposals or land use planning developments? And what tools do highways teams have at their disposal to help communities without local services maintain accessibility when they have to close a road after flooding has occurred? The unsatisfactory answers to these questions are a manifestation of siloed sustainability planning.

Another example is the promotion of online access as a sustainable travel alternative. Transport researchers enthusiastically investigated the potential of ICT to reduce the need to travel, and thus reduce the environmental, economic, and social impacts of travel, including congestion, carbon emissions, and severance. However, there have been some disappointing results. Online shopping increases the vehicle mileage required for deliveries. Regular telecommuters tend to live further from their place of employment and make more trips for purposes other than commuting, resulting in only minimal reductions in their travel.

Yet these analyses do not consider the potential of online access to provide a resilient alternative to travelling. Information and communication technology infrastructure is often newer, more robust in extreme weather, and has more redundancy built in due to competition between providers than traditional road and rail networks.

Thus, a proactive approach to integrating online and transport access options would help communities adapt during extreme weather and give them a greater ability to continue to interact socially, maintain productivity, and respond in real time to an emergency. Only the siloed nature of planning for sustainability leaves such integration until the last minute and results in a reactive and piecemeal approach.

Therefore, just as we try to ‘join up’ our thinking on the three pillars of sustainability in order to build a holistic perspective, let’s also not forget to break down the invisible silos between adaptation and mitigation. It will help us all do our jobs better and deliver a better future.

Monitor and Adapt

In my research, I’ve been thinking a lot about how people might respond to storms, snow, or other severe weather events in a more resilient way to avoid delays, disruption, and risks to personal safety. I’ve been analysing data and searching for evidence of existing resilient responses and considering how more people might be encouraged to follow suit. However, the ‘people’ I have in mind are commuters, ordinary households, the so-called ‘general public’.

Yet at the Local Government Transport Advisory Group President’s Conference at the end of May, I was reminded of the role of a different group of people. The people who have a responsibility to the community to minimise the risk to life and property of any emergency, to react and recover from the disruption, damage, and danger that not only severe weather, but also terrorism, accidents or other unforeseen events might cause. These people include the emergency services, obviously, but they also include local government officers, people responsible for transport, energy, and digital infrastructure and services, social care and hospital staff, even the local media who help disseminate important messages and warnings.

It may not be the ‘general public’ but that’s a lot of people to coordinate. And we heard, with examples, how important it is that all these different people and services are working together in an emergency, have a ‘joint understanding of risk’ and a ‘shared situational awareness’. Without organised collaboration, mistakes are made, and in some cases, more lives are lost.

Yet resilience is not just response and recovery. It is also adaptation and preparation. And when it comes to planning for security and resilience, I learned that there are risks to sharing too much. Too much data can be open to ‘hostile reconnaissance’. Too much planning for specifics is sure to miss something or someone. Too many warnings might be a bit like the boy who cried wolf.

Rather, the advice was to plan based on generic principles. Before opening up data, consider what it can be used for and linked with. Design adaptations with dual functionality. Do have a nominated individual in every organisation responsible for understanding the interactions between physical, personnel, and cyber security and making policy decisions. Don’t have a single individual designated as the only one who can make emergency decisions.

So what does all this have to do with my research? Resilience planning is closely linked to the current debate in transport planning circles around future uncertainty in the field. Uncertainty around the role of new technologies, uncertainty around trends and forecasts, uncertainty around risks and responsibilities. There have been various proposals to replace ‘predict and provide’ with ‘scenario planning’, ‘decide and provide,’ or ‘vision and validate’, which means that the starting point should be policy and a vision of the future we all want to live in, and then we should plan for that future and evaluate whether we are achieving it on an ongoing basis.

Yet to these tidy phrases, I’d add another one I heard for the first time at the conference: ‘monitor and adapt’. If responsible professionals and researchers monitor and review what happens during various types of extreme events in different places and at different times, then we can design adaptations which offer multiple options for resilience. We can prepare and share unified messages, rather than specific data, to generate a more resilient response in the next emergency situation.

In the past, transport planners have tended to monitor what happens on ‘average’ days to plan for future certainties. Now there is a drive to consider future uncertainties, which are partly due to the internal pressures of increasing flexibility and variability in work and travel patterns, and partly due to external events that require resilience. For the latter at least, ‘monitor and adapt’ seems the best approach to take. And with such an approach, transport planners might do their part to help that list of responsible people on the front line of an emergency.