Will-o-the-risk

I’ve been reading, thinking, and talking a lot about risk lately. So now I thought I’d write about it.

Understanding risk and using that understanding to rationally make choices and act accordingly is a challenging and tiring business. As Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel prize in economics explains in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (which I highly recommend – an excellent read), understanding probability and risk is neither easy nor intuitive. Humans naturally find these concepts hard to grasp. Even experts in statistics have to put in a good deal of mental effort to follow the advice of an impersonal algorithm that evaluates risk more accurately than their human instincts are willing to believe.

I’m not saying I’m an expert in statistics, but I have spent many of my working hours over the past four years learning how to calculate probabilities and apply quantitative methods. I also spent most of that time as part of a centre for doctoral training that had the word ‘Risk’ in its title. So I should have a head start on the topic.

Yet I didn’t start talking about risk that much until the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of humanity has been asked to change how they live their daily lives in order to reduce the risk of transmission and exponential infection, the risk of healthcare systems being overwhelmed and of excess mortality.

With the restrictions on everyday activity have come a torrent of data and statistics to help people understand why it is their civic duty to limit their mobility and interactions so severely. Yet as I said, it is not in our nature to understand this information easily. And as more data is gathered and modelled and blanket restrictions are replaced by nuanced recommendations, the messages about risk become much more complex.

So I read and think and then talk it through to try to capture the will-o-the-wisp that is comprehension of risk. I tell other mothers that the reason some children have been allowed back in school even whilst they are not allowed to stay over with vulnerable grandparents is because of the difference in the level of risk. I tell my mother that it is riskier to visit her favourite shop that has re-opened than to go for a walk with a friend even if they drift closer together than the recommended ‘social distance’. I try to balance the emotions of paranoia and complacency that I hear, see, and read about every day.

And yet, all these risks relate only to one potential cause of death. Other risks to human life are absent from the equation, something of which I was reminded in the starkest terms this past weekend when, on our first time on a motorway in three months, we passed a road traffic incident involving three cars and being attended by seven emergency service vehicles.

Thus, when politicians tell people the risks are low enough to encourage more travel for both work and leisure, but that the risks are higher on public transport than by car, they are reporting rather incomplete information. As traffic increases, so does the risk of dangerous driving and all its normal consequences. It may be that the risk of dangerous driving is actually greater than before lockdown as many people take to the roads for the first time in months and may be rather out of practice.

Understanding this and deciding how these risks should influence your behaviour isn’t easy, nor can I offer an easy solution. But neither should the conflicting risks be ignored – even if it does feel like trying to catch a will-o-the-risk.

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.