Public Realm Resource

The thorniest topic at the UN’s COP27 on climate change this month has been finance, or the lack thereof, to lower income and more vulnerable countries. Affordability is front and centre of the debate to not only tackle climate change globally, but also to do so justly.

Similarly, affordability is a word that has been on the lips of many policy makers and stakeholders as soon as we started researching inclusivity in the transition to electric mobility in Bristol. Electric vehicles (EVs) are seen as unaffordable by and for many people. Even retrofitting or upgrading to a vehicle compliant with the Clean Air Zone (introduced today!) is considered financially out of reach for some of the most vulnerable and vehicle-dependent.

Furthermore, for cash-strapped governments, there is debate as to whether limited public monies should be spent on installing public EV charging infrastructure, rather than leaving it to the private sector? Public sector public charging might improve inclusion by enabling EV adoption by those without an off-street parking and domestic charging option, but if only wealthier households (whether they have private parking or not) can afford an EV, do they really need public charging infrastructure to be subsidised? Especially as electricity prices go up, and providing as well as using public charging becomes less affordable.

There are arguments the other way, of course, as lower income households might still drive a company car or van. They might be able to access a second-hand or shared EV.

And there are other forms of electric mobility. E-scooters and e-bikes not only can improve accessibility, but also can be considered a reasonably affordable transport option, especially for medium-length journeys where public transport is limited. Besides, many e-scooter trials have included discounts for low income groups to make sure the scheme is affordable.

But affordability and how public monies are used are not the only topic up for debate when considering whether the transition to electric mobility is progressing in an inclusive way. Digging a little deeper, another inclusion / justice issue is around the rights of different people to use the public realm in different ways and how their different ways of moving are accommodated in public spaces.

A number of the policy-makers and stakeholders we spoke to described how the allocation or reallocation of space on the public highway or footway is one of the most contentious interventions they can propose. Even in terms of people moving through space, there are the ever-recurring problems of congestion, crowding, and the use of space of different modes. Then there’s the space taken up for parking, deliveries, sign posts, bollards, traffic signals, cycle stands – so much of our public realm is used for dormant vehicles or the smooth running of the transport network, never mind for other things like retail or socialising.

The addition of electric mobility infrastructure such as EV charging and e-scooter parking places new demands on the scarce resource that is our public realm. Electric mobility also raises questions about how that resource is used – which modes are sharing which spaces, whose space is reallocated, who will face new challenges using public space, and will there be new conflicts and safety concerns? Basically, how efficient and fair is the use and allocation of the public realm once electric mobility is added into our transport systems?

Unsurprisingly, the policy makers and stakeholders we spoke to did not all have the same answers or perhaps any answers to these questions. And yet, they were asking the questions. They realised that social justice is not all about affordability or accessibility, but also the diverse needs, rights, experiences, and expectations of the public realm resource. That is an important step in not only our developing research, but also in achieving an inclusive transition to electric mobility.

Avoiding Responsibility

I read an editorial the other day inspired by a proposal to remove the white centre lines on a few roads:

The author, Simon Jenkins, used this news to introduce the concept of shared space, pointing out that it was not a very new concept, but that its uptake in the UK is pathetically slow despite overwhelming evidence that the principles of design it espouses increase road safety. The reason, the article concludes, is because authoritarian traffic engineers and government regulators want to play with their ‘boys’ toys’ (which apparently include traffic lights, one-way streets and cycle lanes) rather than allow ordinary road users to take responsibility for themselves. And that ordinary road users ‘let them’ get away with it.

It was at this point that I took issue. I would say that at least as often as an overenthusiastic traffic engineer or signal programmer overcomplicates a junction, members of the general public have demanded a new signalised pedestrian crossing or more signs or new cycle lanes or even speed cameras. People are not ‘letting’ traffic engineers, transport planners and others overregulate their roads; they are asking them to do it. And this all comes down to both the reason shared space is safer: the reallocation of responsibility to road users; and the reason it is rarely implemented: the desire to avoid responsibility.

Why do I believe this is the case? Well, let me take a step back first. Although I am not entirely sure the evidence is as overwhelming as the article portrays, I have long been an advocate of shared space, properly designed, and its ability in a variety of forms to improve road safety for most types of users. In fact, I have been directly involved in works to ‘declutter’ streetscapes, removing pedestrian guard railings, bollards and excessive signage. I also managed the policy input, scheme development and public consultation exercises for an area of local shops with a history of traffic accidents that at one point some of us on the team hoped might be transformed into an innovative shared space. It wasn’t.

Yes, there was a traffic engineer who said people in the neighbourhood ‘weren’t ready’ for such innovation. And there were strong views in favour of more control, rather than less, as a response to new development in the vicinity. But there were also local motorists who spoke out against the changes and then contradicted themselves by asking for six pedestrian crossing facilities in this small area to cross a mere three roads. Did they not trust themselves to drive through without running over schoolchildren unless traffic signals told them to stop?

Avoidance of responsibility is a trend in various aspects of modern society. Why else would Donald Trump be the frontrunner in the Republican presidential election campaign in the USA? People say they like that he is a ‘man of principle.’ Or is it really that they like the way he agrees to take responsibility for making unilateral decisions so that they don’t have to?

Shared space is a concept that is ripe for proliferation. It makes the public realm safer, encourages pedestrians and cyclists, encourages people to take responsibility and interact with their neighbours. Ideas piloted in those fabled, progressive European cities have spread around the world before. Ideas like pedestrianised shopping streets or public bikeshare schemes. Can shared spaces do the same? I don’t think traffic engineers or transport planners can stand in the way of an idea whose time has come. But local people unwilling to see change and afraid of responsibility could undermine improvements to their own streets and neighbourhoods. Perhaps the real responsibility of transport professionals is to educate them to respond otherwise.