Can we build back fairer?

As we reach the end of a difficult year, we are all looking forward to the next one – one in which we regain the freedom to move around more, go places, see people, participate in activities in person. We have missed out on connecting, which is the main purpose of transport systems. Although it is also the main purpose of telecommunications systems, these could only offer incomplete substitutes for some of the most meaningful types of connecting.

Yet transport systems and the connections they offer cannot, will not, and should not return in all the same forms they took less than a year ago.

We need to continue to encourage walking, cycling and other forms of active travel that improve public health. We need to help people renew their confidence in the safety of public transport. We need to reduce the amount of travel per person, where telecommunications can replace unnecessary mileage.

As the slogans go, we need to support a ‘green recovery’ and ‘to build back better’ in transport as in other sectors. If we are to avoid further crises, it is time to take the decarbonisation of transport seriously and reduce local air pollution as well.

A switch to electric cars is part of the solution, but my current and future research suggests that we need to put this switch into perspective, not only because it is not the whole of any environmental solution, but also because the transition to electric mobility will not be a socially just solution without efforts to make it so.

This year has highlighted the importance of redressing decades of social injustices due to race, poverty, and gender as much as it has taught us not to ignore our vulnerability to natural disasters. It is as important to build back fairer as it is to build back greener.

My research looks at both the social and the environmental through the lens of the transition to electric mobility. If the replacement of petrol and diesel with electric is to be fair and equitable, then how do we recognise different needs and capabilities, enable more participation in identifying solutions, and make sure the relevant infrastructure is built in an accessible way?

Electric cars are very expensive, but they are becoming more affordable to purchase, lease or access on the now-developing second-hand market. Yet what about post-purchase? Any household who can plug their electric car into their home electricity overnight whilst they’re sleeping will rarely have to make a special trip to refuel, and will save money on the daily costs of running a car.

In contrast, those who rent and / or live in flats and terraced housing are less likely to have a private garage or driveway to park and charge an electric car. So how do we build the right sort of charging infrastructure in the right places so that drivers who cannot charge an electric car at home aren’t put at a disadvantage? How do we make public charging affordable?

How do we also make it safe and convenient if such characteristics are subjective and the majority of electric car owners and enthusiasts are currently men? How do we involve women, or those on low incomes, or those from different ethnic backgrounds in the forums on and front lines of implementing electric charging infrastructure?

Will the solutions for central urban areas be the same as those in the suburbs, small towns, or villages? For whom is shared electric transport, or micro-mobility (e.g. e-bikes and scooters) a more accessible solution?

These are the types of questions we need to begin to answer next year, as we all seek to reconnect in not just a green recovery, but an equitable one. Let’s build back better, greener, and fairer.

A Future of Transport Equity?

I’ve been thinking about transport equity this month. I don’t mean transport poverty, although I’ve read some interesting literature on that too recently. But transport poverty is now and transport equity, or rather inequity, is what we are building into the future of mobility through our investment and policy decisions.

Three areas where we might be steering towards future transport inequity have been on my mind.

The first is electric vehicles. Many see a transition to electric vehicles as the solution to a low-carbon future. Yet my current research explores how mass adoption of plug-in electric vehicles might be delivered when at least a third of car drivers have no ability to park and charge their vehicles at their homes. Many of these people, who may be living in flats or small terraces or rented accommodation without private parking are unlikely to be able to afford the purchase price of battery electric vehicles anyway. Yet even if costs come down and the second-hand market grows, their lack of driveways and garages mean they would still fail to benefit from the ultra-low refuelling costs of slow-charging overnight using home electricity. There are solutions, and we are researching their social sustainability, but it is hard to see how state subsidies for private electric vehicle purchase will lead us to an equitable future of mobility. (Never mind the implications for congestion, urban environments, lithium mining…)

The second transport, or, more accurately, access equity issue that I’ve been mulling over is online access. Online access was a big part of my doctoral research, and as I defended my thesis this month, the external examiner acknowledged that I’d mentioned the equity aspect of online access, but questioned whether I addressed it directly enough. Indeed, the more I think about my analysis of the potential resilience and sustainability of telecommuting as an option to access work activities during transport disruption, the more I realise that it is an option for far too few, and those few tend to be among the more privileged. It does not have to be that way. Changes in government and corporate policy to promote computer skills and allow remote and autonomous working could enable telecommuting to be available to many more sectors of society. But there must also be investment in infrastructure that delivers both availability and quality online access to all – and I’m not sure the current preoccupation with 5G allows that.

Finally, it’s been hard to ignore recent headlines on HS2. Whatever you think about the political agenda or ballooning budget, a new high speed rail service will mainly serve relatively wealthy commuters, as, like telecommuting, rail commuters tend to be found among those with higher incomes. Especially if they’re travelling to benefit from London’s already bloated job market. One can’t help but agree with those who suggest the money might better be spent on local transport, reduced rail fares, or any number of other things. Unless there’s plenty in the coffers for both HS2 and the rest of the wish list, you’d be hard pressed to argue that this is socially-progressive infrastructure investment.

In conclusion, I am not against high-speed rail, 5G or other advanced information and communication technologies, nor electric vehicles and charging systems. Yet if this is all that policy is promoting or institutional actors are investing in, it will leave large portions of society behind and create the transport and access poverty of the future. Instead, I’m advocating for a bit more attention to transport equity when planning the future of mobility and accessibility.