Evidentially, my dear Watson

I recently chaired a panel at the Transport Planning Network’s annual event, which presented evidence on the wider benefits of integrating transport and land use planning to promote sustainable transport. The panel was fairly academic, but the presentations were short, snappy, and discussed their area of evidence at a relatively generalist level. There was little that I hadn’t heard before. The audience was full of transport planners and land use planners working in local government, consultancies, and a few from charities, academia or other non-profit organisations with an interest in transport and land use planning. Before opening the panel for questions from the floor, I asked the audience how many had heard at least one piece of evidence that was completely new to them. The response was surprising. So many hands went up that I couldn’t see whether there were any that remained down.

Sherlock Holmes’ famous catch phrase is a contradiction. His deductions are only elementary if they are sitting on a mountain of evidence, and knowledge about that evidence, such as where the evidence in question was made, under what circumstances, etc. At the transport planning event, it would seem that even professionals in the field are sitting on a mountain of evidence, but have not been given the knowledge to interpret it. Now it may be that many in the audience could interpret portions of the evidence. Maybe they knew what economic agglomeration means for sustainable urban forms, but they didn’t know how physical inactivity causes chronic inflammation. Maybe they knew all about the proportion of greenhouse gas emissions caused by longer distance car trips, but they didn’t realise how that could be translated into proportion of transport emissions from dispersed settlement patterns.

The point still remains that there was something they didn’t know. As another task on my list at the moment is writing an article about sustainable mobility that can be understood by people at graduate level outside the discipline, it raises an interesting question if even those in the discipline don’t know some of the key reasons why sustainable mobility matters. Now, I am tasked more with defining the ‘what’ than describing the ‘why’ in this article, but how much information gives people enough to construct the knowledge on which to act?

Another recent trip I made was to take a short course for post-graduates who want to do a little teaching. In that course, there is some discussion about the need to construct knowledge through active learning. Presenting the information is not enough. For students to be able to incorporate the information into their own body of knowledge, the information needs to be presented in such a way that it builds on what they already know and understand, and they need to be engaged in its exploration through asking questions, discussing its relevance, etc.

For information, substitute evidence. Sure, we had a fairly long Q & A session after the panel presentations, but were more than a dozen people truly engaged in active learning? I asked a simple question about whether any of the information presented was new. I didn’t get to ask them whether anything was partially familiar or how it might relate to what evidence they were already using. Evidence is so important to make the case for sustainable transport, sustainable development, sustainable governance. And that case is mainly being made, not to planning professionals, but to politicians and the public, most of whom are even less likely to be familiar with the academic research in the discipline. So hopefully, the Transport Planning Network event fulfilled its aim to build on evidence that the audience already understood, because only then would they have a chance of applying that evidence to their local projects and passing it on to decision-makers and the public in such a way that sustainability meets acceptability.

Note: The Transport Planning Network is a professional network of over 1600 members administered by the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Transport Planning Society.

Anything but Average

Back in July, I wrote about transport planning for places, rather than individual modes and ‘networks’. Last month, I wrote about transport planning to accommodate the needs of people, rather than the temptations of technology. Last week, I spoke about both at the South West England regional conference for transport planning. Planning, including transport planning, is by definition about looking towards the future and how we create better places than we have now that improve the quality of life for the people in those places.

Yet in preparing my presentation for last week, and in listening to some of the other presentations, I realised that transport modelling, forecasting, and thus planning have yet another loadstone to cast off before they can ‘help shape a better world’, another challenge besides remembering that the best transport planning invisibly serves people and places. And that weight is the weight of averages.

As a methodology for representing individual behaviour, the average, the ‘usual’, falls woefully short. It ignores the steps people may take to be sustainable or exercise more unless they do so more than half the time being measured. It glosses over the people who do not have the same destinations to access on a daily basis. It downplays the regular, but infrequent patterns of linked trips to visit family or participate in other activities that induce diversionary routes once a week or once a month. It gives no thought to how some people may react to increased risk, delay, or disruption due to severe weather, planned events, unplanned incidents, scheduled repair works, or even terrorist threats.

To plan for local contexts, the average assumptions about how people travel to, from, and within areas of particular land uses can easily miss the diversity of options, variety of economic drivers, and cultural preferences in different places. If most traffic and transport models, whether to assess the impacts of new developments or to inform investment decisions with a cost-benefit ratio, are based upon data collected on average dates for an average population and average land uses, it is no wonder that transport planners are still living in a ‘predict and provide’ paradigm. Nor is it surprising that those predictions often turn out to be wrong.

Way back in March, I wrote about Visions of the future of transport and society developed through scenario-planning techniques. I’ve read academic articles advocating scenario planning in order to address the uncertainties we face. But the key to scenario-planning is not only to think about how people behave and how places might take shape, but also to consider a spectrum of possibilities. A spectrum that encompasses extremes, which in turn do allow for hybrid possibilities, but not averages.

This is where big data and new technologies and ‘smart’ infrastructure can help. Algorithms might still regress data back to averages, but that data, those sensors, the digital trail we all leave in our wake like high-tech breadcrumbs , can also give us a much better understanding of extremes than we’ve ever had before. No longer dependent upon snapshots or cross-sections, planners can take a long view and find the patterns of flexibility that better represent the lives we all lead. Instead of predict and provide, let’s propose and future-proof. Because the future is unlikely to be any more ‘average’ than the present.

Air Quality is on Us

The Royal Geographic Society issued a media release on a paper given at their annual conference last week: Study finds impact of road transport on air quality not given sufficient priority in UK transport planning.

The release was picked up by a national newspaper, The Guardian, by the Royal Town Planning Institute’s professional journal, The Planner, and probably plenty of other publications as well. Air pollution may be an unseen killer in our cities, but it is no longer unseen in the media. There was even a headline this week that air pollution is linked to Alzheimer’s Disease. Thus, as Chair of its Transport Planning Network, the RTPI asked me for a response to the academic study to put into The Planner. You can read it here. They cut down the two paragraphs that I sent them, but the first answer that actually came to mind was even shorter:

‘Harsh, but fair.’

If you read my blog, you are already aware that I am a transport planner by choice, career and professional identification. I have worked in both the public and private sectors and am now starting a PhD. First and foremost, I believe in the transformative power of transport planning to create a better society in reality, not just academic theory. So of course I found the conclusion of the study harsh.

However, I am also asthmatic. My asthma is manageable and I have never been hospitalised, but I am more aware than many when warnings of dangerous air pollution are issued. I tend to assume my asthma has more to do with pollen than pollution, having suffered from hayfever for as long as I can remember, yet I also empathise with those whose respiratory conditions are caused by poor air quality. It makes me think it is fair to ask transport planning to do more.

Furthermore, I am part of a small minority of transport planners who has, at some point, worked on the business case for a Low Emission Zone. At the time, I read up on particulates and receptors and undertook a little training on emissions and air quality. I even have the certificate to prove it. Therefore, I understand some of the complexities involved in how the increased use of diesel vehicles can reduce carbon emissions, but increase local air pollution. That’s why I wasn’t surprised by the VW Emissions Scandal last year – as I wrote in my blog at the time, I should have known. And yet, many transport planners aren’t well-informed in the intricacies of air pollution. If any environmental impact is prioritised by policy, it is carbon emissions, which might seem to be addressed by technologies like efficient diesel vehicles. Again, I thought it harsh to expect transport practitioners to manage air quality with neither training nor political support.

On the other hand, making a business case for a new project is a key task in transport planning, so any competent transport planner should be able to uncover the immense cost savings to health budgets of reducing air pollution. Air quality and other public health impacts, incidentally including road safety (pun intended), might take a back seat to carbon emissions and more particularly economic growth in transport appraisal guidance, but one doesn’t have to fully understand the morbidity and mortality calculations of reducing air pollution to achieve a much better benefit to cost ratio. Government may press for new roads and new housing, but transport planners are also taught that it takes good infrastructure for public transport, walking and cycling balanced by restrictions on car use to achieve the environmental, societal and even economic benefits we strive for under the banner of sustainability. So if we aren’t pushing for such policies and action, well, once again criticism is fair enough.

Response to study? Harsh but fair. Recommendation? Transport planners, air quality is on us.


Which Side of the Tracks?

There’s an old way of saying someone is ‘lower class’: they’re said to be from ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ The saying came from the way that railway lines could sever one neighbourhood from another and designate the residents of one as lesser than those of the other. Railway tracks were symbolic of division.

Division seems to permeate society at the moment. Which side of the tracks someone’s on seems to determine their outlook, their view of any outcomes, even their awareness of what or who might be living on the far side.

This isn’t new, but the UK referendum on the EU has highlighted many divisions in stark relief. Young versus old. Elite versus disadvantaged. Metropolitan versus rural. Local versus Central. Northern England versus Southern England.

Chartered town and transport planners tend to consider themselves a pretty professional and well-educated bunch, but the divisions and the blindness to whoever’s on the other side of the tracks has infiltrated here too.

I was at an event in south Hampshire recently. A presentation on some research by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) into spatial planning issues for the Northern Powerhouse was, I thought, received with a little too much naivety from some of the southern planners. Perhaps they haven’t been paying attention because the issues are too far away and not part of their day job.

However, they attended the event. There, with a minimal expenditure of time, funds and effort, they were able to educate themselves. Providing such updates and raising awareness is a valuable part of what a professional institute is designed to do.

I also recently attended an interesting workshop on housing development around railway stations. There, I saw divisions between disciplines within our profession. I heard land use planners discussing housing development around railway stations without making any reference to their colleagues’ transport input. There was concern that station regeneration could limit future station expansion, or transport planning for railway capacity might not account for demand created by new housing.

Those from both sides of the planning tracks worried that the processes for building new railway stations and housing developments simply could not be managed in parallel. Local government planners are baffled by rail industry processes. Network Rail is being brought back into central Government, which is also taking responsibility for directly funding housing, yet Government departments are scrambling to keep control in times of unprecedented change.

If the Government is promoting policy to build higher density housing around stations, planners and transport planners at all levels of Government need to work together. Together we can ensure that those new dwellings aren’t severed from each other into the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ side of the tracks nor from necessary services and employment by the very railway stations and lines that are supposed to be increasing their accessibility.

Such partnership working requires professionals who are well-informed about the roles of their colleagues. That is a key purpose of the Transport Planning Network, a network based in the RTPI, but run in partnership with the Transport Planning Society. I am Chair of this Network and we are organising an event on the topic of development around railway stations. We plan to have case studies from North and South, to have speakers representing the central and the local, and to attract an audience of planners involved in both transport and land use. Let’s build bridges over those tracks.

Flying Solo

Yes, I’m flying solo.

No, I’m not flying to visit American friends and relatives in two weeks and leaving the kids behind. I’ve not suddenly taken up extreme sports or trained as a pilot. Nor did I decide to celebrate my double chai (life) birthday by risking chai and limb going paragliding or skydiving. Nothing so exciting. Instead, one of the most exciting things that happened to me recently was getting my payslip in the post.

I can imagine any reader’s response to that statement. Is it so unusual for a person to receive a payslip in an envelope through their letterbox? Of course not. Personally, I’ve been sent them that way ever since I went on maternity leave. But, and it’s a big but, I’m not on maternity leave anymore. I was serving out my notice period and that was my last payslip from my employer of 8 years.

Then I received another item from my employer in the post. My P45 (tax form) for a leaving employee. It had three pages. One for me and two for my new employer. Except that I don’t have a new employer to give them to. I may not have jumped off a plane, but I have taken a big leap into the unknown.

Am I unemployed then? For the month of August, technically, yes. Although, I would challenge anyone who considers being a mother to two young children a lack of employment. Paid employment, yes. Employment, no. And my children and family needs are a major reason behind my resignation.

However, I plan to do more than be a full-time mum. From September, I’m going to be registering myself with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs as self-employed. A sole trader. A freelance transport planner. An independent consultant. My own boss. Flying solo.

My own mother has been telling me to try it for years, but it’s not an undertaking to be taken lightly. There’s a lot more to it than feeling one has the experience to be technically qualified.

I will be required to fill out my own tax returns and pay my own national insurance. I must have professional indemnity insurance and keep my own accounts. I need an online presence, I must market myself, network and use membership to the professional institutions wisely. And yes, it is necessary to make time to work without interruption, which, for me, means initially hiring a childminder one day a week. No matter my intention to work mainly from home, nor how modest my ambitions at present, all these things equate to start-up costs and therefore a commitment to win work to recover those costs.

Then there’s the commitment I’ve made to myself and to the friends, family and former colleagues with whom I’ve shared my plans. They have done me the honour of taking me seriously, so I must pay them due regard by putting in the effort it will require to not only keep up to date with the industry and keep contacts fresh, but also to earn commissions, participate in projects and deliver quality transport planning advice. I have my trepidations, but they believe in my ability to do this and are willing to lend a hand or a kind word or a bit of time or a reference along the way. Perhaps I won’t be flying completely solo on this journey after all.