Emotional Transport Tolls

We had to wait until just 20 hours before our flight to be sure we could get on a plane to see my family in the United States for the first time in almost 3 years. That’s a level of uncertainty and anxiety beyond any I’d experienced travelling before the pandemic. And because the trip was so important to me and my family, the uncertainty and anxiety bubbled away in the background for a good two months before we travelled as I tried to plan who we would see and when – assuming we got over at all.

In fact, I partially blame the uncertainty and anxiety for not only forgetting to write a blog for two months, but also for not even noticing I’d forgotten.

The added mental energy required to move around in recent months is not confined to aviation. Most forms of public transport (including commercial flights) have suffered from reduced passengers and have reduced frequencies as a result. Connections are trickier, finances are more fragile for both the operators and the passengers, and cancellations are common due to ongoing bouts of staff shortages.

Meanwhile, motorists have been facing fuel supply disruptions and price hikes on and off for nine months. No longer can it be assumed that petrol or diesel will be available or affordable when arriving at the pump. Nor should it be surprising that this uncertainty has sometimes resulted in panic-buying.

There have also been ever-increasing shortages, delays and uncertainties around buying or leasing a vehicle. The manufacture of microchips is lagging way behind demand, supply chains have been disrupted, and prices have been going up. There are even shortages of used cars, so their prices rise, but the price of buying a new car has gone up even more.

Moreover, if you’re hoping to switch to electric to minimise the fuel uncertainties, you may have a long wait. Some say that the auto market constraints currently caused by the microchip shortage are tiny compared to the much bigger limits the electric vehicle market will face due to the low availability of battery materials and components, and that we should all be looking for better alternatives.

Likewise, a recent news item on potential train worker strikes did not exactly give me confidence that the uncertainties of current services would be getting back on the rails any time soon.

There are other examples I could discuss, but not to put too fine a point on it, it is worth asking if anxiety and uncertainty is the new normal for medium- and long-distance travel. The anxiety and uncertainty caused by the pandemic has already taken a huge toll on people’s mental health over the past two years – what will be the impact of an ongoing emotional toll on transport?

Will it change how much people travel? Like most transport planners and researchers of travel behaviour, I know people’s travel behaviours and practices need to change, and change quickly, if we are going to have any chance of keeping global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees. We need to reduce air travel and medium- to long-distance road travel. And yet, I’m not sure reducing such travel can really be seen as a silver lining to ongoing uncertainty and anxiety, even if it does have that effect (which it may not).

Financial tolls on those who can afford them are more sensible than emotional tolls on those who can’t. The way that our transport systems are structured in terms of tax and spend needs a massive re-think, but solutions are out there – from frequent flyer levies to road pricing to restructuring public transport ticketing to reflect changing work schedules. Taking clear, fair steps to make these changes would reduce uncertainty and anxiety, whilst still giving people the freedom to travel where and when they need to… even to see family abroad!

Handling Holiday Travel

We once travelled to South Devon on the late May bank holiday weekend to celebrate the wedding of some friends. It took us a tortuous 8 hours to travel less than 200 miles. But it wasn’t a surprise.

We expect certain bank holidays or weekends at the beginning and end of Christmas and summer holidays to be the busiest travel days of the year, and yet holiday travel does not seem to come within the remit of transport planners, nor does it ever seem to be a major consideration in surface transport infrastructure strategies.

Tourist destinations make plans to accommodate visitors, but not the journeys they take to get there, and aviation strategy tends to sit in a separate silo from surface transport.

And yet, long distance travel is responsible for a larger share of climate emissions from transport than shorter distance travel, and the further you go, the fewer the options to travel in a more environmentally friendly way. Furthermore, as we come out of a period which has shown how efficient video conferencing can be for businesses, the likelihood is that long-distance travel will be increasingly synonymous with ‘holiday travel’, even though that includes the varied purposes of tourism, visiting friends and family, attending events, or participating in leisure pursuits.

So transport planners need to start thinking about how to plan for holiday travel when we plan for strategic transport infrastructure, when we target travel behaviour, when we model impacts or appraise projects.

This has to be about more than aviation. Whilst I stand by previous blogs arguing for that long haul flights are necessary and important, if not guilt-free, especially for someone like me who lives an ocean away from close family (and the pandemic has definitely demonstrated to me that online interaction is NOT a replacement!), there are few realistic alternatives other than managing demand through measures such as the frequent flyer tax.

Short haul and domestic travel is another story. It is worrying that new domestic aviation routes are being introduced and at prices well below train travel. And the price / time comparisons between air and train are incomplete without also considering where each mode terminates, how people travel the rest of the way (or to the airport or train station in the first place) and then how that compares with travelling by road.

Remember those interminable bank holiday traffic jams I described at the start? Traffic flow affects emissions, as does car occupancy, weight, age, engine type / fuel and use of heating or air conditioning. Taking the train might still be a more sustainable option, but as the emissions link above shows, car travel is not a monolithic behaviour or emitter – and the characteristics of holiday car travel are more difficult to pin down than a daily car commute.

Meanwhile, households do consider their holiday travel when making long-term choices, even if transport planners are not thinking of holiday travel strategically.

This is particularly noticeable when researching the motivations and barriers to switching to battery-powered vehicles. Consumers may realise that the range of most electric cars is perfectly adequate for their daily travel, but worry they will not be able to visit dispersed family. Others see the lack of electric vehicles large enough to pack the gear or to tow the trailer for their annual camping trip as a reason to postpone adoption. Still others worry about the availability of charging infrastructure when going somewhere unfamiliar. Some households even keep a fossil-fuel powered car after they have switched to electric, specifically for occasional, ‘holiday’ travel.

Whether providing for or managing travel, transport planning has long focused on regular, necessary trips, especially the commute, but also accessibility to key goods and services, such as food, education, and healthcare. But holidays happen, are impactful, and are integral to some of the bigger choices, such as car ownership, that affect travel behaviour. We need to start thinking about how to handle holiday travel.

Hot Options

As the recent unprecedented heatwave comes to an end, at least temporarily, it seems a good time to reflect on how hot, sunny weather might affect travel behaviour.

Unlike wind-driven storms or winter weather which have much more direct and obvious impacts on transport infrastructure, the physical impacts of heatwaves on roads and public transport are more diffuse. Steel rails may buckle, tarmac occasionally melts, and fewer people may be allowed to crowd onto the London Underground carriages, but mostly roads and services are available for normal use (barring planned engineering works, resurfacing and other construction that often is scheduled in the summer). The heat and talk of beaches and barbecues may make the headlines, but travel disruption much less so. Even where heat and drought result in forest fires, they rarely affect major routes.

Yet heat itself can still be an extreme type of weather as much as cold or wind or rain. And people do change their travel behaviour based on the weather, especially extreme weather. Various studies have shown decreases in trips by different modes in adverse weather. And in countries which regularly experience extreme heat, another study recorded decreases in active travel once temperatures pass a certain threshold.

However, it is not regular for the UK or many of the other countries that have been affected by this summer’s heatwaves to experience extremely hot weather. That makes it difficult to hypothesise how people might respond in terms of travel behaviour. Especially as these heatwaves are only extreme in relative terms – temperatures are still not reaching the levels common in tropical or desert countries, so it is not necessarily too hot for people to walk, bicycle, or otherwise want to be outdoors and enjoy the weather when they travel. Alternatively, the lack of familiarity with such weather may result in people struggling to adjust and seeking travel spaces that are air-conditioned, mainly cars, but also, in some areas, a subset of public transport services.

Or it may depend on where people are going or where they live. How comfortable are different houses or apartments in the heat? How about offices or shops? Are private gardens or public parks more readily available? Which are more likely to provide relief from the even hotter microclimates of urban streets? The answers to such questions may suggest less travel altogether, but the possibility of empirical, quantitative evidence to support this is confounded by yet another factor. Holidays.

Days of extreme heat occur in the summer, when there are often fewer regular, short-distance trips and more long-distance travel for leisure purposes. People often plan such trips well in advance and can’t change travel arrangements nimbly. Thus, families with school children, those who work in education, and various other groups are likely to change their travel behaviour in the summer no matter what weather summer brings. There is consistently less traffic during summer school holidays. There is also usually more walking and cycling, more sporting events and festivals. Such activities are often only cancelled for electrical storms or other immediate dangers; unusual heat or drought is not among these dangers.

Still, even if current travel behaviour during heatwaves cannot easily be tracked, that does not mean that we should not use this unusually long heatwave to try to monitor how people have responded. Nor does it mean we should not work to adapt our transport networks to the likelihood of future, more frequent hot weather. We could stress our steel rails to higher temperatures and ensure we use appropriate aggregate mixes to prevent melt, but also we could provide more public water fountains and street trees to help people walking and cycling to re-hydrate and cool off. I have written before that one way forward for resilience is ‘monitor and adapt’, and this summer provides a perfect opportunity to start such a process.

Smarter Future Choices

Did Smarter Choices programmes make us smarter? Did personalised travel planning change personal travel behaviour? Did pilots, challenges, and temporary designations leave a lasting impression? These were the sort of questions my fellow transport professional @jamesgleave1 was asking in his blog of mid-March. His answer was, over time, a qualified not quite, a methodologically minimal.

One of the reasons he gave for his scepticism included the impossibility of disentangling any results from other changes to the accessibility offer. One of the reasons for moderating his response was the valuable discovery of links between travel behaviour choices and changes in other aspects of life, even if the presence of such links further diminished the attribution of impacts to Smarter Choices programmes themselves. Yet this got me thinking that if the debate around Smarter Choices is due to an inability to isolate its impacts, especially longer term, maybe we should start embracing its interactions. Surely Smarter Choices can build on existing trends, encourage any seeds of sustainability to grow without trying to plant them in the first place.

More people are living in cities with access to frequent public transport. Younger generational cohorts are delaying licence holding and car ownership, and are making fewer trips per capita. Surely these are trends on which we could build a Smarter Choices extension, focusing our information and incentives on younger, more urban audiences. Indeed, if younger people are spending their precious disposable income on devices instead of driving, all the more reason to put all that information and those incentives into mobile apps that integrate accessibility planning (including remote and virtual options!), real time information and alerts, fitness tracking, gamification… and perhaps booking and payment as well. The latter brings us to Mobility as a Service, which could be the next Smarter Choices, and indeed, most of the list in the last sentence is already available in one form or another, but is it integrated? Is it being developed to achieve Smarter Future Choices?

Another trend is that more and more jobs and occupations are becoming temporally and spatially independent from traditional workplaces, and the links between commuting distances or cost and residential location choice is weakening. So from travel planning to journey planning, we need to incorporate the geography of ICT supply and demand, and build on the ever-increasing flexibility of the modern economy and the potential for improving resilience that comes from such flexibility. In other words, there are ever more people working from home 1-2 days per week, so transport planners should nourish the trend. Surely Smarter Future Choices are being made if the proportion of car commuters who work from home once a week increases by 20%. Such a target would be easier to achieve than a 20% switch of car commuters to a sustainable mode of travel to work. In fact, previous rounds of Smarter Choices programmes may well have had such an impact, but this trend is poorly monitored by long-term surveys. Tracking this flexibility will be key to judging the success of such Smarter Future Choices.

Finally, Smarter Future Choices could offer daily flexibility via the technology at which younger generations are so adept, and increase awareness of the options urban places can offer. If done properly, this approach could result in so much more than a one-off intervention. It could result in the ability of travellers to decide daily what will not only be their most sustainable option, but also their most convenient, resilient, and productive option, no matter the day of the week, time of the day, weather or season – the smartest option is theirs to take.


Flexible Resolve

Last month I wrote about the importance of evidence. The month before I wrote about how averages can’t always be used as evidence of what society needs from transport planners. And this month I have even more evidence of how little society may reflect averages.

The University Transport Studies Group annual conference was packed full of papers presenting ongoing or recently completed research from senior academics down to PhD students. The standard was high, and much of the work fascinating. A presentation offering an historic overview of urban transport policy by Professor Peter Jones of University College London best elucidated one conclusion I’ve been coming to over the last year – that we need to move from a ‘Predict and Provide’ to a ‘Vision and Validate’ model. To do this, transport planners must work with other sectors to change how their needs for accessibility can be met in order to meet mobility demand sustainably – and flexibly.

Flexibility is key. People’s need for mobility is dependent upon their need to access activities, goods, and services. As I’ve noted before, more and more people already maintain their accessibility in different ways at different times for different purposes. Their patterns of access can be variable instead of habitual. And between different people or groups of people, there is even more heterogeneity.

For example, there was a presentation on the night-time economy at the conference. I can’t say I’d given much thought to these sorts of workers before. Neither, it turns out, have policy-makers, who have focused on access to places of food, drink, and entertainment for the customers, ignoring those who work in these venues, who might require different travel options than those they serve. Never mind other 24-hour services, such as health and social care, or transport and logistics. How can we envision and plan for transport networks that work for these people, as well as the day-time commuter?

Various presentations also investigated whether ‘Mobility as a Service’ was a realistic scenario for the future of transport. There remain many barriers to its implementation and success. Not least if such services cannot match the flexibility of those most likely to sign on. One paper estimated that Mobility as a Service is of most interest to those who have private vehicles, but only drive their cars 1-2 days a week. Yet as noted in previous blogs, do our current methods of surveying and modelling sufficiently capture such regular, but infrequent behaviours that they enable the design of services catering to these people?

Another paper found that by looking at different data sources and then interrogating the results of one source with the results of the other, travel behaviours that seemed regular and even habitual masked variation. Those who travelled along a stretch of road regularly were more likely to vary their time of travel, whilst those who travelled less regularly were less likely to vary their timing. Getting the right messages out to these irregular travellers, who might not be familiar with their location or choices, is challenging. Yet, it is these people who most need advice, if, as another paper pointed out, they feel they can understand and trust that advice.

Trust is also key for all the ‘shared transport’ that we are apparently ever more willing to use in the 21st century, and, without which, many of our visions for a technologically-advanced, but sustainable future fall apart. However, to note the topic of one final presentation, we would do well to remember that not just vehicles, but roads too are a shared resource. And we don’t always trust each other to use even those flexibly and appropriately!

In conclusion, let’s hope for a New Year that brings not only transport research and policy development that supports flexibility and variation rather than habits and averages, but also a resolve to be a bit more flexible ourselves.


Buses Bounce Back

In my research into weather risks to transport supply and demand, I come across the word ‘resilience’ fairly frequently. I cannot always assume a singular definition, though. Some of the literature uses resilience to refer to low levels of vulnerability to extreme weather conditions or other disturbances; some to the presence of redundancy in a network, such that an alternative means of access can be substituted for any closure; others to the speed of recovery from a time of disruption until systems return to normal. Yet it all comes back to a similar idea. That like a rubber ball, strong yet flexible, designed to bounce back, something is resilient if it is strong enough to withstand the impacts of incidents like severe weather, and/or flexible enough to offer more than one option/way/route to users, and/or bounces back quickly to reasonable levels of performance.

It should be possible to look at any transport network, in any geography, of any mode, and assess its resilience. Ideally, multiple modes and geographies would be analysed in concert, as transport should act as an integrated system. Yet most studies of resilience or lack thereof in the transport discipline focus on only the road or rail networks, and only the private vehicles or passenger trains that use them respectively. This leaves multiple gaps in our understanding of transport resilience to different weather conditions, and one of these gaps is the lack of discussion about the resilience of bus services.

I cannot yet claim to be able to fill that gap, but I have just completed the analysis, write-up, and submission of a brief case study that perhaps starts to bridge it. And this case study indicates that buses might be one of the most resilient modes of transport available.

Furthermore, whilst there is some research into how people behave during disruption, it seems there is less consideration of their awareness of risk and resilience in the networks and services they are using, and how resilient this might make their behaviour. My short case study, however, provides some insight into the behaviour of public transport users, suggesting they are indeed resilient.

If you want to read my case study article, you’ll have to wait for its publication, but the key point is that where buses and rail run in parallel, the bus services are less disrupted, can divert if need be and still deliver the service, and can make up lost time more quickly than rail. The buses also seem to create redundancy, not just for themselves, but for the adjacent rail services. Finally, the number of bus trips rose sharply to and from places where rail passengers were likely to know that buses would be more reliable during the disruption.

I mentioned this to a former colleague, who suggested my discoveries should really be common sense. He also pointed out that the most vulnerable portions of the bus network were the depots and fuelling stations, which could easily be targeted for flood protection measures, for example, compared to the mile upon mile of train tracks needing improvements to resist those floods and ensure the operation of even a limited rail service.

Yet I later heard evidence that buses can be resilient even when the bus depot is inaccessible for many hours. In a talk I attended, a bus company manager explained how he, his drivers, and other staff improvised on the spot to keep a limited service running following a police closure of their depot’s access road. This won them great appreciation from their customers, and a flexibility, a resilience on the part of the not only the bus company and their passengers, but also the entire local community.

So an early finding in my PhD research: buses bounce back better than most transport options, their passengers know it, and the resilience of both buses and their passengers is rather unappreciated in wider transport research and practice.

Whether the Weather

Are you a weather stoic, giving two fingers to whatever the clouds might throw at you, or are you a weather syncophant, letting a little rain pressure you into changing your plans? As the clocks change, are you pleased to have the additional daylight for the morning commute, for the accidents purportedly prevented, for the comfort of walking your children to school? Or do you worry about the dark trip home and choose to hibernate when possible?

The impact of weather on travel choices is a subject discussed and considered by many transport planners. Researchers have subjected various hypotheses to empirical testing. One literature review of the subject compiled a list of 54 articles reporting research on how normal weather variations affect normal travel patterns, and this is cited as only a sample of the total (Bocker et al 2013).

Many of these studies test commonly-held hypotheses using real-time weather measurements, empirical transport data and statistical modelling. For example, everyone has heard of the fair weather cyclist and it would surprise no one to be told there are more cyclists in the summer in temperate climates. Thus, researchers in cities from Montreal to Melbourne and San Francisco to Singapore have used cyclist counts, travel diaries and route-side surveys to investigate whether and by how much precipitation, high or low temperatures or wind affect the amount of cycling for utility or leisure. Their results indicate that the weather does have an impact, particularly rain, and to a lesser extent, temperature and strong winds. Not that it’s completely straightforward. The studies differ on whether the precipitation effects take hold at the first sign of drizzle or only in heavier downpours, and whilst cyclists do prefer warmer weather, it’s only up to a point. Numbers decline again when it’s too warm or humid – a trend that has significant consequences in hotter climates.

Another theme of research focuses on changes in car traffic in different types of weather. Unsurprisingly, snow can reduce traffic substantially. The impact of rain is more nuanced. Some studies show a decrease in traffic, whilst some show an increase and more specifically a modal switch from walking and cycling to car travel. Few cancel their trips entirely if they are commuting or on business, but changing the timing of a trip is an option more often considered. Perhaps this is due to the commonly-held and well-substantiated belief that traffic speeds are slower and congestion greater in wet weather.

Indeed, there is another suite of studies on the performance of roads in wetter weather and the effectiveness of weather-responsive traffic management, although such articles were outside the scope of the aforementioned literature review, specifically excluded due to the focus on “infrastructure maintenance, accident rates and… performance” rather than travel behaviour.

Also excluded were extreme weather scenarios, as the purpose was to assess the studies of everyday events. Yet heavy rain, heatwaves, snow and gales can so affect infrastructure that travel choices are reduced – and some are removed altogether…

Thus, as winter approaches, how will you choose to travel no matter the weather or no matter whether the weather takes some choices away?

Böcker,  L.; Dijst,  M. and  Prillwitz,  J. (2013) Impact of Everyday Weather on Individual Daily Travel Behaviours in Perspective: A Literature Review. Transport Reviews: A Transnational Transdisciplinary Journal. 33:1. pp 71-91.

Remember to Reconsider

Happy Spring! Time to make a New Year’s resolution!

What? A New Year’s resolution in March? Not January?

If you ask me that question, I would ask you one of my own: Why January? Spring is a much more natural time to make a New Year’s resolution. Who is honestly going to keep a commitment to eat less or exercise more in the middle of the winter? Cold, dark days make you want to hibernate, not flex and build the muscle of your willpower. No one is going to see your lack of shape under three layers of clothing. You’ve already compromised your natural desires if you’ve gotten out from under the duvet hours before the sun rises. Is it fair to deny yourself the comfort of a heated car seat on the way to work?

No, it’s silly to think that people will reconsider their travel choices in the middle of winter. But in the spring, when people sense summer is on the way, perhaps it is time for a New Year’s resolution to walk, cycle or take the bus. But are a few days of spring sunshine enough to remind people to reconsider?

Research from fields as diverse as retail, transport and social campaigning demonstrates that people reconsider their options for grocery shopping, travel and other lifestyle choices at the transitions between life stages. When people move house, change jobs, get married, have a baby or their kids start school; those people usually recognise that other parts of their life might have to change. Families discuss how they will form new routines, habits and loyalties. It’s a great time to make sure they have the information and assistance they need to make choices that will offer them and their communities more benefits.

Targeting people in transition is not enough to change travel behaviour trends in a whole population. Most of us don’t have big announcements to make to our friends and family every year. Yet we all experience the change of season, most with a similar anticipation of new beginnings. Or at least new leaves on the trees and more time in the evenings before we have to turn the lights on and draw the curtains. So how can budding flowers nudge new habits?

Enter personalised travel planning (PTP). The theory is that if you send appropriately trained advisors to speak with people face to face, it will remind them to reconsider their travel choices. If you then give them information about routes and infrastructure and fares, they realise they have options. If you give them a few goodies to try something different, some will actually try those options. Even better if you have new services and facilities to offer. Then, a fraction of those who try something new will actually change what they do permanently. Or until they hit a new life stage anyway – a bit of travel advice doesn’t claim to be more life-changing than a new baby!

That’s the theory anyway. The practice is notoriously difficult to measure. Change takes time, monitoring takes money and attribution is often statistically insignificant. The results of after surveys, a mere 6 or 12 months later are often inconclusive.

More compelling is the qualitative research, the interview, the focus groups. And these all indicate that whilst we still cannot be sure if personalised travel planning has made people change their behaviour, it has certainly reminded them to reconsider, where they may not have otherwise done so. As an added bonus, it has made them feel more engaged in and by their community, council or workplace. Now if we can just somehow more permanently associate the PTP-engendered reminder with something as constant as the lengthening of spring days and as ubiquitous as the proliferation of daffodils, reminders could well become resolutions.