Muddle of Mobility Messages

As the UK begins to ease its lockdown restrictions and people are allowed to move about more, I don’t have a problem with the change of message from ‘Stay at Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’. I feel I can be trusted to behave responsibly and sensibly as I encounter more people beyond my household, and I’d like to think the majority of my fellow citizens can be trusted likewise.

Besides, the first message when it comes to work activities, is to remain working from home if this is possible. And whilst the group that can work from home is not a majority and their socio-demographics have implications for equity, it turns out that far more people can work from home at least some of the time than were doing so before the pandemic. This will reduce pressure on transport infrastructure and destinations alike.

The second message is to walk and cycle where possible, and it is backed up by emergency powers to make changes quickly and funding to implement those changes. Local transport authorities around the country are reallocating road space to pedestrians and cyclists, both to enable safe active travel, and to support social distancing outside essential shops and services.

As I wrote in my last blog, with a proactive approach supported by good spatial planning of these essential non-work destinations, these facilities will help increase walking and cycling among those who are working from home as well as those travelling to work over relatively short distances. In 2018, two thirds of trips in England were under 5 miles (p19).

So far so good. But then we get to the muddle. Whilst some of the other third of trips will be to destinations that are still closed, trips to work and to exercise further from home are being actively encouraged, whilst the use of public transport is being actively discouraged. This is problematic and indeed contradictory for a number of reasons:

  • People are being asked to stay alert if they need to go to workplaces where they risk potential infection due to social interactions outside their household, often in indoor spaces. Meanwhile workplaces are expected to put into place safety measures (for cleaning, social distancing, etc) that make staying alert rather than staying home a sufficient precaution. Public transport vehicles are also workplaces. They are also expected to put into place safety measures (for cleaning, social distancing, etc). Therefore, surely the directive to stay alert should be sufficient for both workplaces and public transport, without the additional directive to avoid public transport altogether?
  • Related to this, encouraging the reallocation of road space at the same time as encouraging a return to car use could create more conflicts between motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists – both on the road and in the media. Clarity on the hierarchy of road users is preferable to the current mixed messages.
  • Furthermore, reductions in carbon emissions and air pollution has been a major benefit of reduced road traffic during lockdown. As COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, keeping air pollution down will not reduce risk of transmission, but may reduce the numbers who are at risk of becoming severely ill. Air pollution causes excess mortality from numerous respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
  • Finally, a study in NYC correlates higher infection rates after lockdown with car-dependent areas, compared to those connected by public transport. The authors suggest this could be because people who travel by car to shops and services are more likely to come into contact with more people from different areas of the city than people who travel by public transport and access what they need by foot within their own neighbourhood. Indeed, if people are returning to work by car (or visiting more distant places for exercise), they may split their essential shopping (food, medicine) across communities, potentially spreading or picking up the virus from multiple places rather than one. Such linked trips by public transport are much less likely, whilst active travellers keep everything local.

In conclusion, if a resurgence in car travel is to be avoided, trust in public transport cannot be undermined further by stark warnings, local people must have priority on local roads, and long distance day trips should be discouraged – at least until more destinations re-open and there are more economic and social benefits to making those trips. The messaging around mobility needs modification and a more strategic outlook.

On Foot Essentials

Last month, I wrote about what many practitioners of transport planning and advocates of accessibility have been mulling over: the tidal wave of telecommuting in these turbulent and yet strangely static times, and the potential sustainability and resilience of online access. Scroll down to my previous blog (or an earlier one) if you want to know more.

However, accessibility is much more than access to work, particularly as telecommuting, contract employment, and other flexible working patterns continue to grow – even before the COVID-19 crisis. Jobs and populations are unevenly distributed and dominant employment sectors and local labour skills often don’t quite match up. Thus, whilst it is important for public transport and road networks to link neighbourhoods to employment areas, it is at least as important that places where people live offer easy access to essential non-work services and activities. Especially if we want to see some lasting effects of the current reduction in carbon-emitting car travel.

Part of the problem, however, is that it is tricky to clearly define what is essential for people to continue to access outside the home. Non-work trips are usually more flexible in terms of the time of day / day of the week they could take place, and there are usually multiple options to fulfil each need in a given area, from supermarkets to hair salons. Some services are also moving online in a big way, such as shopping for comparison goods.

Still, my research using the English National Travel Survey to investigate non-work trips by telecommuters (those with an external workplace who work from home at least once a week) suggested that telecommuters make a similar number of trips per week to the rest of the working population, and confirmed that a much higher percentage of those trips cannot be defined as commuting. In other words, if you work from home, you still want to get out for other purposes about the same number of times, even if to a greater variety of destinations.

My conclusion is that if the majority of these destinations were within walking distance, then more walking and less driving would naturally occur. More walking is better for public health, for community cohesion, and for the environment.

However, other than ‘escort education’, I found it difficult in my research to precisely match land uses to trip purposes such as ‘other escort’, ‘personal business’, or ‘leisure’. Which brings me back to what is essential to have in every neighbourhood, within walking distance, other than schools.

The current situation gives us new insight. First, although it would be helpful to know what indoor leisure opportunities are best localised, we clearly could all use more access to outdoor space and nature for daily exercise, especially where gardens are scarce. Is this an argument for ‘green wedges’ rather than ‘green belts’ and linear parks rather than enclosed squares? I’d advocate further research into the possibility at least.

Furthermore, pharmacies, post offices, and banks are clearly essential, if that was ever in doubt. Such facilities need to stop closing local branches and perhaps diversify their business models to provide other essential services. Finally, there is the admittedly anecdotal evidence that local food shops, convenience stores, and takeaways have been more successful through this period in providing the basics, keeping their customers happy, and offering personalised ordering, collection, and delivery services than their bigger rivals. If there were ever signs that the large, out-of-town hypermarkets are not fit for purpose, they are now flashing red.

In conclusion, it is more apparent now than ever that places with plenty of access to nature and plenty of essentials locally are not only more attractive, but also more resilient. If we want more resilient communities, more telecommuting, and less medium-distance travel, then our goal should be walkable places for everyone.

Anything but the commute

I have two full-time jobs, but I don’t ‘commute’ at all. I thought that was unusual, but now I’m not so sure.

One job is research, as I work towards a PhD. The other is my role as mother, wife, and general domestic organiser.

I generally work from home for the former, but I make rather a lot of trips for the latter.

If I were filling in a travel diary for my average week, it would include lots of short walks escorting the children to and from their primary school, a little over 1km away; other errands completed on foot on the way there and back: grocery shopping at least twice a week, visits to the library or playground; more short trips by bicycle or car to take my daughter to her dance classes twice a week… you get the picture.

Meanwhile, for my research work, I would only record a 1-2 hour train journey at most once a week and sometimes only once in a month.

None of these trips would count as a commute, a journey from home to a regular place of paid employment and back again.

But then the majority of journeys made by the majority of people are not regular commutes by the same mode, along the same route, at the same time, 5 days a week. Children and pensioners obviously don’t commute. But even though many working-age, employed people still organise their day around their work schedule, the minority are regular commuters. Ever greater proportions work flexibly in space and time – sometimes from home, sometimes visiting clients or customers, sometimes at a remote office; sometimes shifts, sometimes part time, sometimes longer but fewer days (compressed hours); sometimes even part days in different places. Never mind the number of journeys to work that are not defined as ‘commuting’, at least here in the UK, because they are part of longer trip chains, dropping the children at school or picking up the groceries on route. No wonder the numbers of commuting trips, defined as a journey from home to work and back again, have been falling for years here.

So what’s my point? First, my lack of commuting is not as unusual as I thought. Second, my travel patterns enable me to lead a fairly sustainable (ignoring long-distance travel, but that’s another blog entirely), active lifestyle.

And putting the two together, if there are many people like me who don’t have a daily commute, are there also many people whose daily travel is sustainable and active? Or if there are not, why not? Answering the latter, are there too many people who live in places where schools, food shopping, pharmacies, playgrounds, post offices, libraries, etc., etc. are not easily accessed on foot, at least in part because there has been too much focus by transport and land use planners, modellers, and researchers, never mind developers and investors, on the commute and access to work?

Sure, where employment is concentrated in offices or factories, it should be accessible to residential areas, preferably by public transport. But let’s plan a bit more for access to all those other destinations if they are such a greater share of individual travel. It might be the route to more sustainable, active lifestyles becoming mainstream, which, as a mother, I want to see for my children. And it might make people more resilient to disruption too, which, as a researcher, is what I’m tasked to investigate.

Slow down, you move too fast…

As children head back to school, the weather changes, and Jewish people look forward to celebrating their new year, it feels as if life is speeding up again after the long, (and even in the UK!) hot days of summer. Transport policy, with its tendency to assume sleek new technology will solve all our transport problems, also seems to assume that speeding up is inherently a good thing. That shared, electric, autonomous, and motorised mobility plus immediate information available anywhere will increase road safety, reduce emissions, free up road space, and help move the growing population of elderly and disabled around more easily.

And yet, does the population, elderly or otherwise, actually want to always move faster and further? It seems to me that the Future of Mobility call for evidence, whilst acknowledging that people are travelling less, commuting less, and driving less, only considers how information and communication technologies are changing attitudes to transport information and accessibility. Yet the high-tech accessibility of information is changing not just attitudes, but accessibility itself – how we obtain goods and services, how we participate in activities and opportunities. The consultation document mentions telecommuting, but not online shopping, which is likely one reason van traffic is growing so fast, nor does it consider the advent of other tele-services, such as tele-healthcare.

My point is that technology can mean faster and further and more frequent OR it could mean fewer, more flexible trips. It could push us all to operate like machines or it could serve to help us keep things human. There could be accessibility as a service instead of mobility as a service, meeting people’s needs by meeting them halfway. The sharing economy could be finding groups of families to share the school run between busy parents, whilst still enabling their kids to walk to school. Or perhaps technology can match not passengers, but patients who will can share the walk to the doctor’s office to improve their own health by not only increasing physical activity, but reducing loneliness and fear.

Maybe that vision is idealistic, but surely it’s more appealing than the transport-tech-optimism that seems to suggest we should be shaping our cities to accommodate driverless, and perhaps empty, vehicles, rather than living, breathing people. Besides, once we stop valuing speed of travel over quality of life, we may have a better chance of making these new technologies work for people and places, rather than as ends in themselves.

My New Year’s resolutions this year are all about making the moment last.1 I aim to be more patient, to default less to that overused excuse of being ‘stressed’, to savour the change and growth this new year promises to bring to my family and to me. Oh, I’m sure we’ll all be doing lots of different activities, getting work done, moving around. And some of that movement will require covering long distances quickly. But day to day, we will often be walking, interacting with each other and the environment, thinking and learning.

In my own small way, as a representative of transport professionals and a researcher into the opportunities technology may bring for future mobility and accessibility in a changing climate, some of the thinking and learning I will be doing when I am taking it slow will be about a future vision of technology and travel that supports quality of life. And that might mean the technology offers ways to slow down.

 

1The title of this blog and this line are from Simon and Garfunkel’s Feeling Groovy.

#urbanchildhoods

Think of somewhere that was special to you when you were a child. Was it outdoors? Was there an adult present in your memory? For most, at a presentation on the Cities Alive report by Arup, the answers were ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ respectively.

Perhaps because of my awareness of the agenda to get kids walking and cycling and the campaigns for ‘free-range kids’ or what the report calls ‘everyday freedoms’, my first thought was not of a place, but of a journey. My walk to primary school in the 1980s. Like previous generations, from the age of 6, I walked to my local primary school, sometimes in the company of children two or three years older, but rarely with an adult. My daughter’s primary school does not let a child leave the school site without an adult until they are 10 or 11. Thus my daughter’s confusion when I read about the 1950s school children in the Ramona books by Beverley Cleary. Everything else she could relate to, but not this idea that children were allowed to walk themselves to Kindergarten.

For most others at the presentation, however, the memory was of playing in the street. I don’t remember doing that. The driveways, front and back yards of my American childhood were large and open, with rarely a fence or hedge between them. There were sidewalks and verges between us and the road. The key was being allowed to cross the road on our own to play with kids who lived across the street.

By the time I was 8, I was allowed to play with kids on other blocks or to walk to the park without an adult, 4-5 blocks away. At 10 or 11, I could walk downtown, using the signalised cross-walks, and hang out with friends on the busy Main Street. At 13, when I went with my family into Boston, MA, I was allowed, along with my invited friend, to wander around independently for a couple hours once a meeting time and place was arranged.

So in my ‘urban childhood’ (hometown population: 75,000), the everyday freedoms were all important. The independence to wander about, on foot, without adult supervision was all I wanted. I loved to play what my daughter calls ‘walk and talk’ with a close friend. But whereas we used to stroll along city blocks, through the park, from one family household to another, at almost 7, she has so far only played ‘walk and talk’ going in circles round the school playground.

Meanwhile, my son, just finishing pre-school, has an even smaller circle to circumscribe:

IMG_20180706_122231_resized_20180708_105726203

At least that’s a great piece of children’s infrastructure: a circle to run around, benches to climb on, a tree to hide beneath… and right outside the local library too.

Yet primary school age children are not given the everyday freedom to use this space unsupervised. The excuse would be because it is on the busy High Street. But the High Street is a 20mph zone with plenty of traffic calming. And 1950s small-town America had plenty of busy roads for Ramona and her friends to contend with.

So whilst there are many cities with traffic-swamped, dangerous, and unwelcoming places and many positive recommendations in Cities Alive for children’s infrastructure, for my children at least, I see the major barrier as a risk-adverse, somewhat intolerant culture that suggests children are not responsible enough to be unsupervised and have everyday freedoms. Perhaps we need to remind everyone of the independence they had as children, and that only they can make part of their own children’s inheritance.

Live Local, Go Slow, Walk

May is National Walking Month as promoted by Living Streets, the major pedestrian charity and advocacy group. To celebrate, there are challenges and competitions to walk to school or walk to work or just walk anywhere for 20 minutes a day. There are led leisure walks and plenty of promotional material available in cities, towns and rural areas throughout the UK. With enough summer weather like we had over the weekend, it shouldn’t be too hard a sell. Yet if you think about it, it is odd that it needs to be sold at all.

Almost everyone walks, at least a little. It’s the oldest form of transport there is; walking upright was one of the characteristics that defined early humanoids.

Almost everyone can do it – old, young, unfit, unfamiliar with the roads, with assistance, with friends. It’s the most universally available form of transport, requiring neither money nor license nor necessarily any special infrastructure.

Yet in the Government’s new Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, which is out for consultation until 23 May 2016, the key objective for walking is “to reverse [its] decline”. It is hard to argue with the graph that shows a downward trend in the number of walking stages per person per year. Equally difficult to refute another graph showing the percentage of primary school children who walk to school fluctuating in a falling direction for over a decade, thus the second pedestrian-based objective to “increase” that percentage. However, these objectives are too pessimistic.

Why? Because the old ten-toe express is at least as on trend for 21st century transport as other topics I’ve written about recently, including bikeshare, virtual transport, and fleets of shared, autonomous, electric cars. ‘Walkability’ is in. Sprawl and car-dependency is out. Although it is not always possible to commute by foot, people now want to live where they can walk to shops, services and leisure activities. In terms of commute length, time spent walking is good for you, time spent driving isn’t. There are all the well-known benefits of walking, which you will often hear and see promoted by Living Streets and likeminded organisations and individuals: public health, zero emissions, social inclusion. And then there are the economic benefits.

Research in the United States, long a car-loving society, has shown that the most walkable places are now also the most desirable places to live and work. Local economies in such neighbourhoods, whether built in the 21st or the 19th centuries are thriving and surpassing their 20th century car-oriented counterparts. The issue is that there aren’t enough of them to go around, raising concerns about gentrification, displacement and inequality.

The same concerns could be raised in relation to the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy’s uniquely specific objective on walking to primary school. Are there enough good primary school places in the right locations for all children (or at least an ambitious percentage of 75% or so) to be able to walk to school?

Uninspiring objectives do not cause problems, but nor do they motivate anyone to find solutions. There is a latent demand within today’s populations to walk more. It would be best served by more positive objectives and ambitious targets with lists of cross-tier, cross-sector actions and dedicated funding to match. There are lists of actions and funding sources in the Strategy, incidentally, but I’ll leave you to judge them yourself. In the discipline of transport planning, ‘predict and provide’ was long the methodology used to justify infrastructure to serve new developments and existing demand. For car travel. Maybe it’s time to apply those tools to foot travel instead?

In a globalised world, people live their international lives through a little long-distance travel and a lot of virtual platforms. Is it any surprise that they like to live their physical life locally? Technology, current affairs, climate change – the world’s moving fast enough. Why not go slow in our own neighbourhoods so we can take it in? Do you currently practice or wish you could join the transport trend of walking?

[See original blog written on this theme for The Planner magazine: The School Run Walk]

 

Were you Walking?

We are less than a week into November, and it seems everyone is feeling the imminence of winter. The early darkness is closing in, never mind the fog, the swirls of falling leaves, the perpetual muddy puddles that we dare not step in, even in wellies, for fear they are much deeper than they look. So you might be forgiven for having already forgotten October, when we had lovely days of Autumn sunshine. Days which you hopefully enjoyed by walking outside as much as possible.

Why?

There are a multitude of benefits of walking that always apply: physical health, mental health, social interaction, reducing your environmental impact, getting closer to your community. But there were other reasons to celebrate walking in October.

Namely, it was International Walk to School Month. Or, here in the UK, Walk to School 3½ Weeks, as the schools were shut for half term the last week of the month. Still, depending on inset closures, there were 15-17 days to see your offspring put their feet and those expensive shoes to good use every morning and afternoon.

I did. I walk my four-year-old to her reception class most days, with her baby brother in the pushchair. Not all days, admittedly, as I occasionally drive part-way if I am due elsewhere or it is pouring, and there were a couple of daddy-daughter drop-off specials (also on foot). Living Streets asked what we love most about the walk to school. I said the challenge of meeting my daughter’s demands for made-up fairy stories at any opportunity: brain wake-up call! I also enjoy being able to chat with other mums going the same direction, stop off at more than one shop without having to return to or move the car, racking up steps on my FitBit, and making sure the little one gets an airing. No stale babies!

Then, as if the month-long celebration of walking needed a climax, my Twitter feed told me there was a massive #WalkingSummit in the USA on the 30th of October and the US Surgeon General was marketing its #StepItUp campaign with an excellent video. It made me proud to see that the simple act of walking is on the agenda in the country of my birth, a country that is too well-known for its love affair with the automobile and its love of sitting on its collective backside.

So now we are in November, do we know the outcomes of all this eventful excitement?

We know that even if calculated by only the longest segment of a given journey, walking is the second most common way of getting to and from places in the UK. Living Streets reports that only 46% of children walk to school now, whereas 70% did a generation ago. However, from what I could tell, we don’t know if more children walked to school last month than did in September. We don’t know if more will walk this month and in future following participation last month. We don’t even have consistent annual reporting of usual mode of travel to school since the indicator was made non-mandatory under the last Parliament’s reduction of red tape.

So maybe the events have had no impact? Yet walking is consistently under-appreciated and under-reported. Therefore, there is no such thing as over-emphasising the benefits of walking to us and our society. The more events and promotions like the ones last month, the better. We should simply monitor more as well, so we can better justify spending more money on promotion in the future. And more money on infrastructure, for the more we can design places for pedestrians, the better. Especially for child pedestrians.

Children need even more physical activity to stay healthy than adults do. NHS guidelines recommend 60 minutes a day for school-age children, compared to 150 minutes a week for adults. In these darkening days, they are ever less likely to get the activity they need without walking to and from school. So, if you can think back to before the clocks changed, were you walking in October? And will you keep walking, even through the winter?