Finding comfort in a crisis – my ever-changing role in the new world of urban transport

Coronavirus smile blog pic

Over the last few months, my job has looked drastically different to what went before. The Urban Transport Group has turned its attention to supporting its member network of city region transport authorities to respond to and manage the coronavirus crisis. And whilst working with, and supporting, our members has always been a part of my role, the change in focus and the rapidly evolving nature of the pandemic has meant a change in pace somewhat.

In ‘normal times’, a large part of my role is research and thought leadership work, taking time to research key urban transport policy areas in detail, from taxis to climate change, freight to Mobility as a Service. These reports can take many months of detailed research and can be incredibly time consuming. In the new world, the burning issues come and go from day to day, even hour to hour, with hot topics demanding responses on an altogether different timescale to that which I am used to.

I have been working closely with various groups across our network, but in particular with our Heads of Human Resources group. At the beginning of lockdown, they were navigating how to support large numbers of staff in working from home and how to keep frontline transport workers safe from the virus. Sharing ideas and best practice has been incredibly valuable to their work. And they continue to collaborate on longer term issues that are emerging due to the crisis, such as how to proceed with recruitment in a socially distanced way and support some staff who may be required to return to work places ahead of others.

I have also been working on our ‘issues logs’, in which we are tracking key developments across a range of topics for our members. I’ve been responsible for producing the ‘staff and passenger protection issues log’ which covers issues such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), social distancing, and testing and hygiene.

Looking forward as the crisis shifts to recovery and lockdown is tentatively eased, I’m turning my attention back to some of the issues I more commonly work on, and how they might look in the new world. The climate crisis hasn’t gone away, people are widely discussing the need for a ‘Green Recovery’ from the current situation and ensuring that transport is part of those discussions will be critical in the coming months. This is not without its challenges, with public transport capacity much reduced, the groundswell of interest in active travel will need to be maintained and accompanied by an acceleration in decarbonising motorised travel. Supporting people to change their behaviours, both to enable social distancing and more sustainable lifestyle choices, is going to be critical if we are to realise our climate objectives.

Another area of focus that has returned is taxis and private hire vehicles, something I last spent a lot of time thinking about in 2017. With people avoiding public transport due to social distancing, we may see an increase in their use. But how can we keep drivers and passengers safe and what are the consequences for air quality, congestion and road safety in a world where more people are choosing active travel? Ensuring that taxis and private hire vehicles are part of the solution and play a positive role in the recovery phase are thorny challenges that will need careful consideration in the coming months.

It’s not all been a bed of roses. I do miss many face to face elements of my job: the larger group meetings which can’t be replicated in the same way over telecons, the major events and conferences where I learn so much about the diverse range of topics I research, and of course, the company of my fellow colleagues in our office. But whilst my job may have looked different over recent months, I’ve never been prouder to be a part of our small team and our wider group of members. From PPE to social distancing, supporting frontline staff and those working from home, liaising with senior leaders and decision makers both within our network and more widely with Government and other stakeholders, feeling useful and busy has felt positive in these strange times.

Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group

When it comes to mobility, sharing is caring

Mobipunt_Full

Could shared mobility be one of the missing pieces in the puzzle that is the future of transport? That was certainly the impression I got at the recent CoMo Collaborative Mobility conference in Birmingham, which brought together practitioners and policy makers working on shared cars, bikes and rides from the UK and abroad. I came away feeling inspired about the potential role for shared mobility in a sustainable transport future and here are some of my highlights and key takeaways.

Shared mobility inquiry

Professor Greg Marsden, of the University of Leeds, presented the findings of the Commission on Travel Demand’s Shared Mobility Inquiry. Car is still the dominant mode choice for travel in England, used for 61% of trips in 2017, and occupancy rates remain low, at an average of just 1.2 people per vehicle for commute trips. The average car is only in use for around 3-4% of the time and one third of cars do not move on a given day, suggesting private vehicle ownership is incredibly inefficient. Clearly there could be a role for shared mobility to make the way we use vehicles more efficient and allow us to meet policy goals around congestion, air quality and addressing the climate crisis, and the inquiry recommended further research and analysis of the potential for more shared mobility.

Shared asset model

Enterprise Car Club and Liftshare are coming together to create a shared asset model, looking at how car club vehicles could be used by Liftshare customers. One car club vehicle, which might be a pool car for an organisation, will have multiple uses at different times of day and for different audiences under a shared asset model. So it might be used for business travel during the working day, for commuting for multiple staff lift-sharing outside of working hours during the week or for leisure travel at the weekend. By joining these models up, vehicle occupancy can be increased using shared vehicles, creating multiple benefits.

Wandsworth way ahead

Nationally, around 1% of the population access vehicles through a car club, but in Wandsworth, London, one in seven drivers are car club members! There are four car club operators in Wandsworth and the high usage rates show that given the right circumstances and density of vehicles, then usage can increase.

Mobility hubs

Mobility hubs – physical places which bring together a whole range of transport and non-transport services – could enhance seamless journeys. Belgium is already implementing mobility hubs. Essential features include information screens, shared cars, cycling facilities and public transport, but additional features could include EV charging, package pick up and drop off, toilets, seating, water refilling, WiFi and phone charging. The provision of transport information in a physical location can have benefits for those who might otherwise struggle to access information, such as those without a smartphone. And it’s interesting to note that BP is looking to invest in mobility hubs, because assets such as petrol stations could potentially become less attractive in the future as fossil fuel vehicles are phased out.

Sharing for social inclusion

Shared mobility also has potential benefits for social inclusion. A recent study in Glasgow looked at how improving access to shared bikes could reduced barriers to cycling amongst a range of demographic groups, including those who are homeless, seeking asylum and unemployed as well as targeting women, those from an ethnic minority background and those living in the most deprived areas. Participants were given annual access to the city’s bike hire scheme for £3 and offered additional support including cycle training, group rides, route finding support and advice. An impressive 95% of participants felt they had experienced an improvement in physical and mental wellbeing as a result of the project and other benefits included increased confidence to cycle, improvements in social life, reduced spending on transport and ease of access to employment.

With 36 million empty seats commuting to work in cars in the UK everyday, we need to think seriously about how we change travel behaviour in order to address congestion and the contribution of transport to the climate crisis.

Dr Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group and a trustee of CoMoUK 

The unexpected joys of an unconference on transport

kelly-sikkema--1_RZL8BGBM-unsplash

Earlier this month I attended the second annual Transport Planning Camp, held in Manchester, which focused on addressing the climate emergency. I had never before been to an ‘unconference’ – for those unfamiliar, an unconference is a conference without predefined topics, where instead participants choose and drive the agenda – and I was a little wary of the open nature of the format. But honestly, it was absolutely brilliant.

The day started with everyone suggesting a session idea or topic for discussion by sharing this on a post-it note. These were then passed around the room and rated out of five, and those with the highest scores became sessions in the day’s agenda. There was such a varied collection of ideas and thoughts from passionate attendees that included organisations as diverse as local authorities, academics, transport consultants and environmental campaigners.

I wanted to take part in all of the parallel sessions, because they were all interesting and important topics! But I chose:

  • How do we get public support for tough decisions?
  • How do we avoid male, pale and stale?
  • Do we need new laws to tackle the climate emergency and what should they be?

Grasping the nettle

The first session’s discussion focused around how to encourage the public to accept difficult decisions and for me, there were a few key takeaways: We need to evidence why we are taking difficult decisions in order to address the climate crisis (and other challenges) and articulate this well, in particular, by explaining the potential benefits from changes in the long term. Creating a clear vision of a better future can help with this and showing how these tough decisions might contribute to heathier, happier, more liveable places can help. Community ownership of changes can also help to improve the acceptability of difficult changes, engaging with the community earlier and bringing them along on the journey.

Diversity in design

I’ve had plenty of discussions around diversity in transport in recent times, but this one was particularly energised by this video that had been doing the rounds on social media showing what a feminist approach to planning in Barcelona could achieve. And it demonstrates how because women tend to travel in more sustainable ways, using public transport and walking more often, ensuring that they are better reflected in the planning process could reduce the contribution of transport to the climate crisis.

It was great to share stories from different participants about their experience of working in transport and ideas about what works well. Most notably, measures that make our workplaces, and our transport infrastructure and cities, more inclusive, often make them better places for EVERYONE. We can foster kindness in the workplace (and the world!) and be good advocates for each other. I know in my own experience, when I am trying to make a point in a room full of men and struggling to be heard, when someone consciously makes a space for me it helps.

Legislating for change

Finally, we discussed whether we need new laws to tackle the climate crisis. And the answer seemed to be a resounding yes. Suggestions ranged from reforming current laws to ensure we meet targets, to more radical suggestions such as banning cars from city centres, banning fossil fuel vehicles soon and even banning all advertising! But there was a general consensus that we do need new policy and legislation to tackle the climate emergency.

I left the Transport Planning Camp feeling energised, which was good because I faced delays on the way home due to flooding. And that’s the point. Our transport system (and most of our other systems) are not only contributing to the climate crisis, they are not resilient to the impacts either. And the clock is ticking on our window of time to respond.

Dr Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group

She is a co-author of the recent report Making the connections on climate