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

The secret life of the street – and what we need to know to make future streets work

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For a couple of years now I have been banging on about the need for a debate on future streets (i.e. about how best to reconcile the complexities of all the different calls on street space – or more accurately the space between the buildings).  So I am pleased to see that this is an issue that has now caught fire with two projects under the ‘future streets’ banner (one from ITS Leeds and one from UCL) as well as a London conference on future streets that we are sponsoring.

On Tuesday I took part in a seminar at the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation (CIHT) on the outcomes, so far, of the ITS project which will hopefully result in guidance for authorities.

I thought reconciling the different demands on road space was complex before I went into the room. However, I left the room realising it was even more so than I had initially thought. I went in thinking that streets need to accommodate the different needs of different types of vehicles – buses, taxis, bicycles, powered two wheelers, cars, freight and logistics, as well as the different types of users including people with disabilities, and different objectives such as clean air, crime reduction, thriving high streets, reduced carbon emissions, provision for electric vehicles, provision of connected and autonomous vehicles, healthier streets and more…

However, all these are in principle broad brush issues. What the seminar taught me was that there are so many other variables – for example dealing with the unusual (funeral corteges, removal vans, deliveries that take time such as beer to pubs, skips). There is also street furniture, the paraphernalia that shops and cafes put in front of their premises, street beautification (raised planters, etc.), and emergency services needs. And all these complex needs and variables play out differently on different streets and at different times of the day.

ITS had an A3 sheet with a closely typed list of factors to consider (which got longer by the end of the day) when looking at the street of today – never mind the streets of the future. All of which suggests firstly the need for a more sophisticated and holistic approach to street management (rather than single issue, for example ‘we need to get a lot of EV chargers in ASAP’). Secondly, there is a need for more people to observe how each busy street operates now, to think deeply about how to make it work better (what trade offs need to be made on the basis of what priorities) and then make it happen (not forgetting the need for on-going management, enforcement, maintenance and adjustment).

future streets long list (jonathan bray)

Here are five further thoughts from the day…

  1. Parking and loading regulation is shouty, complicated and often ambiguous (what happens if you park on a cycle lane? What is the status of the shop forecourt in front of the shop but behind the curb line?). This can lead to people going round what they see as the regulated parts of the road space (even free parking bays) and parking on what they see as sitting outside the regulated areas (including pavements). Bus lanes can often be something that people see as very clearly a regulated and enforced space – which leads to the phenomena of people not driving in bus lanes even when they are not in operation. Some drivers are perhaps pavement parking out of consideration for their fellow drivers (i.e. to make space for them to park or pass) without thinking about the impacts on pedestrians. All of which suggests there could be a need for more research into the deeper reasons behind what makes drivers do what they do (including etiquette, peer pressure, fear of embarrassment, etc.).
  2. A lot of British streetscapes are so ugly and dilapidated that drivers may be making the unconscious decision that some ugly parking behaviour isn’t going to make them any worse.
  3. Physical signs and lines to regulate the road space create clutter, are not always read or understood by drivers and are inflexible (i.e. it is difficult to change the use of space at different times of the day or to allow two or more different functions for the same space). Digitalising the allocation and regulation of road space (including through geo-fencing) would make sense in that it would be clearer, more flexible and less ugly. However, the extent of data sharing necessary (and the knock on concerns about data ownership and privacy) is daunting.
  4. The current limitations on taxi and PHV pick up and drop off are few and mostly unobserved. If taxis and PHVs grow further then the problems caused by dropping off and picking up anywhere will grow. And how will taxi share work in practice if multiple taxis are trying to pick up / drop off different people from the same area of curb space?
  5. The enforcement of parking and loading regulation is constantly demonised by the media and by some politicians. But then the case is rarely made for it in a positive and pro-active way, and its complexity, ambiguities and its officious language and branding isn’t helping. Is there a need for a comprehensive rethink about how parking and loading restrictions and enforcement is communicated to the public as something that is there to help streets thrive and keep moving in a safe way? This is something that might relate to further research into how drivers feel about the regulation of streets.

Roll on the Future Streets conference on February 12. This is a topic where we need to revel in exploring all its complexities before we can make progress.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group.

You can find out more information and register for the Future Streets conference here.

 

Debating with data

Data Hub computer image

What is Data? A character from Star Trek? Or is it factual information or numbers that can be used to help inform decision making?

Both are correct, of course. But in an era where disinformation and ‘fake news’ are playing an increasingly key role in driving geopolitical crises, it’s more important than ever that we all strive for higher standards of data and the presentation of that data. This is particularly key for the world of transport.

That’s why in July 2017, the Urban Transport Group launched the Data Hub – an online, interactive tool allowing users to create bespoke visualisations of key transport data. This unique tool has proved very popular, with thousands of people visiting the hub to explore data and produce their own visualisations to help support the work that they’re doing on transport.

Back in July 2017 whilst I was at Nexus, I was working on the early stages of developing a new Bus Strategy for the region. Seeking the data to support statements in the draft, the Data Hub was able to instantly present to me the trends of bus patronage and bus trips per head for Tyne and Wear. Previously, such a task would have required trawling though spreadsheets for hours on end to get the data I wanted. The Urban Transport Group has recognised that transport planners and policy makers from across its membership were likely doing the same tasks and so the Data Hub was born, turning long spreadsheets into usable data for everyone.

When I joined Urban Transport Group on secondment earlier this year, it was clear to me that the organisation did not want to rest on its laurels. Driven by the positive experiences and constructive feedback from users, overseeing an upgrade to the Data Hub became one of my main jobs.

Select, visualise and share

The upgrade has involved two key elements. The first was working with engineers AECOM to carry out upgrades, including the introduction of Geocharts (or maps) to allow data to be paired with maps and the ability for users to add their own data to charts. The Data Hub, once loaded, should also now be faster too when creating new visualisations.

The second key upgrade was the significant expansion of data that was on offer. From station entry and exit data to road safety statistics, I have spent the last few months trawling through some of the Department for Transport’s and Office of Rail and Road’s largest and greatest datasets, bringing them together in a more presentable and useable format.

Ultimately, we believe that this work has expanded the ability to ‘select’ the transport data you’re interested in, ‘visualise’ that data in graphs, charts and maps, and to ‘share’ it on websites, social media or in presentations.

Data Hub infographic 2018

This isn’t the end though, and there are lots more exciting developments in the pipeline as we continue to evolve the tool – including even more data sets (from beyond just the UK city regions) and the ability for our members to capitalise on the software behind the Data Hub.

This has been a thoroughly enlightening project to work on. I never knew there was so much excellent data on city region transport out there and I’m pleased the Data Hub will be able to raise the profile of this data.

All that is left to say, is to ask you to head over to the refreshed Data Hub and to get stuck into the new data that is available and explore the new functions we’ve added. Visualising this data and presenting it to others will help you sell your message and continue to make the case for investment in transport with accurate, informed analysis. Go on, give your work the integrity and substance that is so often lacking in today’s key debates and discussion. Debate with data!

Stephen Bellamy is Business Development Officer – Policy at Nexus, and oversaw the upgrade work to the Data Hub whilst on secondment to Urban Transport Group