Does a Smart City really need technology?

During a recent talk by Mike Rawlinson of City ID at the Future Cities Catapult (if you haven’t dealt with them before, or been to their Urban Innovation Centre, I highly recommend it), I was struck by a small snippet during his presentation that really resonated with me: “Digital back end, analogue front end.”

The reason why this sentence resonated with me is that in the time that I have been observing talks about Smart Cities, they have been dominated by one thing: technology. (In case you don’t know anything about what Smart Cities are, go to page 7 of this background paper from the Government)

The idea that through open data, creating more datasets on city functions and infrastructure, and providing a means for those with the willingness to innovate to create new technologies and improve digital services is an attractive one. There has been much in the way of impressive work and research in this field, and as our Government itself admits, Smart Cities are not an end goal in themselves, but a process of continual improvement.

But does the outcome need to be a digital service, a new platform, or even innovation? It is often forgotten that digital platforms can also act as a catalyst for non-digital services that really contribute the livability of our cities. Excellent work on improve the legibility of Bristol, and of course Legible London, uses a core digital product to understand how people view their city. The approach is simple: use digital products to understand how people view their city, create a digital platform to deliver digital and non-digital products. As an aside, I would love to see the first use of sentiment mapping as part of a legible city project.

Legible LondonAnd one the outcomes of this? Signposts. Simple signposts and totems that are meaningful. Nothing techie, nothing flash. Just simple totems with maps, arrows, and walking times. No screen required. After all, despite a pelethora of online mapping and navigation capability, the single most useful method of navigation is observing ones environment.

This comes back to something more fundamental about cities — they are a human construct, and the most successful cities are ones that balance the large and human scale. My fellow transport professionals are slowly beginning to accept this, realising that streets have both movement and place functions. Cities are tangible, touchable, experiencable things. Technology hasn’t quite made the leap into the tangible for navigation yet — though Google Glass was a step in that direction.

I don’t mean to say that the delivery of digital services, and going after the digital economy is in any way a bad idea. Far from it. Technology has significant potential to improve our lives for the better, and some of those experiences manifest themselves in the physical world.

But perhaps the more meaningful innovations to be had in smart cities are ones that use digital technology to improve how we experience cities, but we don’t need technology to experience the benefit. After all, despite the technology, the reason why we love cities is the life and opportunity within them, isn’t it?

The Future of Accessibility

I did originally post this on my Linkedin profile a few days ago. So apologies now if you have read this before!

Picture courtesy of Future Cities Catapult

Picture courtesy of Future Cities Catapult

Talk to most transport professionals about accessibility and a few things come to mind: disabled access ramps, dropped kerbs, tactile paving, perhaps even some diversity training for bus drivers. To some, the grey matter that once constituted Accessibility Planning, or even PTAL, may be stirred.

Let’s be honest, the UK record generally when it comes to accessibility is far from sterling. The UK Government’s Environmental Audit Committee Report on Transport and access to Public Services was damning to say the least. This report touches upon a key reason why this is so: accessibility is so poorly defined outside of what is traditionally considered to be accessibility – notably physical – that ownership is difficult. Also, because it is something that is owned by everybody, it is led on by nobody.

When undertaking a journey, anyone who experiences an accessibility issue doesn’t care who owns the issue. Any failure at any point affects their whole journey experience, and can even determine whether people travel at all. Specific transport accessibility issues associated with services and infrastructure have been covered many times by a lot of people who know a lot more about the issue than me.

Accessibility is also about to get a whole lot more complicated

As with most things, new and emerging technologies are seen as a major possibility for tackling accessibility issues. One project that I love in particular is Cities Unlocked being delivered by Microsoft, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and the Future Cities Catapult. This involves combining location-based technology and smart phones to enable the blind to navigate around cities.

Technology certainly has a role to play, and is a solution in many use cases much like tactile paving or lifts. But technology is a tool, and that tool is useless should you not have the means to utilise it. Technologist Jon Gosier recently spoke of the phenomenon that he refers to as “Trickle down techonomics“, where well-intentioned technological solutions to social problems inevitably has unintended consequences. A blind faith that technology brings nothing but benefit really doesn’t help either!

What technology does instead expands the accessibility issue for transport professionals. If technology is going to play an increasing role in how transport is delivered and experienced, what other accessibility issues does this create? How can we as professionals ensure technologies are available for those who have difficulty using it, that platforms are cross compatible (imagine an automatic ticket gate stopping you because it can’t read m-tickets on iPhones), and importantly that we don’t fall into the trap of assuming technology trickles down to us all.

Consider these facts. According to Ofcom in 2014, only 20% of those aged 65-74 own a smartphone, and even now smartphone ownership stands at 62%, with 33% of smartphone owners shopping using their phone. It needs to be said that all of these percentages are rapidly increasing. But as with every new technology there will be laggards. Even now, 7% of the UK population does not own a mobile phone.

Back to the accessibility question

Over the forthcoming months, I am going to be undertaking some personal research into what the future holds for accessibility. But to start with we need a definition of what it is. And that is part of the problem. Current definitions of accessibility, for me, are confined to specific remits. Accessibility manifesting itself in standards comes from a narrow physical or technological definition often for a specific accessibility issue.

What is needed is a framework that recognises specific accessibility issues, but defines accessibility in such a way that enables a coherent understanding of it. Now, i don’t have the answer now. But here is my starter for 10, and its a simple one. Accessibility is fundamentally about the ability for us to satisfy our needs as human beings. So why not start at Maslow? Your thoughts are welcome…

2000px-Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg

Transport Data – not just for modelling geeks

Firstly, a massive apology for not posting in some time. Life has been a bit full on over the last year or so, so the blog has taken a back seat. My apologies especially go to those comments that have remained unmoderated for 6 months. My bad. 😦

Also, just to let you know that while I will touch on the Streetgeekery stuff every now and then, this blog will take on a more transport technology and futures focus. I will still remain true to its original intent, just less about street lamps and tactile paving. Besides, there are loads of great blogs covering that. Anyhow, on with the post.

Pedestrian Modelling

A pretty pedestrian model. Source: Wikipedia

If you think about the UK’s contribution to the transport world you will no doubt think of the likes of Brunel, George Stephenson, maybe even maritime (the whole Britannia rules the waves thing). But one area where the UK has made an undervalued contribution is transport data. While Detroit may have led the way with four-stage modelling, and Lowry’s model of Metropolis form the basis of modern transport modelling, the early work of the Transport Research Laboratory set the standard for data collection, and standards required of its quality.

Now, this blog has been critical of models in the past (and boy has it been), but they are and are likely to remain a useful tool on which to inform transport decisions. But the data collection game to inform these models, and the data collection requirements of transport professionals, are changing in a digital world.

The sheer amount of devices that can collect data on transport (there are over 83 million mobile phones in the UK alone) but tracking movements isn’t enough. There is an ever-expanding sea of personal information willingly shared out there, with an exploding number of things to collect it, and even more opportunities that it brings. Businesses like transportAPI are finding new ways of manipulating this data, and generating new business models from it. The shift is taking place where simply collecting and modelling transport data isn’t enough. Transport professionals need to understand that data creates value outside of major scheme business cases or informing a purely transport decision.

Let me put it this way, and this is something that may be uncomfortable to many. The best users of transport data are not transport professionals.

That sounds nuts doesn’t it?

Ok, perhaps i’ll clarify a bit. If you want someone to use transport data for a specific transport purpose, to a modeller you must surely go. But there are many more companies using open transport data that, frankly, none of us could have thought of. Want proof? Try CityMapper for one – transport data repackaged into something usable. Or how about how Transport for London’s open data now powers over 200 apps?

Transport data courses need to be so much more than building spreadsheet models and regression analyses. It needs to be something more fundamental – how transport data can create value outside of transport, and our responsibilities as professionals to not just rigorous data quality for our clients but to making this data available for the common good. That means going outside our comfort zone, and facing challenge from outside the industry on how this data is used.

A report from the Transport Systems Catapult (yeah, its a work plug, so sue me) is intended to be the first step on this journey. It’s not the entire story but I’ll say one thing: the days of only collecting data from manual counts, and putting into simple spreadsheet models to form the basis of transport decisions are numbered.

How do we model for cycling?

large signalised junction

I bet LINSIG loved modelling this

I start this post with a confession to make. While I claim to be an expert in many areas of transport, one area that I have always struggled with is transport modelling. Honestly, ask me anything about models outside of the basic 4 stage model and be prepared for a blank expression. But the art of being a professional is not necessarily to understand all of the technical details of each area of your craft, but to understand its importance and relevance.

Transport modelling is both very important and very relevant. The very fabric of our cities, towns, streets have been determined by computer programmes like ARCADY, LINSIG, SATURN, and VISSIM. In all of this logic and mathematical equations based on vehicle flows and cost-time calculations, many different highway users have lost out. Cyclists are one of the biggest ones.

But there has been some movement recently to challenge this orthodoxy, to see how the profile of cycling can be pushed further up in the modelling world, led by the tireless work of Rachel Aldred. Just over a week ago I went back to my old stomping ground of the University of Westminster to attend Modelling on the Move 6 – Cycling and Transport Modelling. After a bit of pre-seminar swotting, and chats with colleagues far more knowledgeable about this stuff than me, I entered the seminar interested in the answers to 3 questions.

Should cycling be modelled at all?

In an ideal world, transport models are just one factor in a much wider decision-making process that ultimately leads to the delivery of transport schemes. If a model says that a junction will fall over in vehicle capacity terms, do the other benefits (health, societal, economic etc.) of a particular scheme outweigh the model and result in a scheme being built?

This raises a fundamental question of whether or not we should seek to represent cycling in our transport models at all. Considering much wider benefits of cycling are very well-documented, is it worth the time, effort, and expenditure to completely redesign transport models for them? Transport for London certainly seem to think so. So much so, they are actually ahead of the Dutch in doing this.

One of the common areas that most of the attendees seemed to agree on was that transport models – rightly or wrongly – have a significant influence on transport decisions. Roger Geffen put this point across very well, whereby the new roads policy seems to be almost built on making the forecasts of the National Transport Model come true.

A matter of interest to me was there were two presentations during the day that did not even mention traditional transport models – those of Herbert Tiemens and Paul Schepers, both transport friends from the Netherlands. I am not sure what role traffic modelling plays in the redesign of streets of junctions – I am sure that it plays some role. But the feeling from the presentations, and the research that I have done, seems to indicate that model results are very much a secondary consideration.

Perhaps this reflects the relative importance that professionals from different countries and contexts give to model results. In the UK, the model result is almost sacrosanct – we cannot distress the model, annoy it, make it fall over. We don’t even want to test to see if model results are correct. In this context, modelling cycling is needed not because it is the right thing to do to come to a transport decision, but because out decision-making philosophy dictates it.

Do our current models take account of cyclists adequately?

It is safe to say that almost everyone agreed that current models do not take account of cyclists adequately. And a common theme ran through this – adequacy of data.

As explained helpfully by John Parkin, in a typical junction model cyclists are assigned a value of 0.2 PCU, or Passenger Car Units. This figure is based upon quite simplistic research into the matter – assuming that cyclists have the same gap acceptance, relationships with other users, and headways as car drivers.

More research is required into virtually all aspects of cyclist behavior and interactions with other vehicles at junctions and across networks. Is there tighter gap acceptance and does this vary with different vehilces? What impact does the faster acceleration time of cyclists have on capacity? How does cycle-friendly junction design impact on behavior? Some significant and expensive research needs to be undertaken into all of this if we wish to model cyclists properly.

Examples given by Transport for London and Tim Gent for Cambridgeshire represent a decent first step on the road to better cyclist representation in transport models. It shows modellers fundamentally rethinking how their models are structured and undertaking some research on cyclist behavior – even if there is a critical lack of good data validation in both examples. That and cyclists are simply being retrofitted to what are still traffic models at heart.

A point made often in the seminar was how it was impossible to model cycling owing to the variability of current cyclists themselves, and their decision-making processes. In my view this is a side issue. As John Parkin touched on, micro-simulation modelling is increasingly introducing this variability into modelling of highway networks. Also, a model by its very nature is a simplification of a vast number of decision-making processes based on observed behavior. Nobody can say that every driver’s responses are reflected in many transport models at the individual level, but we do understand what the average driver, and drivers as a collective, are likely to do because we have good quality data to support that.

How can our models be improved?

I have already touched on the improvements to transport modelling being undertaken in London and Cambridgeshire, and the issues that they have faced. I wish here to concentrate on another matter: modelling the unknown.

As I have already touched on before, current transport models are based upon projecting forward behavior that has been observed, and thus they are only as good as the data that we have at the time. For cycling, as Nicholas Sanderson points out, any data collected on current cyclists now may become obsolete soon if cycling becomes more normalised.

In this sense, transport models are always playing catch-up to observed trends. Perhaps modellers could make much more use of stated preference data (for all its flaws) in future demand forecasts, but even this is an uncertain science.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, we could simply not rely on a computer programme on a laptop to help us make a transport decision? Nah, that’ll never catch on.

The dangers of blue sky thinking

I should start this post by stating something very clearly – I am not a blue sky thinker. I not a person to ‘think outside the box’ or ‘delayer problems’ or whatever other management bollocks you like to come up with for it. But I am a supporter of it – thinking creatively on how to tackle known issues that are not limited by current thinking. It is healthy to challenge established thinking and procedures, and I fully support creative solutions.

Blue sky thinking and transport, in my experience, has a sticky history. Transport is a very practical business. It is driven by rules and procedure, with practical problems requiring practical solutions.

A recent announcement, or should I say re-announcement, got me thinking about the applicability of blue sky thinking in transport. Lord Foster’s latest (re)announcement of plans for SkyCycle, a network of raised cycle tracks above railway lines in London accessible by ramps to street level, certainly strikes me as a blue sky thinking project. Lord Foster does his best at a sales pitch for the project:

“I believe that cities where you can walk or cycle rather than drive are more congenial places in which to live, To improve the quality of life for all in London and to encourage a new generation of cyclists, we have to make it safe. However, the greatest barrier to segregating cars and cyclists is the physical constraint of London’s streets, where space is already at a premium. SkyCycle is a lateral approach to finding space in a congested city. By using the corridors above the suburban railways, we could create a world-class network of safe, car free cycle routes that are ideally located for commuters.”

SkyCycle

SkyCycle. Image from Foster and Partners

That distinguished architectural minds such as that of Lord Foster are paying attention to how we can make cycling safer in our cities should be welcomed. I have no doubt that he is a clever guy, but sadly this proposed solution shows the danger of blue sky thinking – by coming up with a radical solution to a problem, you don’t actually solve the problem.

Lord Foster actually puts the finger directly on the problem – making cycling safe. But this solution only tackles part of it. The fundamental problem that is not tackled is making our streets safe for cycling. I don’t imagine that Lord Foster pretends that this plan is the magic solution that makes everybody want to cycle, nor should it distract from making our streets safe. But making our streets safe for cycling simply has to take priority.

Reading the public information on the scheme, it is clear to me that rather than the focus of SkyCycle being on safety, the focus is on capacity and speed. Reducing commuter journey times and providing capacity for up to 12000 cyclists per hour are laudable aims, but I thought that we as transport professionals were moving away from simple speed and capacity to measure scheme success? Subjective safety and route attractiveness (and I don’t just mean that as in the colours on the route look pretty as indicated in artist impressions of SkyCycle) are just two further criteria that I can think of.

This is where the second issue of blue sky thinking comes into play – distracting from other, more comprehensive and meaningful solutions. Streets are where life in our towns and cities takes place, where vulnerable road users face the greatest dangers and are in greatest need of our expertise on making them safe. Junctions, lack of segregated links on major roads, and poor permeability are just a few of the myriad of issues facing cyclists everyday at street level. Shoving them up in the sky does not tackle any of those issues, and at worst will distract decision makers and funding providers from tackling these issues.

It is reassuring to see that, publicly at least, Transport for London’s response to the SkyCycle idea has been nothing beyond considering the idea, as highlighted by As Easy As Riding a Bike. Network Rail seem very supportive of the idea, and why not? What they will get is a way of reducing overcrowding on peak hour inner-suburban trains through building an asset that I am very sure they won’t be responsible for maintaining.

The final issue with blue sky thinking is that bad ideas – ok, perhaps not bad, but say less desirable – become implanted in the imagination, and once done so is very hard to shift. We have already mentioned this regarding zombie road schemes, where poor schemes developed with the best intentions never get fully killed off purely because decision makers think that it is a good idea, but is ‘not a priority right now’ or ‘there are not enough funds available’, without being given the thorough critical review required of every transport scheme.

It is often said that in transport circles there is a preference for projects that make a statement as opposed to projects that just get on with it quietly by simply working. Ask a politician to open either a new link road or a new cycle path, and most will prefer the former because of the statement that it sends out. Schemes that are ‘modern’ or ‘futuristic’ also score well on this, though how vertically-separated routes are futuristic is beyond me. Buchanan anyone?

That is my fundamental worry with SkyCycle. By focusing on a piece of infrastructure that is expensive and of little practical benefit, both attention and funding will be drawn from proven, tried-and-tested, and deliverable schemes that will deliver real benefits to cyclists.

Blue sky thinking in transport is great, as it allows us to innovate and think of solutions to problems that can be delivered practically. But that is so long as such thinking is grounded in practicality. SkyCycle is a nice idea, but until we make our streets safer for cyclists, its going on my nice to have list.

Now, Lord Foster, can you come up with some imaginative ways to improve our streets for cyclists? That is something that I would be very interested in hearing.

Car access and people-friendly High Streets – mutually exclusive?

The answer of some in Government, particularly certain ministers (naming no names), is that if only we could get lots of cars into town centres, and allow them to park wherever they want for free then our High Streets will be saved. This appears to go against established research which shows those who travel by non-car modes spend more each week than car drivers.

A recent visit back to my hometown of Barnstaple in North Devon, and looking at how it manages its town centre, got me thinking about this. Is it possible to maintain car access to town centres, and make them people-friendly places as well? They aren’t mutually exclusive surely? Perhaps a small town in North Devon can teach us something.

Just a quick bit of context, Barnstaple is a small market town in North Devon with a tightly constrained retail core. The main retail function of the town takes place on the High Street, Boutport Street, and in many of the linking streets.

Barnstaple Map

Map of Barnstaple Town Centre – the main retail core is bound by Boutport Street andCastle Street / North Walk, and

What Barnstaple town centre does well is maintain access by car to the town centre. But this is not how you would consider it. Take a map of the car parks of the town centre.

Barnstaple Car Parks

Barnstaple Town Centre Car Parks

The majority of spaces serving the town centre are located on its periphery. For the only truly town centre car parks are at the Cattle Market and at Green Lanes (not shown on the map), access for those who choose to drive is very direct. For instance, why would you choose to drive along Boutport Street when access is straight and direct along Vicarage Street?

Access to Cattle Market

Direct access to the Cattle Market Car Parks from North Walk. Formerly a major through-route, North Walk’s importance has been downgraded since the opening of a new bypass

Access to Green Lanes car park at the junction of Boutport Street and Vicarage Street. The route runs directly to Alexandra Road, and note the junction priority favouring travel along this route

Access to Green Lanes car park at the junction of Boutport Street and Vicarage Street. The route runs directly to Alexandra Road, and note the junction priority favouring travel along this route

This is complemented by walking improvements along alleyways and mews leading from these car parks to the retail core.

Holland Walk

Improvements to the pedestrian environment along Holland Walk, leading from the Cattle Market

Barnstaple

A car-free and historical feel to the main pedestrian access from Queen Street Car Park

The town centre has also benefitted from highway improvements that make it unattractive to drive through the retail core. Alexandra Road and the new Western Bypass make cross-town trips by car attractive along these routes, with the historic through routes of Boutport Street, The Strand, and the High Street long since relegated to a secondary role for movement.

Junction of Alexandra Road and Pilton Causeway

The junction of Alexandra Road and Pilton Causeway stills gives an insight of the vehicular importance of this formerly major cross-town route

But this relegation as a movement role has allowed nearly all streets in the town centre to improve their roles as places for people to meet, play, and shop. Simply, to act as the heart of the town. In Barnstaple, each town centre street plays a clear role. Let us start with the High Street.

The High Street’s role is the main retail and social heart of the town. But what is interesting here is that this is achieved not by major engineering works, but more through space management. For instance, the entry of vehicles between 10am and 4pm each day is banned along most of its length, enforced by a few simple things…

Bollards

The power of a few bits of metal

Note I say entry, for it is still possible for vehicles to exit after this time at the northern end and at Butchers Row. But the impact of this simple management measure is significant. Pedestrians feel confident in taking the space on the carriageway. So much so that all vehicles pass along the High Street with caution. As much as I hate using this term, drivers are almost considered to be guests within the space, as though it is being used with permission.

High Street Barnstaple

This is probably the most engineered part of the High Street

High Street Barnstaple

Pedestrians walking in the carriageway with confidence despite approach vehicles

High Street Barnstaple

A vehicle has just passed, with pedestrians again walking in the highway with confidence

High Street South

Southern end of the High Street. A significant carriageway temporarily dedicated to pedestrians

A good example is the only place on the High Street where vehicle access is permitted at all times, between Cross Street and Butchers Row. This section benefits from the street layout and the measures delivered elsewhere on the High Street to the point where nothing needed to be done at all. Here there is a tight junction geometry, sightlines are reduced by buildings (a common feature in the narrow streets of the town centre), and there is heavy pedestrian flow. Encouraged by measures elsewhere on the High Street, pedestrians use the carriageway space with confidence. Drivers mostly wait for pedestrians to cede priority, or follow behind them. There is the very occasional blast of the horn, admittedly.

Butchers Row

Vehicle waiting for pedestrians to cede priority

Cross Street

Junction of Cross Street and High Street. Tight with poor vehicle sightlines, though strong pedestrian flow giving instant impression of a pedestrian-dominated space

If you underestimate the impact of a simple management measure like bollards, it even works on streets with low pedestrian flows such as in Joy Street. Pedestrians using the carriageway with confidence.

Joy Street

Pedestrians using Joy Street with confidence, despite it being a more minor street in terms of retail offer

The big benefit of management measures such as this is a reduced up-front capital cost on major highway engineering measures. In Barnstaple High Street, the main highway works are total pedestrianisation outside the Pannier Market…

Pannier Market

Short pedestrianised link on the High Street near the Pannier Market

…some carriageway narrowing with associated seating and heritage features…

High Street Seating

High Street seating and Heritage Features – clearly not as well used when the weather is bad!

…and a single gateway. Ok, it hardly cost pennies, but it is far from a significant re-engineering of the highway.

High Street Gateway

High Street gateway feature

The balance struck for the High Street means that the movement function of other streets is much more pronounced. Take, for example, Boutport Street. Walking down Boutport Street still gives the sensation of a more vehicle dominated environment reflecting its function for movement of all kinds – notably deliveries and buses.
Though even here there is a sense of place. For me, the frontage is perhaps more functional, with retail mixed with services such as the Post Office, and entertainment such as the Theatre. But there is still significant pedestrian usage of the street, and the environment is far from hostile.

Two-way flow on Boutport Street constrained by parking. A vehicle-dominated space, but speeds are low and there are generous widths on the pedestrian footways

Two-way flow on Boutport Street constrained by parking. A vehicle-dominated space, but speeds are low and there are generous widths on the pedestrian footways

Boutport Street Bus Stops

Boutport Street Crossing

Well-used informal crossing point on Boutport Street

Narrower section of Boutport Street giving impression of a vehicle dominated space.

Narrower section of Boutport Street giving impression of a vehicle dominated space.

Contrast the situation in Boutport Street with Butchers Row – significantly dominated by delivery traffic for both the Butchers and the nearby market. The function here is access – not only to the Pannier Market on market days, but also as part of the only cross town centre link open to traffic at all times.

Butchers Row

Refuse truck passing parked cars along Butchers Row. Note the narrow footway in front of the shops`

Butchers Row

Footway is well-used, but street is dominated by movement and loading

Assuming you subscribe to the school of thought that the location of major retail chains is a proxy for the quality of the shopping environment, and the number of vacant units is a proxy for overall town centre health, then Barnstaple scores well. Major retail chains are focussed on the High Street where the pedestrian environment is the best. Whilst one cannot guess the profitability of individual businesses, in my round of the town centre I counted the number of vacant units on one hand. Even in Butchers Row, a vehicle dominated space, there were no free shop units.

The important point to learn from Barnstaple and other towns like it is that successful town centres are not built upon dictats around parking, nor expensive design measures such as shared space. They are built upon balancing the need for people-friendly town centres, delivering highway solutions reflecting the context of the town centre, and maintaining access to them that does not compromise that need. The future of our town centres certainly does not rest with flinging more cars into them.

201 ways to be wrong

It may have escaped your notice, but yesterday the good fellows at the (Non-)Taxpayers Alliance proudly announced their latest report 201 ways to Save Money in Local Government. Local Government fans may fondly remember the Government doing a very similar thing not so long ago, to the routine mocking of, well, pretty much everybody. Clearly that did not deter our friends at the TPA from doing something bigger, and better!

A first observation is that if it has taken nearly a year for the TPA to produce almost exactly the same bloody thing that DCLG did, that’s hardly a sterling example of efficiencies of other sectors. But needless to say I ploughed on through their suggestions, and came to the conclusion that the authors either know nothing of local government, or nothing of, well, anything.

Let’s take a look at their greatest hits, shall we?

Share services with neighbouring councils

Ring up every Council Chief Executive in the country, this is an idea we have never heard of before! The fact that the next 4 suggestions say the same thing but with a different twist shows they mean business on this.

Scrap political advisers

No Council I know of employs these. If they do at the public expense, they are idiots.

Place more children up for adoption. Reducing the number of Looked After children by placing more of them in permanent loving homes is principally good news for them. But it is also good news for the Council Tax payer. Social workers are often risk-averse about adoption but it overwhelmingly offers children better life chances than keeping them in care.

Yeah. Let’s screw due process and making sure that we don’t give children to any Tom, Dick, or Harry. This also ignores the fact that the recent adoption reforms are showing early signs of success. And where is your evidence that Social Workers are often risk averse? They want what is best for the child for god’s sake, not to meet some stupid target to get more kids adopted because you say so.

Minimise the use of taxis for taking children in care to and from school. The cost is huge as they usually require escorts as well. It also causes a stigma for the children being marked out as different. If the children are too young to go to and from school themselves, it is better for them to be picked up and dropped off by their foster carers.

I don’t know where to start with this. Firstly, there is a statutory duty placed on local authorities to provide school transport to kids aged 16 or under (subject to certain criteria). Secondly, providing taxis is often a better value solution than other options like providing a school bus. Thirdly, school transport is offered to those in greatest need and who are less likely to own a car at all. And finally, is there any evidence at all that being dropped off is better for children?

Stop funding translations/interpreting for Council documents and services. This money is much better spent teaching people English. But even redirecting some of it you should still find some room for Council Tax cuts.

Yeah, screw being inclusive and helping those in the greatest need to access our services. And have you never heard of adult learning courses?

Don’t employ Climate Change Officers

Local authorities have a statutory duty to address climate change in their area. So unless you want us to break the law some Climate Change Officers are here to stay.

Don’t employ Diversity Officers or ask residents to fill in monitoring forms for ethnicity, sexuality and religion

Same as the climate change stuff, really.

Cease funding Law Centres. (A double saving as they often sue the council so the Council Tax payers end up paying for the lawyers on both sides.)

Evidence of this, please? And imagine the inhumanity of ensuring that the most vulnerable have access to legal advice. It’s barbaric I tells you!

Use “hot desking”.

That idea is sooooo 2004. It’s all about home working now, provided that the Government’s latest security advice on public networks which stop you accessing your email unless you are directly plugged into the network don’t stop it dead in it’s tracks.

Cancel your annual subscription to the Local Government Association. This is a surprisingly significant sum.

Translation: We don’t like this group as they actually stand up to us and represent you, stop funding them please. Oh, and the LGA have reduced their subscription prices.

Cancel payments for diversity training/consultancy provided by such bodies as Stonewall.

See above.

Sell surplus assets. This is a crucial means of reducing debt and thus the debt interest payments which are often a big component of what the Council Tax funds.

Selling stuff for other uses. Why didn’t we think of that before? Perhaps we can loudly announce it like the Government so undermining our bargaining position, rather than getting a fair market value.

Or, radically, we could buy land through borrowing, develop it, and sell it at a profit. Nah, that’ll never catch on…

If you don’t have debt and have reserves in the bank. Why are you keeping the reserves? You will only end up being tempted to spend it on something. The reserves should be diminished by lower Council Tax. Remember whose money it is.

Yeah, why are you undertaking prudential financial planning, local government. I mean, it’s not as if you have been affected by the collapse of banks or anything (we got lucky that we got anything back at all). And it’s not as if local people want us to be prudent with their money.

And where has this idea that debt is bad come from? So long as there is a good business case for your investment then taking on debt is fine. If debt was bad, why aren’t the TPA slating all homeowners nationally?

Employing full time Disabled Access Officers in the Planning Department is poor value for money. Planning applications have to meet statutory requirements for disabled access but it should not be for Councils to engage in “gold plating.”

Who the hell does this? Frankly, if they do and all Planning Officers are trained in equalities (oh, you hate that don’t you) they deserve to be named and shamed.

Use sprinklers in care homes, allowing a potential reduction in night staff and a safer situation for elderly residents. Homes that do not have sprinklers can be more dangerous when a fire occurs as it sometimes takes several members of staff to carry one resident to safety. This has been proven not only to save money but to save lives. The National Fire Sprinkler Network has done marvellous work on this.

Yeah, because the staff are only there to put out fires. It’s not as if they will be there to, I don’t know, help out the elderly when they fall or deal with emergencies that don’t involve fires raging through the building. Plus, even if the sprinklers work, I think the general advice from the Fire Brigade in the event of a fire is to get the fuck out of the building. A bit hard for the elderly if there are no staff on site, eh?

Shop around for your insurance premiums

Obvious, stating, are, you, the. Rearrange those words into a sentence.

Cease to collect trade union membership subscriptions – at least without charge.

Dock staff pay for something that they have a legal right to have. That’ll do wonders for staff morale. I know you hate the unions, but try not to make it so blatant. Besides, we laughed this off when your pal Eric Pickles suggested the same thing.

Review street lighting usage. Some councils have excessive street lighting. As with much else, this is probably due to a culture of being unduly risk averse over health and safety. Aside from the cost, we cause light pollution and increase our carbon footprint. Councillors should consult residents to see where the lighting is really needed or where it may be switched off 30 minutes or an hour earlier.

Again, many of us are already doing this. But when reduced street lighting may increase the number of accidents and increase the amount of crime and anti-social behavior, we are somewhat averse to it. And when the hell did the Taxpayers Alliance start giving a shit about carbon footprints?

Councils should not be running leisure centres. They could still pay for subsidised swimming for local residents or particular groups should they so choose. This will tend to be more cost effective than running the whole operation.

Why the hell not?

Where appropriate use cattle and sheep to graze on council land rather than spending money on grass cutting.

Oh Christ where the start on this one. Who will manage all of this livestock on a daily basis? Feed it, ensure it is well-watered, ensure they are in good health or haven’t escaped? How will we pay for their transport? How much will it cost to buy them, and also to put up fences (and repair them) to control them? We can’t have the flock shitting all over the playing fields can we?

This strikes me as somebody went to the countryside, saw some sheep in a field, and thought why not? You don’t just let them out in a field and leave them alone you know.

Oh, and they tried this in Brighton. Didn’t work out too well.

Scrap requirements for contractors, for instance, requiring a building firm tendering for work to produce an “equalities policy”. All firms have to abide by plenty of statutory requirements on equality as it is. Councils should not be involved in gold plating. It imposes a double cost. Putting off contractors tendering who can’t be bothered with an equalities policy possibly means ending up with higher costs. There is also the staff time taken up with the “assessment” of the equalities policies.

Hang on, so if they comply with equalities legislation and policies, where is the double cost in this? And if they aren’t and doing so is a cost, why should local authorities contract a supplier that is breaking the law? Besides, you know full well that most council contracts are decided on cost, and equalities is just a minor part of the assessment.

Speed up the planning process. Give clear guidelines about the basics such as good design in the initial stages but reduce the gold plating demands on matters such as health and safety and disabled access. A lot of officers spend their time on such matters but the statutory requirements are quite onerous enough.

Oh I would love to see the evidence of this. And if “gold plating” means making sure that planning applications comply with the law, then gold plate away.

Don’t be too proud to constantly check if other authorities are achieving lower costs or higher standards for a service and, if so, whether they are achieving this through greater efficiency. Benchmark. Benchmark. Benchmark. After that do some more benchmarking.

Don’t you want us to do away with monitoring?

Set maximum word limits on the length of reports submitted by officers. Long reports that nobody reads are a waste of officer time and a means of avoiding accountability for spending.

How the hell this saves money outside of literally a few pieces of paper I don’t know. And for ‘avoiding accountability’ I read ‘explaining technical detail with as much clarity and precision as possible.’

Cease employing European Officers. I understand they are particularly prevalent on county councils. Essentially they are propagandists for European integration.

In other words, we don’t like them because they are part of the EUROFACISTS WHO WANT TO TAKE OUR FREEDOM!! If you don’t like the EU that’s fine, but these officers tap into vast funding streams like Habitat, Marco Polo, and Civitas. They probably raise more in one year for local government than the TPA raises in several.

Ensure you have the highest possible penalties for staff engaged in fraud.

Like getting fired and being prosecuted? You clearly haven’t read the terms and conditions of your average local government officer.

Would it make sense for a county council and its constituent districts to form a unitary authority? Councillors in Wiltshire have said this has saved a fortune through efficiency savings after they formed a unitary authority in 2010.

Give your pal Pickles a call. We think this is a stonking idea, but he doesn’t. You are clearly in his good books so can you have a quiet word? Thanks.

Joint procurement.

You mentioned this right at the beginning of your list. In fact I count at least 20 points which are just reiterating ones earlier in the list. Clearly an example of public sector inefficiency. Oh…

Publish all spending on suppliers – not just items over £500.

You know that there is a staff cost with doing this. If you want transparency with spending, that’s fine. Just don’t pretend that this is a money-saving measure.

Use a Car Club for staff. This has saved Croydon Council half a million pounds.

Stone the bloody crows, this is a good idea!! To be fair there are a few good ideas in this list, but being a transport person this one stuck out for me.

Scrap “Equalities Impact Assessments.”

We have a statutory duty for promoting equalities, so by doing this you clearly want us to break the law and get sued. Perhaps we could be sued by a benefit scrounger living in a 15 bedroom council house with their 5 kids, represented by a solicitor employed at a council-run law centre. I’m sure you’ll love that.

Prioritise “reablement.” This is the process of making practical adjustments which
allow the elderly to return to living in their own homes.

Where the hell have you been for the last 10 years? This is standard practice for god’s sake.

Publish the job titles of all members of staff. This doesn’t need to include salary information but it will give taxpayers and other staff members in the council a sense of the council’s priorities and allow unnecessary jobs to be rooted out.

By rooting out you mean pester them because you think their job is worthless without trying to find out what they actually do. And yes, I have seen this happen, and it’s bloody awful seeing a junior officer getting harassed by somebody who thinks they know better. So forgive me if I say “sod off” to this one.

Don’t spend money on youth gimmicks such as youth parliaments. Instead look at initiatives that don’t really cost money. Hosting school debating competitions at the town hall, for instance – which can also provide a positive opportunity for children from state and independent schools to mix. These can be organised by the schools themselves without employment of Youth Workers.

If you know of an electric supplier that provides electricity for free can you give me their number? This would also require co-ordination by council officers, which I am sure is done for free also.

Improving digital communications can save staff time. For instance, providing a subscription service for email alerts means residents can indicate the sort of thing they are interested in. Parents will be interested in school closures, motorists will be interested in road closures, etc. This means that fewer residents will call help lines unnecessarily.

Our authority is in the dark ages internet-wise, but even we do this.

Incentives for recycling – for example vouchers can be negotiated with local retailers.
Windsor & Maidenhead have offered Marks and Spencer vouchers in the past.

Hang on, this sort of thing costs money and really isn’t what the Council should be doing. Oh, this is the joke entry, right?

Alternatively, we could deliver things that both reduce costs and boost recycling. Something like fortnightly bin collections which have been an unbridled success at doing exactly that.

Provide council tenants with rewards for carrying out their own repairs.

I can just see council tenants rewiring their own electrics for a few M&S vouchers, rather than getting the local authority to do it for free and with an approved tradesman.

Withdraw funding for speed cameras.

Clearly killing more people reduces the burden on the taxpayer. That’s much more of a priority than ensuring that people don’t actually die on our roads and improving safety around things like schools and collision blackspots. Besides, aren’t speed cameras cash cows for local authorities?

Don’t pay membership subs for the Royal Town Planning Institute.

What have the RTPI done to piss the TPA off? Has an RTPI-accredited officer refused an extension on a TPA Director’s house or something?

Don’t just renew contracts. Retender.

You do know that retendering can be a costly exercise, and contract renewal can be the best value for local authorities, right?

Don’t spend any money seeking design advice from the modernist Commission for the Built Environment (CABE)

What the hell have CABE done? Apart from be experts in their field and provide a wealth of quality advice on design issues? The TPA really do hate everyone, don’t they?

Don’t advertise for jobs in Guardian when you really do need to recruit – use your council website instead

Firstly, most of us do this anyway. Secondly, advertising the position wider means we get a variety of quality candidates for each position. And thirdly, we know you hate the Guardian. Stop bleating on about it.

I could tear into almost all of the suggestions made, but frankly it’s getting late and I’m tired. Besides, it means that I will have to repeat all of this politically-motivated clap trap, and I don’t have the time for all of that.

Oh, and in case the TPA do happen upon this, I wrote all of this in my spare time. So don’t worry about me wasting council tax payers money, not when you should be worrying about wasting the money of your donors on stating the obvious and a whole lot of wrongness.

Driverless cars and the future of public transport

To round off this little series on driverless vehicles I will touch on a matter that has garnered much comment in many media outlets – how they will impact on public transport. Many commentators have – often gleefully – posted on how driverless cars will render the likes of HS2 obsolete (step forward Allister Heath as the most notable example of this). This is a very bold prediction, and sadly for many commentators shows a basic lack of understanding of how public transport actually works.

There are many types of travel by public transport, so let’s start on the home turf of HS2 critics – intercity travel. The Demand for Public Transport: A Practical Guide reveals cross-elasiticities of demand between car travel and intercity public transport travel is relatively inelastic in respect to both time and costs. Evidence from Ireland reveals a key determinant of intercity mode choice is travel time, confirmed in Dutch research which also stresses the roles of socio-economic characteristics in mode choice and trip purpose.

That sounds like a load of technical gobbledegook, so let me translate. For intercity travel, travel time is of paramount importance. This is reflected in the National Travel Survey, where for trips of over 50 miles rail accounts for a much higher proportion of travel, certainly compared to overall trips – though the car is still the dominant mode.

TGV

When it comes to long distance, speed is everything

This is an important finding. How much impact can driverless cars make on trips where cars are already overwhelmingly dominant and walking and cycling are not an option? To make inroads into the public transport long distance market, driverless cars will have to make significant time savings on city centre to city centre journey times. Unless urban speed limits are substantially changed and congestion truly becomes a thing of the pass, the ability of them to save travel time is negligible.

No doubt you are thinking – ahh, but what about driverless cars allowing us to make better use of travel time, James my boy? Well, I did cover this in the first post of this series, and it is likely that people will use such travel time in ways that benefit them. Taking the logic of the point you are making, most people would choose slower journeys to make the best use of their travel time. This is contrary to research in public transport that shows travel time as a strong determinant of demand, particularly on long distance trips. People still make best use of that travel time, but not at the expense of speed.

Looking within our cities, a key factor will be how driverless cars will change car ownership patterns. Data from the National Travel Survey shows the key determinant of bus use being ownership of a car, so if driverless vehicles facilitate a further jump in car ownership – particularly through shared ownership – bus use should decline according to current knowledge. The best evidence that we have of this currently is evidence on car clubs. This proudly states that users of car clubs are more likely to use public transport, but critically shows no evidence that this is an impact of being in a car club.

Car Club Car

This all assumes that shared ownership also overcomes current barriers to car ownership. Finance is the obvious one, with the well-established trend of car ownership increasing with income. In the developed world declining car ownership among young people is especially pronounced, being attributed to cost, use of the internet, thinking multi-modal green attitudes to name but a few.

Continuing the divergence further, it will also be interesting to see if driverless vehicles change attitudes to car ownership more generally. The car industry is bullish that it will not, and to be fair there is some research with car use seen as a normal part of adult life by older children and as an indicator of social status. But assuming trends currently being seen in young adults continue, smarter ownership models are certainly a possibility for many. I have yet to see the research to indicate that this would be widespread, but the success of car clubs in cities is a useful indicator.

It is my view that in this regard, driverless cars will not fundamentally change our attitudes to car use and ownership, at least not initially. Those with a preference towards car use will still use cars, those who prefer a choice will still exercise that choice. I admit this is not backed by research, more a feeling.

Anyway, I digressed slightly. What will be interesting in the urban context is the need for space efficiency. In purely highway terms, driverless cars show no evidence yet of being more space efficient outside of closer vehicle spacing that we have discussed. In fact, in some of the ideas mooted for driverless vehicles where some may use the highway network without drivers, such vehicles will be less space efficient than current vehicles.

Comparing bus, cars, and bikes
Space efficiency, transport style

This is where urban public transport will still play a role, by efficiently transporting large numbers of people around our cities. Even assuming full occupancy of driverless vehicles, public transport can do more (and cycling even more) in the same space. So long as we want it to be like that.

Current arguments against public transport also assume that public transport itself will not benefit from driverless technology. Experience in rail – notably the Paris Metro – shows that such technology can reduce headways, boost frequencies and reliability, and subsequently patronage. Guided busways like those in Cambridge and in Luton are a more primitive example – again significantly improving frequencies. Even if half the predictions for driverless cars are proven true then buses can also benefit from such technology.

It also assumes that public transport will not continue to compete against driverless cars by providing seamless journeys and improving its own offer. Integrated ticketing, improving service frequency and reliability, prioritisation of public transport in general traffic, and improving the on-vehicle offer such as free wifi and comfortable seating are just a few examples of how patronage can be boosted and the role of public transport can be maintained. When delivered as a package, the research shows that these can have significant impacts on boosting patronage.

I have yet to see anything convincing by way of research that shows that public transport’s time is numbered in a future of driverless cars. This may turn out to be true of course, as we have no idea of the policy decisions and societal attitudes that will shape the fortunes of all modes of transport over the next 10, 20, 30 years or so. But making the likes of HS2 a white elephant? Show me the evidence please.

Which leads me onto a question that I have been meaning to pose to the proponents of driverless cars. Is their purpose simply consolidate a current dominant market position in personal, or to expand the market? And if so, to where? There are known limits on personal travel and travel by car, and peak car is an increasingly-accepted theory. So why should driverless vehicles be radically different?

For us professionals, it also does not alter the fundamental question that we need to ask ourselves: what sort of towns and cities do we want to create? If we wish to continue on the current path, we just focus on getting as many driverless vehicles through our highway networks as we can. But if we want to create livable cities, we question their impacts, and use them and direct them in a way to create them. And based upon what we know, we can do this.

Using driverless cars to help create liveable cities

My first blog post in this series contained a hell of a lot of subtle hints towards the topic of this. For all the knowns and unknowns about how driverless vehicles will affect travel patterns (and there are a hell of a lot of unknowns), the infrastructure.

As highlighted in this blog’s very first post, key to delivering livable cities is recognising that the needs of vulnerable highway users – particularly pedestrians and cyclists – need to take priority. Driverless cars being tested to date have some impressive claims made against their safety. A common quote is how one Google car has driven 300,000 miles without a single crash. But this is without independent verification of not just these statistics, but also things such as number of near misses with vulnerable road users. Indeed the only thing we can be sure of at present is that driverless cars will react quicker (nanoseconds) to a situation than a driver (at least 0.7 seconds), and research shows that where reaction times are slowed the likelihood and severity of a collision is likely to increase. So this technology offers the potential for reduced pedestrian and cyclist fatalities.

Whilst objectively there may be some scope for driverless vehicles to reduce the incidence of collisions with vulnerable road users, safety is also a subjective matter. The impacts of driverless cars on the subjective safety of vulnerable road users is even less well researched. What we are able to do, however, is make inferences from existing research into vehicle / vulnerable road user interactions, for which there is plenty.

Many vulnerable road user groups feel unsafe in vehicle-dominated spaces, something that is extensively backed by research. Research into shared space by the MVA Consultancy shows that high traffic flows discourages pedestrians from sharing highway space. Understanding Walking and Cycling shows the biggest barrier to take-up of cycling is safe cycle infrastructure. Making the Connections reveals traffic as a major barrier to social equality and access to services for the most vulnerable members of society. The elderly have difficulty adjusting walking pace, judging gaps in traffic, and generally interacting in more complex traffic environments. I could go on, but you get the point.

New Road in Brighton

New Road in Brighton (Image Source: Google)

To deal with this, vulnerable road users – as human beings – adopt coping mechanisms, the most notable of which is to not visit places at all, which is not condusive to good placemaking. Clearly physical seperation and priority of vulnerable road users is critical in many areas to creating quality places. But what is interesting in the case of driverless vehicles is the value vulnerable road users place on interaction with the driver, particularly in low speed environments.

It seems counter-intuituve, but current evidence shows that interaction with drivers is uncommon. Again, the MVA Consultancy shared space research is important as it records no instances of eye contact negotiation between pedestrians and drivers, with vehicle speeds, pedestrian flows, and demarkation of the carriageway influencing the propensity of drivers to give way to pedestrians. Whilst there is an inherent human value in such contact (which may boost it’s credentials as a subjective safety tool, I don’t know), it’s use as a negotiating tool appears overstated.

The current research indicates that in a driverless future, the technology may not significantly influence how vulnerable road users interact with vehicles and their subjective feelings of safety, even if actual safety is improved. This may change as the technology becomes more widespread and proven, particularly on vulnerable road user safety. But more research is needed for that.

The elephant in the room in all of this, which you caught a quick peek of earlier, is how driverless vehicles are able to support liveable cities through facilitating infrastructure change to favour people-friendly modes. Looking into the research on this, much has focussed upon how driverless vehicles interact between themselves, and interact with Intelligent Traffic Management Systems to produce optimal vehicle flows and reduce delays. Examples include space-time reservation systems at junctions, and the well-known road train experiment undertaken by Volvo. But there is no data on how much extra capacity driverless vehicles may deliver. What we can assume is that there is potential for greater highway vehicle capacity through elimination of driver mistakes, and more efficient movement of vehicles along links and through junctions. In theory.

But as we know by now, what is beneficial for vehicle capacity is not always condusive to livable cities. Lets look at the main constraint on highway capacity – junctions.

Signal controlled junction

Signal controlled junction with pedestrian crossing at Finsbury Park, London

My posts are long enough without going into the details of junction modelling. But to give a quick overview of the process

  • Count the number of vehicles on approach links and turning movements;
  • Get all of the relevant details on the junction – geometry, signal timings, topography to name a few – that affect the capacity of the junction;
  • Whack it all into a modelling package.

This then produces reams of numbers (see a Modelling Report to see how bad this can be) of which 3 are of most importance for understanding the operation of the junction: total delay minutes, mean delay minutes, and ratio of flow to capacity or RFC – simply how well the junction flows. This Ignores debates of this approach focusing on vehicles and not person movements, and the relative weighting of modes in calculations (covered excellently by Rachael Aldred), which I will cover at some point.

Needless to say that the impact of driverless cars on junctions is not well understood currently. But there is a reason for my basic introduction to junction modelling. Bearing in mind the huge variety of factors that influence junction capacity, it is unlikely that driverless cars will have a significant effect in increasing junction vehicle theoretical capacity. But driverless vehicles are likely to lead to more efficient vehicle movements through junctions. Consequently, busy junctions are more likely to operate closer to their theoretical capacity in such a way the reduces mean and total delays to vehicles.

But this is an extremely vehicle-focused way of looking at things – as is junction modelling generally. We are interested in people here, as such another way of looking at this is that if junctions do not operate at their current theoretical vehicle capacity, could the roll-out of driverless cars mean we actually reduce this theoretical vehicle capacity to its current actual use? This gives rise to all sorts of other options for creating livable cities without huge impacts on current traffic flow – longer pedestrian green phases, advanced green phases for cyclists are a couple of good examples.

I should stress here that these are just my thoughts based upon my professional intuition. Research into the impacts of driverless technology on junction operations is hardly abundant, and I expect our understanding to improve immeasurably in the near future.

The other aspect of highways are highway links. Driverless vehicles are lauded as offering potential gains in terms of highway vehicle capacity, but this assumes that the existing infrastructure remains relatively unchanged – particularly in terms of lane capacity. But as this extremely important diagram from Manual for Streets 2 shows us, that just looks at streets in terms of their movement status, and not how they should function as a place.

Again, due to the newness of the technology means there is little research on driverless vehicles and place, and this certainly needs to be researched. But it is my feeling that the principles of good street design will be the same even in a driverless future, because what we value in our streets and public spaces – spaces on the personal level that encourage social interaction (or ideal for walking and cycling in the transport planning sense) – has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. This value has even survived the rise of the motor vehicle.

On a practical note, there is the opportunity that driverless vehicles may support the reallocation of space on links by increasing capacity in the remaining running lanes, Again, the research into this is at an early stage, with varying reports of the effects of platooning (where numerous vehicles follow each other in close proximity) on highway capacities. Some initial research indicates if just vehicle sensors were used, capacity could increase by 43%, and when you add in vehicle to vehicle communications this goes up to a 273% increase.

Let’s apply these initial estimates to an example two lane single direction link near me, Bedford High Street.

Bedford High Street

As you can see, this is a two-lane single direction carriageway, 30mph with mixed frontage (including loading) with a total width of just under 7 metres.  Under the Design Manual for Road and Bridges, this gives the highway a theoretical capacity of 1110 vehicles per hour.

Applying the capacity increases cited previously, delivery driverless vehicles would increase theoretical capacity here to between 1587 and 3030 vehicles per hour. If a single traffic lane was removed for expanded footways or cycle tracks, capacity would change again from a loss of just under 200 vehicles per hour (that could easily be absorbed by the town centre network generally), to or a gain of over 500 vehicles per hour.

(I should probably state now that it has been a long-held ambition to fully pedestrianise Bedford High Street)

The implication from these back of the envelope calculations is that the roll out of driverless technology in vehicles could maintain highway capacity for vehicles, yet at the same time dramatically increase capacity for walking and cycling and give greater potential for creating people-friendly cities.

Personally I have doubts as to whether such capacity enhancements can be realised. It’s very well increasing link capacity, but if junction capacity increases are negligible then no more vehicles can be stuffed through your highway network. Additionally, movement will still need to be managed by design so as to actively contribute to the streets’ place function, attractive town centres will still need to be walkable and easy to cycle through, and highly valued public spaces will still encourage social interaction and positively contribute to city life. The only thing that will change is that machines may drive through them, not people.

Overall, driverless vehicles offer opportunities for reinventing the infrastructure of our cities in a more livable manner, and supporting livable city strategies. This can be of benefit to our most vulnerable road users, improve the overall environment of our streets. They also offer the opportunity to maintain the status quo by simply making existing operation more efficient.

My view is that the decisions that we as professionals need to make our cities more livable have not changed, and will not changed with driverless cars. They offer potential to support this approach. We just need to get away from thinking about what driverless cars can do for vehicles, and start thinking about what they can do for people.

The politics of Get Britain Cycling

Image from London Cycling CampaignYesterday, I travelled to Westminster for a very important reason, and not just my 3pm meeting with Network Rail. And no, it wasn’t for the Space4Cycling protest ride. Though from the reports, it seems that there were more than enough people there for me to go unnoticed!

I instead went to the public gallery in the House of Commons to sit in and observe the Get Britain Cycling debate (a full transcript of which can be read here). My thought behind this is that this would prove to be a useful insight into the politics behind the cycling debate in Government. And applying a footballing analogy, watching it on TV can only show you so much. The BBC Parliament Channel cannot reveal the atmosphere of the chamber and the off-camera discussions and reactions of MPs.

I stayed at the debate for about 2 hours, until the Deputy Speaker stated that a further 19 speakers wished to speak and I realised that I wanted to be home on the right side of midnight. During my time, there were many excellent speeches. I was particularly impressed by the contributions of Dr Sarah Wollaston, David Lammy, and Ian Austin. And any MP whos slates Eric Pickles is always ok with me.

What struck me about the debate wasn’t so much it’s content, but about it’s tone. The Chamber largely agreed on most of the issues raised in the report, with the only real bone of contention being the thorny issue of cycle helmets (expertly swatted away by Ian Austin, I must say).

By tone of the debate, I don’t necessarily means it’s positivity. I had no doubts the debate was always going to be a positive one. But what I mean is that is was, by and large, free of party politics. By way of contrast, I sat in on the last 35 minutes of the preceding debate on Post Offices in Rural Areas. This debate focussed as much on political point scoring as about the issues at hand. What the Lib Dem Manifesto said seemed to be a particular matter of interest to the opposition benches. It was Westminster politics at it’s advasarial worst.

Royal College Street

More of this please

The Get Britain Cycling debate was not like that, with most MPs focussing on solutions and the issues at hand. Yes, we may complain at some of their understanding (the idea that 20mph zones seem to be the saviour was a particular bug-bear of mine) and their priorities. But there seemed to be a great willingness to do more for cyclists, and get things done that will achieve the Get Britain Cycling vision.

The cross-party consensus revealed to me where the real political battles lie for cycling. They are not between parties – that would be too easy, as we would just vote for the party with the best cycling policies – but within them. They are discussions between politicians in parties in Government and opposition about the relative priority of cycling as part of their transport policies.

For campaigners and professionals, this presents a difficulty. Whilst we can argue based upon fact and reasoning to sympathetic politicians, this counts for little if they are unable to influence policy. That is why it is important to not just have a Cycling Champion, but to have the right person as a cycling champion.

What I mean by that is it shouldn’t be just a politician who says the right things and agrees with our point of view. But they should be a person who has influence over the right people, and importantly is willing to do what it takes to get things done. From my experience in local government, many infrastructure improvements get through via political deals as opposed to their technical merits. As professionals and campaigners, we need to accept that to get what we want, we may have to accept various political deals that we don’t like or agree with. I know that’s not a puritan view, but that is harsh reality.

In a sense, the fact that the Commons voted to endorse the Get Britain Cycling recommendations is somewhat a side issue to me. The important outcome of this debate is that the cycling champions within Government – Norman Baker, and if reports are to be believed the Prime Minister – take confidence from the support of the House into their work and negotiations with other Cabinet members and even their departments (judging by the response of the Department for Transport to Get Britain Cycling, Norman will need it). The cross-party support for cycling is there to see, and cycling champions on all sides of the political divide should take great confidence from this debate and it’s outcomes.

But as many MPs observed yesterday, these are just warm words. The proof of the pudding will always be in the eating, but if yesterday’s events in Parliament inspire our political cycling champions to deliver and not just promise, then it will have been a very good day indeed.